Travel is an unavoidable part of the elite athlete’s lifestyle, and with the beginning of the summer track season season on the horizon the departure of a number of athletes from our high altitude training base here in Flagstaff is soon to begin with travel not ceasing until as late as September, it’s a good time to look into optimizing travel for optimum performance. It’s not uncommon for an athlete to bounce from one country (and time zone) to another by plane, train, or automobile across Europe chasing meets and fast times in quick succession. Substantial risks exist when pushing the limit of the body’s recovery reserves and the stress of travel can push athletes over the edge to fatigue and poor performance.
Elite team sport athletes are also at risk from the detriments of the stress of travel. Teams may compete in Arizona one night then play an afternoon game in Georgia less than 20 hours after the conclusion of their last competition. Others may spend two to three weeks at a time on the road traveling from city to city and competition to competition.
Because high stress–emotional and physiological (which I think is an artificial distinction)–can result in accelerated erosion of trained biomotor abilities and facilitate negative adaptations, anything that can be done to prevent Performance Brinksmanship is worth exploring in the interest of high performance.
As with most aspects of this industry, having an understanding of the physiological consequences of long distance and frequent travel stress will lay the foundation for making the appropriate choices in interventions.
The Physiology of Travel Stress
Travel can lead to a myriad of stressful experiences for the athletes, but even if all accommodations have been made well in advance, distinct changes in the physiological milieu still occur. The physiology of travel stress occurs acutely and chronicly, which puts the body in less than favorable conditions for performance.
Li and colleagues demonstrated that three hours of road travel resulted in depressed heart rate variability (2005). Long durations in hypobaric hypoxia as in air travel result in decreased melatonin secretion and increased sympathetic drive (Coste, 2004). Ambient aircraft noise results in repeated spontaneous arousal and is associated linearly with increases in urinary epinephrine and inversely with sleep quality (Basner, 2008; Maschke, 1993).
Reduced sleep quality and length occur both as a result of travel’s physical restraints–uncomfortable seats, turbulent air, snoring teammates, screaming babies, et cetera–and the physiological responses in sympathetic mobilization and decreases in biochemical components regulating sleep. Repeated sleep inadequacy decreases mobilization of testosterone, IGF-1, and growth hormone while it elevates cortisol and myostatin creating an unfavorable endocrine environment with net catabolism. This means muscle atrophy, reduced sattelite cell proliferation and differentiation, and ultimately, worse recovery (Dattilo, 2011; Imai, 2009).
Fit athletes are also at risk hypercoaguloapathies, experience travel-related changes in macronutrient partitioning, and then get to experience the subacute impacts of jet lag upon arrival. Add to this pile the stress of actually having to find places to train, to train, to get ready to compete, and to ultimately compete, and it’s no wonder why the post-season break is so welcomed.
In the next few posts we’ll explore ideas on improving responses to travel and frequent competition through several lenses focused on the physiology of travel stress.