Athletes have enough to deal with concerning the actual competition. However, athletes on the road face extra challenges outside of the actual competition, as they have to travel. Many athletes travel through multiple time zones, and are thus at risk for jet lag. Jet lag is bad enough for the personal or business traveler, as a vacation or business trip can be negatively impacted by jet lag. For athletes, jet lag is especially bad, since performance could be affected negatively, which could mean the difference between winning and losing. As many of you may know, jet lag is a condition that affects the body both physically and mentally. These effects, including insomnia, clouded thinking, and lack of energy, are brought on by the disruption to the body’s biological clock (also known as circadian rhythms) from crossing several time zones.
Are Athletes Significantly Impacted by Jet Lag?
The initial answer that many would give to this question is yes. There have been studies done on jet lag and its effects on airline passengers. However, there has been no definitive studies done on athletes and the effects of jet lag, proving or disproving that athletic performance is directly impacted by jet lag. Despite the lack of concrete evidence, many athletes take a proactive approach when taking flight to compete. They set their internal clocks to the time zone they will be in before taking flight.
Resetting the Internal Clock
There is usually three parts to resetting one’s internal clock. One has to do with manipulating exposure to day and night. The others have to do with exercising and a naturally-occurring chemical called melatonin, which can be supplemented by oral supplements.
- Melatonin Supplements- Melatonin is a chemical released by the brain at night, triggered by failing light. This chemical causes the body to calm down so it can rest at night. When taken as a supplement in low doses at sunset of the destination time zone, it can help trick the body’s clock into working properly at the desired time zone so recovery time is decreased.
- Exercising- Exercising is recommended for any air travelers to reduce the severity of and recovery time from jet lag, but the timing is important depending on the direction of travel.
- Light Exposure- When to expose yourself to light and darkness depends on if you want to delay your rhythms or advance them (whether you are traveling west or east).
What Athletes Can Do Before, During, and After
Before flights, athletes can minimize their chances of getting jet lag by going to sleep gradually earlier or later (depending on destination) a few days before the flight takes place. Additionally, doing the exercise, melatonin, and light exposure or reduction regimen before the flight will also help. Finally, make sure to sleep very well the night before the flight. During flights, athletes can help themselves by staying hydrated and well-rested. This means drinking lots of water, utilizing earplugs, and doing light exercises during the flight.
After flights, athletes can help themselves by eating light, training light initially after arrival, exercising lightly, and using the melatonin/light and darkness/exercise regimen to reset their internal clocks.