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Learning to Travel: An Underrated Athletic Skill

One of the most underrated skills in sports is the ability to travel. Anyone with high aspirations must learn to take their game on the road, whether that means competing for professional championships with lots of money on the line or simply finishing a goal race at the amateur level for personal satisfaction. Most people don't live in a city with a fast marathon course, Ironman, or permanent national championship venue. As such, the most important events usually occur away from home. While many travel calamities are outside our control, careful planning and mental rehearsal can help us better respond to such events when they occur. Likewise, a sound travel routine can make competing on the road no different than training in the comforts of one's home base.

The physiological responses to travel stress are very real.  The Vancouver Canucks' hiring of a sleep and travel consultant as part of the team's performance staff raised public awareness of travel stress and its effect on athletic performance.  Due to Vancouver's geographic isolation from most of the league, the Canucks have perhaps the most difficult travel schedule in professional team sports on the entire planet.  Although they did not hoist the Stanley Cup after Game 7, they must have done something right to outlast all but one team in the National Hockey League! The Canucks planned with such detail that they assigned roommates with the help of data on each player's sleep patterns.

 

Start Early

Developing sound travel habits should begin at a young age. One little known fact about Tiger Woods "training" was that his father Earl made young Tiger make his own travel reservations for out of town events (note this was pre-Internet when everything was done via phone). Young Tiger would make the reservation and Earl would complete the transaction with the credit card number. Even before Tiger could traverse the world on a private jet as the world's richest athlete, as an amateur he won USGA Championships in Oregon, Florida, and Rhode Island. Also note that Tiger and Earl typically relied on red-eye flights that arrived to tournament destinations as late as possible to avoid spending extra money on hotels, which was an even greater challenge to Tiger's focus (which ultimately provided opportunities for growth).

Michael Phelps benefitted from similar coaching foresight under the tutelage of his coach, Bob Bowman. According to Bowman, Phelps began preparing for the rigors of travel as even before his teenage years. Bowman made the following comments in a 2005 interview with Swimming World Magazine...

"Michael has been learning since he was 11 & 12 how to take care of himself...He "practiced" traveling and how to maintain his form through time-changes and long flights. He didn't wait until the Olympics or the Trials to learn these things, he's been learning them since he was 12....

 ....Part of the plan for Michael was traveling quite a bit the two years or so before the Olympics, around the globe. And there were quite a few people who thought that was foolish, as well as detrimental to his training program. It was neither. While it may have caused him to miss a session here or a session there, it taught him how to travel and to travel well, because on every one of those trips we followed a protocol for what he would do before the trip, the way he would travel on the plane, what he would do when he got off the plane, how he was expected to perform right after that. And this summer when we flew to Athens, there were swimmers on our Olympic team who took as long as a week to adjust to the changes. Michael got off the plane and had one of his best training sessions of the whole summer, the same day we got to Athens. The next day he had another very good practice, and by the third day he was on fire.

Most of that had to do with his understanding of sleeping on the plane, at the right times, and what he did when he got off the plane. You have to immediately get in the water to acclimatize yourself. We followed a protocol he has followed for every travel meet since he was 12 years old, so he knows exactly how his body feels after he does the preliminary part of that warm-up, and then I adjust the main series according to that. And then based on how he performs on the main series, I have an indication of what needs to happen the next day. He has a lot of those things ingrained that free him up to not worry about whether he can adjust to the time, because he just does things that make all that happen."

Practical Applications

The best way to improve travel skill is to practice traveling and competing. A reliable travel protocol is a priceless long-term investment with a value beyond a fancy new piece of equipment. While there are obvious limitations based on cost and time as to the number of opportunities, there are ways to hone this skill at the local and regional level. Many adult athletes will spend thousands of dollars and use valuable vacation time to travel to a distant event, yet one of their first times competing away from home is in the big event itself. Planning an efficient travel itinerary is also an important aspect of the travel process. Not every event is accessible via major airports. As such, experience with different airports and the ability to minimize time en route at the least possible cost and can reduce the burden of travel stress.

Each event is an additional opportunity to reinforce your pre-competition routine under a varied set of conditions. Before one pre-Olympic meet, Bowman even told a taxi driver to take a wrong turn so Phelps would have experience in that situation if he was to encounter it in the Olympics. I've made my own share of travel gaffes over the years, but it has taken years of practice to roll out of the car or off the plane after a long trip and feel sharp. There's no single right answer for everyone, but careful tracking of one's own personal tendencies can help shape an effective travel approach for each individual.  

Resources

The Physiology of Travel Stress

Bob Bowman Interview

One of the most underrated skills in sports is the ability to travel. Anyone with high aspirations must learn to take their game on the road, whether that means competing for professional championships with lots of money on the line or simply finishing a goal race at the amateur level for personal satisfaction. Most people don't live in a city with a fast marathon course, Ironman, or permanent national championship venue. As such, the most important events usually occur away from home. While many travel calamities are outside our control, careful planning and mental rehearsal can help us better respond to such events when they occur. Likewise, a sound travel routine can make competing on the road no different than training in the comforts of one's home base.

The physiological responses to travel stress are very real. In the recent NHL playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks' hiring of a sleep and travel consultant as part of the team's performance staff raised public awareness of travel stress and its effect on athletic performance. Due to Vancouver's geographic isolation from most of the league, the Canucks have perhaps the most difficult travel schedule in professional team sports on the entire planet. Although they did not hoist the Stanley Cup after Game 7, they must have done something right to outlast all but one team in the NHL! The Canucks planned with such detail that they assigned roommates with the help of data on each player's sleep patterns.

Developing sound travel habits should begin at a young age. One little known fact about Tiger Woods "training" was that his father Earl made young Tiger make his own travel reservations for out of town events (note this was pre-Internet when everything was done via phone). Young Tiger would make the reservation and Earl would complete the transaction with the credit card number. Even before Tiger could traverse the world on a private jet as the world's richest athlete, as an amateur he won USGA Championships in Oregon, Florida, and Rhode Island. Also note that Tiger and Earl typically relied on red-eye flights that arrived to tournament destinations as late as possible to avoid spending extra money on hotels, which was an even greater challenge to Tiger's focus (which ultimately provided opportunities for growth).

Michael Phelps benefitted from similar coaching foresight under the tutelage of his coach, Bob Bowman. According to Bowman, Phelps began preparing for the rigors of travel as even before his teenage years. Bowman made the following comments in a 2005 interview with Swimming World Magazine...

Michael has been learning since he was 11 & 12 how to take care of himself...He "practiced" traveling and how to maintain his form through time-changes and long flights. He didn't wait until the Olympics or the Trials to learn these things, he's been learning them since he was 12....

 

....Part of the plan for Michael was traveling quite a bit the two years or so before the Olympics, around the globe. And there were quite a few people who thought that was foolish, as well as detrimental to his training program. It was neither. While it may have caused him to miss a session here or a session there, it taught him how to travel and to travel well, because on every one of those trips we followed a protocol for what he would do before the trip, the way he would travel on the plane, what he would do when he got off the plane, how he was expected to perform right after that. And this summer when we flew to Athens, there were swimmers on our Olympic team who took as long as a week to adjust to the changes. Michael got off the plane and had one of his best training sessions of the whole summer, the same day we got to Athens. The next day he had another very good practice, and by the third day he was on fire.

Most of that had to do with his understanding of sleeping on the plane, at the right times, and what he did when he got off the plane. You have to immediately get in the water to acclimatize yourself. We followed a protocol he has followed for every travel meet since he was 12 years old, so he knows exactly how his body feels after he does the preliminary part of that warm-up, and then I adjust the main series according to that. And then based on how he performs on the main series, I have an indication of what needs to happen the next day. He has a lot of those things ingrained that free him up to not worry about whether he can adjust to the time, because he just does things that make all that happen.

Practical applications

The best way to improve travel skill is to practice traveling and competing. A reliable travel protocol is a priceless long-term investment with a value beyond a fancy new piece of equipment. While there are obvious limitations based on cost and time as to the number of opportunities, there are ways to hone this skill at the local and regional level. Many adult athletes will spend thousands of dollars and use valuable vacation time to travel to a distant event, yet one of their first times competing away from home is in the big event itself. Planning an efficient travel itinerary is also an important aspect of the travel process. Not every event is accessible via major airports. As such, experience with different airports and the ability to minimize time en route at the least possible cost and can reduce the burden of travel stress.

Each event is an additional opportunity to reinforce your pre-competition routine under a varied set of conditions. Before one pre-Olympic meet, Bowman even told a taxi driver to take a wrong turn so Phelps would have experience in that situation if he was to encounter it in the Olympics. I've made my own share of travel gaffes over the years, but it has taken years of practice to roll out of the car or off the plane after a long trip and feel sharp. There's no single right answer for everyone, but careful tracking of one's own personal tendencies can help shape an effective travel approach for each individual.  

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