How to beat jet lag blues and travel legs

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Traveling this holiday season? Going across the waters for racing? Dr. Stacey Sims explains how to beat the jet lag blues and keep you and your legs functioning as best as possible. 

Jet Lag: A temporary disruption of normal circadian rhythm caused by high-speed travel across several time zones typically in a jet aircraft, resulting in fatigue, disorientation, and disturbed sleep patterns.

With the globalisation of racing and the relative ease of travel, it’s hard not to pick a destination race or even fly from east to west coast. But the dreaded time-lag toll on the body can seriously hinder how we feel and perform! The swollen ankles and deadlegs the first hours the day after a long haul flight, not to mention the extreme waves of tiredness and lethargy… How do we, as athletes, thwart the dreaded Jet Lag so we can race well and enjoy the trip?

Jet lag itself is different from travel fatigue. Travel fatigue can usually be solved by a good meal, rehydration, and a great sleep.

Jet Lag, on the other hand, is caused by a temporary misalignment between our internal body clock controlling our circadian rhythms and the destination time zone and sleep/wake cycle. Interesting to note that it takes longer to reset the circadian clock following an eastward than a westward flight (primarily because the human circadian clock is slightly longer than 24h); so we have a natural tendency to drift slightly later each day.

Why so much attention to the body clock? Generally feeling tired is part of what we experience as an athlete and it is generally accepted that sleep loss has minimal effect on muscle strength; but a significant contribution to the “on fire” performance we want in a race is the trained nuances of our body clock. Core temperature, hormone production, plasma concentrations of melatonin all play a role in achieving top performance.

What to do?

The best way to alleviate jetlag is to adjust the body clock. The biggest contributors to lingering jetlag are the changes in the light-dark cycle, nighttime melatonin production, and exercise (core temperature fluctuations). It’s pretty unlikely that we have the luxury of changing our sleep-wake cycles before we leave to match our destination, but there are a few things you can do before leaving that will help upon arrival.

Exposure to bright light coupled with melatonin production:

Melatonin production lowers core temperature, and the onset of sleep requires a vasodilation with a drop in core temperature (think about a hot night- you can’t sleep because you’re too hot, so you get up and drink cold water or stick your feet out from under the covers- this helps dissipate heat and allows your core temperature to drop; sleep ensues!).

For flying east: To start the reset process, for the four days before your trip, drink ~100ml COLD tart cherry juice 30 min before bed. Go to bed 1 hour earlier, and get up 1 hour earlier than usual. When you wake, get bright light exposure as soon as possible (preferably by going outside, but a bright SAD light or other will work too). Just one or two days of a preflight sleep-shift will help reduce subsequent jetlag.

For flying west: Since flying west is easier to adjust the circadian rhythms due to the body’s natural tendency for a longer day, delaying bedtime is effective at resetting the body clock. Remember, the more time zones you cross, the bigger the jetlag effect. With this in mind, delaying your bedtime by an hour a night for the 2-4 nights before your flight will help. This isn’t really that practical for our normal busy schedules, as ideally, you’d want to wake up an hour later. If you can sleep an extra 30-60 min and expose yourself to bright light first thing when you wake up, it will help.

What about the days before and on the actual day of travel?

Flying for long distances, especially through several time zones, is very stressing to the body. The plane’s environment will probably be lower in oxygen than the regular atmosphere and also quite dry, which may cause you to become dehydrated. Those travelers who drink alcoholic beverages will worsen the dehydration problem.


The week before your trip,  load up immune and gut boosting foods (you may consider taking something like Good Gut Daily Boost), and take 1x80mg aspirin per day (as a pre-emptive for deep vein thrombosis).

Food over the four days preceding your flight:

Day 1 (four days before your flight): eat a high protein breakfast and lunch but a high carbohydrate, low protein dinner.

Day 2: Eat light meals of salads, thin soups/smoothies, fruits, juices, veggies; keeping fat and calories at a minimum (kind of like a moderate fast).

Day 3: Repeat Day 1.

Day 4: Departure day- Repeat Day 2

Day of/on the plane: (Compression tights!- magic!)

Flying Eastward: On the day of travel, consume caffeinated beverages only between your normal hours of 6-11. If you are landing at your destination at night, then sleeping on the plane isn’t a great idea, try to stay awake.

Flying Westward:  On the day of travel, drink caffeinated drinks only in the morning of your usual time. If you are landing at destination morning/day, then drinking tart cherry juice or taking valerian capsules will help you sleep on the plane without waking up feeling “hungover”.

***Avoid caffeine and alcohol as they will make you dehydrated. Every 2-3 hours DURING flight make drink 500-800ml functional hydration (e.g. 1/16th tsp salt in that 500-800ml or ½ strength Osmo or Skratch hydration)  plus 80 mg aspirin. This combination will help with dehydration and prevent DVTs (very important if you are a woman traveling in the high hormone phase of her menstrual cycle- we tend to have 8% less plasma volume and a greater tendency for blood clots during this phase). Have a protein drink (eg protein powder taken on flight and mixed with juice or water on the plane) for every six hour of flying- this helps keep you hydrated, and reduces hunger.

– Don’t forget to get up every 90-120 minutes (if you’re not sleeping) and walk around OR do some isometric exercises in your seat- keep the blood flowing!

– Upon landing, have another protein drink- again for rehydration and light fueling.

– If you land during the day, go outside without sunglasses to use sunlight to reset your body clock. This will help you adjust to the new time zone.

– If possible (time allowing), get out for a walk (not a jog!) to bring your heart rate up and help alleviate any swelling. Running will be more damaging after a long haul flight of sitting, due to the sudden impact on the muscles. All lower body compartments will be a bit swollen, so walking is the primary, least damaging way to reset the fluid shifts. A light spin or a swim is also great, but you’ll want to be exposed to bright light if you land in the day, so take that into consideration as well.

– A high carbohydrate, low fat and low sugar meal will make it easier to sleep either on the plane or at your destination. However, if you need to be alert, eat a high protein but low in fat and sugar diet.

– A high protein meal will increase alertness and ability to think clearly. Have a low-carbohydrate, high protein breakfast either on the plane or upon landing if you are landing and need to stay awake!

The high-protein meals, exercises and light are intended to stimulate the body’s active cycle. The high-carbohydrate meals stimulate sleep. Caffeine and its chemical relatives can cause your biological rhythms to shift forward or backward, depending on the time they are consumed. Between 3 and 5 p.m., their effect is neutral.

Although transmeridian travel is becoming essential, the subsequent Jet Lag isn’t a necessary evil. Doing things to reset your circadian rhythm before you go and upon landing is kind of like packing your bike box- a pain in the arse at times, but well worth it!

About Dr. Sims:
Dr. Stacy T. Sims, MSc, PhD, is a monthly columnist for Ella CyclingTips. Sims has contributed to the environmental exercise physiology and sports nutrition field for more than 15 years as both an athlete and a scientist. The former founder and scientist behind Osmo Hydration, Dr. Sims served an exercise physiologist and nutrition scientist in the human performance lab at Stanford University from 2007-2012 where she specialised in sex differences of environmental and nutritional considerations for recovery and performance. Her personal interest in sex differences and performance has been the precedence of her academic and consulting career, always looking at true physiology to apply innovative solutions in the sport nutrition world.

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