Navigating the Nutritional Hazards of Athlete Travel

The pitfalls of travel can undermine the best your training has to offer. The stress of traveling, jet lag, adapting to new surroundings, and gastrointestinal illness are all factors that can affect how well you’ll be able to perform once you reach your destination. Knowing what to expect when traveling and planning for the challenges you’ll face can make big differences in your performance.

Planning ahead
Whether your travel is local, regional, domestic, or international, pre-planning can help you to navigate nutritionally so that you’ll be ready to do your best by the time you’re ready to compete.

No matter where your travels take you, pack a travel survival bag with carbohydrate snacks and beverages, so you’re not caught having to endure long stretches on cars, buses, trains, or planes with nothing appropriate to eat or drink. Keep the survival bag close at hand when training and competing in your new surroundings, so you won’t be caught empty-handed.

Plan out each leg of your itinerary, and investigate the food and beverage availability along your route, so you know what to expect. Arriving famished at an all-you-can-eat buffet may not be the best way to prepare for your upcoming event. Keep your nutrition goals in mind when you’re dining out, and stay committed to those goals. Make wise food choices, and beware of hidden fat sources. Also, boost the carbohydrate content of meals by requesting extra bread, rice, or pasta, or by substituting fruit or a fruit salad for fat-laden side dishes.

When your plans call for you to travel far away or for long periods, check into the feasibility of shipping your sports nutrition staples (energy bars, gels, chews, powders, and beverages) and favorite foods to your destination ahead of time, and be sure to check customs regulations to ensure that this is permitted.

Airline travel is stressful
Let’s face it: Travel by air these days is no picnic. The logistics of getting to the airport, long security lines, flight cancellations and delays, lengthy flights, and extended layovers take a toll. Combine that with cramped quarters and limited access to food and beverages, and any nutritional discipline you may have started with is likely to be jettisoned in favor of just surviving the trek.

The sheer boredom of air travel can drive anyone to overeat or eat the wrong things. Fight the boredom by listening to music, watching a movie, reading books or magazines, or playing card or video games. When allowed, carry on your survival bag stash of healthy and good-tasting carbohydrate-rich snacks and fluids, so you’re less tempted by the limited offerings available in the terminal or on the plane.

Ideas for road munchies include:

Fresh fruit (usually okay if traveling locally)
Dried fruit and nuts
Rolls, bagels, low fat muffins, and breads
Dry cereal (in plastic snack bags or single-serving boxes)
Crackers and pretzels
Fruit juice
POWERBAR® Performance bars
POWERBAR® Harvest bars
POWERBAR® Endurance sports drink

Air travel also takes a toll on hydration because of the dry air inside the cabin. To offset fluid losses that result from this dry air, plan to drink one sip or gulp of fluid (about 15-20 ml) for every hour you’re on the plane.

Beating jet lag and adapting to time changes
So, you’ve finally arrived at your destination. Unfortunately, if you’ve flown far enough, there’s a good chance your body clock is still set for the time it is back home. Jet lag is the term describing how wiped out you feel when you rapidly relocate across multiple time zones. Although you can now travel to virtually any spot on the planet in a day or two, your system can’t. In the grip of jet lag, you feel a numbing sense of fatigue, your sleep/wake cycle is totally off, you can’t sleep when you need to, your bowels don’t seem to move, and your mood is in the dumper. This is no state in which to begin a competition — so don’t.

If your travel calls for skipping across time zones, you can usually traverse up to three one-hour time zones without this having a noticeable effect on athletic performance. Beyond three time zones, though, plan to arrive far enough in advance to adapt to the time change. Adaptation times vary, but as a general rule, allow one full day of acclimatization for every one-hour time zone you cross. Also, the direction into which you’re headed will make a difference. Westbound travel is often easier to adapt to than eastbound. Eastbound travel makes for a shorter day and tends to exacerbate jet lag.

Some amount of jet lag is unavoidable, but there are a few strategies you can employ to decrease the time you’ll need to adapt. If possible, plan your flights so that you can maximize the opportunity to sleep at times that are appropriate to your destination, which means setting your watch to the time it will be at your intended destination. When it’s time to nod off, try consuming a high-carbohydrate meal or snack to help induce drowsiness.

Upon your arrival, the most powerful signal for promoting adjustment to the new time zone is light exposure. That means heading outside during the daytime, even though you may feel like pulling the shades and going to sleep, and turning the lights out at night. Your exposure to and avoidance of light will trigger responses in your brain that will speed the adjustment process.

Physical activity in the morning can often help shake the cobwebs, but if you’ve gone eastward on the order of seven to nine time zones, avoid rigorous training in the morning for two to three days, as exercise before you’re ready can actually delay adaptation to the time change.

Surviving climate change
Competing in high heat/humidity conditions can spell disaster if your body hasn’t had the chance to acclimate or adapt. Adapting can take up to two weeks, so try to train in those conditions before departing. If that’s not possible, plan to arrive early enough to allow acclimatization to take place.

Much greater volumes of fluid are required in hot/humid conditions, so plan to check your hydration status frequently before, during, and after training, especially if you’re not sure of your sweat rate in this new setting. On the flip side, when changes in fluid needs are extreme and sudden, you can also run a higher risk of overcompensating and consuming too much fluid. This can be just as detrimental to performance and your health as dehydration. The key is to avoid gaining weight during exercise due to excess fluid intake, and to avoid losing any more than 2% of total body weight due to fluid losses. Finally, in hot/humid conditions, a sports drink with sodium, such as POWERBAR® Endurance sports drink, should be consumed to replace fluids and electrolytes lost in sweat. Plain water won’t be nearly as effective for rehydration.

Avoiding illness while traveling
As many as 60% of athletes who travel internationally will develop a gastrointestinal illness known as travelers’ diarrhea — not what you need prior to competing! This condition is usually caused by pathogenic organisms transmitted in food, in water, or from one person to another. Do some investigating, and find out if this is a likely scenario for any of the destinations on your itinerary. If it is, prevent transmission of the microbes by washing hands frequently and taking precautions with foods and beverages that are likely carriers of the offending bugs.

Prudent precautions when traveling abroad:

Wash hands frequently with soap for at least 30 seconds, especially before eating.
Avoid unpasteurized milk, unpeeled fruits and vegetables, shellfish, and raw fish.
Select foods that are well-cooked and hot rather than warm.
Avoid water out of the tap, ice cubes, raw foods washed in tap water (e.g., salads, fruits, and vegetables), and brushing your teeth in tap water.
Boil tap water for at least five minutes before drinking, if that option is available.
Taking a probiotic supplement may help. Probiotic supplements contain healthy microbes that live naturally and peacefully in your digestive tract. Taking a supplementary dose of the beneficial microbes may help to ward off the pathogenic ones.

If you do get “the trots,” consume a bland diet (e.g., dry toast, crackers, rice, plain noodles, and bananas) until the symptoms subside. Avoid alcohol, fatty foods, high-fiber foods, and dairy products, as these can exacerbate diarrhea. Fluids and electrolytes are a priority. Drink sips of a sports drink or bottled water frequently, and consume salted crackers or pretzels to replace lost sodium. If the condition persists beyond a few days, see a physician, as medications may be required to speed your recovery.