Pack a pillow: Strategies for dealing with travel

Skaters try bananas, stuffed animals, extra movement, other remedies to stay sharp

Ross Miner adjusts to new time zones in advance, but trips to Asia throw him off.
Ross Miner adjusts to new time zones in advance, but trips to Asia throw him off. (Getty Images)


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By Sarah S. Brannen, special to
(09/04/2012) - We all know how miserable travel can be. After sitting for hours wedged into a cramped, uncomfortable seat, you have to cope with jet lag, a strange bed and unfamiliar food at your destination. What if, instead of going to meetings or seeing the sights, you had to compete at the highest level of athleticism upon arrival? Several skaters share their tricks and strategies for coping with the ordeal of travel.

On board the plane, the key seems to be to get up and move when possible and to sleep the rest of the time.

"I try to get up and walk around once in a while," Agnes Zawadzki said. "I can pass out pretty easily on a plane."

"I make sure I get up and move around the plane every few hours to try and get the blood flowing," Canadian pairs skater Dylan Moscovitch said.

Ice dancer Piper Gilles said she learned a trick a long time ago from Ann-Patrice McDonough's mother, who used to make Gilles' costumes.

"She said to have a banana before and after you get on the plane," Gilles said. "The potassium is good for your system and it seems to work. I like compression socks, too, because the arches of my feet get swollen. I put my feet in a cold bath when I get there. My feet always kill on the first practice."

"Usually on long trips, if we're trying to stay more awake, we try to get up and walk around as much as possible," ice dancer Logan Giulietti-Schmitt said. "We have massage sticks for our thighs and different devices to try and keep our muscles looser because it's easy to cramp up on the plane. Sometimes, we'll try to stretch out a little if we have room, but it's hard on packed flights. If it's a long flight, we end up sleeping for the majority of it."

The grueling nature of long-distance flight is often exacerbated by flight delays and cancellations; veteran competitive skaters have learned to adapt and accommodate themselves to unexpected hitches in their travel plans. Lost luggage, a common side effect of missed connections, can be disastrous, particularly if a skater arrives at a competition without skates.

"I built up an expectation that something's going to go wrong," Amanda Evora. "You have to prepare for cancellations or connection problems. We would carry on our skates [if we could], so there would be one less connection.

"We were going to Shanghai last year and we had to fly into Narita (Tokyo). We made sure we had our skates with us from Chicago to Japan. They made Mark [Ladwig] check his skates in Japan, but at least you know it's only going to be one flight."

Time change

Even before they leave for a competition, some skaters try to adjust their training day to the time zone they're headed for. Practice and work schedules often make this technique impractical, though.

"Sometimes, we aren't capable of doing what's recommended, like slowly switching our sleeping patterns," Giulietti-Schmitt said. "Our training regimen means we don't have that opportunity."

"It was always tough to make your body clock be ready for a 12-hour difference," Evora said. "We would try slowly time-changing before leaving, but travel day always screws it up anyway."

Misha Ge says the secret to coping with jet lag is willpower -- and caffeine.

"There's no trick about it," Ge said. "You control yourself when you start getting sleepy. You just say, 'OK, I can't sleep, I have competition.' Another trick is Starbucks! People around the world, first question is, 'Did you see any Starbucks nearby?'"

Ross Miner says he tries to get into the new time zone ahead of time, if possible. Once at his destination, he has a simple trick for feeling better fast.

"I try to do as much of the changing before I leave as I can," Miner said. "In general, I don't have much trouble sleeping the first night because I'm so tired. Once you get going, it's fine. And I believe in the restorative powers of a shower. Taking a shower makes me feel human again, and then I try to stay up or stay asleep."

Most skaters take it easy the day they arrive, focusing on getting onto the new schedule as quickly as possible. The first practice is usually devoted to adjusting and settling in.

"We would try to get unofficial ice before the official ice, to get out the jet lag, get over the time change," Evora said. "We'd fly a day earlier. U.S. Figure Skating has done a good job trying to help us, setting up unofficial ice. The next day, you'd be refreshed, ready to go and not have that travel feeling."

"For me, the main thing is to set up flights where you get there in the morning," said Jason Brown. "I try to stay up until 11 and then go to bed. We try to do something active that first day, like walking around the city. We've gone on Ferris wheels, we've ridden bikes."

"Going to Japan is pretty hard," Miner said. "The first practice, you don't kill yourself; you just get your legs under you. You have to realize that first practice may not be perfect. If I get there early, I try to go to the gym and work out."

"The good thing about international competition is we usually get there a few days in advance," Giulietti-Schmitt said. "That first day is usually a little bit rough, but we use that day to get our feet underneath us. Usually, our first practice overseas is nothing too rigorous."

Evora says that, once at a destination, rest is the key.

"You train so hard before a competition that competition week is actually a rest," she said. "A lot of athletes would sleep a good majority of the competition week. It's your body telling you that you need the rest. Competition week is very stressful on the body."

In the suitcase: Pillows and oatmeal

Skaters pack all sorts of things in their suitcases to make the trip easier: to make sure they have the nutrition they need, and to make themselves feel at home in an unfamiliar place.

"I always take my pillowcases that I've had since I was little," Miner said, laughing. "One is flannel and has footballs on it and the other has cartoon airplanes. I get a lot of crap for it. Alex Shibutani got me hooked on the Air-O-Swiss humidifier, especially in Colorado Springs. I always bring oatmeal packets. I'm usually not too picky, but oatmeal is easy to bring and it's nutritive."

"I usually take my pillow and a blanket, a throw that I have on my bed," Zawadzki said. "I have one stuffed animal that I always bring with me; it's an elephant. I really like elephants. When my father died, a couple of my friends gave me stuffed animals and a lot of them were elephants. It reminds me of back home and my dad.

"And my family gives me a picture of mother Mary, or the Pope, to keep me safe while I travel. I always have snacks: granola bars, cereal, power bars, something that I can snack on. And I have powdered mixes that I put in my water, like Gatorade power mixes."

"I always take a pillow, my normal pillow from home," Brown said. "I started doing that after my first Val Gardena competition; I didn't bring a pillow and I couldn't sleep. Depending on the place, I take food. It depends. When we went to Belarus, I took food. And sometimes I bring an alarm clock."

"I always bring this shirt I had -- I always had it out on competition day," Evora said. "It said 'I will not be defeated.' Usually, I bring a book. Some of my favorite things were Dove chocolates. I always have those because they have a message inside. When I get to the hotel, I have to make it feel like it's home; I take everything out of my suitcase."

"I always take a Minnie Mouse pillow with me, with beads in it," Gilles said. "It's gross and it's been with me everywhere. It's comforting. I've had it since I was 13 or 14. When we go to Asia, the beds are really hard, but a bed's a bed, and once you're tired it doesn't matter. Sometimes, I take crackers and maybe a cup of noodles, or tuna, just in case."

"I always bring crackers and peanut butter overseas," Moscovitch's partner, Kirsten Moore-Towers, said. "In Asia, it's pretty much all I eat. I suppose I'm a picky eater. Dylan will eat anything. I also like to bring tea and drink it several times a day."

"The last couple of years, I started bringing a pillow with me because I'm pretty picky with pillows," Giulietti-Schmitt said. "I like a flat pillow, and in Japan they tend to be rock-hard. Lynn [Kriengkrairut] and I travel with coconut water. I'll bring oatmeal, since you can't find that sometimes, or power bars. Luckily, Lynn and I have pretty eclectic taste; we eat almost anything!"

Ge may be an exception: He says he doesn't pack anything extra when he travels.

"I'm a pretty simple person," Ge said. "I bring what I need: the skates, the costume, some good clothes. I'm very easy with food. Most things all around the world I can eat. I like to try their national food at competitions, try something different. Because of living in different countries, and my parents being Chinese, Russian and Korean, I'm used to having different food all the time."

On board ship

Professional skaters, who may spend the majority of their year away from home, have a whole different set of travel issues to contend with. They have to find ways to stay fit and healthy for several shows each week. They have to put their lives on hold for many months at a time, selling their cars and subletting their apartments. Scott Smith, who has been spending most of his time at sea on cruise ships lately, misses his friends, family and dog, but says he has adapted to the gypsy life.

"It's very different," Smith said. "Things you don't even think about, like skate sharpening. You get used to skating on dull blades. The longest I've gone without sharpening is nine months. There's a sharpener on board ship, but I'm picky and I've opted out of getting mine done on ship. I just stone them a little. Sometimes, people bring a new pair of skates with them, because sometimes your skates break down."

Smith has no problem working out and practicing on board the ship; staying on a diet is a different matter.

"We're lucky; we can use the really nice gym [on the ship]," he said. "It's like having a gym in your own house. We can skate almost every day if we want to. You can call up the workers at the rink and they'll make the ice for you, and you can go in and practice as much as you want.

"Sometimes, it's hard to eat healthy. When you're there, you get chicken, but you don't know how much butter they put on it, and there's cake and ice cream sitting right there.

"Definitely, sometimes people gain a lot of weight. You're used to a restrictive competitive diet and then you're free, so you have to pull back and go, 'Wait a minute, we still have to put on skating costumes!'"

Back home

Home again from an overseas trip, the last challenge is getting back into your own time zone in a hurry. During the season, skaters usually have to get right back on the ice after a competition.

"Coming back from Asia messes me up," Miner said. "I cannot sleep when I come back from Asia. It takes me two weeks to adjust. This year I'll need to get with it!"

"It's coming home that I find hard," Zawadzki said. "Coming back from Asia, I'd be wide awake at night when I'm supposed to be sleeping. It's about a week until I'm normal."