There are enough challenges to navigate when elite athletes prepare for competition. But when travel — especially overseas — enters the picture, the complexities multiply, so we asked athletes what they do to ensure a smooth transition to a new location, without sacrificing performance.
Travel Planning Tips for On-the-Go Athletes
1. Make Your List and Check It Twice (or More)
“The best times I’ve traveled, I’ve planned ahead and packed my bags early so I wasn’t scurrying around the house at the last minute,” one of the world’s top heavyweight wrestlers, Nick Gwiazdowski, says. “That way, when I get to wherever we’re going, I can relax and trust that I have everything: my laundry, my singlets, my mouthguard, my backup mouthguard.
“You don’t want to have to run around a place you don’t know and try to find things you forgot. I’d rather focus on the task at hand and not have to worry about the small things.”
2. Get in the New Zone … ASAP
“Oslo time,” read the Instagram post from Team USA wrestler Yianni Diakomihalis. Immediately upon boarding the plane in Newark for his flight to Norway for the World Championships a week prior to the first whistle, Diakomihalis changed his watch to reflect the time at his destination (and let everyone know on social media). “Adapt right away,” he said.
3. Be Extra Mindful of What You Put in Your Body
While heavyweight wrestlers aren’t usually as worried about making weight as their lighter counterparts, Gwiazdowski knows that he needs to pay attention to what he puts into his body, particularly on the road.
“I find that staying hydrated is important and helps tremendously with time change,” he says. “When I’m not hydrated properly, I don’t sleep well. And if I hydrate too late in the day, I have to get up at night and it interrupts my schedule. It seems like such a small thing — hydrating correctly and enough — but it can make or break your performance when you travel.
"As far as what I eat, I don’t have a super strict diet, but I definitely clean things up when I’m on the road, staying away from greasy and salty foods and sticking to things I’m familiar with. It’s not the time to try something new and possibly suffer the consequences.”
4. Carry Over Typical Routines
“Having and keeping routines are key,” wrestling champion Kellen Russell says. “You need to know your routine and force yourself to follow it. It’s so easy to be sidetracked on international trips. You land and you want to look around at a new place, or you’re exhausted and decide to take a quick nap, even though it’s daytime in your destination.
“Next thing you know, it’s three hours later and you’ve thrown off your entire schedule. As athletes, we develop specific routines and when we’re traveling, we need to be even more diligent and keep to those routines as much as possible.”
5. Eliminate Distractions
UFC lightweight Al Iaquinta says being in a hotel prior to his fights makes things easier.
“I just close the shades, and try to get rid of all the distractions,” he says. “That’s the key, just going to sleep.”
“When I’m getting ready to compete, I try to make sure not to get caught up in the things that don’t matter for performance,” he says. “Shut off the screens, relax, go to bed. That’s the task. It’s about discipline.”
Notice how the athletes mentioned sleep numerous times. Every single one emphasized that optimizing sleep on the road cannot be talked about enough. That isn’t lost on UFC Director of Performance Nutrition Clint Wattenberg.
6. Bringing It All Together: Plan, Plan, Plan
UFC was the first professional sports organization to return to action during the pandemic. The organization began in the United States, but then held a number of events on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, the site of our upcoming Spartan World Championship. Transporting a large group of athletes across the globe during uncertain times to engage in one-on-one combat wasn’t easy, but it happened with the help of individualized performance portfolios for each participant. Those nutrition portfolios included nutrition for travel, recommended sleeping schedules, and suggested physical activity on the plane.
“Nutrition is the gateway to hormones, so we ensured consistent feeding tactics to stabilize circadian rhythms and wake/sleep cycles, which are essential when you travel,” Wattenberg says. "It’s so important to support the immune system, 70% of which is in your gut. We know that travel brings exposure to harmful things — whether it be viruses, pathogens, or irregular sleep — so it’s crucial to pay attention to how we feed ourselves to keep ourselves healthy.
“We also identified the optimal time for sleep activation/deactivation for every person, backtracking from fight time and taking into account the 48 hours of quarantine for everyone once we landed.”
In the end, the events were a success, and those who adhered to the travel guidelines reaped the benefits, according to Wattenberg.
“Those who were diligent with their food, activity, and sleep transitioned well by the time the quarantine was over,” he says. “Those who were more haphazard, struggled throughout. Excelling in competition is a lot more than fight preparation, especially when so much change is involved.”
That message resonates with Spartan Combat wrestler Youssif Hemida, who notched eighth place at 125 kilograms in his debut at the Senior World Championships in early October.
“So many more factors to consider when competing internationally,” he tweeted shortly after the event. “Different foods, jet lag, different officiating, etc. Not making excuses, just giving props to those that find themselves on the podium year after year.”
Do you want to get on the podium when competing far from home? Take the advice of these globetrotting athletes into account the next time you’re packing your bags.