The NFL continues to expand its international footprint, with more games seemingly scheduled each season overseas. This season, the Kansas City Chiefs will battle their AFC foe (virtually), “hosting” the Miami Dolphins at Deutsche Bank Stadium in Frankfurt, Germany.
The game kicks off at 8:30 Arrowhead time on Sunday morning. This will be 3:30 p.m. Sunday in Frankfurt, a seven-hour time difference the Chiefs will have to navigate. The Dolphins will have a six-hour time difference, as they are in the Eastern Standard Time zone.
The time zone difference is one major factor that must be considered when teams prepare to travel thousands of miles. Each NFL team that plays overseas has a different strategy regarding when they leave their home markets in an effort to defeat jet lag and be ready to play.
The Dolphins and Chiefs are each employing a different strategy before their Week 9 matchup. The Dolphins have already arrived in Frankfurt, having left Miami on Tuesday. The Chiefs, under head coach Andy Reid, notorious for being a creature of habit and routine, will keep their week’s preparation as normal as possible. They will make the 4,716-mile red-eye flight out of Kansas City early Thursday evening to arrive in Germany on Friday morning.
The science behind jet lag
The sport science behind these philosophies was brought forward by quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ personal trainer, Bobby Stroupe on X.
General consensus from research is;— Bobby Stroupe (@bobbystroupe) October 31, 2023
1. 7 days is best. Usually not an option for NFL
2. 3&5 days before present problems for reasons sighted in research.
3. Arrival 2 days before comp works great IF players stay on US time with their schedules.
This is just the information
Stroupe references three studies in this thread, explaining some of the sport science behind travel fatigue and jet lag. Briefly, jet lag is caused because the body’s circadian rhythm is interfered with. Circadian rhythms are the body’s physical, psychological, and behavioral changes which follow a 24-hour cycle. Essentially, it’s the body’s internal clock, which is accustomed to an athlete’s typical routine.
When traveling across multiple time zones, this “internal clock” struggles to adjust to a new sleep-wake cycle and results in possible fatigue, headache, gastrointestinal distress, and impaired mental or physical performance. This can last hours to days, depending on the individual. According to the Mayo Clinic, jet lag is more likely when traveling east across at least two time zones, and it usually takes a day to recover for each time zone crossed.
There is still much to be studied and a lot that is not understood, especially concerning athletic performance. Current recommendations to manage jet lag for athletes are based on three principles: light, sleep, and nutrition/hydration. Prioritizing sleep schedules and optimizing light exposures (congruent with their new environment) is crucial to adjusting to a new time zone. Chiefs players and staff will be encouraged to sleep and rest while in flight, and once arriving in Germany, will go into their regular Friday schedule with practice and media availability.
This season, there have been three games in the NFL’s international series, all played in London. Both the Chiefs and Dolphins’ travel strategies were used.
How did these strategies impact the team’s performance this season?
Atlanta Falcons vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
Both the Falcons and Jaguars traveled to London on the Thursday before their Sunday matchup. The Jaguars have considerably more international travel experience than any other NFL franchise, having now played 11 international games. Before this game, 40 players on their roster had played in London before. This experience proved worthy as the Jaguars easily handled the Falcons, winning 23-7.
Jacksonville Jaguars vs. Buffalo Bills
The Jaguars had a distinct advantage over the Bills in this game, from the travel perspective, despite the Bills being favored going in. This being the second consecutive game for the Jaguars in London, they had 10 days to fully acclimate in London. The Bills traveled to London on Thursday evening, landing Friday morning. The Bills looked lifeless for most of the first half, clearly lacking energy, eventually losing to the Jaguars 25-20. The Bills openly admitted their travel plans may have been a poor decision due to jet lag and contributed somewhat to their poor performance.
Baltimore Ravens vs. Tennessee Titans
The Ravens traveled to London on the Monday prior to the Sunday matchup, spending nearly six days in England. They decided to leave earlier in the week and shift their strategy due to a loss suffered in London in 2017 after a red-eye flight later in the week. The Titans went with the red-eye Thursday night strategy, landing in London on Friday morning. The longer acclimatization strategy won again, as the Ravens easily handled the Titans 24-16.
The bottom line
Obviously, a win versus a loss cannot only be attributed to travel schedules. There are a multitude of factors in every NFL game which result in victory or defeat.
However, it is undoubtedly a factor for international games. Players and coaches will downplay the difficulties of traveling overseas and deny any logistical problems as an excuse for a loss. Despite this, hours in the offseason are spent by each club analyzing the data and looking for each minute advantage possible when traveling.
Based on the 2023 NFL international games, the teams who have had longer to acclimate to the time change have had more success.
Does this automatically mean the Chiefs are headed for trouble in Germany? Of course not. After all, the Chiefs used this same Thursday night red-eye strategy in their 2015 London game against the Detroit Lions, winning 45-10.
The NFL is a league of parity, and teams utilize sport science and analytics to try and find every advantage they can. Football is only becoming more popular, both domestically and internationally, and the NFL has made no secret of its intentions to continue expanding the game. As this happens, more data will be available to aid teams in their decision-making process to optimize performance.
We will see come Sunday which strategy helps their team prevail and hold first place in the AFC.