How to beat jet lag when racing abroad

You've done the training, you've packed your bags, and you're on the plane to your race-day destination. But how do you ensure that jet lag doesn't undo all your good work and disrupt your racing goals? James Witts has the answers…

Female athlete looking tired mid-training ride on side of road

Before we seek a remedy, or at least a soothing balm, it’s worth explaining what jet lag is. And that starts with circadian rhythms.


What is jet lag?

Circadian rhythms are physical, behavioural and mental changes that follow a daily cycle and are regulated by our bodies. Light – or lack if it – is one of the greatest drivers.

That’s because nerve cells in the brain receive information about the amount of light via the optic nerves. Our brains might tell us then, for example, that there’s little light so makes us sleepy via releasing the hormone melatonin.

Travelling across several time zones causes unwanted alterations to your circadian rhythms, leading to sleeplessness that, the longer this persists, affects performance factors like power output and decision making.

Is travelling east worse for jet lag than travelling west?

Heading east is anecdotally worse than heading east. A study published in 2016 suggested this is down to our bodies working on a 24.5hr clock, so lengthening the day by flying west is more easily handled than shortening the day by flying east.

More certain is that when you travel east, local bedtime arrives earlier and it’s harder to drift off earlier than later.

How to ease symptoms of jet lag

Ideas to ease the symptoms of jet lag include waking earlier for a few days if you’re travelling eastward, the opposite if westward; sleep on the plane if you’re travelling east; and avoid alcohol and caffeine on the plane as both will make the situation worse whichever way you’re headed.

You can also prepare for racing abroad by tweaking your training time back in the UK.

Studies show that early exercise shifts circadian cycles like heart rate and body temperature to peak earlier in the day. Training later in the day nudged those peaks to later in the day.

This suggests that morning workouts could help those who are flying east, while afternoon workouts would help those flying west.

Interestingly, further research on mice discovered that regular exercise helped fend off the age-related weakening of circadian function, ensuring the rodents recovered rapidly from the effects of jet lag.

How soon should I start training again once I’ve landed? 

Couple of final points… Ease into training when abroad if you’re feeling jet lagged. And try out the Jet Lag Rooster app used by many professional athletes.

Just input your travel requirements and the app plans how much sleep you’ll need before leaving and between times so you feel fresher on arrival.


Top image: Getty Images