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Optimize your race performances across time zones

Today is tomorrow. It happened,” said Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day. “It’s the same thing your whole life: ‘Clean up your room. Stand up straight. Pick up your feet. Take it like a man. Be nice to your sister. Don’t mix beer and wine, ever,’” he laments as he finds himself waking up, day after day, to the same day.

This article appeared in our August 2010 issue.

While some take solace in a humdrum existence, trail runners tend to recoil at the thought. It turns out that the alluring state of unpredictability that draws us from the beaten path to the cracks and crags of the trails may be better left there. When it comes to training and racing, routine is the gold standard.

This is especially true for trail runners who travel long distances to races. Recent research has shown that the effects of a cross-country trip can be trumped by a regimented routine leading up to travel. The same way you train your muscles to respond in races, you can train your circadian rhythm, which can be just one of the many tools in your arsenal to dismantle the competition.


Open 24/7/365

Your internal clock, also known as the circadian rhythm, functions on approximately a 24-hour cycle. The suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) is the structure in the brain that powers the cycle. The SCN, as Dr. Christopher Winter puts it, “is the time keeper of your brain.” Winter is the medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as the leading expert in the field of sleep disruption, in athletes and issues related to travel.

“Your SCN is mainly set by activity, light and meal times,” explains Winter. Based on these events, he says, “Once your SCN has set the rhythm for the 24 hours, everything else falls into place. It knows when to start secreting hormones for digestion, it knows when to do things to make you athletically peak and when to do things that are going to make you feel sleepy.” Unfortunately, a simple trans-meridian trip can disorient that inner time clock, leaving you with too much or too little energy at the wrong times.

Flying High on the Rhythm

You pound the “off” button on your alarm clock as it buzzes at 4 a.m. You rush to the airport and the next thing you know you’re sitting on an airplane, starving, anxiously waiting for breakfast to be served. Three time zones later, you regret eating that airline food. The bumpy hotel bed with scratchy sheets is no consolation. Neither is the fact that you’re wide awake and it’s bed time. Your race begins in eight hours.

Travel does not lend itself well to athletic performance. Winter says that nearly two-thirds of athletes are negatively affected by travel. After 10 years of examining the performances of Major League Baseball players, Winter coined the phrase “circadian advantage.” The term describes the phenomenon of athletes performing better when they are in sync with the time zone in which they are competing. He found that for every time zone crossed, athletes needed about 24 hours to become acclimatized.

This means that if you live in Seattle and fly to Virginia for a race, it will take approximately three days before your circadian rhythm is in sync with that region. It also means that if you only flew in the day before the race, a competitor who lives in Virginia and woke up in his own bed the morning of the race holds a circadian advantage over you.

Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine by Manfredini and colleagues suggests that athletes can improve their performances by up to 10-percent by optimizing circadian rhythms. While 10 percent may sound like chump change, the researchers remind you that a 10 percent reduction could be equated to performing legally drunk, on less than three hours of sleep, or after taking barbituates. “Ten percent is huge,” says Winter.


Rhythm and Sole

Circadian entrainment through routine can be a tricky balancing act. Brandy Erholtz, a member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team who travels to 10 to 15 races each year, from Portland to Switzerland, says, “While traveling, try to keep your routine as normal as possible. Then your body knows what to expect.”

Winter explains that a regimented training, eating and sleeping schedule is especially important the two weeks before an out-of-town race. He suggests slowly preparing for a new time zone, adjusting bedtimes and wake-up times by 15  minutes every couple of days. After two weeks of moving these times forward or backward, you will have shifted your circadian rhythm by two hours.

Explains Winter, “So if, for example, a person arrives out East, even though they’ve just set foot there and their event is the next day, their body is ready to perform at race time because of the pre-adaptation.”

Erholtz subscribes to this technique, saying, “I definitely try to train at the time I am going to be racing.”

Since most races are in the morning, Winter recommends training at that time. He also touts the importance of light in the circadian cycle: “There’s something very positive about the combination of exercise and ambient and natural light.”

Maintaining a normal schedule for your meals is also important. Says Erholtz, “When you’re in a new place, keep your diet as close to what it is at home.” Along with adjusting your sleep schedule, shift your meal times in order to pre-adapt to a new time zone.

Even seasoned professionals struggle with circadian entrainment as they crisscross the country. Erholtz, crowned the Female Mountain Runner of the Year the last two years, admits, “I’m still trying to figure out what works.”

While no one wants to wake up to the same day everyday, establishing a regular schedule in terms of sleeping, eating and training will do wonders for your performances, especially on the road. As Bill Murray’s older brother in Groundhog Day, said, “If you gotta shoot, aim high. I don’t wanna hit the groundhog.

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