Beat travel fatigue: How to plan to prevent jet lag and keep your energy up

Jet lag comes with a host of uncomfortable symptoms like tiredness, low mood and stomach problems. In this extract from The Energy Plan, elite sports nutritionist James Collins tells you how to prevent jet lag by planning ahead using his Energy Plan method.

Beat travel fatigue: How to plan to prevent jet lag and keep your energy up

Preparing to Battle Jet Lag

If travelling west, the best time to arrive at your destination and adjust to jet lag is mid-afternoon, so that you get light exposure – the primary setter of your body clock. This is because you will feel sleepy earlier at your destination.

On the other hand, if you’re travelling east, where you will find it harder to get to sleep at your usual time, the ideal time to arrive is at nightfall, so you can avoid daylight and only get your first light exposure the following morning. Unfortunately, flight schedules aren’t tailored to meet the needs of our body clocks, but if there is a choice then book flights as near as you can to these points in the day.

Online resources such as the British Airways jet-lag advisor, developed in conjunction with the Edinburgh Sleep Centre, and the Jet Lag Rooster, developed with the Mayo Clinic Center for Sleep Medicine and Rush University Medical Center in the USA, are good for advice tailored to your journey. You input details like your arrival and departure locations and times, as well as some information about your sleeping habits, and they give advice on precise times of day to seek out light and when to avoid it after you land.

Travel fatigue, sleep disruption and immunity

Travel fatigue is a condition that doesn’t get as much attention as jet lag, but this temporary exhaustion is a very real factor when it comes to travel – and it doesn’t have to involve a plane. Any form of transport can induce travel fatigue: long road journeys as well as air travel.

Lack of comfort, prolonged sitting in cramped conditions and the increased stress involved in getting to the airport on time, or fear of flying, can all contribute to travel fatigue. With flying, when you add on the amount of time spent getting to the airport and waiting around to the duration of the actual flight, even short flights can end up being all-day-travel affairs that tire us out and leave us short of energy on arrival. And while the after-effects are short-lived, they can accumulate over periods of a lot of travel, leading to a cocktail of fatigue, sleep disruption and reduced immunity, as highlighted in the diagram below.

Both quantity and quality of sleep have been shown in studies to be reduced during international travel, which can only add to the symptoms jet lag produces. International travel can have a negative impact on immunity, and the act of travelling long-haul by air in itself produces a two- to fivefold increase in upper- respiratory infection symptoms, although it isn’t yet clear whether this is because of the hypoxia (reduced oxygen) or the increased exposure to pathogens (viruses and bacteria) on board.

Travel and performance expert Dr Peter Fowler has conducted a large amount of research into travel and athletes, and his study results support the interplay between jet lag and travel fatigue and their effects in the diagram below.

test 2

Travel-induced sleep disruption and illness – the impact of which we’ve looked at in the Recharging and Immunity chapters – combined with the increased fatigue and potential impact on mood all come together in an almost perfect storm of stressors to take their toll on us during and, particularly, after travelling.

Plotting your travel

The effective nutrition element of your Energy Plan involves making your meals work harder for you, delivering the fuels that your body requires according to your demands. But when we’re travelling, maybe running late and feeling particularly hungry, it’s easy to either miss a meal or have to make a snap decision, and so it’s very easy to lose control of our Energy Plan. Our appetite hormones (including leptin and ghrelin) respond, driving us to eat and making everything look a little more appealing – especially calorie-dense foods, high in sugar or fat.

So how can we avoid these options and exercise some control over our travel so that we arrive at our destination, if not entirely refreshed, then at least with enough energy to put in a decent performance? And also so that when we arrive home, fatigue and ill health don’t follow us around for the next week?

With the football teams I’ve worked with, the squad would mainly be on a high day when we travelled to fuel their bodies, so snacks would include fruit, home-made flapjack or granola bars and sushi. On the way home, however, the goals were different: for those who didn’t play and wanted to keep their fuel intake low, snacks would include sashimi and low-fat Greek yoghurt. This is more in line with what your fuel requirements are likely to be, unless you are travelling to a challenge or competition such as a marathon.

Pre-travel (weeks and days before)

Food Availability

One of the biggest worries is being able to source the foods you’ll require when away, particularly if you have specific dietary considerations such as being vegan or gluten-free. Speak to your hotel in advance and research local food shops in the area online, if possible. Also, reviews on TripAdvisor or advice from friends who have visited the area before can help you identify where the gaps or challenges will be for your trip.

Food Hygiene Issues

Travellers’ diarrhoea is an unpleasant and common potential risk of long-haul (and even short-haul)  travel, with over 12 million cases reported every year. Areas like northern Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and Southeast Asia have a higher reported risk, with the rates of TD ranging from 5 to 50 per cent, but it’s worth remembering that you can catch it anywhere, even in low-risk areas.

The usual advice you’ll read and hear about high-risk areas applies: being careful with undercooked meat and shellfish, avoiding raw, unpeeled fruits and vegetables, taking a pass on the side salad and staying clear of tap water, ice and nonpasteurised milk. Areas to be particularly vigilant about are street vendors and smaller farmers’ markets and restaurants.

If you’re very concerned about this, you can be proactive by taking a probiotic prior to and during travel. The cocktail of stress, jet lag, unfamiliar foods and water can disrupt normal bacteria and our body’s natural defences, and probiotics contain ‘good bacteria’ to help reinforce this barrier to pathogens attaching and colonising in the intestines. See the Immunity chapter (page 189) for more detail on probiotics and which type of probiotic to take. With our athletes we recommend starting the probiotic two weeks prior to departure.

And if the dreaded travellers’ diarrhoea does strike, rehydrating through drinking water, electrolyte rehydration salts and carbonated drinks, consumed little and often, are enough to deal with most cases. Withholding solid foods for the short term (up to 24 hours) is also a good idea, or, if you can’t manage this, a good alternative is consuming a bland ‘BRAT’ diet, consisting of banana, rice, apple sauce and toast, and avoiding alcohol, fatrich foods and dairy products until the diarrhoea settles.

Pack Your Essentials

It’s worth having some travel essentials in your hand luggage so that your travelling won’t interfere with your Energy Plan too much. Any or all of the below can help keep you on track:
- Protein sachets – individual sachets of whey or plant protein
- Protein shaker – to mix the shake
- Meal replacement drink (optional) – discussed in Supplements chapter, page 229
- Alcohol handwipes
- Eye mask, loose clothing, earplugs, neck pillow
- Snacks for plane (goal-dependent – either maintenance or fuelling snacks)
- Immune-boosting supplements (zinc acetate lozenges, vitamin C, probiotics)
- Water bottle

Be aware that items permitted in the UK could land you in hot water and with a big fine in other countries. Even though there is no hard-and-fast rule, I would recommend you ensure that all supplements (pills, powders and potions) are labelled to avoid questions and delays at customs, and that you have any paperwork for them, such as receipts or batch-testing certificates (see Supplementation chapter), with you.

Know your itinerary

Stressful travel days are the worst – last-minute packing, rushing to make your transfer or wolfing down a fast-food meal at the airport. Make a plan the day before, and I can’t emphasis enough that this should include what and where you will eat, whether it’s bringing your food with you or choosing an option at the airport that meets the needs of your Energy Plan.

2. Day of Travel

Quick session?

For our athletes a short, sharp training session before travel is always part of the plan. Factor this in if there’s time; it’s a good idea to get some physical activity before a long period of sitting, and it may also offer some stress relief. The main thing is to avoid long, heavy training sessions, which can reduce your immunity and increase your risk of infection. Something like a jog round the park or a session on a static bike is perfect.

Don’t Rush

Give yourself time to eat your preferred meal at the airport. This will allow you to avoid eating your main meal on the plane and minimise the need for unnecessary snacking.

Remember your goals

Travel days often mean less exercise, which means you need less fuel. It’s easy to get swept up into a holiday mentality along with everyone around you at the airport, with all of its temptations, from fast-food outlets to a bar where you could have your first celebratory drink of the trip. Take your own snacks on board to meet your goals, and most importantly have the mindset to stay on track, especially if the culmination of that important goal is just around the corner.

3. During Travel

Get on local time

Set your watch while still on the plane, as soon as you know what the local time will be, and try to align your sleeping patterns with your destination. If it’s night-time there while you’re flying, sleep on the plane, using an eye mask, earplugs, a neck pillow and whatever else you require to help you get some rest. If it’s morning there and you feel tired, try not to go to sleep – consider having some caffeine to keep you awake and alert during the flight. As per the TTA model on page 62, the Timing of your food (both on board and on arrival) is important to support your adaptation to the new environment.

The in-flight menu

The Argonne Diet and the Harvard Fast are two approaches widely discussed in the US. One involves feasting and fasting in the days before the flight, the other fasting during the flight and using a big meal on arrival to help with adaptation. While the evidence is limited, it is true that fuel requirements for the body definitely reduce during travel because even the lightest training plan would be difficult to achieve in an economy-class seat (so carbs won’t be doing you any favours). My general recommendation is that your travel day is a low day (see the planners on page 108), unless you have trained pre-flight or, as in the case of many of our athletes, are fuelling for an event the following day. Although the temptation will obviously be there, it’s important not to eat the snacks on offer on the flight. Bringing some protein-rich snacks on board will help you avoid making ‘bad’ choices.

Constipation can also be an issue on long-haul flights. Important steps to consider here are increasing fluid intake and including plenty of fibre-rich foods with your meals such as fruit and vegetables. Exercise also aids gut motility, so it’s important to get active before and after your flight, as well as getting up to stretch your legs during it.


The cabin pressure and dry air will dehydrate you on board (we lose moisture as we breathe the drier cabin air at altitude), so make sure you take on plenty of fluid. Think about the type of drinks you’ll take on board with you – it’s worth noting that some flavour or electrolytes can promote voluntary drinking, meaning you are more likely to stay hydrated.

Refer back to ‘Water’ on page 41. If you’re going to the toilet regularly and your urine is a light colour and plentiful, then it’s a good sign that you are adequately hydrated.

Move and stretch often

Some athletes wear compression leggings when they fly. This might be a bit extreme for your needs, but compression socks are very common and widely available. However, your first priority should be loose, comfortable clothes – even clothes you feel comfortable sleeping in, if you’re planning to sleep on the plane – and you should also get up and move regularly to avoid lower-limb swelling.

4. Arrival

Let there be light

Increasing or restricting light exposure is the most important intervention for resetting your body clock to destination time. If you’re travelling west, seek light in the evening; travelling east, restrict light exposure if you arrive at night-time and seek it out in the morning. Restrict blue light from phones and tablets before sleep.

Ease into your routine

Combining light exposure with some exercise outdoors may help to accelerate your body clock adapting. However, don’t go straight into heavy training as your coordination may be impaired by jet lag. Intense training such as sprinting has been shown to be impaired in the 72 hours after long-haul travel – training should initially be lower in intensity.

Embrace that morning coffee

Morning caffeine in the first five days after arrival has been shown to improve both cognitive and physical performance. So if you’re a caffeine drinker, embrace your usual morning coffee (or whatever your delivery method of choice is), using your particular dose as we talked about in Chapter 5. And if you’re not, getting out into the daylight when you need it is doubly important to help you adjust.

Orientate yourself

Get ‘on plan’ with your nutrition principles as soon as possible. Although it can be tempting to stay in your own bubble on arrival when you’re tired, get out and have a look around to orientate yourself and find the local shops and restaurants that will form part of your plan. Talk to people – keep yourself active and your mind engaged.

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