With the World Cup just around the corner, we thought it would be interesting to delve into the travel element that the tournament requires. Many of the squads will have to cross the globe to compete, travelling thousands of miles in the process.

Jet lag is an unavoidable by-product of travelling long distances. Our bodies have to adjust as our sleep patterns change to accommodate for different time zones.  

So what effect will this have on the players participating in the World Cup, and how long will it take them to adjust to the time difference?

To calculate this we looked up the duration of the fastest flights from the countries’ respective capital cities or biggest airports. We also took into account the number of connecting flights required, as well as the time zone difference.

Here is what we found:

  • Australia has the longest total journey time (21 hours and 5 minutes)
  • Uruguay has the a slightly shorter journey time, but the two connecting changes required, coupled with the eastbound time difference of 6 hours, arguably makes this more arduous.
  • The teams having to adjust to the biggest time differences were Peru (8 hours) and Costa Rica (9 hours).

  • The (+) indicates ‘advancing’ time. For example, Montevideo is 6 hours behind Moscow, so you would advance (or ‘lose’) 6 hours in the journey.
  • The (-) indicates ‘receding’ time. For example, Sydney is 7 hours ahead of Moscow so you would be put back by (or ‘gain’) 7 hours.

Many think that travelling east causes worse jet lag than travelling west, even if the number of time zones covered is the same. This is thought to be because most will find it more difficult to go to bed and force themselves to go to sleep earlier, than they would to simply stay awake and go to sleep later.

Circadian rhythms are also a factor. We tend to get a small surge of energy in the late afternoon to early evening; so if we advance forwards in time by a few hours, this surge might be taking place in the body when we’re trying to get to sleep.

Making several changes during a journey can also have an aggravating effect. For instance, if someone on an overnight has to get up halfway through to change to a connecting flight, then this can further disrupt sleep patterns.

  • Looking at the total journey time alone, Australia has the longest, with 21 hours and 5 minutes in total. This involves an 8 hour 20 minute flight to Singapore, a 3 hour break, then a 10 hour 40 minute flight to Moscow.
  • But Uruguay arguably has the most arduous. At only 50 minutes less than the Australian flight time at 20 hours and 15 minutes, the itinerary from Montevideo to Russia involves two changes (at Sao Paulo and Paris).
  • Furthermore, the 6 hours difference going east (for Uruguay) might be ultimately more discombobulating than the 7 hours going west (for Australia).
  • Peru have a slightly shorter total flight duration with 18 hours and 20 minutes, with a connecting flight in Barcelona; and Costa Rica shorter still with 16 hours 45 minutes. However, the huge time difference of 8 hours for Peru and 9 hours for Costa Rica, both going from west to east, will undoubtedly make these journeys arduous too.

Surprisingly, only 17 of the 32 participating countries offered a direct flight to Moscow at the time we checked. Of these, Seoul and Lisbon were the only two cities offering a direct flight over 5 hours long.

  • And what about England? With a direct flight from Heathrow available totalling just 3 hours 40 minutes, and with only 2 hours time difference, the England team are likely to have an easy journey when compared to the other participating teams.

Health effects of travelling long haul

When travelling to the World Cup, there will be some physical effects the players will have to overcome in the days before they play; so it’s likely they’ll travel well ahead of time.

To get more of an insight into easing the toll travelling long haul can have on the body, we spoke to Dr Daniel Atkinson, Treated.com clinical lead.

Dealing with jet lag

There are measures you can take to try and cope with jet lag.

  • in the days leading up to travel, start to change your sleep routine gradually to adjust to the time zone of the place you are travelling to. For example, you might do this by getting up and going to bed one hour earlier each night, for three or four consecutive nights before you fly;
  • during the flight, drink a lot of water and try to sleep at the local time you would at your destination;
  • try to avoid drinking any caffeinated or alcoholic drinks, as both can inhibit your ability to sleep;
  • when you arrive, try to expose yourself to as much daylight as possible, as this will help your circadian rhythm adjust.

Some people may turn to treatment when trying to overcome jet lag. But according to Dr Atkinson, medicines aren’t usually necessary.

For most people, the effects of jet lag are temporary, so treatment isn’t normally recommended; the body typically adjusts within a few days.

Circadin, a treatment for insomnia which contains the sleep hormone melatonin, isn’t licensed for jet lag, and there isn’t very much evidence to suggest that it is effective when used for this purpose.

Sleeping pills aren’t recommended for jet lag. They can cause dependence and a range of other side effects, so they’re only usually given out to people with severe insomnia for whom other treatments haven’t worked; and even then, they’ll only be prescribed for very short periods.’

Reducing the risk of blood clots

Flying long haul often means being in an enclosed space for lengthy periods, and having restricted ability to move. One of the risks of remaining seated for a long time is deep vein thrombosis (DVT).

Using muscles helps to move blood around our body. The more blood moves around, the less likely it is to clot. The problem with remaining seated for long periods (such as during a long flight) is that we won’t use our calf muscles, and this can lead to blood collecting in veins in the legs and clotting.’

Blood clots are dangerous and will always require immediate medical attention, but the signs aren’t always obvious. So it’s important to limit your risk of these as much as possible.’

‘During a long flight, try to get up at least every couple of hours and spend a few minutes walking around the cabin. This can help to aid blood flow and reduce the risk of thrombosis.’

What about travelling there by land and open water?

Now let’s digress slightly, and imagine that no modes of transportation were available to the players, and they had to rely solely on the power of the human body. How much distance would they travel? How long would it take? And how many calories would they burn?

We thought it might be fun to take a look at what the journey would entail if players had to run and swim from their own capital city to Moscow.

Here’s what we found:

  • Argentina are the runaway (sorry) leaders with the most difficult journey. This is mainly due to the 4,347 mile swim from Buenos Aires to Dakar in Senegal, which would burn 1,485,617 calories and take 107 days (if they continued without a break).
  • Completing Argentina’s trip by swimming and running would burn a total of 2,112,418 calories. An athlete would have to eat around 6000 portions of asado (barbequed meat) to make it.

All the South American countries would have a similarly long swim to Europe or Africa, but not quite as long as that from Argentina.

Elsewhere:

  • Australia has the longest total distance in miles to travel, although their journey time is shorter due to much of it being across land (rather than sea). It would also perhaps be aesthetically the most interesting. It involves a 2,323 mile swim around the Pacific Islands, arriving on the Vietnamese coast near Ho Chi Min.
  • This is followed by a run that would be 6,417 miles long, and meander through Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Burma before reaching the Himalayas in India, and crossing Pakistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and finally Russia to reach Moscow.
  • This journey would cost close to 1.8 million calories in total (or about 4,700 meat pies).
  • Tunisia is another country worth mentioning as their journey from Tunis to Moscow involves four (albeit comparatively short) legs across land and sea. They were the only other country aside from Argentina to have this many.
  • Their journey starts with a 363 mile swim across the Tyrrhenian sea to the west coast of Italy, then a 182 mile run across the heart of the country, leading to a 109 mile swim across the adriatic sea before the final leg from Zadar to Moscow.
  • This route totals up at over 350,000 calories (or 850 portions of kosksi bil ghalmi).
  • For England, the journey from London would entail a 74 mile run to Felixstowe, followed by a 134 mile swim to The Hague, and then a 1,517 mile run to Moscow. This journey would burn 228,851 calories in total.

Methodology

Using Google Maps, we plotted the most direct route to Moscow from each capital city of the participating countries. Where a route wasn’t available for a specific leg, we used a straight ‘as the crow flies’ line.

We measured the distance of each leg and what the corresponding running or swimming duration would be in hours. For running, we selected 6 miles per hour (which is an approximate jogging pace), and 1.7 miles per hour for swimming (a medium front crawl pace, equivalent to 50 yards per minute).

We could then calculate calories burned by using the Metabolic Equivalent Task (MET) formula for both activities, as referenced in the 2011 Compendium of Physical Activities, developed by B. Ainsworth et al.

Metabolic Equivalent Task is a way of expressing the cost of physical activity as a multiple of the resting metabolic rate. One metabolic equivalent (MET) is the amount of oxygen consumed while sitting at rest. Running at 6 miles per hour has a metabolic rate of 9.8 and swimming at 1.7 miles per hour has a metabolic rate of 8.3.

Multiplying a person’s weight in kg by the MET value of an activity gives a calculation of how many calories per hour a person of that weight would burn performing that activity.  

For the purposes of our study, we used an average weight of 70kg and multiplied this by the appropriate MET value (running or swimming) and then again by number of hours of activity.

There are some caveats to this. We did not account for the variances in terrain or the potential ascents and descents. Also, the calculation for hours of activity assumed that the athlete would be moving non-stop until they reached Moscow, which would obviously be physically impossible.

Exercise and calorie intake

Obviously we shouldn’t be aiming to conquer the Herculean feats discussed above. Attempting to run and swim non-stop to Moscow from England or any other foreign country would be dangerously detrimental to health.

But the NHS does recommend that adults between 19 and 64 do some exercise each week, to keep our bodies healthy.

In order to lower the risk of cardiovascular illness and maintain a healthy weight, we should aim to do two and a half hours of moderate-level cardiovascular exercise per week, in addition to strength training on two days per week.

Moderate level activity doesn’t necessarily mean spending money on equipment or joining a gym. For example at a low intensity level, walking is a highly effective and often under-appreciated form of exercise. It’s relatively low impact, is weight-bearing and therefore excellent for joint and bone health, and for someone of an average weight burns around 250-300 calories an hour.

Examples of more vigorous exercise include running and playing team sports such as football. For people who are already somewhat active, stepping up to more intense activities can is a good way to stay in shape and keep the heart healthy.