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Jet lag is a well-documented physiological condition that is caused by the disruption of the circadian rhythm due to traveling across time zones. In sports, traveling to another continent across a large number of time zones have obvious effects on your circadian rhythm, but even traveling across two or three time zones can cause disruptions and a decrease in sports performance. Anecdotally, it is a rule of thumb that it is easier for sports teams to travel westward than eastward. Two significant studies involving performance of teams from Major League Baseball and the National Football League support and contradict this rule of thumb. While the studies of jet lag and its effect on sports performance hasn’t always painted a clear picture, there does appear to be a quantitative significance of jet lag and travel on sports performance.
When an East Coast NFL team traveled westward and played an away game against a West Coast team at 8 p.m. Eastern time or later, the West Coast team had a distinct advantage. The study conducted by researchers from Harvard, Stanford, Berkeley, and UC San Diego, found that in 293 games, West Coast teams beat the point spread by an average of 5.26 points in these matchups. In day games between the two teams in the same situation, the researchers found no significant advantage for either team. In a similar study using MLB teams, West Coast teams raveling eastward had a higher winning percentage than East Coast teams traveling westward. Researchers analyzed games played over 10 seasons and West Coast teams had a winning percentage of .530 when traveling eastward versus a winning percentage of .509 for East Coast teams traveling westward.
On the other hand, individual performances of major league baseball players were the opposite to the winning percentages. A study of over 40,000 MLB games over 20 years found that individual performances were worse when teams traveled from west to east. This was not only true for West Coast teams traveling eastward, but also for East Coast teams that were returning home from a West Coast road trip. The study found that most of the negative effects of jet lag on individual performance revolved around base running related statistics like stolen bases, extra-base hits, and the number of double plays grounded into. Another significant finding was that jet lagged home teams were worse off when it came to offensive performance, particularly home runs. Jet lagged pitchers performed worse for both home and away teams that traveled eastward.
It has been been standard for MLB teams to sit their starting catcher in the day game after a night game, but we may begin to see more roster changes based on jet lag data. Dr. Ravi Allada, one of the authors of the MLB study, recommends that teams should send starting pitchers to the away game location several days early to adjust their internal clock to the local time zone. Unlike position players, starting pitchers only play every fifth day during the season and it would benefit the pitcher to leave early for a road game that is in another time zone. NFL teams will travel on Friday for a Sunday game, but it may be a good idea to travel a day or two earlier for away games where you are traveling across several time zones.
It has been well known that crossing time zones does causes jet lag and this would be largely evident in athletic performance. A baseball hitter has 0.40 seconds to react to and hit a 95 MPH fastball. You would certainly need to be at peak physical and cognitive performance to play at the highest levels of professional sports. Even a five percent drop in performance due to jet lag could have a significant effect. Travel is part of the game and to maximize performance, teams and players need to pay close attention to their circadian rhythms and adjust their practice schedules and roster management to match the local time zones of their next game.
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