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Up in the Air: While Scientists Say Air Travel Has a Negative Effect on Athletes, it is a Necessary Evil for Most

8 Mar, 2017

By: Michael Popke

As March Madness encroaches, there is renewed discussion about how air travel affects athletes, particularly athletes who have a lot at stake.

A recent example of this can be seen in the NBA’s ongoing Global Games series — which featured the Denver Nuggets and the Indiana Pacers playing in London on Jan. 12 and the Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs tipping off in Mexico City on Jan. 14.

“The Nuggets were given just four days off to adjust to a difference of six time zones,” ABC News reported. “They will then get three days off before their next game, which is back in Denver, a seven-hour change from London. Then the Nuggets will fly to Los Angeles and face the Lakers the very next night.”

Now, granted, college hoops players aren’t crossing that many time zones, but they are traveling – and quickly too – without much time to acclimate themselves before they hit the court for practice and competition.

A study published in 2012 in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, titled “Effect of Airline Travel on Performance: A Review of the Literature,” claims that changing time zones disrupts circadian rhythms, reduced oxygen pressure in the cabin produces a hypoxic effect and sitting in a seat for hours on a plane affects limb movement.

“Travel and sleep are just destroying these athletes, and I think that’s what the NBA really needs to think about,” Golden State Warriors assistant general manager Kirk Lacob said at a sports biometrics conference in November. “The reality is when you travel four times a week, and you’re on a plane that long right after you played, it’s not a good recovery period at all for the body being up in the air like that, and in a chair. It’s not good.”

NBA players are far from the only athletes enduring such potential travel trauma. This season, eight NFL teams will take part in the NFL’s four-game International Series at London’s Wembley Stadium and Twickenham Stadium.

As ABC reports:

The NBA has been making a concerted effort to help players via sleep therapists, flight improvements and other means. Yet with 82 games over a 170-day regular season spread across four North American time zones, there are only so many things that can be done. As Lacob points out: When a team’s plane lands in another time zone at 2 a.m., you can’t tell players to get to sleep within 15 minutes and not wake up until nine hours later.

Byrne, who has worked with a variety of pro teams, says the “sleep thing” is so new that many people throughout sports don’t know nearly enough about it. Some teams, he said, are even wasting efforts with bogus technology that doesn’t help.

“What we’re trying to teach the teams is how the sleep directly affects the players’ reaction time and how it affects the whole team’s performance, so they can make smarter decisions,” Byrne said.

On Jan. 13, West Virginia University’s men’s basketball team embarked on a five-game, 14-day road trip in which three of those games tipped off at 9 p.m. (EST). The Mountaineers also play Saturday-Monday games for three straight weekends in February. That’s why head coach Bob Huggins made sure his team had access to chartered flights before he took the job way back in 2007.

“We talked about that very briefly before I signed a contract — I went down to the business office, and they said they had it in the budget,” Huggins told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “Then, all of a sudden, they didn’t have it in the budget.”

The paper went on to explain the compromise Huggins struck with the WVU athletic department:

Huggins agreed to work with the Mountaineer Athletic Club so the team could charter for the 2007-08 season. That created the Legacy Fund, which no longer finances the charters and instead covers travel costs for recruiting. Huggins and the MAC “raised some money, but it wasn’t enough for all the charters,” but the team nevertheless had its own plane wherever it went.

“It never was an issue again,” [Huggins] said.

The cost for chartering has been a part of the athletic department’s budget ever since. For the 2015-16 season, that covered around $940,000. Since joining the Big 12, which required bigger planes for longer trips, the annual cost has roughly doubled.

The value goes beyond players, coaches and managers picking their own seats and being surrounded by familiar faces instead of being crammed next to strangers and screaming babies. WVU leaves the day before a game and flies home after the game ends. The Mountaineers have to keep a schedule, but they also make the schedule.

Click here for guidelines to share with teams traveling across time zones for competition.

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