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Surviving a Long-Haul Flight – An Olympic Coach’s Tips

A 12-hour flight can make you feel like you’ve gone 12 rounds with a mixed martial artist. That’s a problem if you’re anxious to hit the slopes or the waves on your adventure holiday. So we asked 3-time Olympic volleyball coach Gary Sato for his tips on how elite athletes survive a long-haul flight.

As a longtime coach for the US Men’s National Volleyball team, and now as a coach at the University of Southern California, Gary Sato has logged countless thousands of miles trekking from tournament to tournament, coaxing the best from his teams. Part of a family dynasty of volleyball players (he marched alongside his brother, Eric, and sister, Liane – both players on the US squads – in two Olympic opening ceremonies), he is also a chiropractor with more than 20 years of experience.

So who better to ask: How do you survive a long-haul flight and stay on top of your game?

Here are Gary’s tips:

  • Compression socks: “You can get them all the way up to your knee or all the way up to your hip. They keep the blood from pooling in your lower leg and your feet, so it prevents some of that swelling and that achiness.”
  • Noise-canceling headphones: “Those are a godsend; they’re incredible. You’ve got the din of the engine and you put those things on and then you don’t ever take them off. You watch the movies, you listen to the music, or you just sit there and put them on so you don’t have to talk to the person next to you. I highly recommend them.”
  • Drink plenty of water: “Besides the fact it hydrates you, you end up having a full bladder and you have to get up and go to the bathroom, so then you end up moving around. You have to get up and move around.”
  • Sleep aids: “A lot of the guys on the team, they’d take Ambien and put on a soft-foam neck brace, and then they’d put their noise-canceling headphones on, either sunglasses or some eye shades, and pull their hooded sweatshirt over their head and then they just kick back and sleep. But the guys couldn’t take Ambien until the flight was definitely at its cruising altitude, because if you took it too soon and the plane returned to the gate, you’re loopy; you’re not getting off.”
  • Get on the time zone: “If it’s early in the morning when you arrive, you want to try and stay up for as long as you can with that daylight. Because it stimulates your pineal gland, which produces melatonin, and that regulates your sleep patterns.”

And he has one last piece of advice for athlete-travelers: Stay in good shape.

“Maintain your strength and your flexibility; you have to take care of your body. If you’re running around a whole bunch then you have to cool down and do some recuperation so that you can go hard the next day. You might have the luxury of a masseuse rubbing those muscles to relax them, but the hotel Jacuzzi should not be underestimated. I think the problem is just staying in too long – plus all the other beverages that are associated with the Jacuzzi afterward.”

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