Relief pitcher

Dr. Chris Winter helps pro athletes tie performance to pillow time

Illustration by 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.”

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