The NBA travel schedule, with travel across four time zones, is as difficult as it comes.
NFL teams routinely travel as far, but only play once a week. MLB teams play more often, but spend four to five days in each city, making for less distance traveled.
NBA teams on average play slightly more than three games a week over a 26-week regular season. And they go far, with most teams traveling well more than 64,000km over the regular season.
All that travel could also be having an effect on results. Solidified by LeBron James’ move west, the Western Conference has much of the NBA’s best talent
While the conference is on the wrong side of another imbalance, distance traveled — the Trailblazers, Clippers, Lakers, Warriors and Timberwolves are to be in the top five this season — there is new research that indicates Western Conference teams might have an edge when traveling.
How much does that have to do with a talent differential, and how much is down to the direction of travel?
“It’s true that east-to-west travel has a greater effect on performance, but it all depends when a team leaves the east coast to play west coast teams along with what time the games are played,” said Bill Burgos, a performance consultant and former head strength and conditioning coach for the Orlando Magic.
A disruption in the body’s circadian rhythm might be at the root of the problem. This scrambling of the body clock is multiplied by the number of time zones traveled.
It is just one more home-court advantage for west coast teams, hosting sleepy teams from the east.
Other research points to the general negative influence of air travel on health and recovery for every team.
When traveling on a plane, breathing air from a pressurized cabin, the amount of oxygen stored in the blood drops to a level that might alarm a family physician during a checkup, the research showed.
That, in combination with prolonged sitting, can lead to stiff muscles and joints, impeding recovery.
If any league is trying to optimize health, playing games during natural peaks in internal alertness — late afternoon or evening — might protect players from fatigue-related injury.
As Golden State Warriors point guard Quinn Cook knows, recovery from travel can take time.
“The most difficult trip is the one back from the east coast; it usually takes me two to three days to get adjusted,” he said.
Of course, not every road game stress is related to the circadian clock.
Some team’s cities — notably Miami, Los Angeles and New York — derive a “home-court advantage” from their weather and nightlife. Travel to those cities can cause a sudden outbreak of “flu-like” symptoms.
Of course, many might have difficulty pitying players that travel first class in chartered planes, jet-setting to exciting cities.
Nevertheless, if you are rooting for your favorite NBA team to win on the road, you better hope that those perks keep their circadian rhythms running as smoothly as a Swiss watch.
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