Tag Archives: beating jet lag

Beating Jet Lag: The Sprint/Marathon System

Getting from the US to Hong Kong–or vice-versa–typically involves around 24 hours of travel. You can cut that down to 16 hours if you book a direct flight, but unless you get lucky that’ll cost you about the same as a good laptop.

So instead of tackling 12 hours worth of jet lag, you’re tackling jet lag on top of a sleep deficit. Good luck with that.

For expats, jet lag is a fact of life–I’ve grown used to battling it during my trips back and forth to the US, or shepherding friends through it when they visit. And let’s be clear: it’s more than an inconvenience. Jet lag means missed productivity on business trips, squandered time on vacation, and can be dangerous if you’re driving. Jet lag can make or break your trip.

But I have a method for dealing with the dreaded upside-down clock, one I refer to as the Sprint/Marathon system. Essentially, it’s a way to synchronize with the current time zone by getting a fast start to each day (the sprint), then keeping yourself awake until 10:00 PM (the marathon).


Pictured: An Alternative Method

Here’s how it works:

Start the Transition Before You Leave

This is a great trick if you can do it–I can’t. The basic idea is to go to bed and get up progressively earlier (or later) each night the week before you leave, which minimizes the shock of the new time zone. I’ve never found this feasible (I’m an insomniac writer who can’t sleep on cue) but I have friends who swear by it. I assume it involves NyQuil.

Decide Whether to Sleep on the Plane

To me, the first question is whether to sleep–or try to sleep–during a flight. I’m tall, so while I might cat-nap on flights, I usually don’t out-and-out sleep unless I’m in an exit row. (Aside: most Asian airlines don’t charge extra for exit row seats.) Still, even if I don’t sleep, it helps to lie still and rest my eyes for an hour or so.

Here’s my rule of thumb: If you’re arriving at your final destination in the morning, sleep. If you arrive at night, stay up.

The object here is to get on local time. If you’re arriving in the morning you need to be ready for a full day. Not a nap-in-the-afternoon-and-bed-at-7:00-PM day, mind you, a caffeine-fueled rock-it-out-until-10:00-at-night day. If you arrive at night, you need to be so tired you’ll collapse in bed immediately.

You need to either crash or hit the ground running–there’s no in-between.

Morning: The Sprint

So you’ve either just stepped off your flight, or you’re waking up from your post-arrival coma sleep. Rev your engines kid, because it’s time for the sprint.

The first thing you should do is go through your morning routine–shower, shave, brush teeth, scarf breakfast–then immediately get out in the sun.

The point here is to shock your system. UV rays tell your brain it’s get-up time, and the smell of eggs and toothpaste brings a familiar routine to the first day. Do anything that convinces your body clock that it’s go time. Drink the marvelous nectar that is coffee. Blast music. See a new place right away. Sprint.

And I mean that literally. Go exercise first thing–whether it’s a walk around the block or a full-on run. Catch some Pokémon. Get a shot of adrenaline within an hour of waking up.

Do this right, and it’ll carry you through the afternoon. And make sure to enjoy it, because it’s going to be the easiest, most fun part of the day. If you’re working, now’s the time to do your exciting tasks or anything requiring concentration, because your energy levels will only go downhill from here.

Beware the Afternoon Crash

The most dangerous part of your day is the afternoon crash. For my wife and I, it always comes at about 3:00 PM. You’ll want to rest. You’ll want a nap, but don’t give in. Do not under any circumstances take a nap. Don’t even lie down. Lying down when you’re tired is the “just one bite” of the jet lag world.

Story time: When my wife and I moved to Hong Kong, we were badly jet-lagged. Our first day was exhausting. We ran around opening bank accounts and getting cell phone plans. It was the first time we experienced the crush of Kowloon crowds, and on top of it all, it was pouring rain. When we got back to our hotel room at 3:00 PM, we laid down on the bed for five minutes before getting up to change and continue our errands.

We woke up seven hours later. We’d missed our own welcome dinner.

But missing events isn’t the biggest deal–the problem is that when you nap, it further desynchronizes you from local time. Instead of wanting to sleep in the day and be up all night, you’re waking up at 10:00 PM and not wanting to sleep again until 8:00 AM. It essentially ads a day to your adjustment. Repeat after me: It’s. Not. Worth. It.

When you want a nap, drink coffee instead. Run around the block. Best of all, don’t be anywhere near a bed at 3:00 PM. Stay on your feet and out in the world.

Evening: The Marathon

The worst part of the day, by far, comes after 3:00 PM–this is the marathon, a seven-hour march until 10:00 PM.

It’s going to suck.

The best thing you can do is distract yourself. Sometimes I’ll schedule an event at night–a play, concert, or dinner–just so I’m forced to stay awake and mobile. Yesterday, I binge-watched five episodes of Stranger Things knowing I wouldn’t be able to sleep without seeing the end. If I’m trying to be productive (like today) I’ll do my fun high-energy work in the morning when I have energy (like this blog), and leave mindless admin tasks or errands for the afternoon. It’s okay to be low-energy and conserve your strength, provided you don’t fall asleep. If you’re on the couch, don’t lay down. If indoors, keep the lights blazing. Big warm meals are a bad idea.

Stay up as long as you can. I usually set 10:00 PM as my target bedtime, but will concede if I’m falling asleep at 9:00 PM. Crashing in bed when you’re tired is better than getting a second wind, which can happen if you push it too far.

Getting Your Best Night’s Sleep

Okay, you made it to bedtime–let’s talk about getting the best sleep you can. Here’s some tips:

  • Set an alarm for 7:00-8:30 AM. You want to be up with the sun, and if you crash at 10:00 PM that gives you 9-10 hours of sleep to make up for any deficit you’re running. If you wake up at 5:30 or 6:00 AM, give yourself 30 minutes to try and get back to sleep–if it’s not happening, then get up and moving.
  • Sleep with the curtains open at least a crack. Remember: sunlight is the best alarm.
  • If you can get someone else to wake you up, do it. It’s too easy to turn off an alarm and roll over. Tell them they won’t be doing you a favor by letting you sleep in.
  • Turn your cell phone off. Don’t use it as an alarm if you can help it. Someone who doesn’t know you’re traveling might Facebook Message you at 3:00 AM, and you will not be able go back to sleep. Trust me–it happened to me at 5:30 AM this morning.

Do It Again on Day Two

Day Two is always the worst. The first day you’re usually riding an adrenaline wave, excited to be in a new place or happy to be home. By the second day, you’ve settled down and the sleep deficit starts dragging at your ankles. Day Two can be a tricky bastard, too–it’ll make you feel like everything’s fine, then sneak up from behind and knock you out a few hours after lunch.

Stick to the script and you’ll push through it. Get up, sprint, beware the afternoon nap, and marathon until the end. Stay caffeinated, on your feet, and physical.

Remember that it only gets better from here.