Is Jet-Lag MMA's Worst Enemy?

Fightland Blog

By Jeff Harder

This Friday, the UFC returns to Abu Dhabi, a place that isn’t quite a world away, but at eight time zones removed from the East Coast, it might as well be. It probably sucks to get there, too. If there’s any consolation to a fighter who has to spend the flight squeezing into an economy-class seat, getting acquainted with the person in front of them reclining at an inconsiderate angle, and exiting the plane into the dry heat of the United Arab Emirates in a jet-lag-induced haze with hallucinations of blunt force trauma occupying their mind, it’s that their opponent is probably going through the same ordeal.

The UFC has been doing a lot of globetrotting these days, so on the eve of the promotion’s second foray to Yas Island, we spoke about the ins and outs of jet-lag with Dr. Christopher Winter, a Virginia-based sleep medicine specialist who studies the connection between sleep and athletic performance, serves as a consultant for several MLB and NBA teams, and authors a Huffington Post blog about sleep.

The circadian rhythm is basically your body’s attempt to try to anticipate what’s going to happen within the next 24 hours. People tie the circadian rhythm to sleep because that’s its most demonstrable aspect: We tend to get sleepy around 11:30 and we tend to wake up around seven, or whatever your pattern is, and everybody’s a little bit different. Part of understanding how to deal with travel is, first of all, understanding a player or a fighter’s own circadian rhythm—are you somewhat of a short sleeper, are you a long sleeper, are you a night owl, are you a morning person, or whatever. The circadian rhythm, in addition to dictating sleep, it’s dictating everything your body does. Nothing our brain or body does is accidental, from the body’s production of red blood cells to its production of thyroid hormone to body temperature to appetite cycles to digestion. All of these things are regulated by the circadian rhythms, so it’s best when our body is on a schedule.

The way I always describe it to people is my favorite food is a crab cake sandwich—I love it. So we’re sitting here and you say, “Let’s go get some lunch, I’ll buy you a crab cake sandwich.” You buy it for me, I eat it at one o’clock which is usually when I eat lunch, so my body is basically getting hungry around 12:30. Well, it’s not getting hungry because my body needs calories: It’s getting hungry because my body knows that every day at 1 o’clock, I eat. So that’s actually my body preparing to eat. If you buy me a crab cake sandwich but you deliver it to me at three o’clock in the morning, and I feel mandated by manners to eat it because you went to all this trouble, it’s going to taste really differently to me. It might not sit well in my stomach. It could make me feel sick or make me have some gastrointestinal problems. But it’s not because the crab cake sandwich is bad: It’s because your body got a crab cake sandwich at three o’clock in the morning, and it’s not anticipating that.

When you don’t deal with circadian factors in athletics, it’s as if you’re competing drunk. Now, there are a lot of people who could be drunk and still beat the hell out of somebody else and win the fight, but to me, being a sort of Type A individual, I want to control for everything. I want [an athlete to have] every advantage. 

The theory is for every time zone you change, it takes the average individual about 24 hours to adjust to it. Now, I’m going to Texas [from Virginia] tomorrow, and I just came back from Chicago three nights ago, and one time zone is nothing to me—frankly, it rolls right off my back—and most people who are night owls are more phase-delayed in their circadian rhythms and adjust better to travel. One of the things I’d be concerned about when sitting down with a mixed martial arts fighter is if he says, “Yeah, I grew up on a farm, I like getting up at four o’clock in the morning, milking cows, and I like to be done by nine and get my training done in the morning,” the first thought I’m having is he’s probably not going to travel well. Versus the guy who says, “Yeah, I like to wake up at noon and I’m usually up until about three or four o’clock in the morning.” Those night owls tend to be much more acclimated to traveling.

It’s generally easier to travel west than east. If you said you eat dinner at seven o’clock, it’s easier for me to delay my dinner four hours than to accelerate it four hours. I can’t create hunger. Now, it may not be comfortable for me to wait until 11 to eat dinner, but I can do that—in fact, when 11 o’clock rolls around, I’m really going to put that steak away because I’ve delayed it. It’s the same thing with sleep: It’s easy for me to go out there and say, “It’s 11 o’clock, but I can stay up until one because of this meeting or whatever.” But it’s a lot harder when I come home at 11, I’ve got to be at work tomorrow at seven, which basically means I need to go to bed right now, but my body says it’s not 11, it’s 8—I’m not sleepy. And that’s when people get frustrated. So they stay up, but you still have to be at work at 6, so now you’re tired and you have to come home and take a nap and wake up. People get themselves in a lot of trouble going east.

When you start looking at symptoms, you can frame them all in terms of timing. Sleep’s usually the big one—everybody’s gone to bed but you feel wide awake, or everybody’s wide awake and you’re dying to go to sleep. And for people that aren’t getting drug tested, there are wonderful prescription medications you can use to help accelerate that [acclimation] process. But for the average athlete, they’re basically concerned with getting their sleep on schedule. They’re also concerned with eating. So you’ve arrived at Abu Dhabi and it’s time to eat some breakfast, but if you were at home your body would be in the middle of sleep. So it’s about slowly acclimating that individual to those meal times, otherwise you’re going to skip meals, which makes your training hard. It’s all about trying to make the whole process that you worked for months and months to build not simply fall apart because of a timing issue.

For athletes and for fighters, or a young person in their 20s, they’re going to athletically peak probably around four o’clock in the afternoon. That’s the average; this particular fighter or that particular fighter might be different. So we want to make sure that we’re getting that individual geared toward being athletically excellent at four o’clock. Even if the fight’s going to be at 11 o’clock in Beijing or wherever, we need to work with that athlete through scheduling, light exposure, meal timing, training, and sleep schedule, to get their brain tricked or fooled or acclimated to the fact that that fight that’s happening in two weeks is actually going to happen when that fighter is at its peak.

If the athlete has the ability to fly to Abu Dhabi and get there well ahead of time, a month ahead and set up training camp there, [jet lag is] probably not a big deal. If the person says, “Look, I don’t have that kind of money or resources to do that, I need to fly over three days before, do a couple press things, and beat this guy up,” then we need to figure out ways to acclimate him before he ever sets foot in that country.

There are some athletes that I work with who basically, where they train, they have it set up where they can control the light in that environment. As they work out in the gym or their training center, they can actually adjust light to mimic what the light is going to be doing in the place where they’re going. You walk around the facility and it looks like there are some frosted windows that go to the outside—they’re actually full-spectrum lights that they can control. They’ll start to dim like the sun’s going down, even though when you walk outside the sun’s totally up in the sky or it’s pitch black. So they can adjust those things and those are really powerful.

You might not want to get onto a time schedule that you would be on if you were at home not training. In other words, maybe your fight’s not going to happen until late in the night, so we may want to alter your schedule in the weeks and days leading up to the fight so that 11 p.m. feels more like 4 p.m. to you. You could really see this in the Beijing Olympics: I remember there was a woman who was supposed to be like the female Michael Phelps, and she was terrible—you could tell somebody who handled her didn’t deal with her properly in terms of that travel to China, versus the people who had professionals in their corner who helped them with that.

One interesting thing about travel is you can sort of side-step jet lag is by fasting. When your body fasts, it will suspend its circadian rhythm and instead of your suprachiasmatic nucleus being in charge, there’s another part of your brain called your paraventricular nucleus that takes over. If you think about a squirrel, if it’s starving, it’s not really in its best interest to climb up a tree and go to sleep for a while: it really needs to find food first, then it can sleep. So what happens with a fasted individual, they skip breakfast, drink water, get on the plane, and stay hydrated but stay away from food, and as the trip goes on, their body’s suprachiasmatic nucleus starts giving over control to your periventricular nucleus, which is basically saying “find food and then we’ll resume our circadian rhythms.” So what happens is you get to the place where you’re going, and you wait until lunchtime, have your meal in whatever country you’re in, and what happens is your body will actually use that as the timing point to restart the circadian rhythm. It can be a real lifesaver for some people—a lot of business travelers use that strategy and it works really well.

The key thing I always try to put forth is that it’s not about tonight: it’s about your longevity in this arena that’s got people chomping at you all the time. And what better analogy than the fighter that’s basically got other fighters lined up. Every fight is like a championship fight—you’re either moving up or moving down. And you get so few opportunities; you’ve got to capitalize on them. Otherwise, you’re selling insurance and people are looking at you like, “Hey, weren’t you the guy who fought that dude?”


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