Reducing travel induced stress on athletes

Posted by Matt Russ on 17th Sep 2018

The purposed of the race taper is to facilitate maximal recovery while maintaining a sharp edge to fitness.  This is  accomplished by gradually reducing training volume but not necessarily intensity. The goal is to simply maintain fitness during the taper, but emphasis should be placed on overall stress reduction across the board. A correctly designed taper will bring to fruition months of training and if done correctly; peak performance on race day. It is important to note that the body recognizes and reacts to physical and mental stress in much the same way, and with many of the same physiological responses. Therefore reducing both mental/psychological stress as well as the physical should be a key component of your taper.  But care should also be taken with immunological stress and this is often overlooked.

How does jet lag and travel affect athletes?  Traveling to an event, especially when it involves air travel across multiple time zones to a foreign environment, can be highly stressful on an athlete. There are rapid changes in sleep cycles and habits, there may be changes in diet, and an already suppressed immune system is exposed to new bacteria and viruses. The preparation for, and the travel itself is taxing, especially when traveling with family members. For the athlete this is no vacation as they deal with pre-race anxieties and pressures along with the demands of travel. Worst of all “jet lag” associated with travel can really throw the athlete for a physical loop. And even a short flight will likely bring changes in climate such as heat, humidity, altitude, and perhaps pollution and allergens in the new locale. The assumption is that the athlete has taken steps to acclimate to competing in the new environment several weeks or more in advance, but for most athletes this is not a reality.  Professional athletes are more used to travel and usually have a detailed pre-race routine worked out, but the amateurs are often winging it.

Obviously reducing both training stress and mitigating the mental strain of travel should be tantamount leading up to an event. Manipulating the athlete’s immediate physical surroundings , as well as taking steps to quickly adapt to their new environment may make all the difference on race day. Having an organized process to address travel stress will be less stress on both the athlete and the coach. Disorganization is the leading cause of travel stress. If this is the athlete’s first time traveling abroad the coach can be of tremendous value. Start by creating a checklist, or series of checklists for the athlete that may include the following examples…

  • Securing passport, visa, and currency. Notify credit card companies.
  • Emergency contacts, medical insurance, travel insurance, and prescriptions for all medicines.
  • Arranging for bicycle transport, packing equipment properly, equipment checklist, and labeling of all equipment.
  • Have a written travel itinerary, training availability at venue, and an overview of the local culture.
  • Understanding of food types available upon arrival, food and water safety, and packing of essentials.

  • A worst case scenario is that the athlete becomes ill while in transit or prior to a peak event. Taking steps to sanitize surfaces and avoid contact with microbes is essential. Immunity is built up locally and things that are harmless to the locals may not be so to the athlete.  Recommend using hand sanitizer frequently and that the athlete immediately sanitize (disinfectant wipe) their seat on the airplane including arm rests, touch screen, tray table and magazine pocket. A face mask may seem like overkill but it is an added insurance policy.  Make sure they avoid touching the face or eyes and to bring their own travel blanket and pillow. Have them  make themselves as comfortable as possible, wear compression clothing, and to get up and stretch/move frequently. Air travel is dehydrating; make sure the athlete avoids caffeine and especially alcohol, and keeps up their hydration regime. Do not drink the lavatory water or use it to brush teeth. Upon arrival similar steps should be taken to sanitize their hotel room. Although this may seem obsessive, it pays to be cautious and careful as the immune system may already be suppressed.

    Jet lag effects on athletes can leave them fatigued, disoriented, and unfocused. The way to combat jet lag is to begin the process of acclimation well before the plane lands. Adjusting sleep patterns and circadian rhythms the week before the flight gives them a leg up. The more time zones to be crossed, the earlier this adjustment should be made. Start going to bed a half hour earlier than normal and setting the alarm a half hour early as well. As soon as the athlete is on the plane have them set their watch to the time zone they will be arriving in, and attempt to adjust sleep pattern in flight to the new time zone. Use of a sleep mask to darken vision at the appropriate time will help.

    Rapid acclimation to the new time zone upon arrival is also critically important. Advise the athlete to not go to sleep until they are within an hour of their normal sleep time, even if they are very tired. Naps may very well turn into a sustained deep REM sleep which further disorients the circadian rhythms. Meals and sunshine are the bodies way of orienting itself. Use them to get in sync and adjust the body clock. Mild sleep aids or over the counter supplements such as melatonin may help, but complete adjustment may take several days or more.

    Once circadian rhythms are disrupted constipation may ensue.  This is a very common and distressing condition for many athletes.  It is important not to change the athlete’s diet to any great extent, and for best results stick with their normal diet as much as possible. This may mean packing breakfast foods, snacks, and of course race day nutrition. Once the body has re-oriented itself the effects of constipation should subside. Arriving at least 3 days prior to an international event should allow enough time to acclimate.

    View all of these steps as small deposits in the athletes energy “bank.” The competition begins well before the race, and the athlete that is able to achieve homeostasis rapidly and completely will have an acute advantage over their less rested, disoriented, and perhaps ill competition. Stress is the enemy of the taper, and stress reduction should be regarded holistically and completely.

    Matt Russ is a full time professional coach with over 20 years of experience working with athletes up to the elite level. His athletes have won numerous regional, national, and international titles. He holds the highest level of licensing by both USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, and is a licensed USA Track and Field Coach. Matt is Head Coach and owner of The Sport Factory, a USA Triathlon Certified Performance Center. Visit www.sportfactory.com for more information or email him at coachmatt@thesportfactory.com