Athletes and corporate executives can have very demanding travel schedules, which means they need tools to help manage travel fatigue and jet lag. There is a significant body of evidence discussing the relationship between travel-related stress and negative impacts on athletic and work execution. Performance, risk of illness, daytime fatigue, decreased concentration, sleep disruption and gastrointestinal disturbance are just a few!1-4
In this article you’ll learn 10 evidence-informed tools1, recommended for athletes, so you can elevate your performance as a corporate professional!
Protect sleep as much as possible.
- Experts in this area strongly recommend that you’re well rested before you travel- they call this a sleep banking strategy. If you are sleep deprived, avoid aiming to catch up on sleep during travel. Unless you are the exception to the rule here, most people report worse sleep duration and increased sleep disruption during travel. Adjusting your activities to focus more on sleep ahead of time is generally advisable.
- If you are planning on sleeping on a plane, whether it’s a nap or maybe you’re traveling internationally, spend some time and money on your sleep setup. Buy a comfortable eye-mask, earplugs or noise-canceling headphones. Take your time and find the most comfortable pillow you can, along with a blanket if you tend to get too cold during a flight. Many people report an association between their own bed or blanket and a sense of sleep security. You can leverage this behavioral association by creating your own sleep set-up. Taking the time to make this as comfortable as possible can really pay off.
- Manipulating light to help control circadian rhythm and sleep timing! Light during the day and darkness at night are crucial factors for synchronizing one’s internal biological clock.7 Using blue light therapy in the morning can help influence the circadian rhythm and sleep timing.5-7 Evidence has also demonstrated positive effects of blue light on people’s perception of morning alertness and mood!6 Although blue light has its benefits, natural sunlight from mother nature is often the best recommendation! Immediately upon waking, try to get direct sunlight for 30 minutes. If you are unable to do this, consider blue light exposure for the same time. Keep in mind, while bright light exposure first thing in the morning can help one’s sleep cycle, the same exposure later in the day can cause disruption. Exposure to evening blue light has been shown to suppress melatonin, which can negatively impact sleep quality.8 This has lead to the common recommendation to utilize blue light-blocking glasses. While reasonable in theory, current evidence demonstrates no real improvements in sleep time or sleep quality in healthy adults using blue light-blocking glasses.8-9
- Don’t let screen time interfere with your sleep schedule. Rather than using specialized lenses, consider the best recommendation to simply avoid screen use in the evening. If you typically stop using a screen at 6 to 7PM, don’t change this just because you’re traveling–maintain the same routine. Planning ahead can make all the difference here. Front load your work so you don’t find yourself making those last minute changes for the meeting late!
Minimize gastrointestinal (GI) distress-
- No dietary surprises! Prepare food and beverages in advance so that you can consume your regular diet. Most situations like running out of food, having poor food choices and running out of time in long lines can all be avoided with some planning. As you can imagine, long flights mean more sitting around, so with reduced activity, smaller meals are often recommended. Consider nutritious, fiber rich snacks and meals with water as the main source of fluid. The point is not to start a new diet program during travel! It’s simply to maintain some regularity so your GI system doesn’t get any surprises!
- Many people find frequent travel can cause constipation and the high fiber foods can help this. A common recommendation to help is to ingest natural laxatives such as prunes, chia seeds, kiwi fruit, apples and nuts.1 Again–don’t surprise your GI system during travel. If you are not accustom to natural laxatives, make sure you experiment with these before your travel.
- Planning meal timing and composition ahead of your travel date can help GI distress and even help influence our first goal–protecting sleep! If your travel destination has a new time zone, consider shifting your meal schedule by 30 minutes every 1-2 days towards the destination time. You can also consider a carbohydrate-rich meal in the evening to help promote sleep.1
Take charge of your physical and mental health with activity and environment.
- If you’re on a long flight, you should have a pre-planned activity program. Just like following a training program, what gets written down gets done. Plan for a minimum of 3-5 minutes of walking, standing stretches or whatever movements you like that break up the sitting position, for every hour of wakeful travel. Once you’re off the plane, as soon as possible, get 60 minutes of light activity, 45-60 minutes of moderate intensity continuous training (MICT) or 25-45 minutes of interval training. It is well established that MICT, performed for less than 60 minutes, is associated with an enhanced immune defense.11 Light physical activity, to reduce sedentary positions like sitting, also seems to carry physical and cognitive benefits.13-14
- High intensity interval training (HIIT) has become a popular training method given it’s ability to provide a time-efficient workout with many proposed cardio-respiratory benefits. While these protocols certainly have their place, timing is an important consideration. Using HIIT may be a superior method for enhancing cardiovascular health and cardio-respiratory fitness.15 Given the relationship between improved cardio-respiratory fitness and immune function,10-12 this method may decrease the risk of illness. However, interval training may also provide a transient disturbance of the immune system, which may lead to reduced immune function.12 Luckily, most of these negative changes only seem to occur for less than 12 hours after training.12 While there is some debate on this topic, given the association between travel and risk of illness, alongside the proposed time-sensitive effects of interval training on immune system function, consider the following additions to your interval training protocol:
- If using IT during travel, use short bouts (≤60 s) at sub-maximal efforts (<9/10 on a 1-10 intensity scale) and total sessions with a duration <60 minutes.
- If considering HIIT, or sessions involving >30 seconds of “all out” efforts (>9/10 on a 1-10 intensity scale), perform this type of training prior to travel
- The training environment can have a profound impact on your body and health. Did you know your environment can actually produce a measurable change in the brain’s stress response? An article published in 2019 in “Frontiers in Public Health” showed that simply walking in a forest environment decreased people’s cortisol levels whereas walking in an urban environment had little effect.16 There has been a growing interest in the therapeutic effects of forest environments on human health so consider a small detour to the forest on your next business trip! If you can’t get to a forest don’t worry–there are still other immune system benefits to getting fresh air! If you frequent the gym for weight lifting, consider walking outside the gym during the rest breaks between any strength or power sets. You can also walk to and from the gym if you’re staying close by the gym. If your gym is in your hotel, consider walking or biking around the hotel.
Both athletes and corporate professionals share the challenge of dealing with a busy travel schedule. While the workplace and corporate wellness literature has limited tools for travel-related fatigue and jet lag, we can borrow from the science of athletic performance! With these strategies, you can travel like an athlete and perform at your best!
- Janse van Rensburg DC, Jansen van Rensburg A, Fowler PM, et al. Managing Travel Fatigue and Jet Lag in Athletes: A Review and Consensus Statement. Sports Med. 2021;51(10):2029-2050.
- McGuckin TA, Sinclair WH, Sealey RM, Bowman P. The effects of air travel on performance measures of elite Australian rugby league players. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014;14(sup1):S116–22
- Fowler P, Duffield R, Vaile J. Effects of domestic air travel on technical and tactical performance and recovery in soccer. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2014;9(3):378–86.
- Fowler P, Duffield R, Vaile J. Effects of simulated domestic and international air travel on sleep, performance, and recovery for team sports. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2015;25(3):441–51.
- Geerdink M, Walbeek TJ, Beersma DGM, Hommes V, Gordijn MCM. Short blue light pulses (30 min) in the morning support a sleep-advancing protocol in a home setting. J Biol Rhythms. 2016;31(5):483-497.
- Choi K, Shin C, Kim T, Chung HJ, Suk HJ. Awakening effects of blue-enriched morning light exposure on university students’ physiological and subjective responses. Sci Rep. 2019;9(1):345.
- Münch M, Nowozin C, Regente J, et al. Blue-enriched morning light as a countermeasure to light at the wrong time: effects on cognition, sleepiness, sleep, and circadian phase. Neuropsychobiology. 2016;74(4):207-218.
- Bigalke JA, Greenlund IM, Nicevski JR, Carter JR. Effect of evening blue light blocking glasses on subjective and objective sleep in healthy adults: A randomized control trial. Sleep Health. 2021;7(4):485-490.
- Lawrenson JG, Hull CC, Downie LE. The effect of blue-light blocking spectacle lenses on visual performance, macular health and the sleep-wake cycle: a systematic review of the literature. Ophthalmic Physiol Opt. 2017 Nov;37(6):644-654. doi: 10.1111/opo.12406. PMID: 29044670.
- Nieman, D.C.; Henson, D.A.; Austin, M.D.; Sha, W. Upper respiratory tract infection is reduced in physically fit and active adults. Br. J. Sports Med.
- Souza,D.;Vale,A.F.;Silva,A.; Araújo, M.A.S.; de Paula Júnior, C.A.; de Lira, C.A.B.; Ramirez-Campillo, R.; Martins, W.; Gentil, P. Acute and Chronic Effects of Interval Training on the Immune System: A Systematic Review with Meta-Analysis. Biology 2021,10,868. https://doi.org/ 10.3390/biology10090868
- Nieman, D.C.; Wentz, L.M. The compelling link between physical activity and the body’s defense system. J. Sport Health Sci. 2018, 8, 201–217.
- Emily Erlenbach, MS, Edward McAuley, PhD, Neha P Gothe, MA, PhD, The Association Between Light Physical Activity and Cognition Among Adults: A Scoping Review, The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, Volume 76, Issue 4, April 2021, Pages 716–72.
- German C, Makarem N, Fanning J, Redline S, Elfassy T, McClain A, Abdalla M, Aggarwal B, Allen N, Carnethon M. Sleep, Sedentary Behavior, Physical Activity, and Cardiovascular Health: MESA. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2021 Apr 1;53(4):724-731.
- Mattioni Maturana F, Martus P, Zipfel S, NIEß AM. Effectiveness of HIIE versus MICT in Improving Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Health and Disease: A Meta-analysis. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2021 Mar 1;53(3):559-573.
- Kobayashi H, Song C, Ikei H, Park BJ, Kagawa T, Miyazaki Y. Combined Effect of Walking and Forest Environment on Salivary Cortisol Concentration. Front Public Health. 2019;7:376.