Updated 05 July 2013

How sports teams beat jet lag

Just how does a gruelling 11-hour flight and possible jet lag affect the game of travelling sports teams and athletes?


We take a look at whether sports teams and athletes could be affected by long-haul plane trips and jet lag. By Dr Ismail Jakoet, former chief medical officer of SA Commonwealth Games Association.

Jet lag seems to be more severe when travelling from west to east than from east to west. Therefore teams from the Americas will be at a disadvantage compared to teams from countries such as New Zealand and Australia. It would take South Americans travelling to South Africa between six and eight days to recover, depending on the number of time zones to be crossed.

What is jet lag?

Jet lag should not be confused with the tiredness you feel after a long journey in a car or after flying north or south for a considerable number of hours.

Body functions are controlled by a “physiological clock” which gets disrupted when you fly across time zones. Jet lag is the term used to sum up the symptoms experienced when this “physiological clock” is disrupted. Tiredness is the obvious one, but other symptoms are:

  • Listlessness and inability to perform or train optimally.
  • Change in normal bowel activity, e.g. constipation.
  • Inability to fall asleep at night.

A rule of thumb is that symptoms will last one day for every time zone.

Who is affected?

Trained sportspersons tend to cope better than most. Older individuals tend to have more severe symptoms.

Precautions can be taken

Teams who're not arriving with enough time to acclimatise, can cheat jet lag in certain ways. They can, for instance, adjust sleeping patterns and training times to the local time the week prior to flight. Then, when they do fly, they have to be pretty disciplined, avoiding alcohol, coffee and tea; drinking plenty of other fluids; and getting some sleep: short-acting benzodiazipines have been proven to be effective in inducing sleep, yet allowing players to wake up without headaches and alert after four to six hours of sleep.

If they time their arrival for between 11am and 5pm, they're also helping beat jet lag. Bright light can advance your body clock, so they should get out and do some sightseeing, and aim not to go to bed before normal bedtime at their destination.

And they should make sure they're well-hydrated - again, water rather than alcohol, tea or coffee.
Melatonin capsules taken in the evenings have proved to be useful in some instances; and training sessions should take place in the late afternoon and kept tto the bare minimum for the first couple of days.

Originally written by Dr ISMAIL JAKOET, based on an article by Waterhouse/Reilly/Atkinson.

(Updated for Health24, August 2012)




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