So Far, So Good

Run your best in a far-flung race by min­imis­ing the ef­fects of long-dis­tance air travel

Runner's World (UK) - - Contents -

Run you best af­ter a long, tir­ing flight

IN 2012, Scot­tish ultra runner and doc­tor An­drew Mur­ray en­tered the Gobi Chal­lenge, a six-day race in Mongolia. It did not be­gin well: ‘A cou­ple of Mon­go­lian run­ners blasted off on the first day while I strug­gled with jet lag and a heavy cold,’ he re­calls. ‘Sleep is the ma­jor de­ter­mi­nant of how I’ll per­form.’

Jet lag and lack of sleep are be­com­ing in­creas­ingly preva­lent in our sport. More and more of us fly long dis­tances to take part in races – over 1,500 run­ners in the 2016 New York City Marathon trav­elled there from the UK, for ex­am­ple. Clearly you don’t want to put in months of train­ing for a des­ti­na­tion race only to have your per­for­mance ham­pered by fa­tigue or an out-of-kil­ter body clock. The health and per­for­mance ef­fects of longdis­tance air travel on en­durance can be con­sid­er­able, but there are steps you can take to min­imise them.


A review in Cur­rent Sports Medicine Reports, de­scribes jet lag dis­or­der (JLD) as the re­sult of a dis­so­ci­a­tion be­tween the body’s cir­ca­dian rhythm and the world’s ‘clock time’ fol­low­ing rapid travel across mul­ti­ple time zones. Cir­ca­dian rhythms are the phys­i­cal, men­tal and be­havioural changes that con­form to an ap­prox­i­mate 24-hour cy­cle of light and dark, and ex­plain why we’re alert at cer­tain times of the day and sleepy at oth­ers. JLD symp­toms in­clude in­som­nia and poor-qual­ity sleep, day­time sleepi­ness, im­paired alert­ness and con­cen­tra­tion, headache and gas­troin­testi­nal is­sues.

A re­cent study in the Euro­pean Journal of Ap­plied Phys­i­ol­ogy ex­am­ined 13 phys­i­cally ac­tive males who un­der­went sim­u­lated in­ter­na­tional air travel. It found ‘that sleep dis­rup­tion dur­ing travel in­creased per­cep­tual fa­tigue and re­duced lower-body power’.

Dr Kirstie An­der­son of the New­cas­tle Re­gional Sleep Ser­vice is a neu­rol­o­gist and one of the UK’S top sleep ex­perts. She ex­plains: ‘Any jour­ney with less than a two-hour time change prob­a­bly won’t be trou­ble­some. We adapt to time zone changes at the rate of about an hour a day, so a six-hour change will need at least five to six days for you to be back in sync, which is why elite ath­letes don’t race soon af­ter long flights. In terms of which travel di­rec­tion dis­rupts sleep most, west is best and east is a beast. Jet lag fol­low­ing a west­ward flight is more eas­ily ac­com­mo­dated be­cause our body clock shifts slowly, and since fly­ing west adds more time to our day we’ve longer to ad­just, un­like when we fly east.’

Re­search backs this up: in a study pub­lished in the Bri­tish Journal of Sports Medicine, 13 ath­letes flew west across six time zones, and six ath­letes flew east over eight time zones – it was found that jet lag symp­toms per­sisted one to two days longer for east­bound ath­letes.


If head­ing to your des­ti­na­tion days be­fore your race is not an op­tion, the most ef­fec­tive way to avoid jet lag is to pre-adapt your cir­ca­dian rhythm to match that of your new time zone prior to ar­rival. How­ever, this also may not be prac­ti­cal if your des­ti­na­tion’s night­time is in the mid­dle of your nor­mal day.

At your des­ti­na­tion, the goal is to resync your body clock to your des­ti­na­tion’s time as quickly as you can. One way is to use a ‘zeit­ge­ber’ – a time cue that tells your body what time it is and helps to syn­chro­nise your in­ter­nal clock.

The best zeit­ge­ber is light, but ex­er­cise also works. Ja­panese re­search from 2010 found that sched­uled ex­er­cise helped sub­jects set­tle into a new sleep-wake schedule more quickly af­ter an eight-hour time shift – so it’s a good idea to do a morn­ing run at your des­ti­na­tion as soon as pos­si­ble af­ter ar­rival.

Re­search from the Univer­sity of Fer­rara in Italy found that the tim­ing and com­po­si­tion of meals can also help speed the resyn­chro­nis­ing process. A high-carb, low-pro­tein evening meal – such as pasta – fa­cil­i­tates the brain’s up­take of the amino acid tryp­to­phan and its con­ver­sion to sero­tonin, which helps in­duce drowsi­ness and sleep. This also fits in nicely with carb-load­ing. On the other hand, a high-pro­tein, low-carb meal in­creases alert­ness, mak­ing an omelette or por­ridge with yo­ghurt good breakfast op­tions.

Me­la­tonin, a hor­mone pro­duced in the brain’s pineal gland, is typ­i­cally se­creted when it gets dark, pro­mot­ing sleep. It’s found in foods such as oats, sweet­corn, bar­ley, rice, ginger and ba­nanas. In sup­ple­ment form it is avail­able only on pre­scrip­tion in the UK.

Good sleep hy­giene can help re­duce jet lag-in­duced sleep dis­rup­tion: en­sure your ho­tel room is quiet, around 18C and has black­out cur­tains or blinds. Aim to go to bed at the same time each night and to sleep for at least seven hours. If you nap dur­ing the day, don’t do it later than midafter­noon, so as to not af­fect your abil­ity to sleep well in the evening. And avoid caffeine from mid-af­ter­noon on­wards.


For the jour­ney home there is one thing to be aware of – the risk of deep vein throm­bo­sis (DVT). Pro­longed air travel can in­crease the risk of de­vel­op­ing a blood clot, typ­i­cally in the leg. But en­durance ex­er­cise also af­fects fib­ri­nol­y­sis – a nor­mal process that pre­vents blood clots from de­vel­op­ing. Nor­mally, the body al­lows a bal­ance be­tween co­ag­u­la­tion (clot­ting) and fib­ri­nol­y­sis (anti-clot­ting) to de­velop, but a study pub­lished in the Clin­i­cal Journal of Sport Medicine found that pro­longed air travel be­fore a marathon dis­rupted it, and that older ath­letes tended to be more sus­cep­ti­ble. This makes the re­duc­tion of DVT risk mea­sures even more im­por­tant for run­ners fly­ing long-haul af­ter a marathon: wear loose cloth­ing, con­sider flight socks, walk around the plane reg­u­larly, avoid al­co­hol and stay hy­drated.

Hav­ing done all that, rest and re­cover well – and then get busy plan­ning your next race.

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