By Gina Pongetti Angeletti, MPT, MA, CSCS-ART, Cert.

The Olympics are literally on the other side of the world this year. Athletes are starting their treks, some have already arrived in locations closer to Tokyo and many are leaving next week to travel to the Games. It’s exciting. It’s nerve-wracking. A true journey of a lifetime.

Traveling to domestic meets is difficult enough, with simple two to three-hour time changes, let alone a half of a day, and in the middle of a pandemic. Arriving two to three weeks early is not an option for these Games due to COVID-based restrictions and it makes it harder to prepare the body for the rigors of travel.

Tokyo, Japan is twelve hours into the next day, plus two hours from CST. If it is 6pm in Chicago on a Monday, for instance, it is 8am in Tokyo on a Tuesday. Most flights are around 13 hours from the Midwest. It’s a hard transition, to literally flip your biological clock, and tolerate the stiffness that comes with flying in and of itself. 

Considering experts say that it takes one day for every one hour to successfully acclimate to time change, we should board the plane on Monday. 

Side effects from travel vary of course, but often include fatigue, sleep confusion, feeling heavy and un-energetic, irritableness, decreased patience, lack of focus, alterations in hunger patterns, and more.

Life is affected by this in ways one does not ever ponder. Even traffic accidents increase the Monday after time changes, either fall back or spring ahead, per a 2001 study by the National Institute of Health. As a result of a lack of sleep and restorative rest, reaction time decreases along with focus. Given the extreme demands of the sport of gymnastics, being sharp, and having the best reaction time is imperative for optimum performance.

There is also a chemical aspect to studying time change and sleep deprivation. Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can decrease maximal muscle force output (i.e. leg strength, jumping as high as you can, etc.). This is because of hormonal imbalances in aspects such as cortisol, serotonin and more. 

Cortisol helps balance stress, and with high stress to the body, the mental game of the athlete can be swayed, raising resting heart rate and increasing mind-racing. Even the neuroendocrine system including insulin sensitivity (glucose processing) are affected. Ghrelin, otherwise known as the hunger hormone, can be triggered, confusing the athlete into fullness and then altering ideal caloric balance for practice and competition.

The contrary, Leptin, supposedly decreases appetite. This can, of course, play more of a mind game on an athlete, even more than physical effects. How one processes food to energy is the true determining factor to the elite gymnast having the energy to get through not only routines, but the hours, days and weeks of practice leading up to competition.

When good sleep doesn’t happen, REM, or the deep restorative phase, can be altered. This is where the body recovers, triggers cell turnover, flushing of toxins and more. Human Growth Hormone is naturally released during sleep, and without it, athletes may not recover properly from the buildup of muscle breakdown and workouts even leading up to competition. 

What should we be doing? In order to prepare for the trip, athletes, coaches and staff should start even weeks before planning sleep changes, meal and workout shifting. This is difficult, of course, given the fact that athletes often live with others who are not going on the trip and have to maintain their lives, and coaches coach other athletes!

The bedtime routine is very important. Social media, phones, blue-lights, should all be powered off 1-2 hours before bedtime in order to allow the brain to relax and focus. 

Senses. Smell, heating and sight are just three of the senses that can influence relaxation. Teas, oils, lotions, hot showers, calming music or baths and whatever herbs and scents that relax these senses should be used to help if it is a part of the normal process. Before the time change routines start, the bedtime routine needs to be established so the process is familiar to the body. 

Light. The body responds and reacts to light. Often, making sure that the blinds are open and letting in natural light can trigger hormones that can help to change the ingrained circadian rhythm. The importance is equally on dimming light to prepare for sleep, especially while still in the United States before travel. 

For some, medications can help, such as melatonin or the “ZZZ” in Nyquil, otherwise known as Diphenhydramine. However, those often leave people with lingering side effects such as grogginess, drowsiness, and a heavy muscular feel as well. If someone is planning on incorporating this into their routine, they should without a doubt do trial runs before. 

Nutrition. Keeping on the new schedule for food is important. It will aid in waking the body’s metabolism for breakfast, and in the relaxation stages of digestion after dinner. Often when people are uncomfortable, they snack late or out of frustration. This can lead to activating the metabolism, and thereby, keeping the body awake. 

What should we not be doing? Napping is something that has been looked at as restorative, often, to recharge energy especially with two-a-day practices, or long days. However, napping allows the body to fall back into the old sleep rhythm from home time zones, and can make one not tired enough to sleep when it is actually time.

Athletes actually want to avoid stimulants of any kind, as they will alter how tired they actually are at the end of a day. What comes up, of course, must also come down. And if caffeine is used to help in energy production, the after-effects hours later may be more shocking than what it was worth. 

Being an Olympian is so much more than just one performance on one day. So much more than controlling nerves for podium training. It’s never-ending preparation for the controllable and anticipation of the uncontrollable. The best in the world will make sure that as little changes as possible. Except maybe a medal-heavier bag on the way home!

Photos by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

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