Travel is a part of sports at nearly every level. Professional sports teams likely have it the worst, going from coast to coast through as many as four time zones in North America. However, travel is not a uniquely professional challenge; at the semi-pro, college, and other levels, it’s common for teams to spend hours on a bus en route to their games. I still get chills thinking about the “sleeper buses” needed in many junior hockey leagues in North America.
Traveling, in whatever form, will add challenges to prepare athletes for games. It will complicate sleep, make it harder to get quality nutrition and hydration, and leave athletes stiff and less mobile. As performance coaches, it’s our job to educate our athletes on managing those stresses to perform at their best.
Depending on your role, you’ll often be able to support them directly by supplying resources like proper nutrition, supplements, and recovery tools. Here are some variables to keep in mind and manage for athletes while traveling.
Track Overall Recovery with a Wearable Device
At the end of the day, you need to have data to measure recovery. Otherwise, neither you nor your athletes will have objective measurements to go off of, whatever interventions you choose.
In a professional sports environment, teams can (and often do) provide players with some wearable device, like a WHOOP Strap or Oura Ring, among many other reputable brands. The benefit for teams using the same brand is that they provide a dashboard where coaches can see all the player data in one place.
While not perfect, heart rate variability (HRV) data collected during sleep provides an overall indicator of recovery. So, if players see a dip in their HRV while traveling, they know they should take some extra steps toward recovery. HRV can be helpful because, as you’ll notice when you look at the data, some athletes recover much better than others while traveling. Anecdotally, we’ve all seen some people who can’t sleep on planes or buses at all, whereas others can knock themselves out without a problem.
That’s a simple example, but the point is that recovery will vary, and some players will need more support than others. With the wearable data, you can identify who may need to prioritize more of the recovery tools that I’ll touch on later. From there, you can have individual conversations with athletes to discuss recovery interventions.
Additionally, wearables empower athletes to make changes even when you’re not looking at the data closely. They can see for themselves that, yes, the five-hour flight left them worse off than they thought, so they should take extra steps on their own accord.
It’s not feasible for all teams to invest in this, but the good news is wearable devices are becoming more and more commonplace. Often, athletes will already have their own, and you can talk to them about allowing you access to their data on a coaching dashboard. With my business in the private sector, we buy all our clients’ wearable devices now—but if they come in with their own, one of the first steps we take is to get access to their wearable data. I’ve written an article about why HRV is the best metric to assess recovery, which you can read for more background on that measurement.
Plan Sleep and Exercise Around Time Zone Changes and Travel
The most significant changes when traveling come from sleep. First, athletes aren’t sleeping in their own bed, which has its own set of problems, from temperature to light exposure to the comfort (or lack thereof) of hotel pillows. You’re often changing time zones, which throws off sleep cycles and circadian rhythms.
Even if you don’t cross time zones, at lower levels, in particular, it is common for teams to leave at crazy times. Sure, the NHL might bring you the day before, but in the minors or juniors, if you have a noon game four hours away, the team bus or plane will likely leave at 6 a.m., which means athletes wake up around 5 a.m. These early mornings are the nature of the sport, so let’s plan for it.
Crossing Time Zones: East to West
Often in the professional ranks, the performance and coaching staff get a say in the travel schedule. If you’re fortunate enough to be in that position, here are some considerations. In my experience, even at lower levels, as long as it doesn’t require an extra hotel night (which skyrockets costs for a team), coaching staff and management are receptive to different suggestions.
If you’re going to the East Coast from the West Coast (like New York to Los Angeles) and have flexibility around the departure time, aim to land in the evening right around a reasonable bedtime in LA. For example, if you leave New York at 7 p.m. Eastern and land at 10 p.m. Pacific, it will be 1 a.m. EST, and athletes will be ready for bed. Upon arrival, plan to shuttle the team right toward bed. This departure time allows for a big dinner before leaving and then before-bed snacks or a lighter meal upon arriving. If athletes are in bed by 11 p.m., they can be up at a reasonable hour on the West Coast and be more adjusted to the West Coast circadian rhythm.
This may seem a bit silly because you’re making tired athletes stay up late. But if they must play a game the next day at 7 p.m. PST/10 p.m. EST, and they’re on an EST schedule, they’re likely to be more tired for the game if you let them stay on an East Coast sleep schedule. Instead, try to adjust athletes to the hours of the place where they play so their internal clocks can be ready for sympathetic activity. This advice is especially true because road trips often last more than one game, and players will be in that new time zone for several days up to a few weeks.
It applies even if the team is only traveling one or two hours (although to a lesser extent) or if the team is going across an ocean and through more time zones. The principal aim is to land in the evening and get athletes to bed at a normal hour in the new time zone.
Crossing Time Zones: West to East
When going in the opposite direction, I have the opposite advice. Instead of traveling in the evening, travel in the morning. For example, an 8 a.m. flight means players wake up at 5 a.m. PST, which is 8 a.m. EST. This time is a reasonable wake-up hour, so athletes will already adjust to the East Coast time zone. When the team arrives in the afternoon, plan some light exercise as soon as possible after landing.
Exercising right before our desired bedtime, of course, is a mistake. It will accomplish the opposite of what you want. However, exercise in the afternoon has been shown to be a nice reset for our body’s temperature cycles. We’re hot when we work out, but we cool down over several hours into our sleep cycle. The same goes for our hormonal systems. A burst of cortisol and adrenaline in the afternoon sets us up for melatonin production several hours later, limiting the effects of jet lag.
Encourage or lead a 5- to 10-minute dynamic warm-up with your athletes to get them moving once they land in the afternoon. In addition to the circadian rhythm reset benefits, this warm-up will also get them moving after being on a plane where they’ve stiffened up and halted blood flow. In these instances, the goal is to land in the afternoon and get in some exercise.
Regardless of the time zone change, the principle is to align your body to the time zone you’re landing in as soon as possible. Even in the day or two before leaving, encourage athletes to start to shift sleep toward that time zone if it’s practical. Encourage movement if it’s daytime when you arrive and encourage jumping right into a pre-bed routine (after eating and other reasonable measures) if landing in the evening.
Early Morning Departure
Here’s what you should make sure your athletes DO NOT do. And I’m emphasizing this because I’ve seen it countless times. If you have to wake up at 5 a.m. for a noon game, athletes will often stay up the entire night until they get on the bus, then get a few crappy hours of bus sleep right before playing. If you train teenagers and even college athletes, you’ll be surprised how common it is.
The drawbacks to this are obvious. They get less sleep overall and lower-quality sleep in a suboptimal environment (a moving bus). They also mess with their sleep cycle by staying up all night and sacrificing any chance of significant deep sleep and REM sleep.
Instead, the solution is to go to bed earlier. If an athlete typically goes to bed at 11 p.m. and wakes up at 7 a.m., plan on them going to bed two hours earlier. Now, this might not be possible, but going through the evening routine two hours earlier helps people fall asleep earlier as well. Realistically, you can’t expect perfection here, but getting to bed any earlier will help. Then they can take a little nap on the bus before the game and be much better off than they would have been otherwise.
Set Up Your New Environment
One of the biggest challenges of competing while traveling is being away from our typical routines. Athletes aren’t sleeping in their own beds or eating their usual meals, so it’s crucial to encourage planning around this.
The ideal sleep temperature for almost everyone is 62–69 degrees Fahrenheit. If athletes already know what temperature they sleep best in (which, again, HRV data will help determine), encourage them to set the thermostat to their ideal temperature right away.
Even at the professional level, players often share a hotel room, which can cause sleeping strife in its own right. Hopefully, as a performance coach, you have done an excellent job educating them on good sleep habits, such as keeping the TV and other screens off and closing the shades to not let in artificial light. But what do you tell athletes if one roommate is up late reading, on Facetime with their partner, or snores in the middle of the night?
A simple, low-cost option is to bring a case of earplugs (the silicone ones are a bit comfier) and a bunch of eye masks for those players who want them. Again, this is imperfect, but it can offset otherwise uncontrollable factors. These can also be useful if the team stays in a busy city with more noise and light pollution than where they live.
Food on Hand
How to eat while traveling deserves its own article. However, it helps to always have healthy snacks on hand, like fruit, protein bars, and some pre-made wraps. Often, part of the job of the performance coach is to plan this ahead of time. Are you getting snacks or meals delivered to the team hotel? Are players entirely on their own? If it’s the latter, have you looked up options for places nearby to get healthy food?
This is one of those areas where the strength coach ends up doing much more than worrying about what’s going on in the weight room. Your goal is to empower athletes to plan ahead even if there are no team resources. These are details, but they can and often will make the difference between an athlete with the fuel to compete and one without.
This is the fun part you might have been looking forward to with all the fancy recovery tools and toys available.
- Normatec/Compression – One of the elements I liked a lot about the Normatec device, as I wrote about in my review here, is that it’s SO easy to travel with. The basic concept of the Normatec is you wrap it around your body (I use the legs product), and it adds compression, improving blood flow and circulation. This is called pneumatic compression. In a team setting, it’s easy to have a few of these on hand for anybody to use. Players can get a lot out of it with just 20 minutes in the hotel room.
- Myofascial Release Tools – You can’t bring a big foam roller with you while you travel, but you can pack a bunch of lacrosse balls or softballs or a few electric massage tools like a Hyperice Hypervolt or Theragun to go around. All of these fit in carry-on bags and make it through security. Encourage players to bring their own lacrosse or tennis balls in their carry-on.
Yes, this will support local recovery. But massage has also been shown to increase parasympathetic nervous system activity, making it a great tool in our arsenal for improving recovery and all the more important while on the road.
Supplements often act as small factors. A little here or a little there, the thinking goes, makes a small, worthwhile difference. When it comes to road trips, though, two supplements can have a considerable impact on how athletes adjust to travel and recover: caffeine and melatonin.
- Caffeine – Caffeine is a double-edged tool. On the one hand, it keeps you awake; on the other hand, it keeps you awake. If the team arrives in the daytime and needs to avoid sleeping, caffeine can help reset the circadian rhythm. But if it’s the afternoon or evening at your destination, educate players to make sure they avoid caffeine. If you have one of those, “well, I drink coffee all the time, and I feel fine,” then you’ve got a bigger battle that involves much more than road trips.
- Melatonin – Melatonin, for this purpose, is the opposite of caffeine. It’ll put you to sleep. In general, I don’t recommend melatonin supplementation because it decreases the body’s ability to produce melatonin. Traveling across time zones is the one exception.
- As an extreme example, if you’ve just flown to Australia and have a 9- to 12-hour time difference, your internal clock is wholly flipped when you arrive. Taking melatonin in their early evening can allow you to sleep through the night and get on their schedule. When traveling lesser distances, like 4- to 6-hour time zones, if athletes know they will have difficulty falling asleep at the new place, you can talk to them about taking melatonin.
We didn’t talk about how the game schedule itself can mess with your schedule. Not only are athletes traveling, but they’re also competing late at night. Luckily, I’ve also written a guide about how to recover from late-night competition and training.
Combine that piece with this one, and you’ll have the tools to best support your athletes during a crazy competition schedule.