Domestic and international travel represents a regular challenge to high performance athletes. Jetlag is a challenge for transmeridian travellers and fatigue and alterations to gastrointestinal comfort are associated with many types of long haul travel.

Jetlag and travel fatigue

Jetlag is not the same as travel fatigue. Symptoms of travel fatigue such as fatigue, confusion, headache and weariness occur due to the disruption of the normal sleep routine, dehydration, restricted space and stress of travel. It is not dependent on the number of time zones crossed (can occur after long distance north – south travel) and resolves after a good quality sleep period.

Jetlag is impaired alertness during the desired wake time and/or difficulty sleeping during desired sleep time at the arrival destination due to crossing multiple time zones during travel. It occurs due to a desynchronisation of the natural circadian rhythm of the sleep – wake cycle (the “body clock”) with the light-dark cycle at the new destination. Jetlag and travel fatigue can occur together and the more time zones crossed, the longer it takes to recover.

Symptoms of jetlag

  • Fatigue
  • General tiredness
  • Sleep disruption
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of concentration
  • Loss of drive
  • Gastrointestinal distress
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache
  • General malaise

Cause of jetlag

  • The circadian rhythm is aligned with the secretion of melatonin by the brain
  • Melatonin is inhibited by light and secreted by the pineal gland in the brain during darkness
  • Jetlag occurs when the biological clock for the sleep-wake cycle is out of synch with the light-dark cycle at the new destination
  • Jetlag is more debilitating when travelling east – a phase advance in the body clock is needed (winding the body clock forward) like at the beginning of daylight savings
  • It takes 1 day per time zone crossed for the biological clock to resynchronise with the sleep – wake (light-dark) schedule at the destination when travelling east
  • Recovery is quicker when travelling west – recovery can occur at a rate of 1.5 times zones per day for westward travel
  • A phase delay is needed when travelling west, similar to when we wind the clock back at the end of daylight saving, so this is easier for our body to adjust to

Tips for combating jetlag when travelling

  • If travelling more than 3 times zones and staying for longer than 5 days, circadian adaptation to the new destination is desirable (as opposed to flying in for the game and then flying out again, where your body will perform better if you stay on your original time zone if possible, unless the game is scheduled for 3am on your home time zone)
  • Ideally start to prepare in the days leading up to travel but at the latest in flight – adjusting your sleep schedule 1-2 days prior to travel to gradually match the destination time zones is preferable
  • Change your watch to the destination time as soon as you board the plane and try to change your sleep cycle to the destination time as soon as possible – for example don’t sleep on the plane unless it is night at the destination
  • When trying to sleep on the plane, use ear plugs and eye shields and avoid electronic devices and loud stimuli prior to sleep time
  • Eat small light meals during the flight and stay well hydrated
  • It is preferable to arrive at the destination during daylight to allow for easier adjustment
  • A light training session on the day of arrival can help (low intensity physical activity early after arrival helps promote adjustment to the new time zone)
  • Avoid sleeping during the day (only take short naps of 20min if needed, preferably during the morning of the new time zone)
  • Melatonin tablets can be used to help sleep in flight and for the first 1-2 days at the destination – melatonin has a phase shifting effect and is not a sleeping pill (non sedative)

Specific tips for travelling east

  • When travelling east, you will initially find it hard to get to sleep at night because your body clock is earlier than the clock at the destination – it will be dark but you will not feel tired yet
  • Your brain will secrete melatonin when it gets dark and this will eventually help your body clock shift to the light-dark cycle at the destination
  • You will feel excessively tired in the morning because the sun will be up at the destination but your body clock will still be in the very early hours of the morning when you are normally asleep
  • You can start the phase advancement of your body clock before travelling by maximizing light exposure in the early morning (earlier than normal if possible) and avoiding light exposure at the start of darkness
  • When you arrive you can use light exposure in the morning to help you wake up
  • You can take melatonin in the late afternoon or early evening of the arrival time zone before you leave and for the first 2 days after arrival
  • Jetlag symptoms may last 7 days when travelling east depending on how many time zones are crossed

Specific tips for travelling west

  • Travelling west is easier to adjust to than travelling east
  • When you arrive you will feel tired earlier at night because your body clock is later than the clock at the arrival destination
  • Try not to go to bed before it gets dark because you will be more likely to wake up in the middle of the night or the early hours of the morning
  • You can start the phase delay of your body clock before travelling by maximizing light for longer at end of the evening at your home destination and trying to keep it dark in the early hours of the morning prior to travel
  • When arriving, light exposure in the early evening (destination time) will help keep you awake until darkness
  • If using melatonin, take it as close to the sleep period as possible or in the early hours of morning
  • Jet lag symptoms reduce in 3 days when travelling west

Other tips to stay healthy during travel

  • Reduce the risk of DVT in flight by staying hydrated and stretching and moving around the cabin frequently
  • Prevention of infection is important – things to consider include proximity to other people, both on the flight and after arrival, consideration of mosquito borne diseases at the destination and the risk of travellers diarrhoea
  • Ensure your vaccinations are up to date – this includes routine childhood vaccines (DTP, Hib, MMR, pneumococcal, Hep B, HPV), the flu vaccine, Hep A and country specific vaccines such as typhoid and yellow fever when indicated
  • Wear mosquito repellant when going outside
  • Consider bringing or sourcing familiar food from home
  • Only eat food that is cooked at the time of eating and served hot (avoid buffets)
  • Only eat fruit and vegetables that can be peeled
  • Avoid shellfish and raw fish
  • Only drink pasteurized milk
  • “Peel it, boil it or throw it away”
  • Drink bottled water or boil the water first – this includes water for brushing teeth
  • Pay close attention to personal health and hygiene – particularly hand hygiene with the use of alcohol hand gel before eating or touching your face
  • Avoiding contact with sick people and if you’re an athlete in a team sport use your own bottles and towels

If you travel frequently for sport or business and would like to optimise your health, productivity and performance, a consultation at Shire Sports Medicine can provide an individualised assessment and management plan to ensure you arrive and perform at your best.