top of page

Plane Crazy - Managing Travel Fatigue in Training & Racing

We are an incredibly privileged generation to be able to travel easily, cheaply and over long distances. Both short and long haul flights are now a routine part of most peoples lives, but how does this kind of travel affect your training routine and your recovery? This article takes a look at some of the implications of both travel fatigue and jet lag and explores some of the things you can do to adapt to reduce the impact.

Travel Fatigue Vs Jet Lag

A generalised sense of 'travel fatigue' is different to the specific effects of 'jet lag' though the two can be found in combination. Travel fatigue can be experienced with any long journey, regardless of the mode of transport or whether you are cross time zones or not. 'Jeg lag' is experienced when crossing times zones when flying, normally 3 or more in one flight or series of flights and is technically a 'sleep disorder' as it refers to a disruption in circadian rhythm - basically a conflict between you body clock and your new time zone. Both travel fatigue and and jet lag can impair training and racing performance (Lee & Galvez, 2012). 

Why do you often feel terrible after travel?

* 'Your circadian rhythm' - Circadian rhythms are biological, mental, and behavioural changes that broadly follow a 24 hour cycle and can also be seen be seen your your sporting life with athletes responding to and performing differently in exercise at different times of day (Winget et al). Your circadian rhythm can be thrown off by needing to wake early or stay awake much later when travelling and will obviously be affected by long haul travel and jet lag. Your sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, eating habits and digestion, body temperature, and loads of other important body functions are influenced by your circadian rhythm and 'body or biological clock' (the endogenous element of the rhythm). As you travel over different times zones and eventual arrive at your destination the outside world has immediately changed to a new time zone...but your body clock is still in transition...hence the jet lag. The desynchrony between the two causes much of the discomfort you feel. The effects can often be slightly less when travelling 'West' than 'East' as the adjustment to conditions is easier   

* Fatigue & boredom - Runners tend to like routine and tend to not like being couped up in cramped environments for extended periods. Whether you're flying, on a train or stuck in a car the boredom alone can create a feeling of mental fatigue, oddly leaving you tired and irritable despite the lack of activity. 

* Sleep disruption - Even if you are only travelling short haul getting up early or arriving at your destination late at night can lead to disrupted sleep patterns and associated fatigue. Obviously this is accentuated over along haul flights where this general disruption is couple with the jet lag affects above. Additionally even for those who do aim to get some sleep when travelling or on a flight will see a reduction in sleep qaulity. Obviously this is down to the environment, noise, proximity to others, uncomfortable position etc all not being conducive to to falling, and crucially staying asleep to move through several sleep cycles. There is also an increased chance for you to be subject to 'blue light' from digital devices, airplane and travel hub lighting. Blue light affects your melatonin production and further reduces your ability to sleep and further throws your circadian rhythm.  

* Uncomfortable travel conditions and lack of movement/blood flow - Knees crunched up to your chest, head lolling onto your neighbours shoulders, most likely in a seated (unless you are very lucky!) position for extended periods can lead to tight and sore muscles and reduced the blood flow in your body with blood pooling and swelling in your lower limbs with the potential added risks of DVT on longer haul flights. 

* Dehydration, odd meal times and poor food choices - Airports and flights, trains and motorway service stations are hardly bastions of healthy food. Often we end up eating foods high in fat and sugar  with limited nutritional value when we travel. Add to this the dehydration associated with air conditioned flights and trains as well as eating at odd hours and you can often find your energy levels really thrown, feeling sluggish and even picking up headaches more easily. 

* Stress - Travelling for most of us can be a pretty stressful experience. Times, schedules, gate numbers, delays - I can feel my cortisol levels rising as I speak. The effects of many hours of being 'slightly on edge' can be physically as well as mentally draining. 

* Germ spread - Several hours in a relatively small tin can with other human beings...often not all with our own impeccable hygiene and health can be a great place to share in the ills of others...quite literally. 

The Impacts

The impact of all this discomfort is significant. The charts below show the heart rate and movements during sleep of an athlete we carried out some testing with around a flight form Sydney to Zurich. The first graph shows the first night sleep before flying, the 2nd the sleep on the flight, then the final 2 charts are the first and 2nd night sleep once in Europe. You can sleep clearly that that sleep disruption when significantly beyond the travel itself with poor qaulity and disrupted sleep extending for another two nights after the flight. You can read more about the impacts of this type of disruption on recovery and performance here.

This combined with all the factors above will lead to both reduced performance and reduced recovery in the immediate days following extended travel. You'll also likely find your motivation to train, particularly at harder intensities suffers. 

Sleep data 1 & 2

Sleep before flight in Sydney

Sleep on flight

Sleep data 3 & 4

1st night sleep Zurich

2nd night sleep Zurich

How to Manage It

To a point travel fatigue and jet lag is inevitable but there are several things you can to do the mitigate for the impact. 

* Race scheduling - Think about when you schedule your races around long periods of travel. If you know you will be spending the week with extended work travel it might not be sensible to plan a key race that weekend. If you are specially travelling long distances, especially crossing time zones, specifically to race ensure you give yourself a minimum of 4 days before the race to acclimatise to the local time zones and recover from the travel fatigue. If you land the day before the race, you can fully expect a significant impact on your performance. 

* Accept that you'll feel a bit rubbish - Know what is normal and then you can avoid the mental stress of it when it happens. It's normal for your first few runs after long periods of travel to feel sluggish and that mentally you will find it harder to focus. If you let this worry you the effects will elevated. You just need to be patient and adjust gradually. 

* Sessions around travel - Give yourself 2-3 days at least post travel of short easy runs to gradually adapt. Run to heart rate, as we have pointed out above your heart rate will likely remain slightly elevated for several days after a long haul flight and you might also have flown into very different climatic conditions. So use HR as an accurate measure of the effort you are putting in and limit yourself to a few very easy 65-70% MHR runs in the early days. You could add a few sets of strides to these runs to get your neuromuscular system up to speed but the effort should generally be easy. I would certainly recommend though aiming to get out for a run within the first 24 hours after any extended period of travel, you'll find it helps gradually shift your body back to a more normal pattern...but hold the effort back.

* Session timing - If you have travelled over several time zones its worth thinking about when do to your first few sessions. One approach is of course to just complete your sessions in at the local time you'd normally do them. E.g. a 4pm session in the UK becomes a 4pm session in Delhi. If you take this approach you need to be aware that those first session will likely be pretty poor. The alternative is to complete the session closer to the time in the country of origin e.g. 4pm UK session becomes 8pm in Delhi. As the days go on you can gradually adjust the session time back a few hours each day as you acclimitize. If you are travelling Westward you might fine morning sessions are more effective, Eastward, evening sessions. 


* Get organized and keep it easy - Minimise the stress of the travel itself on your body by being as organised as possible in advance. Sort out your tickets, visa's an onward travel. Leave enough time to not be panicking about the chance of missed flights or connections.  If you are travelling to a race  make your travel as simple and physically stress free as possible, even if that means spending a bit more to catch taxi's instead of public transport for example. Walking for 3 miles with a heavy bag a few days before a race isn't a wise idea folks. 

* Keep mobile - If you possible can get your legs moving form time to time. If you are driving have regular breaks to stop, relax and move. Get out of your seat on a flight or train and complete some short simple exercises such as a few bodyweight squats and gentle stretches. Post flight some active stretching, Pilates or yoga can be a great way to gently activate muscles and alleviate some stiff ness without adding further stress. 

* Compression - Compression stockings and socks can be very useful on long journeys to help with veinous flow and reduced blood pooling

* Hydrate - Sip water or water with electrolytes regularly. Airline air conditioning will leave you dehydrated and this, coupled with many people's desire to increase their caffeine and alcohol intake when flying can cause an increase in headaches and feeling of fatigue.  

* Prep some food - OK this is not always that easy but if you are organised you can at least take some pre-prepared food with you which includes a broader range of fruit and vegetables than you will likely find readily available as you travel. 

* Naps can help post travel but take care that they are short, if you sleep for too long you will only reinforce the desynchrony with your body clock and the local time. When you do sleep aiming for a fully night take extra care to observe good sleep hygiene practices to help increase melatonin production. Advice on this can be found in our sleep article. 

* Adopt the conditions of the destination - as soon as you start to travel, if you are going long haul, set your watch to destination time and try where possible to eat the meals you would at those times your your destination. 

* Relax as much as possible - whilst it might be tempting to whip the laptop our and bang our several hours of work, or catchup o the latest action blockbuster on the inflight entertainment system you might find that yo recover better after the flight avoiding digital screens, perhaps simply listening to something that will relax you and help you find a bit of a bubble.

You can't avoid all the negative effects of long periods of travel on your performance but with planning you can work  around them. Plan your racing and training sensibly post travel, aim to eat and drink as healthy as possible, getting your body up and moving on regular occasions, and be patient with yourself in those first few days well and train well! 

Atkinson G, Reilly T. 1996. Circadian variation in sports performance. Sports Med. pg21:292-31

Lee, A, Galvez, J. 2012. 'Jet Lag in Athletes'. Sports Health. pg 211-216

Winget CMDeRoshia CWHolley DC. 1985. 'Circadian rhythms and athletic performance'. Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise. Oct;17(5):498-516.

bottom of page