11.12.2017

FAST ASLEEP: HOW DRIVERS USE SCIENCE TO AVOID JET LAG

Top view of handsome man smiling while sleeping in his bed at home

It doesn’t matter whether you work in an office, on a construction site, or behind the wheel of a racing car capable of hitting 200 miles per hour – the benefits of a good night’s sleep are universally acknowledged.

Racing drivers today arrive at racetracks all around the world several days in advance, to take part in PR events, team activities, training, practice and qualifying, as well as the race itself.

These hectic schedules are carefully planned and managed by team personnel, but to ensure they don’t have a detrimental effect, some racing drivers and teams are now using careful plans to manage their sleep too.

Dr Steven Lockley, a leading neuroscientist in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, is one of the experts working with F1 teams and drivers. Working with Hintsa Performance, Dr Lockley has advised on and formulated individual sleeping plans for Mercedes AMG Formula One team, ensuring that they get enough shut-eye, and avoid dreaded jet lag when travelling over multiple time zones.

“The travel schedule is quite brutal,” says Dr Lockley. “They travel long distances potentially every two weeks, and that causes problems with jet lag, because the body clock can’t reset quickly enough to the changing time zone.

“I provide plans to the drivers’ coaches, who then work with the drivers to help speed up the rate of adaptation to the new time zone. If you don’t do anything proactively, you only shift by up to an hour a day. For example, London to Melbourne is an 11-hour time difference, which could take 11 days or longer to adapt to without specific advice. This is too long to be ready for the race, so we’ve developed a programme which speeds it up to about three hours per day. If you start shifting before you leave, you can be pretty well adapted within a few days of arriving, even with these long trips with a big difference in time zones.”

Rhythm is the Answer

The circadian rhythm is an internal body clock that is roughly 24 hours in length, and sets us on a daily schedule, letting us know when to sleep, wake, and be active. Modifying this to fit with new times zones, as Dr Lockley explains, is the key when it comes to avoiding jet lag.

“The pattern of light and dark helps shift the clock more quickly, so we advise when to see light – either sunlight or bright, indoor lights – and when to avoid it, by wearing sunglasses or not being in natural light. We also offer advice on melatonin treatment, which does two things. It shifts the clock, and also helps you sleep at the ‘wrong’ time when travelling, so it’s very good at helping to increase the rate of adaptation.

“In addition we include naps in the schedule to help alleviate some sleepiness, as well as caffeine advice to maximise alertness while minimising its negative effects on sleep. Caffeine doesn’t affect the clock, but it can help you stay awake at times when we want people to see light.”

Jet lag occurs when a person’s internal body clock is out of sync with the natural light/dark cycle

These may sound like simple steps to follow, but Dr Lockley explains that tailoring these tips for each driver is of paramount importance, as well as following the guidelines at set times.

“We also ask about people’s sleep habits, duration, their sleep timing, whether they’re a morning or evening type, and assess some of the other factors that might affect the schedule, and put them all together in one plan. It’s individualised for drivers so it fits into their schedule and their biology.”

Turbo Lag

There’s an oft-used phrase that when travelling on a plane, ‘West is best, East is a beast’. Put simply, travelling in a Westerly direction is easier for most people, because it’s following their natural circadian cycle.

“The direction of the travel also makes a difference,” adds Dr Lockley. “Most of us find it easier to travel West, because most of us have a body clock that is slightly longer than 24 hours, but around a quarter of people find it easier to travel East, because their body clocks are slightly less than 24 hours.

“The extent of the challenge depends on the number of time zones, and also on the internal body clock. When you’re looking at solutions for jet lag, you don’t have to necessarily shift the clock in the direction the calendar says.”

Although the preference of Easterly or Westerly travel can have a big effect on the overall plan, it’s sometimes far easier to head the other way around the globe to save time, and reduce the number of time zones travelled through.

“If there’s a difference of 14 hours in one direction, there’s a difference of 10 hours in the other direction, and you caan travel in either direction. When you’re planning, you can work out the shortest distance in biological time, and shift the clock according to that.”

Multi-tasking

As well as the physical and mental demands of racing for hours at a time, professional drivers today often compete in more than one series, taking them to all corners of the world in a very short space of time.

This year, Swedish driver Felix Rosenqvist raced in the FIA Formula E championship, a series spanning five continents, as well as the full 2017 Japanese Super Formula season, held exclusively in Japan. This meant he had to criss-cross the globe on numerous occasions.

“I’ve been travelling a lot to Japan this year, nine times in total,” he explains. “With Formula E, there are many races on different continents, and I mainly find that travelling East is the hardest thing, so countries like Hong Kong, Macau, Japan are very difficult to adapt to.”

Despite racing in two elite motor racing series, Rosenqvist says that the days leading up to an event are no time to relax, lest you suffer the negative effects of jet lag.

“It’s important to stay busy. Let’s say you arrive on the Monday and race on Friday, Saturday and Sunday – you should try to stay busy to get into a normal rhythm.

“I think the best thing to do is to follow the day, as in when the sun goes down or when the sun goes up, you sort of need to see it, so it calibrates your brain to the new time zone.”

Dr Lockley’s research confirms that the light/dark cycle is the most important factor with which to reset a person’s circadian rhythm to a new time zone, although he says the timing of this must be planned correctly to avoid making jet lag worse.

“The light/dark cycle is the major environmental time cue that sets your clock every day, so that you’re synchronised with the 24-hour world,” says Lockley. “As soon as you start to adjust those light-dark cycles and sleep-wake cycles, you’re going against your clock, and then you get problems. If you fly to Japan and try to sleep at a time when the brain is promoting wake, you’ll have very poor sleep in Japan, and then when you try and stay awake, you’ll have very poor quality wakefulness.”

Rosenqvist’s packed 2017 schedule included several back-to-back weekends in different parts of the globe, with one week incorporating trips to Spain, Japan, and the USA. However, he feels that a relatively short stay in Japan helped prevent any negative effects.

“We did a Formula E test in Spain in the simulator in preparation for the New York ePrix, which was on the Wednesday or Thursday before the Fuji race. Then I arrived in Fuji on the evening before free practice, so that weekend was quite crazy!

“I actually felt quite good, because the time I was there was really short. It’s almost like two different theories – you either stay really long so that you get adapted or you just deal with it for a short period of time. Afterwards I set off straight to New York and I think I arrived there on Tuesday morning, and somehow, I was just immediately into the time zone in New York, so that was actually one of the easiest adaptations for jet lag.”

Winning Formula

One of Dr Lockley’s main pieces of advice is to begin shifting the body clock before travelling. Nico Rosberg, 2016 FIA Formula One World Champion with Mercedes AMG, feels that these sleeping plans directly and positively influenced his title challenge.

“I always struggled through the years with sleeping when I got to different time zones,” said Rosberg in a recent interview for UBS.

“The team got advice from [Dr Lockley] and it revolutionised my life. The advice he gave was to do it all in small steps, a maximum of one and a half hours per day, six or seven days before you get to the new place. I just slept perfectly and had no jet lag whatsoever. I had that little bit extra brainpower and energy. Anything extra you can bring to the table is going to help you, and I’m sure that’s part of why I won the World Championship.”

Großer Preis von Abu Dhabi 2016, Sonntag
Nico Rosberg says he “slept perfectly and had no jet lag” thanks to Dr Lockley’s advice.

But adjusting to a new time zone early doesn’t work for everyone, and is one of the challenges that Dr Lockley sometimes encounters when putting together a plan.

“If a driver has got commitments back in Europe, where it means they can’t start shifting their clock early, then we have to work around those issues.”

Rosenqvist is one such driver, who says that he has tried to adapt to a new time zone ahead of arrival, but it’s not for him.

“I’ve tried to get into the time zone before travelling, but it rarely works for me, because you have other things to do at home. If you start going to bed early before leaving home, you sort of jeopardise your whole other life.”

Racing drivers are all different, so there’s no ‘catch-all’ solution for avoiding jet lag or dealing with it, but with these personalised sleeping plans, they have very good chances of adapting to new times zones.

This article has
been republished
with permission
from AUTO+ Medical,
the FIA’s Journal of
motor sport medicine.