Athletes: How to beat jet lag:

A study on British Racing Drivers

For an athlete jet lag can be the difference between winning and losing. Many theories have evolved over the years about how to beat jet lag but Dr Patrick Fuller’s recent study on two British racing drivers could, he believes, be the answer to jet lag.

Previous studies on mice and other animals have revealed that when an animal is deprived of food for 16 hours the internal food clock activated and took over the natural sleep pattern. In humans the internal food clock exists in the hypothalamus but is largely dormant. Fuller from Harvard medical school set out to see to see if he could activate the food clock in order to reset the internal body clock in humans.

International racing drivers, Oliver Gavin and David Brabham who live in the UK but compete regularly in the USA agreed to take part in the experiment, which was aired on the BBC last month (May, 2009).

One of the drivers (David Brabham) was not allowed to eat anything before he left the US for his flight to the UK and was also prevented from eating on the flight (for a minimum of 16 hours). He was, however, permitted to drink as much water as he wanted and was also allowed to sleep on the flight. In contrast, the second racing driver, Oliver Gavin was able to eat as much airline food as he liked (and before leaving).

For motor racing drivers split second decisions are key and as with most athletes so is concentration. So prior to leaving the USA, Dr Patrick Fuller conducted a series of response tests on each driver which measured concentration and alertness, they were also tested when they arrived back in the UK.

On arriving back in London David Brabham’s body clock was actually telling him it was 2:30am Atlanta time, when in fact it was now 7:30am UK time. In order to reset his body clock to UK time the first meal in the new time zone is critical. According to Fuller’s theory because David Brabham went without food for 16 hours his internal food clock will have activated and will have overridden his natural desire to sleep. So eating at the first regular meal time in the new time zone, in this case breakfast, the body clock should now set to local time.

For David Brabham travelling across 5 different time zones in 8 hours would normally take him several days to readjust. However, after eating regular meals that day and going to bed at around 10:30pm he slept through to almost 6:30am, but Oliver Gavin who had food before and throughout the flight went to sleep by 11pm and woke at 3am and 5am intervals.

The next day the same repeated response tests that were carried out in America were conducted on each driver. Oliver’s response times were slightly quicker than when he was in the US, but David (who had gone without food for 16 hours) had much quicker response tests results and was more alert in addition to sleeping right through. Fasting it seemed helped to overcome jet lag.

Summary tips from the study (long haul flights):

  • Calculate the length of your flight and ensure you don’t eat for a minimum of 16 hours. Depending on the length of your flight, this will probably require you not to eat for a few hours in your departure Country.
  • Avoid eating food on the whole of the flight. (You might want to use the blind fold tactically here, especially if someone nearby is about to tuck into a slice of chocolate cake!).
  • You can drink plenty of water
  • You MUST eat at the first regular meal time when you arrive (this is critical). This might even involve getting something to eat at the arrival airport to fit in with time zones.
  • You can actually sleep on the plane according to this study, but perhaps don’t over do this and bear in mind what time of day you are arriving in the destination Country.
  • When you arrive don’t go to sleep too early, but according to the study if you fast for a minimum of 16 hours the internal food clock will have activated and will have overridden the natural desire to sleep anyhow.
  • On a practical note, make sure you don’t arrive the day before competition in order to allow yourself time to refuel correctly. It is, however, much easier to refuel than to adjust to different time zones, so why not give it a go next time you travel on a long haul flight. As with all studies, individual differences apply, but it might just be worth a go!

Louise Ellis featured in