Jet-lagged? Manage Sleep and Travel Like a Pro

4 min read

Last Modified 25 May 2021 First Added 21 April 2021

When it comes to peak performance, the importance of consistent and high-quality sleep can’t be underestimated. But with athletes travelling across the globe to compete in international tournaments, jet lag can be a real issue. We sat down with Shauna and Laura to find out how professionals get the sleep they need, whatever time zone they’re in.

Coping with jet lag

Unlike many of her fellow competitors, Shauna has been blessed with an adaptable body clock: “I don’t find travelling impacts too much on me because I’m so good at sleeping! So I’ve never struggled with jet lag, but I feel for those that do,” she says.

Shauna may be among the fortunate few not to suffer from jet lag, but with Tokyo 9 hours ahead of London many athletes will struggle to adjust when they arrive for the Summer Olympics. Laura says:

Your body takes its cue from your environment… So when we enter a new time zone there is a lag before our physiology catches up. This can disrupt our sleep cycle, so we work with athletes to help reset their circadian rhythm (internal body clock) as quickly as possible to minimise the disruption.

The best way to do this is through light exposure, which is why Laura encourages the athletes to get outdoors for as long as possible once they arrive at their destination.

Light is the cheapest and easiest way to reset your body clock in a new time zone, so going outside for a walk is my number one tip.

Maintaining a sleep routine on the road

While Shauna is lucky enough to be able to sleep anywhere at any time, she does confess to taking her pillow with her when travelling: “It has massive benefits for helping me get to sleep when I’m on the road,” she explains.  A resilient sleep routine is key to peak health and performance, but this can be thrown off balance when you’re sleeping in a new place. Laura agrees that packing comforting, personal items can help you drift off when you’re away from home.

I would say always bring anything that has an association with sleep, whether that’s your pillow or a teddy bear. These things help to calm you and build sleep associations while you’re away in a different environment.

Regular meal times and napping

Another way to help reset our body clocks is to stick to regular meal times. As Shauna remarks, “Eating at the right time is incredibly important for adapting to a new time zone.” So, if it’s breakfast time when you arrive but your body hasn’t caught up yet, grabbing some toast or cornflakes should help it get back into sync. And as much as you may be craving a coffee, Laura warns against consuming caffeine too close to bedtime at your destination, as this can stop you from sleeping.

Laura also recommends a nap, as long as it’s before 3pm. The ideal length of time for napping is around 20-30 minutes but she suggests that if you haven’t fallen asleep within the first 15 minutes, then you probably don’t need one. And beware of napping for too long. Laura explains:

The worst length of time for a nap is around 60 minutes as you wake up during one of the deepest sleep cycles and you’ll end up feeling groggy.

You have been warned!

This article explores the benefits and disadvantages of naps in more detail.

Top ways to help reset our body clocks and avoid jet lag:

  • Spend time outside when you arrive at your destination – use the free natural light to keep you awake or make you feel drowsy
  • Keep to regular meal times
  • Avoid caffeine close to bedtime
  • Have a 20-30 minute nap as long as it’s not after 3pm
  • Bring a familiar item that you associate with sleep

If you’re flying long distance it’s almost impossible to avoid jet lag entirely, unless you’re Shauna! But, following the tips above should help you sleep better both during your travels and when you get home. Listen to our podcast with Dr Pixie McKenna for more advice on beating jet lag. For more information on Shauna and her sleeping habits, check out this quick-fire interview.