Crossing Time Zones to Race Bikes
In 2015 when I got into the Cape Epic for the first time, there was a lot of 'firsts' to worry about. Being my first 8 day race was the big worry, but not far behind was the worry of jet lag. Cape Town is in the top 10 furthest possible places you can fly from Edmonton, involving over 22 hours of in-air time (not counting layovers). Add to that a 7 hour time change and the fact that I landed only 3 days before the start of the race, and you can understand my worry.
So I started finding people who knew a thing or two about long distance travel for sporting events. With the help of many staff at River Valley Health, and some training partners and sports acquaintances, I was able to come up with a plan of attack to minimize any negative effects of the time change before the Cape Epic. And I have to say, it did work quite flawlessly - aside from day of arrival, at no point did I feel like I was stuck in a different time zone.
Now by no means does this make me an expert, but if it worked for me once, it should work again. And if you're planning a long trip for an athletic event in the future, some of the tips below may help you too!
1 - Start adjusting to the destination time zone before your departure date
To start with, you can start laying the groundwork for an easier transition weeks before you leave. Start tweaking when you go to bed and when you wake up closer towards the time zone of your destination. The key here is to make gradual changes - don't start forcing yourself to wake up 2 hours earlier than usual right off the bat. Ease into it, 15-30 minutes at a time. Give yourself a handful of days, then set your alarm another 15-30 minutes earlier. If you're travelling the other direction, the adjustments are going to be easier - stay up later, and sleep in longer!
Obviously life commitments will limit how far you can go in adjusting your sleep schedule to suit your destination, so change what you can, but don't sweat the fact that you can't go to bed at 6 pm to wake up at 2 am. Don't forget to keep an eye on your energy levels. If you're making these changes, try to coincide them with a lighter week of training. Some people are going to take longer to adjust to an earlier wake-up time, and you don't want to pile training fatigue on top of some light sleep deprivation. And finally, make sure you start going to bed earlier to maintain consistent sleep hours. The first few nights after a change you may struggle to fall asleep earlier than you usually would, but after a few days of an earlier wake-up, you should be tired enough to eventually start falling asleep earlier.
As of right now, I'm starting the adjustment for my departure date, which is only 19 days away as of this writing. Cape Town is 7 hours ahead of Edmonton time, so I've been going to bed and getting up earlier. 30 minute changes seem to work best for me - as of right now, I'm getting up around 4:45 am, which means going to be around 9 pm. By the time I leave, I will be used to waking up at 4 am, which is 11 am in Cape Town. Not bad! I'd transition into waking up earlier if I could, but I work a couple late shifts a week where I'm not home until around 9 pm. If I started getting up any earlier, I wouldn't be able to go to bed early enough to get enough sleep.
2 - Try to book overnight flights/arrive at your destination morning or mid-day
Even if you can't seem to get good sleep in on an airplane, have you ever been so bored in that giant dark tube hurtling through the sky that you can't help but have a restless nap? I know I have! Booking overnight flights and/or landing at your destination earlier in the day has a few benefits to help you make the switch to a new time zone quickly.
First, you're not getting much natural light inside an airplane, so coinciding that time with what is nighttime at your destination helps reset your body's clock. Second, it's way easier to force yourself to stay awake when there are things to do. Once you arrive, be active! You're somewhere new, so do some exploring, chat with some locals, and enjoy the new scenery. Anything to take your mind off being tired.
After a long day(s) of travel, I touchdown in Cape Town at 7 am. It'd be nice to arrive a little later, but it'll have to do. I'll be getting out into the sunshine trying to take my mind of the jet-lag almost the moment I am off the plane.
3 - Start your travel day fully rested
Some people try to aid sleeping on the plane by starting the trip exhausted and sleep deprived. Bad idea! It's almost impossible to get a good-quality sleep on an airplane, so you're just going to be compounding the issue by starting things off tired. Don't do it!
I won't be deviating from my usual routine at all on the first day of travel. I'll get a full night's sleep to help start the trip fully rested.
4 - As soon as you depart, change your watch/clocks/phone to the destination time
The sooner you convince yourself you're on new time, the better the transition will go. As soon as you depart, start transitioning your schedule to match your destination. Eat breakfast foods and drink coffee at breakfast time, dinner foods at dinner time - you get the picture.
The minute the plane takes off from Edmonton, I'll be trying to get some sleep After all, it'll be 2 am Cape Town time when the plane takes off. As it nears London for a connection, breakfast will be served on the flight, which I will definitely enjoy with some coffee!
5 - Get outside when you arrive
Sunlight is the body's natural way of determining time of day, so get out and enjoy it! Don't lock yourself in a quiet room once you arrive at your destination (if you're arriving during waking hours). Get outside, go for a walk or a light ride.
The hotel I'm at in Cape Town is a short walk from the ocean, so a beach-front walk in the sun should help stave off tiredness. That's where you'll find me if you need me, hopefully not passed out facedown in the sand in a comatose nap...
6 - Force yourself to stay awake until a reasonable time in the evening, no matter how tired you are
You're at your destination now and you're exhausted, but don't undo all the work prior to this by going to sleep! If you don't usually nap at home, don't try it now. If you are a frequent napper, catch a quick one, but make sure you don't sleep more than a usual nap at home. Do whatever it takes to take your mind off being tired. Go for a walk, play tourist for a day, and stick to high-energy areas to keep you feeling upbeat. Then once the evening rolls around, hit the sack.
Last time I raced in Africa, my arrival day may just be the longest day I can ever remember. I landed at 7 am Cape Town time, and was exhausted from only getting some short stints of restless sleep on the airplanes over the last 48 hours. But I knew the game-plan, so after getting checked into the hotel, I immediately left to go for a walk along the ocean, taking in some sunshine and trying to convince myself I shouldn't be tired. I was close to nodding off more than a few times, but successfully made it to 7 pm, when I let myself slink back to the hotel room. I barely made it to the bed before passing out. Next thing I knew, I was waking up at 8 am, feeling well-rested and ready for breakfast. That day, I felt almost fully adjusted the new time-zone already, feeling more than energetic enough throughout the day. Easier than I expected!
That's it - some jet-lag management that has worked for me in the past, and hopefully will work fine again in less than 3 weeks! A big thanks to all those fellow RVH athletes who helped me discover some of these tips the first time around.
Next up, a quick feature on the bikes we'll be racing in the Cape Epic - then you might not be hearing from us until after the race. As always, thanks for reading!