Jet lag’s impact on athlete performance: Part 3

In Part 1 and Part 2 we discussed what jet lag was and how athletes can incorporate simple interventions to help cope with the symptoms of phase advances and delays. In Part three we will outline strategies for time-zone shifting and provide advice on designing a comprehensive time-zone management plan. Specifically, pre-travel activities, in-flight activities, and post-flight activities will be discussed, as well as a sample of a time-zone equivalence table to help visualize what’s involved in a time-zone management plan.

Pre-travel sleep history

Ideally, athletes and support staff will have the ability to monitor sleep schedules and sleep quality at least a month prior to travel. This way, athletes who are having issues with sleep can be identified and more rigorous schedules and interventions can be implemented.

For example, a time-zone management strategy for an athlete that naturally falls asleep at 11:00pm and wakes up at 7:00pm with no sleep disturbances is going to look quite different compared to an athlete who falls asleep at 1:00am, wakes up several times during the night, and rises at 9:00am. Recording an athlete’s sleep history and habits can help support staff design an efficient and realistic time-zone strategy for individual.

Pre-flight adaptation

According to Dr. Charles Samuels, the Medical Director of the Centre for Sleep and Human Performance in Calgary, preflight adaptation should begin at least 7 days before travel aoccurs (2012). Several strategies include: reducing training volume and intensity, adjust training to the destination time zone, and choosing an evening flight for travel eastward (reduced light will make it easier for athlete’s to synchronize their rhythms with a phase advance).

Samuels also notes that endurance training should be modified to reduce volume, intensity and frequency, and that coaches should weigh the benefits and risks associated with training before travel.

In-flight activities

It’s recommended that athletes switch their watches to the destination time as soon as they board the plane. This helps them prepare and adapt for the destination. The environment should be comfortable – using pillows and supports while minimizing distractions is crucial. It’s also been shown that feeding at the appropriate times can dramatically improve circadian adaptation (Reilly 2007). Athletes should eat according to the destination times and make sure they are well hydrated throughout the entire flight.

Finally, this is the time in which athletes and support staff will want to start providing interventions such as eyeshades, ear-plugs, melatonin, caffeine, or light-emitting devices (according to the direction of travel and the athlete’s time-zone management plan).

Post-flight activities

For 2-4 days after travel, the activities of the athlete should be closely monitored and planned by support staff to ensure a quick adjustment to the new time zone. Their rest, sleep, meals, training, and recovery should all be taken into account when developing a post-flight strategy. As we mentioned in Part 2, a combination of light therapy, light avoidance, caffeine, Ambien, and melatonin can be used during these first few arrival days to help the athlete adjust faster.

Time-zone equivalence tables

Combining all these elements can get a little tricky at times. But, as Dr. Caldwell (2015) mentions, one of the most helpful aids for circadian adaptation are time-zone equivalence tables. These tables include time-zones for both the departure city and the arrival city, the scheduled event time, a personalized sleep schedule, and any interventions needed pre, during, and post travel. You can view a sample of the table below (taken from Dr. Caldwell’s paper titled Strategies for Time-Zone Adjustment for Athletes).

In this example, a team of runners from San Francisco are travelling to New York for a competition. You can see the interventions laid out and the strategy for helping them adjust to the phase advance. These interventions, combined with the careful planning of the support staff, helps the runners quickly adapt to a 3-hour time shift so they wouldn’t experience any performance issues.

Impact on athlete performance Time Equivalents between San Francisco and New York

Planning an individualized time-zone management strategy for each athlete is critical for maximizing performance. By taking a close look at an athlete’s sleep history and by carefully monitoring preflight, inflight and post flight activities, support staff and coaches can drastically minimize the effects of jet lag and significantly increase success during the event.


Dr. Caldwell. Strategies for Time-Zone Adjustment for Athletes

Reilly T, Waterhouse J, Burke LM, et al. Nutrition for travel

Samuels C. Jet lag and travel fatigue: A comprehensive management plan for sport medicine physicians and high-performance support teams



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