TOOLBOX: Travelling all around the world for training and competition is common practice for many elite athletes. Many recreational athletes also make plans for a big event far away each year. We know that long-distance travel can lead to jetlag, but are there ways that we can minimize its negative effects on our performance?
Belgium’s Tiesj Benoot off to the Olympics in Tokyo
With the slow resumption of international travel, many of us may be back to planning a big event in a faraway location. This might be a vacation bike tour in Europe for North Americans, or Tour cyclists flying from France to Japan for the recently-completed Olympics road events with only 6 days between races.
Those of us who have done long-haul travel know how difficult it is to get used to a new time zone once the difference begins to exceed 4 hours. Common symptoms include insomnia, fatigue, worsened mood, and gut issues.
Surprisingly, despite a fair amount of research into chronobiology and circadian rhythms, most studies have focused primarily on the above symptoms and very few have focused on actual performance measures. In today’s episode, we’ll take a look at a 2021 study that used a few specific countermeasures (planned sleep aids during travel, schedule reset, blue light therapy) during travel from Qatar to Australia on performance measures both immediately and four days post-travel.
Fowler PM, W Knez, HR Thornton, C Sargent, AE Mendham, S Crowcroft, J Miller, S Halson, R. Duffield. Sleep hygiene and light exposure can improve performance following long-haul air travel. Int J Sports Physiol Perf. 16:517-526, 2021.
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Travelling all around the world for training and competition is common practice for many elite athletes. Many recreational athletes also make plans for a big event far away each year. We know that long-distance travel can lead to jetlag, but are there ways that we can minimize its negative effects on our performance?
Travel is great but travelling can be a nightmare. Besides hauling yourself around airports, there is heavily disrupted sleep patterns. The noise inside in a plane cabin, the cramped seating, the reduced air pressure, the dry air, combined with landing many time zones away can severely disrupt sleep for multiple days around the actual flight as the body adjust its internal clock and rhythms. If you have the financial means, one study has demonstrated that sleep duration and quality is greatly improved when flying business class compared to economy. In today’s episode, we’ll see what are other ways by which athletes might be able to maintain optimal performance when travelling.
A 2021 study by Fowler and colleagues studied whether a detailed program of sleep planning and sleep hygiene, combined with light therapy in the days after travelling, can improve some common markers of athletic strength and performance. This was tested on 20 male athletes returning home from Qatar to Australia following a training camp, which included 3 separate flights. 10 of the athletes were in the control group that received no sleep planning or light therapy. The other 10 athletes ate at the airport before departure of the redeye flights and avoided eating meals during the flight. They were also provided sleep mask earplugs, and noise cancelling headphones, and anchored their sleep time to their departure city. That is, they got on the plane and spent as much time sleeping as possible. Upon return to Australia, all athletes slept in their own homes. However, the experimental group had a systematic plan of choosing natural outdoor light exposure or bluelight therapy to help anchor their internal clock to the arrival city over four days.
Long flight for Vincenzo Nibali to San Luis, Argentina
This schematic outlines baseline testing on day 23 in Qatar, the travel day on day 25, followed by four days where the experimental group used light avoidance and light exposure at specific times along with maintaining good sleep hygiene habits. You can see how each day there was three hours of light avoidance, followed by three hours of light exposure, and this was shifted forward two hours a day to accelerate adjustment to Australia time. Again, the control group had no sleep hygiene instructions or planned light exposure. Upon return, testing was performed each of the four days at both 9 am and 5 pm Australia time to simulate common training or competition times.
The results of the intervention were promising. Sleep duration was greater during the flight in the experimental group, as well as both sleep duration and quality post-flight. Performance in jumping, 5 m and 20 m sprinting, and also mood and motivation were higher in the experimental group. This was true both the day after return, and also largely throughout the 4 days post-flight. Overall, this suggests that, with careful sleep management and planning, athletes can minimize performance impairment from travel-induced fatigue and shifts in internal rhythms from long-haul travel. This will be especially important for athletes travelling to Tokyo for the Olympic Games this summer.