At present, I am on the plane traveling to the 2015 Reebok Crossfit Games with my teammates of CrossFit Terminus. Over the next few days, we will be re-adjusting to a three hour time-zone change coupled with a change in when we eat, compete, rest, and recover. I guess you could say that this fits with the spirit of The CrossFit Games, preparing for the unknown and unknowable, but how detrimental is this time-zone change on performance? Can hours and direction (eastward or westward) traveled affect the likelihood of who makes the podium?
Over the past ten years, scientists have identified self-sustaining biological clocks in our body and brain that tell us when to sleep, wake up, eat, and perform at our best. These clocks are very sensitive to environmental conditions such as the amount of available sunlight, food (for animals in the wild), and people (or predators and prey). Of these three, sunlight is the most potent activator of these biological clocks in our brains and bodies. Many of us know this because it is often more difficult to wake up and stay alert during the short winter days compared to the long summer days. Therefore, it should be no surprise that jet lag impacts performance both mentally and physically by interfering with when these biological clocks alert us to sleep, wake up, eat, and perform at our best.
Fortunately, a few scientists have studied how jet lag affects athletic performance. I covered the research pretty extensively in my recent book, Meathead: Unraveling the Athletic Brain, which emphasizes the importance of sleep for optimizing athletic performance and recovery. My guess is that you're all busy watching the games, so here are some of the highlights from chapter four of Meathead:
Damn Those Time Zones
"One of the first studies to investigate athletic performance following East versus West Coast travel was determined from archived data of the 1996 college football season; the University of Florida Gators were national champions that year. Overall, teams that traveled more than one time zone eastward performed consistently worse than teams traveling more than one hour westward: they scored fewer points, allowed more points, and had greater point spreads even when controlling for progress of the game: 1st quarter versus 4th quarter.
Nearly twenty years after this study, a similar study was published looking at winning percentages for night games between East versus West Coast teams in the NFL: games with the highest viewer ratings. Researchers at Stanford University carefully controlled for win-loss records across forty years of play in the NFL by using the Vegas point-spread. The Vegas point-spread is based on multiple factors including win-loss record, injury reports, historical matchups between the teams, and weather. Therefore, a "win" in this Stanford study was defined as winning the actual game and beating the Vegas point-spread. The results were astounding. Basically, East Coast teams are at a much bigger disadvantage when playing a night game on the West Coast. West Coast teams are estimated to win 70% of games played regardless of whether it was an away or home game. Crazy talk!!
Now in terms of whether travel to the West coast versus Midwest matters equally for a New York Yankee, it does. In 2008, I learned about such a concern at our annual sleep conference held in Baltimore, Maryland through Dr. W. Christopher Winter at the University of Virginia who happened to have a research poster next to me. Dr. Winter and colleagues entered the scores of over 24,121 MLB games into a database that controlled for number of time zones travelled. Independent of direction, 60 percent of games were lost if the baseball player traveled three zones and 52 percent were lost for travel through two time zones. An 8 percent difference may not seem significant, but in the world of professional sports that can be the difference between finishing last in the league (and subsequently getting first pick in the next year’s draft) and vying for a pennant."
So what does this mean for the Reebok CrossFit Games? It means that people from the California and South Regionals may have a general physiological advantage over the four days of competition, possibly pulling ahead during the afternoon and evening events. While interesting, I will say "screw you" to science at the moment because we are more than prepared to handle and succeed with whatever is thrown at us this week. Carson here we come!
Professional: Academic Researcher with a focus on neurobiology @ Morehouse School of Medicine and professor at Morehouse College
PHD Info: Kent State with a focus on neurobiology (PHD from Department of Biological Sciences)
CrossFit Games Experience: 2015 Regionals - Team, 2014 Regionals Athlete, 2013 CrossFit Games - Team, 2012 Regionals Athlete
Collegiate Athletic Background: Brown University Track & Field, 4 year varsity letterman, specialist in pole vault and hurdles
Facebook: Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain
Allison's Blog: www.dormivigilia.com
Instagram and Twitter: @beastlyvaulter
Like this article? Check out Allison's book Meathead: Unraveling The Athletic Brain