As an athlete, you often travel to various global locations to train and/or compete at international events. Your voyage may include high-speed aircraft over vast distances and crossing numerous time zones. The travel fatigue and/or jet lag that you experience influences not only your bodily functions (sleep disruption, decreased concentration and alertness, change in the regularity of stools, to name but a few) but also your performance.
In this short bulletin, I intend to explain the difference between travel fatigue and jet lag. I want to give you practical tips so that you can better adapt to the challenges that result from your travel.
Jet lag and travel fatigue: what’s the difference?
Travel fatigue is temporary exhaustion and follows any long journey, including car-, bus- and train trips. It follows a period of prolonged inactivity, irregular sleep, restricted food choices, dehydration, and other factors that are associated with long-distance travel.
Jet lag, on the other hand, while also temporary, follows rapid long-distance travel crossing three or more time zones. It is caused by the fact that your body clock is out of sync with the time zone at your new destination.
Management of travel fatigue
The management of travel fatigue should start prior to your trip. Planning your trip and trying to avoid stressful situations as much as possible can go a long way in helping you to arrive less tired at your destination. Below are a few tips that can help you to achieve that.
Before your trip:
- Plan carefully in advance to reduce stress and anxiety
- Make sure your documents are in order e.g., passport and visa, if required
- Enquire if you need any vaccinations before entering the destination country
- Aim at the shortest route with the least number of layovers
- Get enough sleep and rest before your journey
- Try to prevent illness (learn more here)
During your trip:
- Choose your seat to be as comfortable as possible
- Wear loose-fitting clothing, but consider compression garments for your legs to help with blood flow
- Prevent motion sickness
- Drink enough fluids, especially water, maintain a regular diet, eat enough roughage (= fiber that your body cannot digest)
- Sleep as much as possible
- Commit to regular movement by walking around in the plane at least once an hour and doing exercises as shown on most onboard charts
After your trip – at the new destination:
- Shower on arrival
- Take a nap when you feel tired but not longer than 30 minutes and not too close to bedtime
- Use caffeine in the morning to improve daytime alertness (choose as per your preference)
- Relax as often as possible
- Rehydrate at regular intervals (about 250-300ml every hour) with water and/or sports drinks that you are accustomed to
- Sleep enough, i.e. at least six to eight hours
Management of jet lag
To recover from jet lag you need to shift your body clock (your biological sleep/wake rhythm) to be at the same time as your destination time zone. It is usually easier to recover after westward travel—when the body clock has to delay, then it is after eastward travel—when the body clock has to advance.
Measures that can help you to achieve this and recover quicker are listed below. However, if you time these incorrectly, your body clock may shift in the wrong direction and cause you to suffer for longer from jet lag. You also need to be careful about the use of medication as it may cause side effects.
What can help you to adapt to the new destination:
- Exposure in the early evening & the first part of the night (at your normal home time, not destination time) will delay your body clock following westward travel
- Exposure in the second half of the night & the early morning (at your normal home time, not destination time) will advance your body clock following eastward travel
- The above two points of light application are general advice, but the exact timing of application will be affected by the number of time zones crossed. For personalised advice, please click the link: Exercise SMART Travel Calculator
- Avoid exposure to blue light (mobile phones, laptops, tablets, TVs, LED, etc.) for an hour before bedtime
- Optimize the amount and quality of your sleep
- Perform quiet activities before you go to sleep (e.g., reading)
- Sleep in a quiet and comfortable room
Food & Hydration
- You need to keep a disciplined approach to food & hydration (avoid exotic/spicy meals, remember that carbohydrates will lead to sleepiness, whereas proteins can help you to feel more alert)
- Shift your meal times to that of the new destination time
- Caffeinated drinks can increase daytime alertness, but you should avoid them after midday
- Slow-release caffeine can be used in the early morning at new destination time
- Avoid stimulants (caffeine, nicotine, alcohol) before bedtime
- Your exercise sessions should be low intensity for the first few days after a long flight
- We don’t know at this point when, how much & what type of exercise is most effective to reset your body clock
- You can strategically plan the timing of your training based on your strategy for light exposure
For any medication, carefully check their legal status in different countries and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) rules.
- This is a hormone that plays a role in your natural sleep-wake cycle
- It promotes sleep and can help reset your body clock
- Take note of the timing of consumption and dose
Be careful since most prescribed stimulants, e.g., amphetamines, are banned substances.
You can use sleeping tablets e.g., one of the “Z-drugs” (zaleplon, zolpidem, zopiclone) to improve sleep, but only if you have tolerated them before.
Some general tips and advice that may help you to recover from jet lag
Before your trip across time-zones
- Get enough sleep to avoid sleep deprivation (at least six to eight hours per night)
- Consider practicing your high-intensity training sessions for three weeks before you travel at the time of competition when you are abroad
- Reduce training volume & intensity seven days prior to departure
- Consider travel schedules, to assist the sleep-wake cycle
- Shift bed- and mealtimes one to two hours earlier before travelling east and one to two hours later before travelling west to adapt to the local time at the new destination time zone
During your trip
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine
- Keep your watch set at your home time for the duration of the flight
- Make sure you get maximum rest/sleep
- Follow the sleep/wake pattern of your home time during the flight
- Ensure minimal distractions (e.g., electronic devices including cell phones)
After your trip – at the new destination
- Set your watch to your destination time, and start to follow the sleep/wake pattern of your destination
- Take a brief nap if you are feeling exhausted
- During time-zone transitions of < 8 hours east, shift the body clock to advance
- During time-zone transitions of < 8 hours west, shift the body clock to delay
- For journeys of > 9 time-zone hours east, it is more convenient to adjust by delaying your body clock
- You need to plan your training and competition preparation according to the direction of your flight. You can time this according to light exposure. For example, if you fly west, your body clock needs to be delayed, and you need to train early evening. If you fly east, your body clock needs to be advanced, and you need to train early morning
- If you decide to take melatonin, the timing of ingestion is opposite to that of light exposure. For example, if you fly west, your body clock needs to be delayed, and you need to take melatonin in the morning. If you fly east, your body clock needs to be advanced, and you need to take melatonin in the evening.
Prepare carefully and you can reduce jet lag and travel fatigue
When you prepare for time zone changes and the disturbances they cause to your body clock, you can reduce the symptoms of crossing multiple time zones. You need to allow time for the shift of your body clock. Until this process has completed, your sleep may be compromised, your performance may be worse and it may seem harder to succeed. Following the above advice will minimize the severity and duration of the bad effects of travel fatigue and jet lag you experience.