Battling the breaking point: how road trips take their toll on athletes

As the school year comes to a close in April, the transition from assignments to studying for exams and to summer plans can be a stressful one. Many varsity athletes have even more to juggle, as national championships tend to roll around between March and May.

With that can come travel — lots of it.

In May of this year, both the women’s and the men’s golf teams made trips across Canada and to the States. Ranging from three to four day tournaments, the teams travelled as far as Florida and Illinois for their sport.

Similarly, the track and field team made trips to Portland, California and Alabama. Their longest trip? Their three day excursion to Alabama for the NAIA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, where the men’s team made history by claiming gold; they are the first-ever Canadian team to claim top prize at the event.

Even with such successes, travel and extended tournaments can put a heavy toll on the body. Whether a physical or mental weight, athletes are charged with monitoring several aspects of their health when facing a tough travel schedule.

Oliver Finlay, a high performance athletic physiotherapist and current UBC PhD student, said that from a muscle physiology standpoint there is “no blanket physiological response across sports and across the individual” when it comes to travelling and competing in tournaments.

“If you want to keep it general, basically you are going to have run down the fuel stores that the muscle stores within the muscle tissue itself,” said Finlay. This loss, according to Finlay, can be rectified by many athletes within the first four hours of competition through hydration and nutrition.

Evan Holmes, a fourth-year Arts student and member of the golf team who recently won the men’s individual Canadian University/College Golf Championship, estimates that he participates in 18 golf tournaments throughout the year. 12 of those tournaments are during the academic year.  

Holmes recently took home the individual title at the Golf Canada Canadian University/College Golf Championship at the end of May 2017.
Holmes recently took home the individual title at the Golf Canada Canadian University/College Golf Championship at the end of May 2017. UBC Athletics

“[Being] on the course for five or six hours, it’s definitely difficult if you don’t manage your fitness and your diet,” Holmes said. “I know when we’re out on the road … you really have to make sure that your body is always loose and making sure that you [don’t] overdo yourself [at first].”

Finlay also mentioned that lots of waste product will also be produced in the body during competition due to the chemical reactions that take place to power an athlete’s muscles.

“That’s something that, again, you have to be really cognizant of,” Finlay said. “That’s when your active recovery —[doing] some degree of cool down to help that active recovery and help that blood flow to facilitate the filtering process — [plays in].”

Sitting for a long period of time on a bus or plane can also have an effect on venous return, or the ability for the body to push blood from an athlete’s limbs to the heart, Finlay said. With that in mind, getting up to walk around while on the plane or bus, doing various exercises, or even using compression garments can play a role in helping to minimize the physical toll.

In addition to these physiological aspect, there is also a psychological aspect to travelling and competing.

Dr. Whitney Sedgwick, a registered psychologist who works with many athletes at UBC Counselling Services, said that while travelling can impact performance, the degree of impact it can have depends on multiple variables such as the timing of the trip during the academic semester, competitions during the trip and the physical distance travelled to competitions.

The impact can also depend on the athlete themselves and their strategies.

“I do think it’s very individual, because some [athletes] are very good at what [is termed] compartmentalizing,” Sedgwick said. “They can prepare for an exam, they can write the exam from nine to 11 a.m. in the morning, they could eat a healthy lunch, maybe take a little nap and then they could be switching gears [and ready] to play a game [later that same day].”

If an athlete is less skilled at compartmentalizing, it could impact performance as “they may be distracted by their own to-do list at home” or be overly focused on the competitors, Sedgwick said.

“When you’re on the course, you focus on that. You don’t really think about school because it’s just another distraction. But right when you’re off the course you’re making sure that you’re studying and that you’re really focusing on what you’ve got to do,” Holmes said. “It’s just a lot of compartmentalizing I guess.”

Sedgwick, who often works with athletes teaching mental performance skills such as being present and time and stress management, said that people’s time management skills vary. Each athlete’s skill level at managing their time will impact their ability to go on the road and “just be with their teammates” and ready to compete as well as possible.

Sedgwick said that using resources can minimize the perceived stress of travelling.

And yet, even though many of the athletes she works with are very busy, Sedgwick said they do enjoy the opportunity to travel and to represent UBC in their sport, and emphasized that this can be a really positive element of their lives.