As fans of Formula 1, you’ve no doubt seen the provisional calendar for 2014. The proposed sequence of 22 races has provoked no shortage of commentary and criticism from the teams and other participants in the championship. While this is usually centered around logistics and costs, there’s another factor that looms large. This factor is, amazingly, based on millions of years of mammalian evolution. Evolution? Really? Let’s take a closer look.
The 2014 schedule will require a significant number of trips across large numbers of time zones. Why is this of concern?
This is where we need to invoke human evolution. You see, our bodies are cyclic. The eternal rhythm of night and day, with the opportunities (think hunter-gatherer) and dangers (think predators) that this presents, has conditioned the fundamental way our bodies function. Almost every bodily system runs on a cycle called a circadian (“almost 24 hours”) rhythm. The most obvious is the sleep-wake cycle, but the concentrations of major hormones, the activity of the cardiovascular system as well as other major functions all follow this roughly 24-hour cycle.
Even if these cycles are largely intrinsic to the body, when we actually measure them we see that in general, they are roughly 25, not 24, hours. This means that without periodic “resynchronization”, the inner clock will drift out of synchronization with the outer world. Not surprisingly, daylight (and more specifically the blue component) serves as the most powerful and efficient synchronizer or “zeitgeber” (“time giver”). There are others, but these would seem to play a secondary role.
Modern air travel allows us to make trips that stretch over 5, 6, even 12 time zones in just a few hours. This means that upon arrival, our inner clock can be totally out of synch with outside reality. You get to your destination in the morning, and your inner clock says it’s midnight. Or perhaps you arrive at night with your body telling you it’s time to wake up. That’s jet lag. Critically, in addition to disturbances in the sleep-wake cycle, other functions are affected, sometimes dramatically. Intellectual function, appetite, mood are all altered by jet lag. If we do nothing, our bodies will resynchronize naturally, especially if we are exposed to natural daylight. In general, it takes about one day per timezone (for trips to the east), and a bit less for trips to the west, to get back in phase.
So now the problem becomes clear. The mechanics, engineers, and of course the drivers all need to be functioning at full efficiency as of Thursday of a race weekend. What about jet lag? How can its negative effects on performance be eliminated, or at least reduced? And are any of these solutions applicable to us? Well there’s good news – and what’s more, there are actually several ways to fight against jet lag.
Obviously if a driver arrives in, say, Australia a week before the race weekend, he or she will have enough time to adjust “naturally” to the new time zone, especially if he (or she) takes in plenty of that wonderful Australian sunshine. Unfortunately this option is only really available to the drivers, and for only a few races in what would appear to be a very crowded and busy calendar. The other team members usually need to be at the factory until the last minute.
On the other hand, Singapore is a special case. The city is exactly six hours ahead (later than) European time. The race, as well as practices and qualifying are also exactly six hours later than their usual (European) time. This means that everyone can stay on “European time”, and not be affected by jet lag at all! Indeed this is the strategy used by the majority of teams. This implies STRICT obedience to the principles: total avoidance of bright light during the hours of European night, and exposure to bright light, rich in blue, during European day. This has been a successfully used technique for what is a unique set of circumstances.
With our current state of knowledge about the causes of jet lag, the most effective way to minimize its impact requires a bit of thought and preparation. When we’re traveling westwards (Montreal, Brazil, Texas, Mexico), it’s best to delay bedtime and awakening for about an hour each day, starting four days or so before leaving. Ideally, exposure to bright blue light (several such lamps are available commercially) for at least 45 minutes during the hours of morning at the destination helps to re-synchronize our internal clock. Next, look at the flight times in terms of the time at your destination. If the flight is during daytime, try to stay awake. If not, get some sleep. Then, if you arrive at night, avoid bright lights, TV, laptop and tablet screens (they’re very rich in blue light, the “morning” signal). Alternately, if you get there in the morning, get out into daylight. Using this kind of system, you should be remarkably fresh remarkably quickly.
If on the other hand the trip is towards the east (Malaysia, China, Singapore, Korea, etc), we basically do the opposite. We go to bed (and wake up) an hour earlier each day, starting four or five days before departure. Blue light exposure is de rigueur as soon as we get up, and we need to avoid light starting at about 6 PM destination time. Same rule for the flight – if it’s during destination night, try to sleep; if during destination day, keep the lights on, use your blue light, and stay awake.
What about melatonin, exercise and diet? All of these play a role, but their practical role hasn’t yet been well defined. This is a very hot research topic for obvious reasons!
Follow Gary on Twitter : @former_f1doc