You don’t send him a Christmas card but ‘jet lag’ has become a close colleague of mine and International Sevens over the years. Its power is in its constellation of symptoms. You can’t take one tablet (not yet anyway) to send it scurrying back into the land of circadian rhythm. It can induce different things in different people and has a lot of factors involved in its potency.
Jet lag has become a hot topic in the rugby press this week with talk of the British and Irish Lions’ tour schedule, so I thought it was a good time to have a yarn about it.
Jet lag and the Lions
The good news is the touring management have known about their itinerary for a long time. They have some outstanding operators in the engine room of this tour that will have hatched a plan to making sure they do all they can to minimise the effects of jet lag.
Learning from others
I have talked to a lot of people from various places to try to have as many little tricks up my sleeve that don’t cost you anything but can help. I have spoken to orchestras that sometimes have to travel across the world and then play perfectly to thousands of people as soon as they land. Learning from the Nordic countries and how they combat SAD (seasonal affective disorder) with light therapy, for example, can also help. We’ve even tried ear phones that emitted light, not noise, to speed up recovery from travel.
But what about the British and Irish Lions, what exactly can they do?
Like its effects, you have to use a combination of measures to fight jet lag.
Learning and experience of jet lag protocols
Fighting jet lag
The first consideration is the route you fly. The Lions will fly east to New Zealand, which means, in an ideal world, they would have already been slowly moving their bedtimes earlier before they got on the plane. An easy start point.
Next, the class of cabin. As any international sevens team will tell you, it is rare you travel long haul in business class, but it is a huge advantage for any athlete to do so for the following reasons:
1. You can generally lie flat in business and the quality of sleep you will get compared with sitting in economy is far greater and scientifically proven.
2. The Lions will probably have the whole of first and business class cabins so they can control when the cabin lights are dimmed and when the food is served.
Space, comfort and control of cabin lights and meal times.
3. There are less people in the higher class of cabins so less chance of picking up a bug, and using hand sanitiser to wipe down the area you are sitting in will also reduces this risk.
4. There is more space in higher class cabins to move about, and knowing you are turning left and not right on the plane will also reduce stress and make for a more enjoyable and relaxing flight.
More leg room in business for the big boys!
Food, time zones, sleep and water
If budget is no issue then I am sure the management will have provided the players with bespoke meals that will have the right contents to aid jet lag and sleep. There are some really interesting trials around stuff like NADH that plays a role in the production of energy in your body that can really reduce jet lag. However, unless it’s already been trialled amongst all the squad before the tour, it’s not clever suddenly giving a player a tablet he has never had before. The potential side effects on even the smallest level aren’t worth the risk.
Staying hydrated is an easy one to miss when flying but avoiding the booze and hitting the H20 makes a big difference.
Nutrition, espresso, sleep and water.
Getting into New Zealand’s time zone quickly is also vital, so setting watches to Auckland time asap and then eating and sleeping at the times you will in New Zealand is another tool that needs to be used. And nothing wrong with providing sleeping tablets or melatonin on the flight in the short term to get to sleep (as long as those taking them have had them before without side effects). Just don’t rely on them for the whole tour as sleeping tablets, in particular, are addictive.
You arrive in New Zealand. What next?
Ok, so all this has been done and you step off the plane. Stay awake until normal bedtime if possible. If you really need a short nap during the day in those first few days then perhaps have an espresso before you do have forty winks. The espresso will help ensure it’s only a power sleep and not a longer one that then disrupts your proper sleep.
In normal circumstances the rule of thumb is for every day you are in the new time zone, you get back an hour. So 11 days for the +11 hour time change. Now you can really accelerate that by doing all that protocols discussed above, and then also a few other little tricks. It is possible to overcome the time difference in a few days if everything is done properly, and done properly it needs to be as the Lions have just three days until their first game once they land in New Zealand.
Getting it right can help prevent injuries
Your proprioception and decision making is all shot to bits after a long journey. It is not uncommon for teams to lose players from tournaments or matches as a result of trying to run before they walk in that first week. Even something a simple as picking up your luggage from the carousel after 24 hours travelling can be a high risk activity! I have seen a player prolapse a disc doing that. That does sound extreme and I am all about creating a simple environment without everything being put on a plate and provided for your team but those first 48 hours after landing are crucial.
We would often do an activity as soon as we landed to speed up the body clock and, in particular, the core temperature without too much need for co-ordination. Spin bike sessions or swimming can do the trick in this regard.
A spin class for the weary travellers.
It is advisable in those first few nights to sleep with your curtains open so you wake up to the natural light, do some progressive muscular relaxation before bedtime (Wikipedia it for more info), and avoid computer screens and phones etc in those few hours before bedtime. A small hit of high quality carbs and fats a few hours before bed will also help you sleep.
How about the Lions?
It is inevitable that the Lions will not be feeling 100 per cent come the first game, but the key is to get through the game without any injuries that could have been avoided with key jet lag protocols in place. This means limiting those windows of high risk where soft tissue injuries, gastric issues, or injuries due to a lack of co-ordination, can be avoided. In an ideal world the Lions would have landed a long time before they have done for this series, and be able to make more substitutions in that first game than usually allowed, but it is what it is and as I said at the start, they have people a lot brighter than myself involved. I am sure they have a great plan in place.
Rule number one – don’t talk about it
Finally, I have probably given 20+ things you can do but it’s a bit like fight club rule number one. Don’t talk about fight club. Same goes for jet lag. Let the management get on with applying the protocols they will have put in place but don’t bang on about how bad jet lag is. Just get on with it. To the journalists and supporters reading this who won’t have to be en pointe on the field in a few days time, a few units of alcohol won’t do you any harm. You body clock is already stuffed so throwing some Central Otago 2015 Pinot Noir in the mix can’t really confuse it more that it already will be!