How Travel Impacts Athlete Health and Performance

As a translator, interpreter and traveler in the Olympic Movement, I never thought I had anything in common with the athletes for whom said Movement exists.   However, there have been years when I traveled at least once per month.  Oh, I don’t mean little 2-day, 3-hour trips, I mean 16-hour, 14 day journeys to New Delhi or Beijing, for example. 

Of course, it’s always exciting to see new exotic cities, but you’re there to work so sightseeing is often whatever you can see from your hotel or car window. If I had a dime for every time a co-worker has said to be before a work trip, “Bye! Have fun!” (Insert extreme eye roll here).

No matter how cozy you make your little corner of the plane…you’re still trapped.

No matter how cozy you make your little corner of the plane…you’re still trapped.

Co-workers don’t understand that on trips you have to hit the ground running: catch a cab to the hotel, shower and change and meet the boss for a meeting, whether it be the Opening or an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Session or a social event. Many years ago, I learned to arrive in a strange land ready to use my language skills as soon as I arrived at the hotel.  

In the beginning, having to improvise, not knowing what topics I would be handling during interpretation, used to be quite unsettling. These days, all I feel is a kick of adrenaline in the back of my head and I dive right into a business reunion or a meeting with athletes and coaches at a World Cup.  But adrenaline tends to turn into stress after a few hours. 

This beautiful towel art was left on my bed, with only the reading light shining on it. I came back past midnight and it made me smile…it’s the little things that keep you sane.

This beautiful towel art was left on my bed, with only the reading light shining on it. I came back past midnight and it made me smile…it’s the little things that keep you sane.

Many friends who are athletes and officials complain that after long periods on the road, jet lag, strange food, waking up early to catch transportation to the venue for training or for long qualification rounds in a competition, stress starts taking its toll, sleep patterns become erratic and, consequently, mood and performance are affected.

An athletes arrives at a competition with the weight of an entire nation on his/her back.

An athletes arrives at a competition with the weight of an entire nation on his/her back.

Athletes and all Gamesmakers are performing with the eyes of the world on them at all times.

Athletes and all Gamesmakers are performing with the eyes of the world on them at all times.

Initially, I couldn’t believe a translator / interpreter had much in common with an athlete, but I started to notice the similarity in our stressors.  Below: athletes, officials and me arriving exhausted at the Olympic venue during the London 2012 Pre-Olympic event.  Yet all of us had to be ready to perform for hundreds of spectators and media.  And that’s one of the vicious circles: you can’t sleep because you’re thinking about what you need to do the next day…but you can’t have ideal results if you didn’t sleep the night before!

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In time, I realized I had to find a way to manage my stress because my performance at work was being affected, but it was easier said than done.

On one trip to Germany for ISSF meetings several years ago, I couldn’t find a flight that would put me in Munich earlier than my boss, who was landing at noon, so I booked a ticket for arrival one day early.  I landed at 7 am, showered and changed at the hotel and took to the streets for a long walk that did wonders for my back.  I stopped to browse art supplies (my addiction) at Kaut-Bullinger near Marienplatz.  I bought a set of hand lettering markers (click here to order them, they’re me favorite for calligraphy and art in general).

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Then I proceeded to walk to the Galeria Kaufhof and ordered some tea. I opened my notebook and sat there, thinking as I looked out at the gorgeous view. I must have sat there for 2 hours because I remember ordering 4 cups of tea (by the way my favorite is Dilmah, click here to buy it, I go through 5 or 6 cups of it per day!), but those two hours felt like 30 minutes with a therapist.

Tea, calligraphy pens, a notebook and a view…heaven.

Tea, calligraphy pens, a notebook and a view…heaven.

I don’t know what athletes do to lower their stress levels. I doubt they sit and sip tea as they do calligraphy. But everyone has something that soothes their soul or, at any rate, everyone should.

Grace Hahn