Jetlag and the athlete!

It is common for athletes to travel long distances for both competition and training. Seasonal differences may make travel essential in sports where weather is an important factor. Jetlag becomes an issue when an athlete has to cross multiple time zones. The reason is that human circadian rhythms are not synchronized with the surrounding environment.

This post will discuss the cause of jetlag, the impact it may have and some ideas for managing it. In addition to jetlag there are other travel related issues that can contribute. I will discuss those separately as they deserve direct attention.

The body clock is a system which co-ordinates hormones in our body in response to environmental factors. This allows our body to cycle through periods of readiness and rest. It is essential that we have this ability to avoid over stressing our systems. Sunlight is one of the major influences in this cycle. When we wake in the morning sunlight stimulates the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN) through the retina of our eyes. This is basically our start up switch for the day. When the sun sets, the pineal gland, which is linked to the SCN, is stimulated to secrete melatonin. This hormone promotes sleep. During daylight this secretion is suppressed. This process can also be influenced to a lesser degree, by artificial light. The body clock disruption also impacts other natural body rhythms such as body temperature, blood pressure and appetite.

This disruption to circadian rhythms can cause sleep disturbance, fatigue, disorientation, headache, loss of appetite and a generally poor mood state. It is not unreasonable to believe this will cause a decrease in motivation in the athlete. Decreased alertness and readiness to perform have obvious implications for performance.

In terms of management there are a few ways to totally avoid jet lag. Serious athletes need to make a record of their experiences with jet lag and how they feel and cope individually. Each athlete is different and there are varying degrees of susceptibility to the symptoms. Some find the effects lessened depending on direction of travel. Eastward travel appears to have the greatest impact on jetlag.

It is generally accepted that for each time zone shift. 24hrs is required to return to normal rhythms. If possible an athlete should plan to arrive at a venue with this time frame in mind. If they travel through 7 time zones then they should aim to arrive with 7 days to adjust back to normal. In addition the athlete should try and adopt the schedule of the new time zone as soon as possible. This means setting their watch to the new time and making an attempt to eat, sleep and exercise on this new schedule. Some of this may be possible in the weeks leading up to travelling. For example an athlete can train later in the day or go to bed a little later etc. This may be advisable when they are travelling close to competition without adequate time in the new venue.

The main focus should be on adjusting as fast as possible to the new time zone. The effects of jetlag are hard to avoid. Instead of trying to ignore or avoid it, an athlete should accept the situation and learn to manage it. Over time the individual will learn what works best at minimizing the effects allowing them to perform at their best. Hopefully these strategies can help them to do this.

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