Anyone who has traveled between time zones can tell you that air travel can wreak havoc with your internal clock and dramatically decrease your energy level. Now imagine you are traveling across countless time zones and have to compete in the sporting event of a lifetime. Just a little pressure, right? That is exactly why many Olympic Athletes consulted sleep specialists before traveling to the Games.
The body has mechanisms in the brain (called "neurons") that help time many biologic and physiologic processes. These neurons are located in the hypothalamic region of the brain, and help to regulate hunger, sleep, temperature and other timing mechanisms, such as circadian rhythms. This internal system has difficulty making rapid adjustments, such as skipping ahead 14 hours, that might occur with long distance travel. When this timing is disrupted, we experience the symptoms of jet lag. Generally, the effects of jet lag are worse when traveling from west to east.
Symptoms of jet lag: fatigue, disorientation, insomnia, loss of appetite, stomach distress, prolonged reaction time, decreased short term memory, decreased concentration, reduction in anaerobic power and capacity, higher injury rates, and reduced dynamic strength.
While there is not a tremendous amount of research on the topic, NASA has suggested that it can take one day for every time zone crossed to regain normal rhythm and energy. Some athletes have reported that they were able to decrease this to a few days by sleeping on the plane and staying up when they arrived. It has also been advised that athletes get back into their training routines the day after arriving in the new time zone. While there is limited research on the topic, the following suggestions do seem to help the body readjust its internal clock most efficiently.
How can athletes combat the common effects of jet lag?
Get seven to eight hours of sleep several nights before you depart
Stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of water, juices, or sports drinks
Use light exercise to stay alert, and avoid prolonged periods of inactivity
Do not drink large amounts of alcohol and caffeine
Eat light, healthy snacks during long trips
Take naps of less than 30 minutes when you feel especially tired
Use earplugs to block out noise during sleep
Use light and dark to effectly trigger normal sleep/wake cycles
Run The Planet thanks the Women in Motion website (http://members.tripod.com/sgsamson-ivil) for the permission to reprint the article "Jet Lag and Performance?". Illustration © 2005 by Run The Planet.