How Traveling Athletes Beat Jet Lag


One week every year, athletes from around the world descend upon Greater Cincinnati for the nation’s oldest professional tennis tournament, the Western & Southern Open.

For players traveling here from long distances, acclimating their bodies to a new time zone is critical to their performances.

Ann Romaker, MD, UC Health sleep medicine physician, director of the University of Cincinnati Medical Center Sleep Medicine Center and associate professor of medicine at the UC College of Medicine, explains the science behind an athlete’s worst nightmare—jet lag.

What occurs in the body when someone experiences jet lag?

Jet lag occurs when a person’s external and internal clocks are out of sync. Each cell in the body has clock genes, and organs and organ systems are aligned via these clock mechanisms. Some genes turn on during sleep and some during wake, so that different functions occur during wake versus sleep.

Endurance activities are promoted during wake, and reparative processes during sleep. When the individual is trying to be active while his cells and organs are trying to sleep, they do not function at the levels normally achieved during wake.
In general a body can adapt one hour per day. When one travels multiple hours out of his or her time zone, it may take three months to get all of the systems working together again.

So, how do athletes beat it?

Maximal cardiovascular performance is impaired during the body’s natural sleep time, so athletes shift their sleep schedules prior to events. Most of the athletes who participate in serious competitions travel to the tournament time zone several days prior to the event, and, in some cases, even weeks ahead, so that they can adapt enough to function well.

Some people will start shifting their internal body clocks days to weeks before they leave home by altering their sleep/wake times on a schedule that includes both pre- and post-travel phase shifts.

Melatonin taken two to four hours before the desired bedtime will help shift the clock, as will timing of bright light exposure. Some of them will have schedules of light exposure, melatonin use and dark time mapped out ahead of time by sleep experts with whom they work regularly.


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