Travel for Competition Puts Athletes at Risk of Illness

We all know we are more susceptible to getting sick when we travel, but science took a hard look at how crossing time zones has an incremental effect on the health of elite athletes.

Recent research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine revealed that athletes who travel more than five time zones to compete are about two to three times as likely to get sick, compared to when they compete in their home environment. Many Olympic athletes competing in London travel more than five time zones to compete, so those athletes are at a high risk of contracting an illness while they are in London.

The study tracked the daily health of 259 elite rugby players who were competing in the 2010 Super 14 Rugby Tournament. This is an annual tournament that includes fourteen teams from Australia, South Africa, and New Zealand. The tournament spans over sixteen weeks (from February to May) at venues in each country, and the time zones can vary from as little as two to eleven hours.1

There were eight team physicians who completed a daily log for each member of their squad when they contracted an illness requiring medical attention. There was 1000 players days, resulting in the total number of playing days for all of the teams to be 22,676 (based on squad size x days of play).2

There were 469 illnesses that were reported in 187 of the players (just over 72%) within the sixteen weeks of the tournament. This resulted in an incidence of almost 21 per 1000 player days. However, the rate varied significantly depending on where the matches were played. The matches played on home grounds, before international travel, resulted in an incidence of 15.4/1,000 player days. This incident rate rose considerably when the matches were played in locations 5+ hours different in time from home – it rose up to 32.6/1,000 player days. When the matches were played at home after international travel, the rate fell back to 10.6/1,000 player days.3

The most common illnesses that were reported were respiratory conditions (almost 31%), stomach/GI problems (27.5%), and skin and soft tissue conditions (22.5%). Out of all the illnesses, some form of infection was the cause. “The results from our study indicate that the illness risk is not directly related to the travel itself, but rather the arrival and location of the team at a distant destination,” wrote the authors.4

The researchers conclude that many variables could be the reason for the differences in illness rates. Factors that could be influential are changes in altitude, pollution, temperature, allergens, humidity, as well as different food, bacteria, and culture. Athletes anticipating travel for competition would be well advised to factor in extra time for rest and acclimation to the environment before their event, as well as bringing items to combat as many of illness-causing factors as possible.

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