Managing Traveling Athletes

BY SARAH WHITEHEAD, PHYSIOTHERAPIST, PINNACLE PERFORMANCE


“If you haven’t already guessed, athletes can be one of the most difficult types of physiotherapy patients to manage. Throw in travel, and then you’ve really got a challenge.”

Before getting into the management side of things, let’s just clarify exactly what an athlete is…..well it originates from the Greek word ‘athlon,’ meaning ‘prize‘, so generally it is someone who trains in exercises, sports or games, usually at a competitive level, and usually with their eyes on a prize or goal – What’s Yours? This is exactly why all our members at Pinnacle Performance are termed ‘athletes’ – they all have a goal – and they Plan, Pursue, Perform towards that exact goal every week, every cycle.


 

More often than not when I travel with athletes I am the only medical support staff on tour. This means my job title (unofficially) extends to Nurse, Doctor, Strength & Conditioning CoachNutritionist, Psychologist and sometimes even Mum! Therefore management of the athlete extends way beyond Physiotherapy skills. On purely the Physio side of things my job is to ensure the athletes are ‘game ready’; this includes treatment of an acute injury, rehab continuation of a chronic condition, and making sure training modifications are in play if needs be. Yet when you incorporate travel, the challenges multiply, mostly because there are so many variable factors that you often have no control over; environment, climate, altitude and time zones just to name a few.

In my opinion, there is only one real difference between managing a competitive or professional athlete compared to a recreational one. All athletes love what they do, all athletes are passionate and skilled and have their eyes on that prize or goal, but quite simply a pro-athlete is exactly that: a professional – it’s their JOB to physically perform at the highest level. So when they don’t produce a good enough performance or they can’t compete due to injury, contracts are in jeopardy. The result is increased pressure on the athlete and myself to always have them as well adjusted and injury-free as can be.

Due this positive stress and pressure I have developed some ‘go-to’ guidelines and rules for all my traveling athletes. Below I have outlined these tips for managing and reducing the impact of travel on performance – which can be apply to athletes at any level.

ENVIRONMENT

This can be anything from the accommodation and training grounds, to the culture and state of the country you are visiting. The better the environment, the easier it is for athletes to adapt and settle, but that’s not always the case. You don’t get to pick the location of the event or tournament or even the hotel in some cases. If you’re talking extreme sports it’s rarely a comfortable environment, so in order to limit all the possible negative effects these things can bring, I find education on the pros and cons, with possible adaptation planning, promotes an easier transition.

For example, within a hot climate one needs ideally 7-10 days to acclimatise. Knowing the signs and symptoms of dehydration and heat stress is key, i.e. headache, nausea, dizziness and decreased co-ordination. Warm ups may need to be modified to prevent overheating, in air conditioned environments if possible. Athletes also need to be well aware of the importance of protecting themselves from the sun. Even a mild reddening of the skin can be uncomfortable which will reduce acclimatisation and can impair temperature regulation for several days. Dehydration is also a big factor in hot climates, especially when heat is combined with humidity. In an effort to cool down, the body will sweat more which can quickly lead to dehydration, so monitor and replace what is lost, and more!

Within colder climates, the blood vessels constrict which results in decreased blood flow to the muscles and therefore decreased exercise performance. Adhere to the following advice to ensure safety and lesser effects on performance:

  • Several layers of thin clothing is better than one thick layer;
  • Avoid alcohol as this will increase the rate of heat loss;
  • Plan a snack every 2 hours (more calories and energy are used in colder temperatures);
  • In extremely cold temperatures, keep hands, feet and eyes well protected.

ALTITUDE 

Altitude has much more of an effect on endurance sports as these require the most Oxygen. Events that require power, e.g. weight-lifting, are less effected but it is still something you need to consider with your training and warm ups. These effects will occur at altitudes above 2000 metres (6,500ft), although some people notice a difference above 1500-1800 metres. In order to manage this allow plenty of time to acclimatise. Training intensity should be reduced, longer rests and recovery are needed as well as sufficient sleep. Increasing the intake of carbohydrate and iron-rich foods will help a lot especially if you don’t have the luxury of acclimatization time.


TIME ZONE

When travel includes a large change in time zones, ‘Jet Lag’ can occur. It’s bad when you’re on holiday and much much worse when you need to perform at your best. In order to adjust fully, allow 1 day for each time zone shift. Generally, people find that Jet Lag is more severe when travelling towards the east as opposed to westwards.

Tips to alleviate Jet Lag:

  • Adapt to local time as soon as possible;
  • Avoid prolonged napping in new location;
  • With smaller time differences (<5 hours) athletes should train in the middle of the day after a westward flight, but in the early evening after an eastward flight.

One of the great things about sport is that it’s unpredictable. Therefore as a Physio on tour, I never know what problem is going to come along. This makes things interesting and it definitely keeps me on my toes. The days are often long and the athletes can be demanding, but the reward of knowing I helped someone achieve their dream trumps it all; and it’s a pretty darn fabulous feeling if I say so myself!

So for all you ‘athletes’ out there: following the mantra of PLAN (preparation & education), PURSUE (adaptation), PERFORM, just like our Pinnacle members, will help you achieve those goals when travelling and get your hands on that ‘athlon’! Not sure ‘What’s Yours?’ Come and see us.


 

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