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From Time Zone to Strike Zone

How Jet Lag Impacts Baseball Performance

Jet lag has been shown to impair the performance of major league baseball players, especially when the travel involves multiple time zones and minimal rest time, according to a study conducted by Northwestern University that looked at 20 years’ worth of Major League Baseball data.

A known component of jet lag is that traveling east is more disruptive than going west, which the study’s results backed up as well. Daylight and other external cues make it easier for your biological clock to synch up and extend the length of a day when you fly west across time zones, rather than to shorten the day, by flying east.

The study looked at the performance of teams taking the field after crossing two or three time zones – but without enough time to adjust. A team from the East Coast that had just returned home from a game out west (so, an East Coast home team playing at home after an away game out west) tended to have fewer stolen bases, fewer extra-base hits and grounded into more double plays. Eastward travel was also linked to pitchers allowing more home runs, both at home and away, suggesting that starting pitchers would benefit from extra travel time, arriving a few days ahead of the rest of the team to give them time to adjust to the new time zone.

“Long distance flights can cause jet lag, characterized by sleep loss, headaches, dizziness and fatigue that results in reduced energy levels and cognitive alertness, taking a toll on physical and mental performance. Professional athletes are no different,” says Ravi Allada, MD, circadian rhythm expert, Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine professor and lead scientist on the study.

And it’s not just baseball players whose performance suffers: West Coast NFL teams win more night games against East Coast teams; NHL teams underscore after rigorous road trips; and marathon runners have a 10 percent drop in performance when crossing time zones.

The general rule of thumb is that for each time zone crossed, your body needs one day to adjust. If you travel across three time zones, you would need three days to recover. International and eastward travel require more time.

Jet lag affects people – and athletes - in different ways, but the direction of travel, especially eastward, seems to have the biggest impact. There’s no way to completely avoid jet lag, but it’s something to consider the next time your favorite team takes a road trip.