Long Haul Flying: Impacts on Exercise

BY IN Exercise Institute News On August 9, 2016

Travel is the norm for a great many endurance athletes. Many endurance athletes need to fly long haul in order to compete at important events. These events can occur only 2-3 times a year and are often the result of a great preparation, being highly important to the athlete. Rates of oxygen availability and supply are mediated across long haul flights and can affect the athlete’s acute event preparation. In this article we look at the effect of long haul flights on different parameters of human physiology and how this in turn can affect human performance.

Oxygen desaturation and oxygen consumption are important aspects relating to exercise. Oxygen desaturation refers to how much oxygen can be removed below baseline levels in the arteries to muscles, whereas oxygen consumption refers to how much oxygen can be absorbed by the body. A good positive relationship exists with oxygen desaturation (reduced oxygen levels) and an increase in oxygen consumption. The reason for this is as oxygen levels decrease in the body, we begin to take on more oxygen by breathing harder, deeper and at an increased rate to cope with the lack of supply.

Through increasing exercise intensity a ceiling occurs, known as Vo2max, see diagram below. This represents the absolute limit to oxygen absorption through the cardio respiratory system at maximal aerobic intensity. At this point oxygen desaturation is also at its lowest point. This stimulus, exercising at Vo2 max, represents the lowest point of oxygen desaturation in the arteries during increasing exercise intensity for a sustained period of time. A critical stimulus to induce positive performance adaptations as the body does not appreciate working at low levels of oxygen.

Usually in a healthy individual baseline, not exercising, levels of oxygenation are around 100%. This baseline figure can be impacted upon by a variety of factors, such as altitude and health status. Importantly a great deal of research has highlighted how having a reduced baseline of oxygenation impairs Vo2max related performance. Research has indicated a 2% reduction in Vo2 for every 1% reduction in oxygen saturation (Harms, et.al, 2000). Considering Vo2max performance is critical to endurance performance success the importance of addressing baseline oxygenation is an issue for all endurance athletes.

The Vo2 max can occur prior to the end of the Vo2 test, meaning the actual intensity for Vo2 max can only be measured through gas exchange analysis

The Vo2 max can occur prior to the end of the Vo2 test, meaning the actual intensity for Vo2 max can only be measured through gas exchange analysis

A recent case study completed by Dr. Craig Pennell and Brad Hall looked at the effect of long haul flights on oxygen desaturation and the restorative effect of post-flight exercise in restoring baseline levels. The cabin pressure during cruising flight levels are lower than sea level meaning a reduction in the body’s ability to absorb oxygen. This results in a lower arterial oxygenation. In this instance oxygen saturation was recorded every four hours across a 16hr flight.

 

Oxygenation during the initial flight was as follows:

Hours % O2 saturation Height (m)
Pre 99 Sea Level
2 95 35000
6 95 37000
In-Transit 96 Sea Level
4 94 33000
8 93 35000
12 92 34000
16 92 38000

 

Oxygenation after light riding for an hour was as follows:

Hours % O2 saturation Height (m)
Arrival 95 Sea Level
Exercise Exercise period Sea Level
Post 98 Sea Level
+12 99 Sea Level
+24 98 Sea Level
+36 98 Sea Level
+48 99 Sea Level

 

Here we can see across the two recording periods, during and after flying that with exercise baseline levels of oxygenation were restored after 48hrs post exercise but 75% of the restoration occurred immediately after the light exercise. For comparison we will now look at the data following long haul travel without exercise.

Oxygenation during a subsequent flight was similar in comparison to Table 1. However, oxygenation after the flight with no light exercise was as follows:

Hours % O2 saturation Height (m)
NO RIDE 95 Sea Level
+12 95 Sea Level
+24 95 Sea Level
+36 96 Sea Level
+48 98 Sea Level
+72 98 Sea Level

 

What is demonstrated here in table 3 is oxygenation toward baseline has still not occurred after +72hrs post flight, with no change in post flight oxygenation visible after 24hrs post-flight. This reduction in oxygenation is critical in hampering any exercise activity completed after the flight. What was observable within this case study is the body’s ability to restore functioning after light exercise as opposed to this be attenuated without exercise.

Considering research findings reporting a 2% reduction in Vo2 performance for every 1% reduction in oxygenation, the effect of not exercising could be as much as 6% reduction in Vo2 kinematics when exercising. The implications for exercise post long haul flight is simple. Post flight light exercise, as defined as continuous exercise at around 65-67% of Heart rate maximum, restores oxygen saturation to levels close to 75% of baseline immediately following exercise. If flying long haul light exercise will assist in restoring your functioning at a far more rapid rate than without exercise, which could improve subsequent endurance performance.


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