Travel & Jetlag - The Importance of Diet
Hi, I'm Marcus.
I grew up on a farm in New Zealand but these days I play professional tennis on the ATP World Tour. Once a month I'll write about the challenges I face trying to optimise performance in a high-stress environment while travelling the world. Frequent air travel, jetlag, sleep, nutrition, rest, meditation - these are all areas I continue to explore and improve in. I hope my mistakes and successes help you optimise yourself.
Disclaimer: I am neither a doctor nor an expert on anything other than chasing a fuzzy yellow ball. But in my chase for that extra 1% of performance and resilience I have had a bucketload of trial and error experience, and some of it just might make a difference to you too.
6 Tips and Tricks for Travel & Jetlag
As I write this I'm sitting on a plane, knees jammed into the knobbly bits of the seat in front. This is a disappointingly common position for me. As a professional tennis player I'm on tour ten months of the year - arguably the longest and most arduous season of any sport in the world. I compete in around 35 events, including the four Grand Slams (Australian Open, Wimbledon etc.) and Davis Cup. All of these week-long or fortnight-long events are held in different cities, and mostly in different countries. Needless to say, a gargantuan amount of air travel is involved. It is a constant battle to remain limber and fresh when crossing time zones is a weekly phenomenon. Today I'd like to share how I handle travel and the myriad annoyances that come along with it.
1) Airplane Seats
Airplane seats suck in general. However, if you're over 185cm aeroplane seats are pure nightmare. Just ask my knees. Here's how you can try to improve this situation:
- If you haven't been able to select your seat previously, give the check-in agent a genuine smile and build a bit of rapport. Once your bags are tagged ask if there are any spare emergency exit or bulkhead seats. If not, ask if there are any seats with space next to them. It's worth a shot!
- If that fails, go to the gate staff around an hour before your departure and enquire again about a seat change. By this stage most people will be checked in and if you're friendly enough the gate staff may be willing to help you out.
- If both of those fail, try to temporarily shrink yourself.
- Neck pillows can be lifesavers on long flights. Nobody enjoys a cricked neck. Find a pillow that allows you to maintain a good, tall posture while you sleep or relax. I personally use a blow-up pillow because it packs down small.
2) Hydration & Nutrition
Hydration is HUGELY important when flying long distances. I had one enthusiastic nutritionist advise me to drink one litre of water with electrolytes per hour of flight time. I tried this and ended up going to the bathroom about seventeen times. Not ideal. I halved this advice and it works well for me - one litre of water with electrolytes for every two hours flown. If you don't have electrolytes you can ask the flight attendant for some slices of lime and some salt. Ideally it would be coloured salt (which has a better mineral profile) but choices are limited on a plane. Hydrating well during a flight will also help your body stave off jetlag.
To put it gently, plane food leaves a lot to be desired. For this reason I tend to avoid plane meals and instead take a Nuzest shake on board. I take two and a half scoops of Clean Lean Protein and a full serving of Good Green Stuff in powder form in my shaker and then mix it with water on board. This has three big benefits: it's much healthier than any plane food, it doesn't leave you feeling bloated, and the Good Green Stuff is an optimal foundation so that your body can withstand whatever cooties or viruses are hanging around on armrests or toilet doors. Oh and four, it tastes a helluva lot better too!
3) Jetlag Tips
Jetlag also sucks. We've all experienced waking up starving at 3am or passing out at 5pm only to wake up a few hours later thinking it's morning. Here are a couple of jetlag tips:
- Melatonin - your body has a natural circadian (daily) rhythm of asleep and awake. Melatonin is a hormone that's naturally produced by your body when it gets dark to tell you to go to sleep.* When you change time zones your body's circadian rhythm gets confused by darkness arriving at a different point in the cycle.
- If I'm flying in to a time zone that's more than three hours different I'll try to pre-adjust my circadian rhythm. For example, I've finished playing a tournament in New York and need to play the next week in Barcelona. Bedtime in Barcelona is 4pm in New York, so two days before I fly to Barcelona I take 3-5g of melatonin at 4pm to ease my body's hormone production into a new circadian rhythm.** Once in Barcelona I'll take melatonin for a couple more days at bedtime to solidify the new rhythm. This technique does not eliminate jetlag but it definitely reduces its impact.
* This is why you're not supposed to look at a bright screen before bedtime - it imitates daylight and tells your body not to produce melatonin.
** Research suggests that 3g is the minimum effective dose of melatonin and anything over 5g has no extra effect.
- Exercise - when I arrive at my hotel, regardless of the time, the first thing I do is move my body. Hotels often have basic gyms where I'll spend fifteen minutes on a bike or a cross trainer, but failing that I do some stretching and rolling in my room and then perhaps some dynamic yoga or body weight exercises. This significantly accelerates the time zone adjustment process for me.
This was a game changer. In 2015 I splashed out on a pair of Bose QC15 in-ear headphones. These have active noise-cancelling, which means that they monitor the frequency of the ambient noise around you, then produce an opposite frequency to cancel it out. This creates a deliciously quiet headspace for you to relax in. You can enjoy your music, podcasts, or movies at a normal volume rather than having to blast the noise into your earholes to drown out engines, babies, stag parties and snoring. Quality noise-cancelling headphones are expensive, but on balance this is one of the best value purchases I've made in my life. I wish I'd treated myself earlier.
Airplanes are dirty environments. Countless bacteria-laden hands have touched armrests, screens, tray tables and overhead lockers. Common illness accounts for up to two thirds of all training/competition days missed in professional sport, so to avoid unnecessary time out I use two products to counter the chance of getting sick while flying.
- Long-lasting hand sanitiser - alcohol gels clean your hands, but as soon as you touch another dirty surface your hands are contaminated again. Instead use a long-lasting sanitiser like Zoono, which stays on your skin for up to twenty four hours after application, killing any bacteria it comes in contact with. There are other brands that are equally effective and easier to find. Just remember to apply after every wash of your hands.
- Nasal spray - I use a product called First Guard. I spray this into each nostril at the beginning of a flight to protect against airborne germs. It creates a layer of protection in your sinuses and doesn't allow them to dry out. A dry sinus or mouth provides an easier pathway for germs to invade your body.
I wear compression socks for every flight I take. They make my legs feel noticeably less swollen and tired when I arrive. For long haul trips I also wear full compression leggings. I recommend at least the socks for any flight over three hours, and by compression socks I don't mean the dross they sell in airport convenience stores but rather proper compression gear from a company like Skins or 2XU. I personally wear Icebreaker compression socks, which seem to have slightly less compression but they make up for it by being ridiculously comfortable!
Bonus Round: Carbon Offsetting
A final note: over the years I've become more and more aware of the negative impacts of air travel on the environment. Travel is a necessity of my job, and I rack up some serious miles (around 120,000 last year). Carbon offsetting is a way to mitigate those negative impacts. I do believe it's a valid argument to say that offsetting is a band-aid rather than a cure, or that it's just a conscience pleaser for those who feel guilty about overusing the luxury of air travel. But if every air traveller offsets we can at least do our bit to slow the climate change process down. I use a German third party company called Atmosfair (https://www.atmosfair.de/en/) to calculate how much environmental damage I've personally caused (33 cubic tonnes last year. Last year my carbon offsetting cost me a little over 800 euros. This is a small price to pay considering the potential downsides of climate change, and it works out to only a few extra bucks per flight.