Advancing health through science, education and medicine

Q&A

James MacDonald, M.D., FACSM

Q: I am planning on running the Berlin marathon later this year. I will be coming from the West Coast. I have a good base of training and will be ready for this event with regards to my conditioning. However, I have a tight schedule and I am flying in only two days before the event. How can I optimize my performance/minimize the effects of jet lag so I can do my best on race day?

Good luck in your endeavor. We hope you meet, or exceed, the goals you have set for yourself!
You are right to think ahead about this issue of travel over thousands of miles and several time zones—the best training can be undercut by the effects of jet lag and the associated fatigue and sleep deprivation.

The “skinny” on jet lag is that it can have a profoundly negative effect on sports performance, and the most effective management of the problem centers on pre-flight adaptation to the destination time zone (though the associated interventions are not always the most practical). 

The cited resources elaborate on some of the specific options you may choose to help you with your specific itinerary (West Coast U.S. – Berlin), but in general here are some of the important points:

1) Pre-flight: a.  Consider altering your schedule as much as seven days prior to departure (this will involve timing of sleep, timing of light exposure and considering the use of melatonin). b.  Above all, head into your travel well rested: this will reduce the travel debt you will almost inevitably accrue.

2) In-flight: a.  Adjust watches to the destination time zone. b.  As much as possible, eat and sleep according to the daily schedule of the destination time zone. c.  Stay well hydrated and avoid caffeine and alcohol. d.  Consider the use of eye shades and noise canceling headphones to facilitate sleep. e.  Based on information from the cited resources, one may consider use of melatonin and/or use of overhead light in the plane cabin to mimic the circadian rhythm of the destination time zone.

3) Post-flight: a.  This component of the process can last for two to four days after arrival (i.e., if you have any latitude with your schedule, you are better served arriving four days rather than two days prior to the race in Berlin). b.  During this period, you will adapt to local time— attempting to sleep and eat, and do your training taper on a “Berlin schedule.” Using caffeine, melatonin, light exposure and brief napping as indicated are all strategies to help address fatigue.

As with most things pertaining to training, having a plan and anticipating your needs is key to addressing the potential problem of jet lag and travel fatigue. Take a look at the cited resources, make that plan—and best of luck in Berlin!

Q: I am going on a cross-country road trip to start a new job. I will rent a U-Haul and relocate from the West Coast to the East Coast. I have to complete the journey in five days. One of my New Year’s resolutions was to get “healthier,” and I worry about what this five-day journey will do to the gains I’ve already made in my fitness and my weight management. Do you have any advice that may help me to stay fit as I mostly just sit in a car the next five days?

Driving cross-country, with the associated hours of sedentary behavior combined with the ease of eating junk food and dining at the most convenient fast-food outlet, does have the potential for being a major setback for folks seeking to maintain or improve their health.

But, like much in life, the probable does not have to become the inevitable.

Let’s start with eating. It is not difficult in our contemporary society to make healthy choices for the frequent snacking that often accompanies the potential boredom of spending hours on the road. Have available fruit that travels well and stays fresh easily (e.g., apples); bite-sized snacks like carrot sticks; and, depending on your dietary preferences, granola bars, peanut butter crackers, cheese sticks or low-salt beef jerky. Stay hydrated by drinking water and most definitely avoid soda.

When you do get off the road, you can readily find food outlets that provide options that are rich in nutrients rather than “empty,” calories. We’d avoid endorsing any one outlet, but seek out those that may have salad bars or those that allow you to choose your own custom-made sandwich, bowl or wrap, where you can pile on the veggies. 

Stay active: it’s possible, even on the road. It’s a good safety practice to take frequent breaks when driving long distances, as doing so will tend to keep you alert. Make those breaks one for health in addition to safety: do a set of push-ups, squats, jumping jacks, or planks. Stretching is helpful to counteract the inevitable muscle tightness that develops when sitting for prolonged periods of time. It would be easy to do these sorts of exercises in a very limited time during these breaks.

And when you get to your destination for the night, take advantage of the workout facility or pool that may exist in your hotel/motel. If you’re camping or “crashing” with a buddy, don’t forget the friend of the time-crunched athlete: high-intensity interval training (HIIT). There are several apps (e.g., the “seven minute workout”) that you can download on your phone that can guide you through a brief, intense workout.

We all know the saying: failing to plan is planning to fail. Go into your cross-country move with a plan; execute it; and when you reach your final destination, you will be in a much better state than you’d be otherwise.

For further reading on the science associated with this issue, as well as some practical management ideas, an excellent and free resource can be found in the May 2012 Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine study, “Jet Lag and Travel Fatigue: A Comprehensive Management Plan for Sport Medicine Physicians and High Performance Support Teams.” Another excellent resource was produced by ACSM and is also freely available on line: “Jet Lag: Trends and Coping Strategies.”

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