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Long gone are the days when flying was fun! Or so we’re told by those who remember the days of in-flight meals and sharp-dressed passengers. Today, flying is downright unpleasant. For athletes, getting from city to city can cause huge disruptions to workout schedules, recovery, sleeping, and eating schedules not to mention suffering through flight delays and cramped conditions.
From choosing flight times to dealing with delays, reducing swelling and flight fatigue, Matt Dixon’s book Fast-Track Triathlete offers two dozen smart ways athletes can ensure that air travel impacts them less. Here are eight travel tips for athletes to make your next flight more “Meh.” and less, “Argh!”
Maintaining Nutrition and Hydration
Make it your mission to be appropriately fed, hydrated, rested, and as limber as possible. However, you don’t want to consume too many calories. Going into a flight even a little bit hungry or semi-fasting is preferable to eating heavy foods like a burger and fries or fish and chips at the airport.
Interestingly, undereating prior to travel can help you acclimate to a new time zone more quickly, assuming you consume a meal at the appropriate local time you are adjusting to on arrival. If athletes have a long evening flight across several time zones, they could have a good-sized lunch and eat minimally before getting on the plane.
Then, they can focus on staying hydrated and eating small, nutritious snacks without having to eat the meal served on the plane. When the athletes reach their destination, they will eat a full meal in the corresponding time zone. For example, if they arrive at their destination at 7 a.m., you would eat a proper, protein-rich breakfast. The brain’s built-in starvation signal is synthetically reset or at least adjusted to the circadian rhythm, which helps diminish the time it takes to adjust to new time zones. The one caveat is that if they have to race within a day or two of reaching your destination, it’s not great to approach travel in a semi-fasted state.
Watch Out for Salt Bombs
Many people eat because of boredom on flights or because various snacks, meals, and beverages are offered regularly. Avoid high-sodium foods (typically processed or packaged foods) and starchy carbohydrates because both can cause bloating, particularly uncomfortable while traveling. If possible, try to eat healthy snacks; instead of eating a package of chips or a sugary cookie, buy a small bag of nuts or baby carrots before you board. Whenever possible, carry on a sandwich and a piece of fruit rather than eat the sodium-laden meal provided. Make sure some of the calories contain protein because it naturally helps to suppress the production of cortisol in response to low blood sugar.
Walk By the Airport Bar
As much as I emphasize that athletes should not live like monks while training, it’s best to avoid drinking alcohol before or during a flight because of the increased stress to your body. Flying in the pressurized cabin of a plane is the equivalent of being at 9,000 feet. We know high altitude is a stressor both because it dehydrates the body and it can induce great fatigue. Alcohol exacerbates the effects of altitude. You want to arrive at your destination optimally hydrated, so you need to be cautious about alcohol consumption.
Easy on the Starbucks
Also, limit your caffeine intake before and during a flight, though for daytime flights there’s nothing wrong with having a couple of cups of coffee, or preferably some hot herbal tea, to keep your energy and productivity high. Coffee is less harmful as a diuretic than alcohol is, but it’s not an effective hydration strategy. If you drink about 10 ounces of coffee, your body uses only about 6 ounces, or 60 percent, for hydration; the other 40 percent just passes through the urine. You certainly want to avoid caffeine entirely if it disrupts a normal night’s sleep, particularly for red-eye flights. The quality and duration of your sleep will already be compromised when you are traveling, so it’s best to minimize caffeine going into the flights.
If you are hydrating correctly, you should have to get up to pee a couple of times during a four- or five-hour flight. Even if it’s annoying to your neighbor, it forces you to get up and move your body. While you’re up, you can also do some light stretches and dynamic movements that will help maintain your energy and reduce any swelling.
Managing Your Environment
Sitting in cramped conditions for several hours does not allow you to replicate the normal routine or environment of your daily life. However, you can take action to help keep your stress low and stay rested.
Back and Neck
First, set up your personal space as optimally as possible. When you sit for a prolonged period, it’s helpful to support the small of your back. A lot of the pros and CEOs I coach travel with a firm, half-round, mini foam roller placed behind their lower backs. A rolled-up towel or sweatshirt can achieve the same purpose. You should also have a neck pillow to keep your posture in alignment if you plan to sleep. Falling asleep on an airplane is often difficult, but good neck support will ease that considerably and help you avoid awkward encounters with your neighbor.
Action Movies and Chainsaws
Two more subtle but important factors to consider are the amounts of light and sound you absorb or deflect. Bright light, especially the fast-moving images on screens, will stimulate your brain and keep it engaged, therefore keeping you awake and in a heightened state of sensitivity. If you think you’ll have a few hours before you’ll sleep, then pack a paperback book or a magazine.
If you want to sleep or even just relax, use eye masks to block the light. You can’t control the light in the cabin or whether your neighbors use their reading lights or screens, but you can keep your own eyes covered. On the contrary, if you’re planning to work or watch a movie on a laptop or a tablet, consider investing in an aftermarket screen cover to help reduce the blue light effect that signals daylight to your nervous system.
Perhaps the biggest challenge on a plane is that you’re generally forced to absorb all of the sounds. Flying is a high-decibel experience thanks to the roar of jet engines. Studies have shown that the average interior noise level of an airplane is 95 to 105 decibels, roughly equivalent to that of a motorcycle or chainsaw. Add to this people talking and announcements on the sound system; food carts, utensils, and seatback trays clanking; and, of course, the teething, hungry, or otherwise cranky baby crying when you’re trying to sleep. If you’re sensitive to sounds, be sure to pack simple earplugs or noise-canceling headphones.
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