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Updated: Jun 14, 2023

You are coming back from a few weeks' trip overseas and you can't wait to get back to training. Perhaps you are among the lucky ones who just need a night's sleep to recover from the trip, but if this is not the case, you will probably have to deal with the time zone syndrome.

Time zone syndrome: what it is and symptoms

Time zone syndrome is defined as a set of symptoms that can affect anyone who has traveled quickly across different time zones. The greater the time difference between you and your home, the more likely you are to experience certain symptoms:

  • tiredness and fatigue

  • inappetence

  • general malaise, such as nausea, headache, muscle aches

  • sleep issues (drowsiness, insomnia, difficulty sleeping)

  • difficulty concentrating

  • mood swings and irritability

  • digestive problems and stomach upset.

These symptoms arise when circadian rhythms (our body's clock) go off the rails. This happens when, by changing the time zone, the body finds itself in a condition where it has to stay awake despite wanting to sleep, or vice versa. It takes a few days for the body to get used to the new time.

Why time zone syndrome occurs

Sunlight is a very important element for regulating circadian rhythms: it affects the regulation of melatonin, a hormone that helps cellular activity. Cells in the tissue at the back of the eye send light signals to the hypothalamus (an area of the brain); during the night the hypothalamus communicates with the pineal gland to release melatonin, while during the day the opposite occurs, with the pineal gland releasing very little melatonin. Exposure to daylight can therefore help regulate circadian rhythms when in a new time zone.

What are the factors that increase the likelihood of experiencing time zone syndrome?

  • Number of time zones crossed

  • Flying east where you "waste" time, rather than flying west where you "gain" time

  • Being a frequent flyer

  • Age. An older person may need more time to adjust

Prevent time zone syndrome

All is not lost. Although it can be difficult to deal with, there are some techniques of prevention of time zone syndrome and they are:

  • rest well before the trip. Sleep deprivation before departure makes time zone syndrome worse

  • adjust the times before departure. If you're traveling east, go to bed an hour early every night for a few days before your trip. Conversely, if flying west, go to bed an hour later

  • consume meals by adapting the timetable to that of the country of destination

  • expose yourself to light. After traveling west, expose yourself to light in the evening to adjust to a later time zone. Conversely, after traveling east, expose yourself to morning light to adjust to an earlier time zone

  • If you travel across more than eight time zones, your body may mistake morning light for sunset and evening light for morning light. Therefore, for the first few days, wearing sunglasses may be good to avoid the morning light, as well as taking them off in the late afternoon. If you are traveling west, avoid sunlight a few hours before dark to adjust to local time

  • set the clock to the new time before leaving and once you reach your destination, try not to sleep until nightfall (local time)

  • synchronize meals with local meals

  • keep hydrated. Drink plenty of water before, during and after your flight to counteract the effects of dry cabin air, as dehydration can make symptoms worse. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they cause dehydration and affect sleep

  • sleep on the plane if it will be night once you arrive at your destination. Earplugs, headphones, and eye masks can help block out noise and light. If traveling during the day, try to resist the urge to sleep.

Working out after a trip

When you return from a long trip, maybe one that lasted a few weeks, you will not only have to deal with the time zone syndrome, you will also need to restart training after a period of rest. Bear in mind that after two/three weeks of stop from training, the strength levels are not the same as when you left. Therefore, it is not advisable to restart training at the same intensity and with the same pre-departure loads. Moreover, tiredness and fatigue caused by the time zone syndrome should be considered as risk factors. So, what's going on? Don't we train? No, it depends on how you feel. My advice is to start gradually.


If you feel tired and sleepy, or you have that jelly legs feeling, it would be better to avoid a full training session and go for a lighter activity such as a walk in the park. As soon as you feel that you are getting back to normal, you can restart working out with your first full session. This will not be a "training" session, but an "adaptation" session. For example, if before the departure your training included:

Squats: 5x5 (70kg)

Hip Thrust: 3x12-10-8 + 1x20 (80-90-100-80kg)

Static lunges: 3x6 (40kg)

Pulldown Machines: 4x8 (45kg)

Military Press: 3x6 (30kg)

Treadmill: 20 minutes at 9km/h

The first session might change to something like:

Squats: 3x8 (40kg)

Hip Thrust: 3x12 (70kg)

Static lunges: 2x6 (30kg)

Lat Machines: 3x8 (32kg)

Military Press: 2x6 (20kg)

Treadmill: 15 minutes at 7.5km/h

The results of the first session will depend on your fitness status at the time, such as for the next session. However, after the first workout, two scenarios may arise:

Scenario 1: the first session "reactivates" your body and you perceive the endorphins effect, you recover completely from the time zone syndrome and in the second session everything is back to normal.

Scenario 2: it was too early for a first session, physically and psychologically didn't change much and you still feel tired. In this case it is better to rest for a few more days and restart working out as soon as you feel more energetic.

Therefore, even if the desire to get back on track is intense, when you return from a long journey the best thing to do is listen to your body and not get caught up in the heat of wanting to go back to push too soon at the same intensity you did before departure.

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