Sleep and Swimming Fast: Jet Lag


By Ruth Ann Allen, ATC and Peter Chambers, DO, PhD

Rest and recovery are an important part of a swimmer’s training regime, and maintaining good sleep habits (sleep hygiene) is a sure way to get the rest and recovery time needed.

This cannot be truer than when an athlete travels across time zones. Athletes competing at national and international competitions sometimes face long-distance travel.

When athletes travel across three or more time zones, their normal 24-hour cycle of energy, strength and flexibility will not match the day/night cycle of their destination.

For each time zone crossed, an athlete needs about a day to adjust (traveling across six time zones requires six days to adjust).

The adjustment time is called “jet lag.” Jet lag can result in feeling disoriented, moody and low in energy. Athletes may even feel like they can’t think clearly. Clearly jet lag can impact training and competition. Jet lag will last until the body clock has adjusted to match the new environment.

Symptoms of jet lag can include:

· Poor sleep during new night time.

· Problems getting to sleep when traveling east and problems with early awakening when traveling west.

· Decreased performance during new daytime at both physical and mental tasks.

· Increased feelings of irritability, fatigue and difficulty concentrating.

· Headaches or light headedness

· Stomach problems, such as indigestion and/or constipation

Jet lag symptoms tend to be more obvious during certain times of the day, and can vary from athlete to athlete. Athletes may need to consider flexibility in training schedules at their destination.

To minimize jet lag, there are many well-documented and easy interventions:

· Start moving bedtime up 30-60 minutes per day if traveling east (reverse is true if going west).

· Eye shades can decrease amount of light when trying to sleep.

· When not sleeping get up to stretch or walk.

· Bring a pillow from home or use a neck pillow. Some neck pillows are actually more comfortable when worn under the chin.

· Silicone earplugs or noise reduction headphones limit distractions from in-flight announcements and general plane noise.

· Minimize computer use or movie viewing before trying to sleep.

· Set a watch to the destination time as a guide for sleeping or being awake.

· Maintain good hydration. Dehydration from a long flight makes jet lag worse.

· Using sleep medication during travel is an option; however, there may be side effects. Medication may help you to go to sleep, but may not keep you asleep.

· If a sleep medication is going to be used (prescription or non-prescription) the medication should be tried before traveling, and must be checked on the USADA website.

At destination:

· The ear plugs and sleep mask from the flight can also be helpful for sleeping in the hotel room.

· On the day of arrival, avoid naps greater than one hour before bedtime.

· A cooler room temperature at bedtime can help promote sleep.

· Stop using computers and the TV at least one hour before bedtime.

· Travel noise machines can be purchased before departure to provide white noise or other noise blocking sounds.

· Light exposure is arguably the most powerful tool for readjusting the body clock. The surroundings should be light during waking hours and dark during sleep.

Although jetlag is inevitable with flying over 3+ time zones, following simple procedures can help to prevent and alleviate many symptoms which can affect athletic performance


1. USOC Jet Lag Countermeasures and Travel Strategies (for Athletes, Coaches and Athletic Trainers) contains specific guidelines for shifting sleep/wake cycle and specific recommendations for time zone travel of 0-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 time zones in both East and West directions.

2. Wilber, Randy, PhD., Senior Sport Physiologist USOC Jet Lag: Preparation for Torino 2006,

3. USA Track and Field, Jet Lag Reduction Strategies for 2001 IAAF Athletics Championships, Daegu, South Korea

4. Hartfield, Heather, MD, How to Sleep Like an Olympic Athlete, www.webmd, com/ sleep disorders

5. Sleep Deprivation and Sports Performance

6. Warr, Chelsea The Traveling Athlete: Minimizing Adverse Effects

7. Sleeping on Planes

8. Waterhouse, Reilly, Atkinson, Edwards, Jet Lag: Trends and Coping Strategies, Vol 369, March 21, 2007

9. Reily, Thomas, Understand Travel Fatigue and Jet Lag Ergonomics in Sport and Physical Activity

10. Manfredini, Manfredini, Fersini, Conconi Circadian Rhythms, Athletic Performance, and Jet Lag, British Journal Sports Medicine, 1998; 32; 101-106

11. Reilly, T, How Can Travelling Athletes Deal With Jet Lag? Kinesiology 41 (2009) 2:128-135

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