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Relief Pitcher

How sleep ace Chris Winter helps MLB players go the distance after crossing time zones

Tim Foley

Ben Potenziano remembers his aha moment. It was the seventh-inning stretch in an away game in Denver against the Colorado Rockies. As “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” played in the stadium, Potenziano, then an athletic trainer for the San Francisco Giants, happened to catch a local newscast discussing a recently completed 10-year study on sleep, travel and team performance in Major League Baseball. The study suggested that the team better adjusted to a game’s local time zone has a greater chance of winning—a “circadian advantage” the study called it—particularly when that team’s opponent had to traverse time zones to get there.

The results amounted to a common-sense conclusion—jet lag, after all, is a well-known phenomenon—nevertheless, Potenziano was intrigued. If disrupted sleep affected performance, how could his team use the study’s data to help its players? To find out, he soon connected with the lead author of that study, Dr. Chris Winter (Col ’95, Res ’00).

“Sleep is important, we knew that,” says Potenziano. “But we didn’t understand how sleep affects mood, appetite, travel, performance—and that’s where Chris came in and educated us.”

Winter is the medical director of the Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville and a consultant whose work with athletes and advice on sleep, health and performance have been featured in The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Men’s Health and other publications. An Echols Scholar as a UVA undergraduate, Winter earned a medical degree from Emory University and then returned to Charlottesville to complete a neurology residency in the UVA Health System. He went on to a fellowship in sleep medicine the following year at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

When it comes to athletic performance, he says, sleep “is the center of everything.”

“Sleep is not a static process,” Winter says. “When we are in deep sleep, we make growth hormone, which helps athletes train harder, recover faster, build muscle, strengthen bone, recover from injury, strengthen the immune system.”

Potenziano marvels that at no point in his education as a trainer was sleep emphasized as an essential part of an athlete’s training regimen. “I didn’t even know about it,” he says. 

Winter has worked with MLB's San Francisco Giants and Cleveland Indians at their respective spring trainings. Courtesy of Christopher Winter

Winter began working with the Giants in 2009, and in 2010 the team won the World Series for the first time since 1954. While no one credits better sleep alone for the Giants’ success, it stands to reason that in the long, grueling, travel-heavy Major League Baseball season, a better-rested team has the better chance of sustaining strong play.

“In the second half of the season, it is an incredible grind,” Winter says. “So managing sleep and rest and recovery is everything.”

“When we went to the World Series,” says Potenziano, “we were talking about how are we going to travel, and Chris gave us all these ideas on when we should travel, when we should sleep later to adjust—even the little things, like earplugs for all the players in the hotel rooms, duct tape under the doors to keep light out, clip the shades together to keep not even a speck of light coming through.” 

The goal is not to adapt the players to the travel but rather to adapt the travel to the players’ needs. “Everything our bodies do is timed, and that schedule is kept in the part of your brain called the suprachiasmatic nucleus—that is your brain’s timekeeper,” explains Winter. “Travel shifts time zones and sleep-wake cycle, and sleep that is not happening at your normal time, your body is not expecting, and it is therefore not as good.”

When Potenziano moved to the Pittsburgh Pirates, he brought Winter along too, and continued to refine the management and optimization of his players’ sleep under Winter’s guidance. The strategies included using special light-filtering glasses to trigger players’ brains to wind down toward sleep in the evening and creating a dedicated rest lounge at the team’s clubhouse.

“None of the stuff I do is rocket science,” says Winter. “But you show it to teams, and it is new information. At least they are considering these things.”  More important, he says, he hopes his work with athletes will help convey the importance of better sleep to a wider audience. “If the average person sees an athlete talking about the value of sleep, they may pay attention,” he says.

Of course professional athletes, whose jobs depend on peak performance, might find it easier to make sleep a priority than can the rest of us. But Winter says optimal sleep delivers far more than a competitive advantage, even if you don’t have to wake up tomorrow and play in the World Series. “Anything that disrupts the quality of your sleep is bad for your health,” he says. “If you are excessively sleepy in whatever you do, chances are that your life is not going to be where you want to be if you don’t figure that out.”

Caroline Kettlewell is a freelance writer based in Richmond, Virginia. Her story “Resident Life” appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Virginia Magazine.