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Travel Fatigue and Jet-Lag

Humans often experience travel fatigue during long journeys. Even without crossing different time zones that brings about jet lag, fatigue can occur due to boredom or stiffness from unfamiliar seating/poor posture. Teams may want to travel the night before to avoid fatigue although sleeping in an unfamiliar environment can be detrimental to players who do not feel comfortable away from home. A refreshing shower along with light exercise and stretching can relieve any lethargy.

Jet lag arises mainly from crossing time zones due to biological rhythms being disrupted. The body’s rhythms on arrival try to retain the characteristics of their point of departure. However, the new environment forces new influences on these cycles, the main factors being the time of sunrise and onset of darkness. The body attempts to adjust to this new context but core temperature does not adapt very quickly. The causes can as well be linked to:

Jet lag creating problems

Cabin dry atmosphere/stale air/air pressure: A dry cabin helps increase the chances of headaches and dehydration, dries the skin and dry nasal and throat membranes thus creating good conditions for catching colds, sore throats etc. Stale air as well as cabin pressure can lead to tiredness, make you irritable and give headaches.

Food & Drink: Drinking a lot of tea, coffee and alcohol can accentuate the effects of dehydration. Also, according to the World Health Organisation, 50 % of travellers get stomach problems so good dietary care is vital.

Lack of exercise: People often get stiff and uncomfortable when travelling due to being sat for long periods, this increasing their general discomfort.

Pre-flight condition: If you are already tired, nervous, over-excited or hungover then this will increase the effects of jet lag.

Direction of travel: This affects the severity of jet lag. It is easier to cope with flying in a westward direction as the body’s rhythms can catch-up quicker when the day is artificially lengthened due to the natural circadian rhythm being longer than 24 hours. American football teams can be at a disadvantage when travelling coast to coast. Even a three-hour time difference has been shown to adversely affect performance.

Lack of sleep: A non-familiar environment may result in players not being able to sleep on a plane, which will obviously leave them tired.

The symptoms of jet lag on arrival include being tired for days, sleeping problems as well as a loss of drive/motivation/concentration and appetite. Even simple tasks can prove difficult. Evidence shows you need one day for every time zone crossed to regain normal rhythm and energy levels. However, some individuals show little or no effect of jet lag and fitter or younger people seem to be less affected.

There are many possible ways to reduce the effects of jet-lag:

Before & During Travel: Planning your trip such as the departure and arrival time and preparing everything so you are not rushed may help. Some travellers believe travelling in the day reduces jet lag. Athletes should try to arrive well in advance for competition. Try to arrive in top form meaning after a good nights sleep. Drink a lot of water to reduce the effects of dehydration and avoid beverages such as coffee and alcohol. If you can, take a shower as this will freshen you up, tones the muscles and gets the blood circulating again. Also, try a few light stretching exercises as well as walking around the plane to prevent stiffness.

Sleeping pills may help you to sleep but can have secondary effects such as drowsiness and dehydration. Plus recent studies show that people who stay static and sleep in their chair are more at risk of developing blood clots. Diet, drugs and light exposure are other factors used to reduce jet lag.

On arrival: A key factor for the athlete is to fit in immediately with the phase characteristics of the new environment. Light exercise even on the day of arrival can be beneficial as travelling eastward will delay the onset of sleep although going to bed early can also help alleviate fatigue after travelling westward. The severity of symptoms may be worse 2-3 days after arrival so the athlete and coach should be prepared for any further deterioration in performance.

Exercise is more useful to help re-tune rhythms than taking naps which can anchor rhythms at the zone of departure. Training in the morning may be beneficial. Again various drugs are available on the market to help adaptation. The individual may have difficulty in sleeping for a few days, but activity and social contact during the day will help in accelerating adaptation.