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5 Jan 2015  Randall Cooper

The Travelling Athlete: Tips from a Sports Physiotherapist

After taking a driving holiday with my family over the past couple of weeks, I have been reflecting on how travel can knock you around physically. These days more and more people are traveling to participate in sporting events, whether it be a few hours in the car to a triathlon, or overseas on a plane to run a marathon. If you’ve been training hard to do your best, arriving at your event in your best physical condition is important. To help negate the effects and injuries of travel I’ve put together my top 10 tips for sports people traveling to an event.

1. Start adjusting to the time zone early

If you’re changing time zones it will take your internal circadian biological clock time to adjust. As a rough rule of thumb it takes 1 day to adjust to a 1 hour time change, so if your time change is 3 hours it will take you three days to adjust. You can start the change earlier by getting up earlier or sleeping in later by 1 hour per day depending on which direction you’re traveling.

2. Get plenty of rest before you travel

Poor sleep equals poor performance, and a recent study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science is Sports (i) reports a decrease in sleep and recovery for international (24 hour) travel. Unless you have a private jet that can fly at low altitude, it’s best to make contributions to your “sleep bank” in the days leading up to your travel as you’re going to lose sleep on your journey.

3. Plan out your travel day

Firstly, think about the target time zone and try and plan your sleep, movies, and food around your destination rather than the departure point. Many athletes take 2mg of Melatonin to help bring on natural sleep at the target bedtime. Write out a list of everything you need to travel before you go – water, sleeping pillows, eye masks, and updated music and movies on your device/s tend to be the essentials for professional athletes.

4. Move as much as you can

No matter how you’re traveling, try to get in as much active movement as possible. My suggestion is to preference movement over stretching, to help elevate the heart rate a little and get your blood moving. Blood clots definitely cause a decrease in performance! If you’re in a car, stop every few hours and go for a quick jog on the spot, or if you’re on a plane stand up in the galley and alternate some mini squats and calf raises. Don’t forget the upper body, small shrugs and shoulder blade squeezes are great. Who’s had a stiff neck after a long trip? 

5. Hydrate

Getting enough water is obvious, and of course I was going to include it in this list. Poor hydration causes poor performance, and if you arrive at your destination dehydrated it can take you quite some time to get back to homeostasis. Keep checking the colour of your urine, if it’s not clear you’re dehydrated. Also, steer clear of caffeinated and alcoholic drinks.

6. Watch your food consumption

It’s easy to eat poorly whilst in transit. Foods high in fat, sugar, and lacking in nutrition are easy to find on planes and road stops. It’s also worth noting that you won’t be expending much energy sitting in a chair. Make sensible choices and watch the volume of your intake, otherwise a poor diet may make you feel even more lethargic.

7. Take care lifting bags

As a physiotherapist, I see lower back and neck problems all the time from people travelling. The lower back in particular can become vulnerable after sitting for hours, then lifting heavy bags on and off luggage carousels and in and out of cars can cause an injury. A couple of tips here; firstly when you’re waiting for your bags starting moving your lower back – bend and flex, and side to side, and go for a walk if you have the time. Secondly, lift the bags off with good technique. Turn your deep core muscles on, use your legs, and avoid bending and twisting at the same time.

8. Low level aerobic exercise on arrival

It’s best to get moving as soon as possible after a long trip. Professional athletes and teams will sometimes even have a light training session on the way from the airport to the hotel! Remember that your body will be sluggish and slightly vulnerable to injuries after a long trip so any exercise needs to be light, low impact, and with an aerobic component. Try to choose whole body activities like swimming or a gentle game of touch footy.

9. Avoid sleeping tablets

The combination of travel, changing time zones, and a few nerves before a big event can make it difficult to sleep at the right time. There is the temptation to take some sleeping pills to get into your routine quickly, but use with caution. The drugs differ, but many won’t be eliminated completely from your system for days to (sometimes) weeks. Try Melatonin and the other tips mentioned above to get your sleep routine established quickly. 

10. Establish your routine as soon as you can

Your body loves routine (exercise, sleep, and nutrition), and when you travel it’s difficult to get your routine back in sync. The challenging part for many people is that when you’re traveling to a sporting event you’re probably tapering down as well so your routine is going to change anyway. Plan out how you’d train, eat, and sleep if you were at home and try to the best of your ability to replicate that whilst away.



(i) Effects of simulated domestic and international air travel on sleep, performance, and recovery for team sports. Fowler P1, Duffield R, Vaile J. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2014 Apr 17. doi: 10.1111/sms.12227. [Epub ahead of print]

Written By

Randall Cooper

Randall is an experienced Sports Physiotherapist, Founder and CEO of Premax, Adjunct Lecturer at the La Trobe University Sport and Exercise Medicine Research Centre, and Fellow of the Australian College of Physiotherapists.

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