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Jet Lag Nutrition Tips

By Bob Seebohar

sack lunch Race season is coming up quickly and with that comes travel for most triathletes. Whether you are traveling across the United States or internationally, jet lag can pose a performance problem. Timing of your sleep/wake cycle is regulated by a biological clock located in your brain. When you rapidly cross time zones, this clock cannot adjust quickly enough which causes biological processes to become disrupted and “out of whack”.

The severity of jet lag is variable and is dependent upon the number of time zones crossed, the direction traveled (east or west) and athlete susceptibility. Jet lag will not occur if you stay in the same time zone because there is not a change to your biological clock. However, typical responses to travel can occur within the same time zone, which include stress, dehydration and muscle stiffness, so it is important to be aware of these even when you are traveling a short distance to a race within the same time zone.

Jet lag not only makes you feel groggy and tired but more importantly, it can have a negative impact on your performance due to the following consequences associated with it:

  • Decreased alertness
  • Decreased concentration
  • Reductions in anaerobic power
  • Prolonged reaction time
  • Reduced strength 

Typically, the rule of thumb states that it takes about one day for your biological clock to adjust to each time zone you cross. However, it is possible to shorten this time by following these specific nutrition guidelines as you travel to and from your races.

2 weeks prior to travel

  • If you are flying, contact the airline you will be flying on and arrange for a special in-flight meal to include a low-fat, vegetarian or fruit option.
  • If you are driving to your race, be sure to locate safe and familiar eating establishments along the way so you can have planned meals that you are used to eating normally. Also identify rest stop locations for bathroom use.

6 days to 1 day prior to travel

  • Shop for your favorite “safe foods” that you can eat in case the food presented to you is not to your liking. Have at least 4-5 staple foods that are GI safe; that is, do not cause discomfort in your digestive system.

2 days to 1 day prior to travel

  • Pack your personal travel nutrition kit. Remember to pack enough for the flight (or car ride), layovers, wait times and delays.
    • Include the following:
      • Water bottles
      • Sandwiches or portable meals
      • Fruits (fresh, dried)
      • Fruit juice
      • Energy bars, crackers, dry cereal, trail mix, bagels
      • Powdered sports drink
      • Extra sandwich bags
  • Remain hydrated. Be sure that your urine is clear to pale-yellow in color throughout each of these days.

Day of travel

  • Ensure that you are well-hydrated. Consider introducing more of a sports drink if you feel you will not be able to eat as usual due to your travel itinerary.
  • Put your travel nutrition kit in your carry-on luggage or in a bag close to where you are sitting in the car. Having your nutrition within close proximity is crucial.

In flight or car

  • Immediately adjust your eating schedule to your destination time zone (not to the airline food serving schedule if you are flying).
  • Consume a minimum of 8 ounces of fluid (preferably water or a sports drink) every hour.
  • Monitor your hydration status by the frequency of using the bathroom. Try to urinate every 2-3 hours.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • If you consume caffeine, do it on the destination time zone and in low amounts.
These nutrition recommendations will help to lessen the effects of jet lag but remember that there are many other variables involved with jet lag. Nutrition is but one piece of the puzzle, although a very important piece!

As with any type of travel preparation, be sure to give your nutrition preparation just as much attention as you do packing up your race equipment. And remember, it’s race season — it’s not a good time to experiment with different and unfamiliar foods, especially when traveling to a race.

metabolic efficiency recipe bookBob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS is a Sport Dietitian, USAT Level III Elite Coach, USAT Youth and Junior Coach and an exercise physiologist. He was on the coaching team of Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon bronze medalist, and was the head coach of Sarah Haskins, 2008 Olympic triathlete, and Jasmine Oeinck, 2009 Elite National Champion. Bob was previously a sport dietitian for the U.S. Olympic Committee and the 2008 Olympic triathlon team. Bob has worked with hundreds of age-group triathletes and professionals to help them lose weight and body fat while optimizing performance through nutrition periodization and metabolic efficiency. Bob recently published a Metabolic Efficiency Recipe book with over 100 recipes that provides athletes even more options to follow metabolic efficiency training. Visit www.fuel4mance.com for more information.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.

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