New study suggests jet lag impacts game performance of baseball players

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Leave it to Major League Baseball, the ultimate ‘number crunching’ sport, to study the effect of jet lag on athletic performance. A new study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is out to shed some light on that.

The study’s authors, Northwestern University neurobiologist Ravi Allada and his research team, looked at data from baseball games from 1992 – 2011. Of those 46,535 games, it turns out that 4,919 of them were played under circumstances when at least one team had traveled across 2 or more time zones before competing. It appears that traveling east was more impactful than traveling west.

One of the interesting findings is that jet lag negatively impacted home field advantage. Home teams in the total data set won 54% of games. However, after traveling through time zones, home teams saw their winning percentage drop by 3.5%. This erased any particular statistical advantage of playing at home as opposed to playing on the road.

The researchers also found that pitchers seemed to be most affected. Pitchers who were subject to recent long travel gave up more home runs than otherwise rested players.

In an interview with Science Magazine, chronobiologist Colin Robertson was impressed with the study and its findings. However, he did say to use caution when interpreting the results.

“Retrospective studies are a challenge from the outset because all the factors that are controlled for in a lab setting that we’re so fastidious about are lacking,” says Colin Robertson, a chronobiologist in the sport sciences department at the University of Bolton in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the work. “This [study] was really ambitious.”

As is often the case in the scientific world, the results of this study, while illuminating, call for further research on the subject. Perhaps a more focused study of a current team, says Roberts.

“If you could take one of those teams and track them for a season … and then look at what time of day they train or what time of day they produce their best performance [following travel],” he says, “that would be phenomenal, and that’s never been done before across any sport.”

Dr. Allada explains more about his study below and how teams can overcome the jet lag problem.