How Paralympic Athletes Cope with Time Difference and Jet Lag

5 min read

Last Modified 13 July 2021 First Added 30 June 2021

Dreams are proud to be exploring this topic as the Official Sleep Partner of the British Paralympic Association/ParalympicsGB. Learn more about this partnership in our ParalympicsGB hub.

With this year’s Paralympic Games set to be held in Tokyo, the athletes will have to fight off any jet lag to train and compete at their best. With London eight hours behind Tokyo, their sleep routine is at risk of being disrupted. We spoke to ParalympicsGB’s Dr Tom Paulson to see how he helps the athletes prepare for the time difference. Paralympic cyclists Lora & Neil Fachie also shared their experiences of competing far from home.

How does the ParalympicsGB team prepare for being so far away from home, and with the time difference of competing in Tokyo?

Dr Tom advises that one of the primary elements to managing jet lag is light exposure. He says:

The cause of jet lag is this mismatch between your internal body clock and how your body is physiologically working, with the cues in the environment. Exposure to light has a huge impact on sleep patterns.
When we’re travelling over to Tokyo, you have to advance your body clock, so looking for exposure in the afternoon. This is because when it’s the afternoon in Tokyo, the athletes would usually be asleep at home.
It’s quite difficult to do, but we advise that they start to progress their body clock towards Tokyo time, to knock any jet lag on the head.

However, Dr Tom explained that it’s quite difficult for the athletes and staff to progress their body clock, because many work and train indoors all day. Without being able to manage light exposure, the staff team will advise the athletes to switch up their social cues:

We advise the athletes to start switching up their social cues. This could be basic things like having mealtimes at regular times of the day. When you’re out in Tokyo, things like social interactions, going out for walks, doing these at times that put your body clock closer to the new time zone all helps your body adapt to it.

Paralympic cyclist Lora Fachie has always struggled with sleep, and is quite concerned about the effect that the time difference will have on her sleep:

Sleep for me has always been a struggle, I can only sleep in 3–4-hour blocks. Now, I’m in a good routine, but I’m concerned going into Tokyo, as I don’t cope well with clock changes. In 2011, I went to Australia for a World Cup, and I was climbing the walls ready to ride my bike at 2 am!

Luckily, Dr Tom understands that sleep is different for every athlete, and knows how to prepare them:

We give the athletes as much information as possible around what they can expect to experience with jet lag. We’ll give them some simple methods that can help reduce the impact of their symptoms or reduce how long they experience them for. That involves light exposure at certain times of day.

How do you prepare the athletes for being so far away from home?

It can be hard to spend any time away from home, but for Paralympic athletes, they are away for a long time on the other side of the world. The staff team always do their best to help people cope with the time difference. Dr Tom explains:

We advise the athletes to do as much as possible of what they’d do back at home. That could be reading, listening to music, watching Netflix or chatting to friends.
One of the things we are preparing for in Tokyo is the time difference between Tokyo and friends and family back at home in the UK. Friends and family play a hugely important role in the athlete’s wellness, so we try and make it as positive as possible.
The time difference can be detrimental, particularly if a well-meaning friend or relative calls in the middle of the night, which would be daytime in the UK! So, we advise the athletes to let their friends and family know which times of the day they are available, and how they’ll be able to speak to them. That stops any disturbance to sleep.

Tips to deal with jet lag and time difference, by the sleep experts at Dreams:

  • When you’re away from home, try to mimic your ideal sleeping environment. Bring your pillow, eye masks, earplugs – anything that helps you get to sleep at home.
  • You should also pack some home comforts – a book, or your favourite snack. This will have a calming influence to help you drift off.
  • Allow yourself more time to drift off. Your mind will be overstimulated by the new surroundings.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol. It’s standard practice to have a coffee after an early start, but you might find it disrupts your sleep later in the day.
  • Spend some time outside in natural daylight at your destination, to get your body used to the new environment.

For more advice on beating jet lag, read Jet-lagged? Manage Sleep and Travel Like a Pro.