I’ve never loved flying, and turbulence freaks me out as much as the next person, but back when I had to travel with my violin, the most stressful part of flying was the boarding process.
Nowadays I just wander on board whenever it’s time, but with my violin, it meant scurrying on board quickly to get my violin into the overhead bin before everyone else put their suitcases in. And then sitting there wishing I could turn invisible, while people muttered about how their bags wouldn’t fit due to this odd-sized thing already in there.
Yep…flying can be tough even under the best of circumstances, never mind when you’re traveling for a performance or an audition, and you’re already stressed about what you have to do when you arrive.
So what does the research have to say about minimizing the impact of air travel and jet lag on performance? What can we do to make sure we’re in the best shape to perform when we arrive?
Stanford orthopedic surgeons Whitney Leatherwood and Jason Dragoo scoured the literature, and found 106 studies that were relevant to air travel’s effect on performance.
And though it turns out that jet lag is not the only factor that can potentially affect performance1, it’s probably the one we notice most.
But how much of an effect does jet lag really have on performance? As in, is it a big enough deal that we should be taking into account the number of time zones we’ll be crossing when planning travel dates for an audition or competition?
What are the effects?
Well, you can start to see some of the effects of jet lag even across one time zone. But generally, it’s when you cross three or more time zones that the effects become really noticeable. Like fatigue and feeling sleepy at odd times, or being wide awake when it’s time to sleep, having difficulty concentrating, and so on.
And it can indeed have some significant performance effects.
How significantly does jet lag affect performance?
One study looked at all Major League Baseball games played from 1997-2006 to see if there was a performance advantage for teams that were more in sync with the time zone in which the game was played. They analyzed all 5042 games in which at least one of the teams crossed a time zone, curious to see if the team crossing fewer (or no) time zones would have an edge.
As expected, they found that teams with a 1-hr advantage (e.g. the Colorado Rockies playing at home vs. the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers), had a winning percentage of 51.7%. A 2-hr advantage meant a winning percentage of 51.8% (e.g. the Chicago Cubs playing at home vs. the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers). And a 3-hr advantage (e.g. the NY Mets playing at home vs. the visiting Los Angeles Dodgers), equated to a winning percentage of 60.6%. Which is a pretty significant bump above and beyond home field advantage alone, which in this span of years translated to a winning percentage of 53.7%.
Does it matter if you’re going east-west vs. west-east?
It’s often said that traveling east is harder than traveling west. And it’s certainly a lot less fun to force yourself to go to bed earlier and get up earlier (east), than it is to stay up a little later and sleep in a bit (west).
Which makes a lot of sense, because your body’s internal clock actually seems to prefer a slightly longer day – like 25 hours – than the 24-hour day we live by.
And studies have found that traveling east does indeed result in jet lag symptoms that are more severe, and last longer, than going west. One study, for instance, found that while westward travel (Frankfurt to Atlanta) had a noticeable effect on athletes’ performance for about 3 days, traveling east (Munich to Osaka) led to more significant symptoms, that lasted up to 7 days.
But wait! It’s not as simple as saying that traveling east is worse for performance than traveling west. The reality is a little more complicated (and interesting). Because it’s also important to consider at what time of day you will be performing.
Why your performance time also matters
Some people are early birds, while others are night owls. And research suggests that our natural “chronotype” could have an effect on performance – in that there may be certain periods of time during the day when we are more likely to perform our best.
For instance, even if traveling west is easier, how would it feel if you had to fly from NY to LA for a big recital that starts at 8pm Pacific – which to your NY-timed body clock would feel like 11pm?
Monday Night Football – east vs. west
A 1997 study looked at 25 years worth of Monday Night Football games (1970-1994), with start times of 9pm. Which means that west coast teams traveling east, would be playing at what would feel like 6pm their time. And east coast teams traveling west, would be playing at midnight their time.
If you’re thinking that this scheduling quirk would seem to favor the west coast teams, you’d be totally right.
Not only did west coast teams have significantly more wins than the east coast teams, they also won by more points.
It was like west coast teams got a boost to their home field advantage, while east coast teams’ home field advantage was nullified.
NBA scoring – east vs. west
Another 1997 study found a similar effect in the NBA, after looking at 8 years worth of games between 1987 and 1995. They found that the visiting team scored about 4 more points when they traveled east, than when traveling west. Presumably, this was once again because the west coast teams were playing at a time that felt earlier and more performance-optimal to their internal body clock.
So this would suggest that if you’re flying east, a later performance or audition time is probably to your advantage. While when traveling west, an earlier performance or audition time is probably best.
But…what if you don’t have any control over what time you have to play?
This is where “phase shifting” comes into play, where you can take steps to start adjusting your body clock to a new time zone even before you’ve left home. This involves shifting your bedtime by 1 hour per day, strategically timing your exposure to light to make your body think you’re in a different time zone, and perhaps supplementing with melatonin (a hormone that regulates wakefulness, and while available over the counter, should still be something you consult with your physician about before taking).
So if you want to prepare your body for a trip west, you could initiate a 1-hr per day “phase delay.” Where you’d go to bed and wake up 1 hour later each night, get more light in the early evening hours to make sure you don’t get sleepy too early, and avoid light in the morning to prevent your body from waking up too early.
Preparing your body for a trip east, on the other hand, would involve a “phase advance.” Where you’d go to sleep/wake up 1 hour earlier each night, avoid light in the evening hours before bedtime to help you feel sleepy earlier, and get lots of light when you wake up.
But what if you do all this and still can’t get to sleep when you arrive in your new time zone?
Yay for naps!
Well, fortunately, there’s always the power nap .
One study, for instance, found that even after just 4 hours of sleep, a 30-min nap helped to improve not just alertness, but sprint times, and certain measures of mental performance too.
Which takes us to one last thing that can be a factor when traveling.
Because traveling tends to disrupt not just what we eat, but when we eat too. Both of which can have a meaningful effect on sleep.
Timing and quantity
For instance, if you arrive at your hotel around 8pm, and are starving because the airplane Salisbury steak left quite a bit to be desired, it can be tempting to chow down on an overstuffed Chipotle burrito.
However, that means that when you go to sleep a couple hours later, your body is still going to be devoting resources to doing its thing with the burrito, instead of resting and making the most of the precious time you have before the alarm goes off.
So smaller meals before and after the flight are probably better than big meals at the wrong time.
Your choice of food can also help or hurt your efforts to adjust to a new time zone.
For instance, if you’re starting to feel a little sleepy in the late afternoon, and you know a 3-hr nap would totally destroy that night’s sleep, it’s probably best to avoid the high carb/low protein Auntie Annie’s pretzel that’s screaming your name, and go for something like a high protein/low carb greek yogurt instead.
And maybe save burgers, pizzas, and all those other tempting treats for after the performance, as animal studies suggest that high fat/high calorie foods could make it harder for your body to adapt to a new time zone.
Oof. That’s a lot of stuff. Is there a tl;dr version?
Leatherwood and Dragoo distilled what they found into 9 recommendations. Which are listed at the very end of their article available here. And also paraphrased below:
- Start shifting your body clock before you leave, by moving your bedtime/wake time by 1 hr per day.
- Make it a point to get some light at strategic times during the day, and ask your doctor about melatonin as well, to help your body pre-adjust to the new time zone.
- Get natural daylight over artificial light when possible.
- Time your social interactions so that they make sense in the context of your destination time.
- Avoid caffeine (easier said than done, I know) – not just because it’s a diuretic, but because it can mess up all of your other efforts to phase shift. Avoid alcohol too (also a diuretic).
- Take 20-30 min naps.
- Drink lots of water while traveling to prevent dehydration (and to avoid annoying your fellow passengers, maybe choose an aisle seat?).
- Eat smaller meals before and during your flight. And time your meals so that you’re eating when you’d be eating at your destination.
- And if you’re traveling to a different country, it might be good to rely on bottled water and avoid raw foods (e.g. salads) to make sure there aren’t any, um…gastrointestinal surprises.
There’s also Philadelphia Orchestra concertmaster David Kim’s tried and tested jet lag formula, which is a quick read, and reflects the recommendations from the research above: David Kim’s jet lag remedy
But if you’re thinking to yourself, sheesh, that’s still a lot of planning to do. Isn’t there an app for that?
A jet lag calculator!
I haven’t had an opportunity to put it to the test, but McGill University Ph.D. candidate Jay Olson has developed a free jet lag-fighting webapp called Jet Lag Rooster. Has anyone had any experience (good or bad) with such apps?
Lemmer, B., Kern, R., Nold, G., & Lohrer, H. (2002). Jet lag in athletes after eastward and westward time-zone transition. Chronobiology International, 19(4), 743-764.
Mendoza, J., Pévet, P., & Challet, E. (2008). High-fat feeding alters the clock synchronization to light. The Journal of Physiology, 586(24), 5901-5910.
Smith, R.S., Guilleminault, C., & Efron, B. (1997). Circadian rhythms and enhanced athletic performance in the National Football League. Sleep, 20(5), 362-5.
Steenland, K.N., & Deddens, J.A. (1997). Effect of travel and rest on performance of professional basketball players. Sleep, 20(5), 366-9.
Waterhouse, J., Atkinson, G., Edwards, B., & Reilly, T. (2007). The role of a short post-lunch nap in improving cognitive, motor, and sprint performance in participants with partial sleep deprivation. Journal of sports sciences, 25(14), 1557-66.
Winter, W.C., Hammond, W.R., Green, N.H., Zhang, Z., & Bliwise, D.L. (2009). Measuring circadian advantage in Major League Baseball: a 10-year retrospective study. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 4(3), 394-401.
- For instance, airplanes are pressurized at the equivalent of about 5000-6000 feet, so in theory, that time spent at altitude could potentially have some impact on aerobic performance upon landing. But that’s a whole other bucket of worms that goes way beyond the scope of this article.