I want to cover this topic as part of what I am calling the practical application series for athletes, as oftentimes, the link between knowledge, perfect plans and actual results is the application and execution. We are often overexcited and overly ambitious in the planning stage, that we sometimes forget that all we need are simple steps to get us to our goals. The first article I am covering in this series is travel, domestic & abroad, and how to manage your nutrition when you don’t have access to your kitchen, local supermarket, mother’s cooking or even familiar foods. Personally, I was lucky enough to travel quite a bit with my own athletics career, though this mostly spanned Europe, and as such, the time differences were not too extreme, and the food wasn’t too different, so it was manageable. One example I can recall however, is racing in Slovakia, in a town called Dudince, the supermarkets only had sparkling water, which I hated at the time, and, if taken on board during the race, would have caused me to projectile vomit with the force of a Cola-Mentos rocket.
This article is going to cover managing nutrition in foreign places, managing travel and not having your circadian rhythm affected too much if you require a long-haul flight, and minimizing the side effects of long-haul flights (jet lag), such as fatigue and gastric discomfort. If you are a professional athlete, odds are you travel a lot, and are in foreign places the majority of the year, adapting a mesocycle of nutrition planning to suit an altitude or warm weather camp, or indeed, for competing abroad, such as the Tokyo Olympics next year, will inhibit as much as possible and deleterious effects on performance.
JET LAG & SLEEP
Jet lag, or circadian desynchonicity, comes about due to there being mismatches between an individual’s body-clock, and the daylight hours in their immediate environment. Your body clock syncs itself based on exposure to light and dark primarily, it is controlled by your suprachiasmatic nucleus in your hypothalamus, and is fed information by the intensity and wavelength of light that hits your retina. Your hypothalamus also controls a lot of hormone release and pulse rhythms, over a 24-hour period, which are affected by desynchronised clocks. If your body clock is out of sync, you will find yourself staring at the ceiling at night, you may lose your appetite, you will be fatigued, will likely have some gut issues and will absolutely have a performance decrease, and these will mostly effect an individual for a 24 hour period, though a larger time difference may take longer to adjust to.
Zeitbergers are environmental cues that can stimulate the rhythm and activity of our circadian rhythms, light is the strongest zeitberger, whereas non-photic zeitbergers include temperature, meal timing, exercise, social interaction and pharmacy (including caffeine and alcohol). To break it down to basics, we want melatonin spikes around 10pm, and cortisol spikes in the morning around 6-7am, wherever we are in the world.
Travelling East, crossing more times and time of flight (leave/land) will all affect the degree of jet lag one experiences, if you are simply hopping the Irish channel from Dublin to London, for example, this section is irrelevant, if you are going on a training camp to South Africa, leaving from anywhere in the Northern hemisphere, listen up. What can we do?
- Over the counter melatonin, doses of 2-8mg have been shown to decrease jet lag, OR, if you dislike taking pills, pistachio nuts have seriously high amounts of natural melatonin in them. Talk to your pharmacist about this one, it would be a good idea to take it when it starts to get dark, in your country of visit (either figure out when on the plane you need to take it, or wait until you land.
- Caffeine/coffee. I don’t travel without coffee; indeed, I don’t do much without coffee, but caffeine can increase daytime alertness, coffee during the day will help maintain circadian rhythm, and delay melatonin release by approx. 40 mins if a 200mg dose is taken 3 hours before bedtime (it is worth noting that a cup of coffee is about 80mg, I do not suggest taking a 200mg dose of caffeine), but simply having 2-3 cups during the day may help, if combined with the above point.
- Meal timing has mixed evidence and data in humans to conclusively say whether or not it has a large effect on circadian rhythm. Some research shows that timing of carbohydrates can affect sleep quality, with data showing that high CHO meals pre bed can inhibit deep sleep over the first half of the night, versus lower carb options. A higher carb meal 4 hours prior to bed can decrease sleep onset latency, some research shows that low carb diets (classed as 1% energy from carbs in this study) increased deep sleep, though this is not practical, convenient, nor is it conducive to sporting performance.
- To maximize your sleep quality (quantity & quality are NOT the same thing), you need to ensure your room is dark, or that you have an eye-mask, opt for a quiet environment, or get ear plugs. If you can, make sure you room is cool and well ventilated, try not to leave air-con on all night, as it can give you throat and sinus irritation, and effect your sleep.
EATING ON THE GO
This can be tricky, as for many, the thought of travel often spurs about a frenzy of excitement, or anxiety, both of which may lead someone to forget to eat. Managing an adequate and balanced intake is important for athletes with high energy needs, and athletes in weight category or power to weight ratio sports, who cannot afford to eat in excess. Before the flight, to avoid stomach upset or motion sickness, it is advisable to avoid alcohol and large meals, the aversion of caffeine for habitual consumers may actually be a bad idea, as withdrawal is more likely to affect these individuals, than motion sickness would. For the anxious flyers, water, crackers, popcorn and small dairy based products may help ease the stomach.
In flight, it is worth noting that sense of taste & smell is often vastly decreased as a result of pressurized cabin air, and it is worth noting that to combat this, some airlines actually increase the sugar and salt content of their product ranges on board. For longer haul flights, one to two meals may be given on board. It may be necessary to supplement food intake with protein bars, nuts, seeds, dried fruit and rice cakes, to ensure adequate intake and to have options to combat boredom eating. Constipation on long haul fights can be problematic, so inclusion of some kiwi-fruit, prunes or chia seeds would help combat this. Insoluble fibre supplements such as Optifibre can also dissolve into a glass of water and help move things along, so to speak.
My personal recommendations for some cabin bag snack and airport feasts are as follows, see below:
- Airport: Bland smoothie or protein shake + rice cakes/crackers (coffee if habitual).
- Cabin bag: Bag nuts (cashew/almond), dried fruit (apricots/figs) + protein bar.
- After landing: 1 x sachet Dioralyte + cup green tea (I get sore throats after flying).
So, now that you have landed, foreign place, no full cupboards, no dinner to come home to, routine out the window, how will you manage? The first thing is to practice food hygiene, as some places just have less stringent quality control than others, and that’s just objectively true, and to avoid high risk foods. Here’s what we need to do:
- Start with the obvious, wash your hands after using the toilet, and bring a sanitizer around with you.
- Have your own personal water bottle/shakers/cutlery.
- Don’t always assume tap water is fine, it is not always the case, if in doubt, go with bottled sources.
- Avoid the buffet spots, these are full of foods that have been laid out all day, and have been heated/reheated continuously, also, they may be on display for the world to sneeze on. Go freshly prepped if you can.
- On the same token, avoid raw foods, salads, sushi, raw egg, unpasteurized dairy, steak tartare and pâté, as these are all foods that are most likely to not be washed, or to be contaminated. Just don’t risk it.
- Bring plan B solutions with you. I rarely leave county Tipperary without a few bags of microwave rice, a tub of whey, dried fruit and nuts. These are your reliables.
- Don’t look at being abroad as a holiday and as an excuse to let loose, don’t hide behind it or have it as a foregone conclusion that nutrition is out of the window.
- If food availability is poor, adding olive oil to meals and any high fat dairy you can get your hands on.
- If you have a routine, try emulate it as best possible.
- Bring a multivitamin, as insurance.