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If they ever figured out wormholes or teleportation or time travel, I would be the last person to sign up. I can’t imagine how I’d feel traveling to another dimension when short plane flights make me feel like such a piece of soggy garbage.
Or that’s how I used to feel. Then, over the last few years, I saw how expert traveling runners do it. I asked them about their secrets. And I learned a few things that have helped me feel a bit less like a lazy parasite after travel.
In 2018, Cat Bradley went from Europe to the U.S. to Europe in the week before a top-10 finish at UTMB. A few weeks ago, Zach Ornelas traveled from Michigan to South Africa just a day before a top-10 at the Two Oceans Ultramarathon. So it’s definitely possible to do almost any trip and excel physically. From talking to Cat, Zach and many others, I came up with a list of nine things that I have seen among many good travel-runners. The science in this area is not settled, so pick and choose what works for you.
If I’m doing the calculations correctly, that means drinking a swimming pool before touching down in Paris. But after my own struggles racing internationally, I tried approximating that hydrating formula, and I felt significantly better on future trips.
Hydrate Adequately, Especially on Planes
Lauren Fleshman, an amazing athlete, coach, writer, parent and entrepreneur (the EGOT of running), wrote a wonderful article on jetlag and athletes back in 2011. She recommended eight ounces of fluid every 45 minutes on a flight. If I’m doing the calculations correctly, that means drinking a swimming pool before touching down in Paris. But after my own struggles racing internationally, I tried approximating that formula, and I felt significantly better on future trips.
There’s no need for a set formula (8 oz every 45 min may be excessive for many people), just don’t dehydrate yourself in planes or cars. Plus, the extra bathroom breaks make for a solid excuse to move. I recommend some electrolyte mix in water to possibly support absorption (a complicated sub-question that depends on many variables—see this 2015 article from Nutrition Reviews for details). And make sure you don’t overhydrate either, which can have its own nasty health effects. Hydration is hotly debated, with legendary exercise scientist Tim Noakes even publishing a book called Waterlogged that argues that overhydration is a major problem, so find what works for you.
Eat Like a Normal Person
Spending the trip subsisting on Smartfood popcorn and Werther’s candies will probably make you feel crappy when you get where you are going. Trust me, I’ve done some real-world experiments, and I may or may not be typing this with fingers coated in cheese-like powder.
Don’t overthink it, just make sure you fuel well. Pack healthy snacks like nuts, fruit and whole-food energy bars, and keep eating. Avoid fake sugars (and gum unless you know it doesn’t bother you), too much alcohol and food that makes you feel like crap about yourself. Powdered cheese-like substance feels good in the moment, but … note to self … 10 servings of it usually isn’t the best long-term life decision.
Consider Wearing Compression Tights/Socks on Your Trip
The science behind compression gear during travel is not settled, but there is some evidence that it could help prevent blood clots in susceptible people, and some athletes who travel frequently say that the circulation effects can make long trips go over easier on the body.
I like athletes to consider wearing graduated compression tights or socks if they have a pair, but not to worry about it too much one way or the other. Plus, compression socks are like calf-muscle Spanx.
Move as Much as Is Reasonable
Recommendations vary, but many sources say to move five to 10 minutes every hour. That is pretty difficult unless you want to be the worst seat-mate possible. Could you imagine if everyone on the plane did that? It’d be mass hysteria.
But as much movement as possible is good, even if you aren’t playing musical chairs every few minutes. Stand up, do some light squats, maybe some stretching. During drives, walk around the gas station a few times and do some push-ups. There are benefits to circulation, and it’s always good for sanity to avoid impersonating a human pretzel for too long.
After Sitting, Go on a Walk and Do Mobility Work/Stretch
When you get where you’re going, push back against the stationary inertia and get moving, even if you are really tired. I have seen athletes excel with a couple-mile walk, followed by doing whatever mobility/stretching they usually enjoy. For me, that means a walk followed by some comically poor yoga poses.
Consider Elevating Your Legs (or Using Compression Boots)
There is some evidence that elevating legs (against a wall or similar) can improve circulation and stop pooling of fluid that can happen in legs during travel. My feet usually look like sad little sausages after being on a car or plane, and elevation seems to help them regain some semblance of normal.
If you’re really lucky, Normatec boots or similar air-compression methods seem to be really helpful, but that’s a luxury that most travelers probably won’t have. This bullet point won’t make or break the trip, and some of the benefit that I see in athletes might just be taking the time to relax, rather than leg elevation or sexy space boots.
If Your Sleep Schedule Is Off, Still Give Yourself Restful Time
I have heard that for some athletes there is no more frustrating advice given all the time in the running world than “sleep more.” I am guilty of saying it too. Sleep is good for recovery, hormones and performance. Never underestimate the power of performance-enhancing snoozles.
But for many athletes, it’s not that simple. It is totally normal to suffer from issues with being able to get to sleep or stay asleep. If you’re one of the athletes who has sleep struggles, I promise you that you’re not alone. So many of the athletes I coach might not be captured in a study on insomnia, but have persistent problems with sleep. Sometimes, it even becomes a source of daily anxiety.
Those problems are especially evident during travel. Jason Schlarb just finished 2nd at the Maxi Ultra Race in France, and on the phone afterward I asked about his travel schedule. Jason would never make an excuse, so I had to press him on his sleep. He estimated that he slept around three hours in the few days before the race, which started at midnight local time.
While the travel made sleep difficult, Jason still gave his body plenty of rest, which let him perform really well anyway. What I like athletes to do is carve out eight to 10 hours at night when they’ll be in bed, lying down without any screens or social stimulation. A book is OK (and make sure you always have two-plus amazing books in your bag), but lying there and meditating peacefully is even better. If that results in a solid trip to dreamland, awesome. If it means no sleep, that’s OK too. Just try to avoid spirals where worrying about sleep makes the restful time full of anxiety about being awake, rather than mindful relaxation.
I have seen tons of athletes excel off almost no sleep (especially the night before races), so cut yourself slack and let your brain shut off, knowing that it’s OK if you get an eight-hour session of gratitude instead. Some athletes swear by melatonin to help reset their natural sleep cycles, but everyone is different, so make sure you don’t do anything for the first time before a race.
Use Caffeine Strategically
Caffeine is a blessing and a curse during travel. It can help you feel like a normal, functioning human being. But it can also prevent your body from falling into a new pattern in a new time zone.
There are no set rules that work for everyone, but the best advice I have heard is to stick to your normal schedule for short trips (ideally with no caffeine after the morning), and to consider abstaining entirely before and during long plane trips. Then, a little bit of caffeine as the sun comes up can jump start your system and your bowels (another problem that many athletes struggle with on long trips).
Accept Feeling Like Crap, and Do a Few Fast Strides to Jump-Start Your Body
Even if you do everything right, there’s a solid chance your body will feel all wrong. And that feeling is OK. Accept it, embrace it and laugh at it if you can. There is great power to be had in understanding you don’t have complete power over how you feel.
I like athletes to do a few strides on their first run after travel to give their neuromuscular and aerobic systems a jump start. Something like 4 to 6 x 20 seconds fast on slight uphills after an easy run will get the heart pumping and often helps athletes feel way better. At the very least, it usually shows them that while they might not feel normal, their bodies are still strong and powerful.
Travel is fun. Running is fun. Mixing the two can sometimes be where fun goes to die. So be patient with your body, giving it the grace and space to adjust. After all, every legendary adventure requires an epic journey.
David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.