How Travel Impacts Athlete Health & Performance

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An athlete runs through the airport to catch his flight to an away game

In today’s globalized world, travel is more prevalent than ever before… especially in athletics! Each and every day, athletes at all levels travel across states, provinces, countries and continents to compete in their sport, which can have a profound impact on their health and performance. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize the negative effects of travel! We’ve scoured the Internet to find tips and tricks for athletes to beat travel fatigue, and are sharing them in this latest blog post!

Travel’s Impact On Health

All kinds of travel can take a toll on health, but long-distance air travel can be especially rough on athletes, for reasons ranging from dehydration to over exhaustion. To start, with a humidity level that’s 10% lower than the body’s requirements and little room to move about, it’s safe to say that airplanes aren’t the optimal environment for athletes!

The majority of health issues that arise from air travel are attributed to jet lag, which is the result of our body’s circadian rhythms not being aligned with the local time. Traveling across multiple time zones can result in symptoms that include fatigue, gastrointestinal problems, mood changes, and more. Furthermore, without enough time to adjust to a new location, jet lag can cause athletes to develop sleep issues, difficulty concentrating, and headaches. It can even lead to increased injury risk and heightened pain sensitivity!

Athletes who travel frequently may also be susceptible to stress that stems from things like travel preparation, change in routine, and being in an unknown, foreign destination. In some cases, the combination of travel-related stress and other factors may even take a toll on an athlete’s mental health.

Travel’s Impact On Performance

A tennis player suffers the consequences of jet lag following long distance air travel

An athlete’s performance away from their home turf depends on many factors, including how many time zones they’ve crossed, how long they’ll be in their destination, changes in diet, lack of movement, and air quality. The low air pressure found in airplanes causes athletes’ arterial oxygen pressure to drop, temporarily stunting performance, as it takes time for the body’s oxygen levels to replenish.

Jet lag (and the resulting sleep loss) is one of the biggest contributors to decreased athletic performance after air travel, negatively affecting an athlete’s accuracy and reaction time, as well as increasing their chance of making errors. Sleep deprived athletes may also experience reduced power and strength. One study has found that air travel’s effect on motor function lasts for about as many days as the number of time zones an athlete travels across!

Interestingly, some studies have looked at the effects of travel on winning, and found that:

  • Major League Baseball teams have a 61% chance of winning the game when facing opponents who have traveled across three time zones.
  • Basketball teams who travel from west to east score more points than teams who travel from east to west. This is due to the fact that athletic performance generally peaks in the afternoon and games are played in the evening. Basketball teams coming from the west have the advantage of playing during their peak performance hours.
  • West coast teams in the National Football League have the advantage in both home and away evening games, as the game time is closer to their usual practice time.

Helping Athletes Stay Healthy In The Air

As long-distance travel is a reality for today’s elite athletes, numerous sports medicine experts have written on the subject, providing excellent, tangible tips to ensure athletes are safe and healthy before, during, and after a flight!

Pre-Flight

One of the most proactive things athletes can do in the days prior to flying is to bank a few nights of good sleep, as they’ll be entering a situation where their sleep will likely be disrupted. If possible, athletes should choose a flight that’s due to arrive during the evening, allowing them to get a night of sleep in their destination. Better yet, they should fly in a few days before competing so that they have ample time to adapt.

Experts recommend that athletes should begin acclimating to their destination time zone early by gradually adjusting their sleep schedule one hour each day, starting a few days before travel. Similarly, adjusting practice and training times to the destination time zone a few days in advance can help an athlete’s body meet the demands it will face once there.

Fasting before travel may also help athletes adjust to their new time zone more quickly, as meals can signal time to the body’s internal clock. This is most effective when the period of fasting mimics overnight sleep and breakfast is consumed the morning of arrival. While this technique may alleviate jet lag for some athletes, fasting is not recommended if athletes are due to compete soon after arrival!

Carefully planning a schedule for the day of travel can ensure that an athlete’s activities, like meals, sleep and entertainment, are aligned with their destination, from the moment they land! Athletes should also set phones and watches to the destination time when they arrive at the airport, to help them get into the right mindset.

During The Flight

An athlete looks out the window of an aircraft, considering their destination timezone

While comfort isn’t the first thing you’d associate with air travel, it’s essential for athletes who are in transit between games, as it can be the difference between getting some rest or being restless! Being able to rest during travel is essential, because sleep is fundamental to recovery and game-day readiness. To combat the issue of comfort, many athletes opt for seats that can flatten into beds and utilize natural sleep aids like lavender, tart cherry juice and melatonin.

If it’s not possible to lie flat, a proper sitting position is key! Athletes should sit with relaxed shoulders and uncrossed legs to avoid strain and maintain good circulation. Ensuring even weight distribution and using neck and back pillows to keep posture in alignment can help mitigate some risk of injury. Wearing compression garments can also aid with recovery during post-game flights.

Whether an athlete is sitting or lying flat, ear plugs can help limit exposure to harmful air travel noise, which can disrupt sleep, raise stress levels, and increase blood pressure. When not sleeping on the plane, athletes should move around as much as possible, with a focus on elevating their heart rate.

To stave off the negative effects of dry recycled air, athletes will need to hydrate and replenish electrolytes more than usual and avoid caffeine and alcohol. Hydration also helps the body remove any toxins that may cycle through the air system. If athletes aren't fasting, they should stick to small, nutritious snacks, taking care not to overeat since they won’t expend much energy while in transit. Calorie-heavy, high-fat diets should be avoided, as they may impair circadian rhythm adaptation.

Upon Arrival

To ease the adjustment to a new time zone, it’s recommended that athletes avoid taking long naps upon arrival and instead remain awake until it’s bedtime in the new location. Exposure to several hours of daylight can decrease melatonin production in the body, reducing tiredness during this period. Athletes can also benefit from doing some low-impact aerobic exercise shortly after landing, to help them reduce grogginess and loosen up without putting them at risk for injury.

Bear in mind that while it’s generally best to allow extra time for adjustment to a new location, scheduling may not permit this. If competition time aligns with daytime in an athlete’s origin, it may be best for them to remain acclimated to the home time zone, rather than disrupt the body’s natural rhythm.

Other Considerations

In any case, keeping your athletes’ normal routine intact while travelling, including visits to your training room, can help them perform their best! While sports medicine professionals can always accompany athletes to their destinations, unfortunately it’s not possible to bring the entire training room along as well. Mobile-friendly options for tracking athlete health while in transit can help bridge the gap! Presagia Sports’ athlete electronic health record allows you to stay connected anywhere, anytime, to ensure that athletes always receive the highest quality of care.

Understanding how to address the many factors that influence health and performance will help you keep your athletes safe and performing at the highest level, no matter where they are!