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"Why Jetlag is the Athlete's Silent Enemy: Understanding its Impact on Competing Abroad"

Updated: Mar 29

If you have ever been to New Zealand from the UK you'll know the flight is brutal in it's length of journey. But did you know it can affect your sport in more ways than just feeling sleep deprived? My recent trip away left me considerably unwell and unable to work for a week, and with the Olympics on the horizon this year I thought I'd do a little research into how transmeridian travel can affect your sports performance.

View from window on an airplane

How is jet lag defined?

Firstly we have to make a distinction between travel fatigue and jet lag. Travel fatigue, as defined by Prof T Reilly (1997), is fairly reasonable to recover from as you are only passing through approximately 3 time zones, however jet lag occurs after more than 3 time zones are passed through and predominantly occurs when you are travelling east.

What are the symptoms?

The NHS lists these symptoms of jetlag:

  • Sleep difficulties at bedtime and waking up

  • Poor sleep quality

  • Tiredness and exhaustion

  • Memory and concentration problems

  • Anxiety

  • Indigestion

  • Difficulty keeping awake during the day

  • Appetite loss

  • Constipation

  • Nausea

Other health and medical sites also state blurred vision, dizziness, depression, disorientation, diarrhoea and heightened emotions as some after effects of transmeridian travel. In short Jet lag impairs your physical and mental state, digestive system and more, all of which can impact your performance negatively.

The research....

In 2020 The British Journal of Sports Medicine published a review by Janse van Rensburg DC et al looking at the interventions used to support athletes travelling long haul. They found 'no literature pertaining to the management of travel fatigue. Evidence for the successful management of jet lag in athletes was of low quality' which is very surprising considering how long international competitions like the Olympics have been running.

A further study in 2022 of Olympic support teams showed the need to factor in extra time to ensure the staff were supported as they identified staff were struggling with elevated confusion, depression, fatigue and a reduction of energy. That was just the support staff, imagine the impact that has on you as a competitor?

The psychological impact of jet lag can cause a lack of confidence, failure to retain information relevant to the competition, performance anxiety, reduced alertness and lowered motivation. Physically your proprioception will also be at risk, so balance, coordination and reaction speed reductions would also be a concern. The lack of sleep may also compromise your immune system and leave you vulnerable to viral infections.

What can you do to prevent it?

Travel fatigue is less likely to impact your performance, but may throw you off a little if you do not take care. However, jet lag needs to be integrated into your pre competition training plan and travel preparation.

  • Plan ahead and aim to be at your competing destination in advance.

  • Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated on the plane.

  • Modify your own sleeping patterns this could mean sleeping earlier or later by hourly increments a few days prior to take off.

  • Change your watch to the destination time.

  • Use noise cancelling head phones to filter out noise distractions

  • Wear an eye mask to reduce your exposure to light and limit electrical device usage as blue light helps to regulate your circadian rhythm.

My own experience of jet lag saw me experience dizziness, anxiety, low mood, acute fatigue, confusion and insomnia, all incredibly debilitating. I haven't been able to do much apart from walk, and being honest I have felt pretty apathetic. I thought it wouldn't affect me as much as it had, especially after the first flights jet lag being so minimal going east. Hopefully in a few days normality will resume, and this 'plane flu' will subside so I can get back to my old self. But for now, being kind to myself, drinking plenty of water and getting some sleep will hopefully be enough to get back to doing what I love, Pilates, surfing, paddleboading and Padel.



Janse van Rensburg DC, Jansen van Rensburg A, Fowler P, et al

British Journal of Sports Medicine 2020;54:960-968.

Reilly, T et al. “Travel fatigue and jet-lag.” Journal of sports sciences vol. 15,3 (1997): 365-9. doi:10.1080/026404197367371

Rossiter, Antonia et al. “Effects of long-haul transmeridian travel on physiological, sleep, perceptual and mood markers in Olympic team support staff.” Chronobiology international vol. 39,12 (2022): 1640-1655. doi:10.1080/07420528.2022.2139186


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