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The Impact of Travel on Sports Performance

The Impact of Travel on Sports Performance

The landscape of US college sports is changing dramatically. The Big Ten Conference has added USC, UCLA, Oregon and Washington to its ranks, creating a 16-team ‘superconference’ stretching from East to West Coast. Oklahoma and Texas are now competing in the SEC, itself a 16-team conference, while Arizona, Arizona State, Colorado and Utah have joined the Big 12.

This realignment has created new challenges for players, coaches and staff. Competing teams are suddenly separated by far greater distances, meaning that longer travel across multiple time zones is now necessary. Both USC and UCLA have to travel more than 15,000 miles to their away matches, with the Rutgers game alone requiring a 4,800 mile round trip incorporating a 3-hour time difference.

The issue of athletes having to take long trips for competition isn’t restricted to college sports. NBA, MLB, NFL and soccer teams are all frequently required to make extended journeys to games – but what affect does this have on athletic ability and the chances of winning? Here we look at the impact that travel can have on sports performance.


Issue 1: Aircraft Cabins Are Bad For Athletes

Competing against opponents who are geographically remote means that athletes are likely to spend a long time in the air – and aircraft are terrible environments for athletes to be in. Research has demonstrated that even short-haul flights (<6h) increase injury risk and impede performance (2,4,5).

The microclimate of an airline cabin consists of cool, dry, recirculated air which is kept at low pressure. At cruising altitudes relative humidity is maintained at 10%-20%, much lower than in most normal environments, and this increases the need for the body to humidify the air entering the lungs (14). The combined effects of this dry air and low O2 pressure in aircraft cabins can result in athletes experiencing a faster rate of fluid loss – up from 160mL/hour to 360 mL/hour – which leads to higher levels of dehydration (14). As little as 2% dehydration has been shown to have significant consequences on athletic performance.

Another factor is that air travel requires athletes to remain seated and immobile for extended periods of time. This causes muscle and connective tissues to shorten and stiffen, with obvious negative effects on mobility and flexibility – particularly for taller athletes. Prolonged sitting can also trigger fluid to shift towards the lower extremities (14). This fluid shift increases the viscosity of the blood, making it harder to pump around the body and inhibiting the delivery of oxygen to the working muscles. Because of this, an athletes physical capacity can be seriously compromised on arrival.

A third important issue is that oxygen saturation in the cabin is significantly lower – 93% at cruising altitude compared to 97% at ground level. This hypoxic environment has the effect of slowing muscle recovery (4) which will impede the post-game regeneration process as athletes return home.


Mitigating The Impact of Air Travel on Sports Performance

Air travel causes a number of negative physiological responses which can inhibit sports performance. Athletes must take steps to mitigate these adverse effects in the days before travel, during flight, and upon arrival – this will ensure that they are ready to compete at their optimum level. A number of strategies have been suggested to achieve this, including:

  • Hydration: To offset the accelerated rate of fluid loss, athletes must ensure that they begin the journey in an optimally hydrated state and continue to consume fluids throughout the flight. Hydration strategies which incorporate electrolytes paired with carbohydrate solutions may be beneficial (14), however caffeine should be avoided due to its diuretic effect and the impact it has on sleep disruption.
  • Post Flight Recovery – Activity-Mobility-Myofascial Release: The muscle stiffness and blood pooling caused by air travel can be offset by having athletes perform a travel-recovery session immediately upon arrival. Light aerobic exercise will increase blood flow and circulation, while active mobility and dynamic flexibility exercises will restore the ability to move efficiently. Muscular tension and tightness built up during the flight can inhibit athletic movements, and can be relieved by using myofascial release tools such as foam rollers, massage sticks or massage guns.
  • Compression: Prolonged sitting during a flight results in blood pooling in the calf and thigh, which can drastically impair performance upon arrival (5). Compression garments worn in-flight have been shown to aid recovery from this flight stress, and in particular promote muscle regeneration when athletes are flying home post-competition (5). On arrival to the hotel athletes can also utilize intermittent pneumatic compression tools, which apply gradual pressure to the limbs through compressed air. These are designed to recreate the effects of a massage by simulating the muscle pump – enhancing both blood flow and the lymphatic system.


Issue 2: Time Zone Changes Disrupt The Body Clock

A second mechanism through which travel can impair athletic performance is via the de-synchronization which is created between the new environment and the athlete’s circadian rhythm.

The circadian rhythm is the body’s internal biological clock, and is responsible for regulating functions such as sleeping, eating, hormone production, mood and energy levels at different points over a 24-hour period – as such it plays a critical role in sports performance. The rhythm dictates that the window for optimal performance is between approximately 2:30pm and 6:00pm, when core body temperature is at its highest (8). However, moving across time-zones causes the circadian rhythm to shift out of harmony with the local environment, and this can significantly compromise athletic ability. It takes approximately 24 hours per time-zone crossed for an athlete to adapt to the new local time (4) – the greater the number of time zones travelled, the longer this adaptation process takes. This means that a three-hour time shift accompanying coast-to-coast travel in the USA can cause significant circadian de-synchronization (4) and increase the magnitude of travel fatigue.


Travel Related Sleep Disruption = Reduced Performance

A major consequence that travel has on the circadian rhythm is an erosion of high-quality sleep. Numerous components of sports performance are supported by athletes having a sufficient amount of beneficial sleep, which is needed to restore energy reserves, repair damaged muscle tissue, and maintain high levels of motivation and concentration. Even partial sleep deprivation can have significant negative effects on performance and recovery, with factors such as metabolism, inflammation, hormone release, muscle regeneration, cognitive function, the immune system and risk of injury all being adversely affected. A number of studies have shown that disrupted sleep can worsen measurable factors of athletic performance, including:

  • A decline in average and total sprint performance (11)
  • A decline in technical skill accuracy (10)
  • Quicker time to exhaustion (1)
  • Slower reaction times (12)
  • Increased injury rates (7)
  • Increased risk of illness (9)

Travel has been demonstrated to create disturbances in the sleep-wake cycle, including sleep fragmentation, premature awakening, increased sleep latency and overall sleep loss (6). Travel related sleep disruption is clearly disadvantageous for sport, however, in the student-athlete population these consequences are magnified by the additional demands of academic work. Sleep is critical for information consolidation and learning, which occurs primarily during Stage 2 (Stable Sleep). Sleep disturbances caused by frequent travel can therefore lead to a reduced ability to learn – both in the classroom and in practice (3).


East or West – Which is Best?

Studies investigating the effect that direction of travel has on performance have had differing results – with the determining factor seemingly being the time of competition. Some researchers suggest that eastward travel is more detrimental because of difficulties associated with moving forward in time – it is easier for the body to shift the sleep-wake cycle to a later time (phase delay) than to an earlier hour (phase advance) (6). This would indicate that teams based in the east might have a greater competitive advantage.

However, other studies have shown that westward travel can be more disadvantageous, particularly when competition is scheduled for the evening. An East Coast team travelling to the west coast for a 7:00pm game will be competing at a circadian phase of 10:00pm – well past their optimal phase (3).

Based on a number of studies which have analysed post-travel performance in the NBA, MLB and NFL, it is clear that the time of competition is a critical factor. Athletes travelling west to east may not perform optimally in games scheduled for the early afternoon since their ‘circadian time’ is closer to morning. Conversely, athletes travelling east to west may be at a disadvantage in late afternoon or early evening, when their body clocks are closer to bedtime (6).


Mitigating The Impact of Time-Zone Changes on Sports Performance

Travel across time zones creates a disparity between the athlete’s circadian rhythm and the new time zone, leading to impaired sports performance (13). Adaptation of the circadian rhythm to a new time zone is important, especially when there is a mismatch between the ‘home’ body clock and the time of the competition. A number of strategies have been suggested to achieve this, including:

  • Sleep Bank: Athletes should be as well rested as possible in the days prior to departure, in the expectation that their sleep could be disrupted by travel. ‘Banking’ sleep ahead of travel can minimize the accumulation of sleep debt.
  • Pre-Travel Adaptation: Adaptation to a new time-zone on arrival can take days. However, the circadian rhythm can be partially or fully aligned to the new time-zone in the days leading up to departure. For example, a team travelling eastward from MT to ET would benefit from a two-hour circadian advance – this can be achieved by athletes going to bed 30-60 minutes earlier per day for 2-3 days before they leave (3).
  • Post-Travel Adaptation: Teams can equally adapt by arriving into the new time-zone a few days before competition – although this would be highly disruptive to the academic work of the student-athlete. If the team travelling from MT to ET arrives at the new time-zone 2-3 days before competition, athletes can accelerate their circadian adjustment by waking and going to bed 1 hour earlier per day (3). Light exposure around these times should be planned and controlled to assist with facilitating the appropriate phase shift.
  • Optimize Light Exposure: Light functions as the major regulator of the circadian pacemaker. In the morning after waking up, athletes should expose themselves to bright natural outdoor light for 15 to 30 minutes, in order to recalibrate the circadian master clock. However, during evening time, athletes should be exposed to dim or amber light for 2 hours before bed, and then sleep in complete darkness. Blue light exposure, such as from electronic screens, interferes with the natural sleep cycle and should be avoided 2 hours before bed.
  • Optimize Diet & Nutrition: Diet has a direct effect on the synthesis and function of the hormones and neurotransmitters involved at various stages in the sleep/wake cycle. Tryptophan is the metabolic precursor to melatonin, which functions to communicate with the body that it is time to sleep. For that reason, consuming foods which are rich in tryptophan can enhance the natural timing of the circadian rhythm.
  • Schedule Naps: Another strategy to offset sleep deprivation through travel might be to programme a nap into the athletes daily routine. The circadian rhythm dictates that the ideal time to take a nap is early to mid-afternoon – napping later than this incorporates more slow-wave sleep, leaving the athlete fatigued upon waking and impairing performance. Naps should be relatively short, with periods of 10-30 minutes having been shown to enhance performance.


Use Data to Track Athlete Status

Responses to travel stress will vary between individual athletes, and as such different athletes may require distinct strategies to offset the impact that travel can have on their performance. Practitioners should monitor and evaluate the status of their athletes in order to gain a better understanding of their normal reaction to travel, and to identify those areas in which improvements can be made. Wearable devices provide staff with objective measures such as sleep duration, sleep quality and HRV – tracking the circadian characteristics of athletes both at home and when travelling. Mood state questionnaires can assess the influence of psychological factors, including the pressure of student life, while simple USG testing allows hydration levels to be monitored. Data such as this enables teams and individual athletes to develop protocols which promote optimal performance when their events require travel (3). However, to be effective and to inform decision making, this data has to flow easily between players, coaches and other support staff.


Where ApolloV2 Makes A Difference

Apollo’s unique platform enables both subjective and objective athlete data to be collected quickly. Then, powered by our specific AI models, this data is integrated to create a clear picture of each athlete’s travel-recovery status and readiness to perform. Recovery information can be viewed alongside performance and injury data to generate a deeper understanding of the effectiveness of different travel strategies. With Power Bi and Tableau integrated into its ecosystem, Apollo can create best-in-class reports which track crucial student-athlete data points throughout their college sport career, ensuring that athletes are continually educated about how best to prepare for travel. Apollo’s planning function provides coaches and administrators with the ability to create detailed training, competition and travel schedules, minimizing the disruptive effect travel can have on factors such as sleep and meal timings. Through Apollo, teams can develop the protocols, technologies, best practice and athlete education resources needed to ensure that they increase their prospects of winning when competing away from home.

To learn more about using ApolloV2 for athlete preparation, email info@apollov2.com

Written by Adrian Lamb, ApolloV2 Sports Scientist


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