Sleep and the Traveling Athlete: Performing 'On The Road'


, by Nick Littlehales

Photography by: fitzcrittle

One constant throughout human evolution has been the movement of the earth around the sun. As a result, our brains and bodily functions are aligned to the daily cycle of light and temperature.

The importance of light

When daylight enters your eyes first thing in the morning (sunrise) and hits your photoreceptors, a message is sent to the pineal gland in our brains, which starts to produce the hormone serotonin. This tells the brain to start activating all the things that were suppressed for sleep—mood, motivation, appetite, and so on. Then, as the afternoon progresses and light levels drop, the brain produces melatonin, which starts to suppress these things and slowly 'shuts us down' in preparation for sleep.

Melatonin will also start to be produced if not enough natural light enters the eye for several hours, inducing feelings of drowsiness and lack of energy or motivation. The problem is, whereas light levels outside might be 60,000-70,000 lux, they may be as low as 200-300 lux inside your office, on the train, or in the gym.

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Finding opportunities to get outside first thing in the morning and at intervals throughout the day, or to use a daylight lamp, is important to counter these effects. Some forward-thinking organizations are already taking note of this, installing circadian rhythm lighting systems or daylight lamps in their offices and training centers to keep their people alert and energized.

Preparing to change time zones

When professional athletes have to travel for competitions, their preparation often starts at home. They slowly shift their wake- and sleep times along with external triggers (bright light in the morning, absolute darkness at night) in the weeks leading up to the event.

Jetlag is an issue for all people, as we suffer from our internal clock taking a bit longer to adapt to a new rhythm.

They also make use of layovers and breaks during their flights, in that case taking a later flight to fit in a rest cycle in a quiet part of the airport. If your flight plans mean that you are completely exhausted from traveling, it can be difficult to recover from that at a time when you should - or want to be - at your best.

Jetlag and the traveling athlete

Jetlag is an issue for all people, as we suffer from our internal clock taking a bit longer to adapt to a new rhythm. As I said before, starting to adapt in the weeks leading up to a trip is one step, and the same is true for the time after arrival. Aim for a sleep time that is as close as possible to the regular rhythm you would have if you had always lived in that time zone. It's not easy, but if you have the discipline, your quality of sleep will be your biggest reward.

RELATED: The Role of Sleep in Athletic Recovery

If you arrive late at night, but your internal clock says it’s early morning, allow yourself at least one cycle to tune down. Try to avoid sleeping on the plane in that case, and lower your lighting after arrival. Refrain from a big meal and alcohol and enjoy something relaxing – like a warm bath or listening to music. This will stimulate the creation of sleep hormones, even if your inner clock thinks it should be day. When it’s time to go to bed (in tune with your desired wake time) make sure it’s completely dark in your hotel room. Ensuring the room is not too hot will also help.

While sleeping on an airplane can be difficult, there are things you can do to help your body prepare for sleep. Photography by: FotoHelin

Even if you end up only getting three cycles that night, it will be sufficient to get you through the next day and back into an almost natural sleep cycle. The same is true if you are arriving early in the morning (but late at night for your inner clock). Try to catch some sleep on the plane, if need be, with earplugs and eye masks.

Tell the flight attendants not to wake you up (and ideally book a window seat, so your seat neighbor leaves you alone as well). After arrival, get as much natural daylight into your eyes throughout the day as possible, but also create pockets of rest.

RELATED: How Sleep Affects Performance... And Everyday Life

A word on hotel beds

One final word about beds. I believe that humans can sleep anytime, anywhere, and on any surface if their circadian rhythms are set the right way and their inner clock is ready for sleep. So far, I could not find a massive correlation between a specific bed and the quality of sleep with any of my clients, apart from the comfort of familiarity.

I coach professional athletes and high achievers to sleep anywhere, anytime on anything. Personally, I sleep as well on my 7cm self-inflate extreme outdoors mattress when out on adventures as I do at home, because I prepare in the same way - whether I'm at home or am traveling.

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