Fighting the physical consequences of jet lag in elite athletes

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By Helen Albert

Research suggests that having a good understanding of preflight, in-flight, and postflight management options helps clinicians, athletes, and coaches minimize the adverse consequences of travel fatigue and jet lag on elite athletic performance.

Writing in a practical management article published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, Charles Samuels (Centre for Sleep and Human Performance, Calgary, Canada) says that "jet lag and travel fatigue have been identified by athletes, athletic trainers, coaches, and physicians as important but challenging problems that could benefit from practical solutions."

He explains that current solutions to the problem of jet lag and travel fatigue tend to be anecdotal and "can lead athletes to use pharmacologic agents indiscriminately."

Samuels suggests a more structured management approach to combating the physical effects of jet lag, defined as circadian desynchronization resolving at an approximate rate of 1 day per time zone, and travel fatigue, defined as accumulation of fatigue due to travel over a season of sport.

He advocates splitting the travel process into a preflight (7 days leading up to travel), in-flight, and postflight (2-4 days after travel) component.

Practical suggestions for reducing the adverse effects of travel during the preflight period include reducing volume and intensity of training to allow for the physical effects of travel, as well as adjusting training to the destination time zone a few days prior to travel.

"Above all else, an emphasis should be placed on getting enough sleep before travel to reduce sleep debt," adds Samuels.

During the in-flight period, athletes can minimize disruption to their schedules by adjusting their watches to the destination time zone on takeoff and bringing their own meals on board and adjusting their in flight meal times to those of the destination time zone. Adequate hydration is also very important, he emphasizes.

Athletes should also take measures, including taking appropriate pharmacologic agents (eg, melatonin or sedatives) and using devices such as noise-cancelling headphones and light-minimizing masks, to sleep according to the destination time zone.

Finally, during the postflight period Samuels suggests that the meals, sleep, rest, and recovery activities of the athlete should be planned in such a way as to accommodate rapid circadian adjustment.

If necessary, measures such as the careful use of napping and caffeine, as well as light therapy/avoidance can also be used to minimize fatigue and speed recovery.

Samuels concludes that adoption of this structured plan and incorporation of a system for monitoring travel fatigue "will help athletic trainers and coaches and their support staff to address the problem, limit symptoms, and improve performance."

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The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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