Travel and Athletic Performance

As the start of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics fast approaches and support staff, athletes and horses arrive in Tokyo, this Equestrian Sport Science blog will explore the potential negative impacts of international travel for athletes and what techniques athletes use to combat them.

The main factor associated with international travel and something many are familiar with is jet lag. Jet lag is defined by the World Health Organisation as ‘a disorder of the sleep-wake cycle’. A word used a lot and associated with jet lag is circadian rhythm. Circadian rhythm is a range of biological processes governed on a 24-hour light-dark cycle (Leatherwood and Dragoo, 2012). In more simplistic terms, it is a range of mechanisms such as core temperature or the sleep-wake cycle that fluctuate naturally throughout the day. For example, you start to feel sleepy in the evening when the light starts to fade.


Jet lag only occurs during transmeridian travel (when you fly around the world). You will not feel symptoms of jet lag when travelling longitudinally either south to north or north to south.


Jet-lag has shown to have a negative impact on physical performance markers such as leg strength, back strength and aerobic performance; all have been shown to decline if an athlete has a disrupted circadian rhythm as a result of travel (Leatherwood and Dragoo, 2012). Additionally, mental aspects such as reaction time, attention span and feelings of fatigue are common in athletes suffering from jet-lag (Leatherwood and Dragoo, 2012). These factors, either in isolation or cumulatively, could lead to a performance detriment that may be the difference between a podium place and finishing in the middle of the competition field. After four years of preparation (or five in this year's case) athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics will be aiming to avoid such impacts.


These factors, either in isolation or cumulatively, could lead to a performance detriment that may be the difference between a podium place and finishing in the middle of the competition field. After four years of preparation (or five in this year's case) athletes competing at the Tokyo Olympics will be aiming to avoid such impacts.

But should you try to adjust to your new time zone? For short trips (1-2 days) trying to stay in your home time zone is best, although this is not always practical if you are having to adhere to a competition schedule. Naps and consuming caffeine can be used to increase alertness in these situations and counter the impact of jet lag on athletic performance.


If the trip duration is longer, like the Olympics, then there are things that athletes will do either pre-or post-arrival to their new location in order to reduce the impact of jet lag. Head over to the Equestrian Sport Science Instagram to see in full the methods athletes can use to combat jet lag and optimise athletic performance.


References

Leatherwood, W.E. and Dragoo, J.L. (2012) Effect of airline travel on performance: a review of literature, British Journal of Sports Medicine, 47, pp.561-567.


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