Field Study: When the Steelers and other East Coast teams struggle out West, this might be the reason why.






BY STEPHEN J. NESBITT • PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE


BY STEPHEN J. NESBITT
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE



SHOW TRANSCRIPT

Steelers receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster reacts after the Raiders scored in the final minute of play Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, at the Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)


MATT MORET: Welcome to the first episode of Field Study, a podcast about sports and science from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I’m Matt Moret.


We thought we would open the series by diving into an issue we can all relate to: how to get a good night’s sleep. More specifically, we wondered how top athletes across major sports leagues manage to unwind after hours of intense physical activity. How do they prepare for a game that starts when their bodies are tuned to a completely different time zone?


Today you’ll be hearing from Stephen Nesbitt, an enterprise reporter at the Post-Gazette. But before we get started, I just want to say thank you for listening along. If you like what you hear and want to see what we have in store, make sure you subscribe to our feed wherever you get your podcasts.


With that, I’ll turn things over to Stephen.


* * *


STEPHEN NESBITT: You may think that there’s nothing more boring than sleep, but today I’ll try to convince you that there’s nothing at all boring about sleep. In fact, it plays a pretty big part in the sports world. It influences how teams travel. It impacts the durability and longevity of your favorite athletes.
And it could explain why your favorite East Coast team can’t win on the West Coast.


In a past life, I was a beat reporter covering the Pittsburgh Pirates. And that’s when I first heard the term “sleep optimization.” I know the phrase sounds straight out of business school, but it’s something sports teams have started to really take seriously in the past decade.


Take baseball, for example. Every Major League team plays 162 regular-season games over 187 days. That’s a lot of plane flights, a lot of night games and not many days off. So teams try to travel and train smarter. They try optimizing everything.


Players wear wristbands, sleeves and compression shirts that track their heart rate, body temperature and sleep quality. That data then informs decisions.


Before the Pirates play out West, they fly out right after the last game at home so players’ internal clocks can start to synchronize to the new time zone. And they even send their next starting pitcher out West a day or two early so he has a head start.


All of these choices have to do with something called a circadian rhythm.


Your circadian rhythm is your 24-hour internal clock, which cycles between sleepiness and alertness at regular intervals.


To tell you more about this intersection of sleep and sports, I have a few people for you to meet. If they put you to sleep, that’s OK. Maybe that’s the point. You can pick up later where you drifted off.


* * *


Fans wave a Puerto Rican flag at the start of the opening game of the weekend series between the Montreal Expos and New York Mets at the Hiram Bithorn Stadium in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Friday, April 11, 2003. (Tomas van Houtryve/Associated Press)


DR. W. CHRISTOPHER WINTER: W. Christopher Winter, I'm a neurologist and sleep specialist from Charlottesville, Virginia, and author of “The Sleep Solution: Why your sleep is broken, and how to fix it.”


NESBITT: In 2004, Dr. Winter ran a pilot study that really changed the course of his career. At that time, Major League Baseball was in uncharted waters.


The Montreal Expos were looking for a new home, and while they waited to relocate, they played about a quarter of their 2004 home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. That, for the first time, stretched the league across five time zones.


Dr. Winter used that season to analyze how travel across multiple time zones affected Major League teams’ performances. When he published the findings, Major League Baseball came calling. They funded a study in which Dr. Winter examined the previous 10 seasons to see how his results held up.


What Dr. Winter was looking for was whether teams’ circadian advantage impacted the results of their games. You may have heard the word “circadian” before in regards to sleep.


When a circadian rhythm is working properly, your body is able to sense environmental cues, like light, and readjust its internal processes. Things like hormone production and metabolism are among the most important adjustments that happen throughout a day.


When you disrupt that internal clock, quality sleep is the best reset button. It helps you get back in sync.


Dr. Winter wanted to see what happened when travel across time zones gave one team a circadian advantage over the other, meaning they were more acclimated to the time zone than their opponent.


Conventional wisdom says that for every time zone crossed, synchronization takes one day. So let’s say the Pirates fly from Pittsburgh to San Francisco for a series against the Giants. The first day, the Pirates are at a 3-hour circadian disadvantage. The next day, it’s a 2-hour disadvantage. The third day, it’s 1. You follow?


Well, Dr. Winter found that teams with a 1- or 2-hour circadian advantage won 52 percent of the time. That’s relatively minor. But teams with a 3-hour circadian advantage won 60 percent of games. So that first day in San Francisco, the Pirates could really be behind the 8-ball.


Once Dr. Winter shared those results at baseball’s winter meetings, teams started to reach out.


WINTER: There's always a team that calls me during the playoffs and says, hey, we're Team X, we made the playoffs. We need you to help us get our sleep together the next 7 days before we open up the series with San Diego or whatever. I always laugh and liken that to saying, “Hey, our town just ran out of water. Can you come over here and build a dam and reservoir system so we can accumulate some more drinking water for our inhabitants?” Man, that should have been started a long time ago.


NESBITT: Dr. Winter has an analogy for everything.


WINTER: It’s the only way I can explain things to myself.


NESBITT: Ten years ago, according to Dr. Winter, teams were in the Dark Ages when it came to sleep.


WINTER: Teams would invest so much time and resources into a player and then really only pay attention to them from the time they arrived at the training center in the morning and when they left after the game or practice. The time in between was a complete black box.


NESBITT: Dr. Winter likes to call sleep the “natural performance enhancer.”


He consults with over 30 teams across the major sports leagues in the U.S., and he said was surprised how long it took teams to capitalize on the idea that sleep is a variable which can be manipulated to improve performance.


Dr. Winter said that for the most part, players are receptive to his advice. But his solutions for better sleep aren’t life hacks. They aren’t 1- or 2-minute fixes. They’re lifestyle changes.


WINTER: If you’re a 20-year-old player, you can wreck yourself going out, chasing girls, playing video games all night long, and still show up the next day and be absolutely fantastic. Because you’re 20 years old.


So to me, one of the dialogues we often have with these players is, “I’m glad you can do that. That’s phenomenal. But we’re talking about not only the peak of a career but also its length or arc.” It’s amazing how many players who don’t understand how important sleep is can be phenomenal for two or three years and five years later you're like, remember that guy who played second base and how amazing he was? And he’s gone.


NESBITT: In 2013, Dr. Winter published another study that found a significant relationship between the self-reported sleepiness of Major League players and their career longevity. He said it’s no coincidence the athletes he’s worked with over the years who have most prioritized sleep are veterans. Guys like longtime NBA players Grant Hill and Kevin Ollie. Because if they don’t sleep, they don’t last.


WINTER: Really keen athletic organizations are picking up on that. If you get a player in your organization that is good but will just not organize his or her sleep properly, if I were a general manager, that person would be packaged up in a deal sooner or later while you can get value for them. Because they can crash and burn very quickly.


NESBITT: By now, most teams have awakened to the importance of sleep. Just like they have about nutrition and hydration. But that spike in interest can cause some unintended consequences.


WINTER: Usually what happens is usually when there's interest, the interest kind of blossoms before the science can really keep up with it. That creates a situation where teams are really interested in sleep, but don't really know what to do with it. And industry has kind of picked up on that.


NESBITT: Modern sleep trackers come in all shapes and sizes. They can give you loads of data. But what good is data if you don’t know what to do with it? Dr. Winter compared it to having an MRI without an orthopedic physician. You have a picture of your knee, but you don’t know how to read what it means.


WINTER: I think that's where we're at right now. Most teams are actually thinking about sleep, but there's this sort of Wild West mentality of what's real science, who are the real experts and what's just exploitative of an industry now that's excited about something but may not have the grasp of the science to know what's real and what's not.


NESBITT: But there’s good news.


WINTER: We’re also seeing just an explosion of people doing research. It was pathetic. When I was writing papers and writing up the research many years ago trying to fill up my bibliography and works cited, there were none. We were putting in information about shift workers in motor plants and Olympic archers. It had nothing to do with an NBA or MLB team. That has really changed. It's almost becoming a sub-discipline within the field of sleep medicine, which is awesome.


NESBITT: Some players unions have pushed back against wearable devices, raising concerns about who has access to the data and how it can be used. They worry teams will be allowed to use this data as leverage in arbitration, saying the player sleeps poorly or goes out too much. All because of a wristband.


WINTER: I saw one union say something like, well, we don't know they don't cause cancer. It sounded very Trumpian to me. We don't know that pine tar doesn't cause cancer either, yet we're smearing that all over the place.


NESBITT: For the record, I didn’t find any complaints about wristbands causing cancers. Maybe it was an analogy. But Dr. Winter’s greater point is that in the next decade he expects pruning of what’s real science and what’s not. The science is catching up, and athletes are taking advantage of it.


WINTER: I think in the last three days, I've talked to two baseball players about redoing their bedrooms. They just got new beds and wanted to know how I'd set their bedrooms up to sleep optimally, then what they could do when they traveled. I think they're going after it themselves. They realize, no, the band you're wearing on your wrist doesn't figure out if you go to strip clubs or whatnot. It's truly information to better you — if you want it.


NESBITT: Todd Tomczyk is the director of sports medicine for the Pittsburgh Pirates.


I’ve known Tomczyk for about 5 years, and I caught him on the phone one morning as he dropped his kid off at school.


Tomczyk has worked with pro ballplayers since 1999, and he’s been in the Major Leagues since 2006, first in the Cleveland Indians organization, then the Los Angeles Dodgers, and now the Pirates. Tomczyk told me that today there are three things training staffs look at in regard to athlete performance: They can control how players train, how they prepare and how they recover.


TODD TOMCZYK: Sleep is key to that entire three-pillar approach.


Todd Tomczyk keeps a close watch on Jameson Taillon after an injury scare in a game July 19, 2016, at PNC Park. (Peter Diana/Post-Gazette)


NESBITT: It’s not like teams are just catching on that sleep matters. They’ve always known it was important, but Tomczyk said now there’s more data on what works and what doesn’t. Sleep is an individual issue. What works for one player may not work for the next. In recent years, the Pirates have brought in Dr. Winter and Dr. Cheri Mah, who you’ll hear more about later, to speak to the team. Tomczyk said he’s found that today’s athlete wants more information, more data.


TOMCZYK: They want to see what it says, how it affects them. When we show this to the athletes, their awareness to it is kind of revolutionary. They're like, “Wow, I didn't realize that I turned over that much or that I'm not getting to sleep, so what can I do? What else can I do?” It's the microwave society in a way.


But it does get back to basics. We've dabbled in sleep technology and sleep optimization probably since we've gotten into this game — and the people who have come before me have investigated it — so it's not new. What we like to emphasize is awareness. What we like to emphasize is an individualized approach. It's not just saying, hey, just because you are a 24-year-old athlete that's completely healthy, has no injuries, that you don't need your 8 hours of sleep. Well, that's just as important as your body and yourselves recovering not only from travel but from the stress you put on it from the previous days' work.


NESBITT: When Pirates players arrive at spring training, they have a physical on their first day.
Part of that is a questionnaire, and it includes questions about how they sleep, when they sleep, and what challenges they had over the offseason. Tomczyk said he did the same in Los Angeles and Cleveland.


What is new is some of the sleep solutions. At PNC Park, the Pirates have a regeneration room in their clubhouse. It has comfortable mattresses and chairs for players to get 15- or 20-minute pregame naps. There are sensory-deprivation tanks players can float in. And there’s special lighting to create an environment as sleep-friendly as possible.


When the Pirates fly, there are pillows on the plane that encapsulate your entire head.


TOMCZYK: They look like these eggs from Mork and Mindy. It'll relax your neck. It'll blind everything out. It'll trick your mind into thinking you're actually sleeping in a dark room.


NESBITT: When the Pirates touch down on the West Coast, they want the players and staff to stay up as late as possible the first night.


TOMCZYK: If I don't, the first day or two when I'm on the West Coast, I'll wake up at 3, 3:30 in the morning, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and raring to go. To counter balance that, players will nap. So if they're up that early, get something ot eat, then take a nap.


NESBITT: That first full day out West, there’s typically going to be a 7 p.m. game, which is 10 p.m. Eastern time. For a player who is a morning person, that’ll feel like an awfully long day. They’d normally be approaching the low point for athletic performance in their circadian cycle as the game progressed.


In theory, that could guide the manager’s roster decisions those nights.


TOMCZYK: We know who our morning larks are, and we know who our night owls are. That goes into it. Those players that have to participate late in the game, if they're a night owl on the West Coast, that's information that your staff and manager should have. But there's also ways throughout the day that we can catch up and get the body tricked into thinking that they're getting enough sleep and they're as recovered as they should be to perform when they need to.


NESBITT: A recent story from The Athletic raised the question of why NHL teams always practice in the late morning or early afternoon on non-game days. After games, players often don’t get to sleep until 1 a.m. or later, so why make them wake up early to get to practice? The short answer is, that’s the way it’s always been done. Tomczyk saw a correlation to baseball.


In an email, he wrote, “[It’s] a concept we consider and continue to look at when mapping the spring training workdays and recovery schedules. For us it's the exact opposite. As you know we play primarily day games in spring training then rather quickly transition to night games.”


That’s something Dr. Winter mentioned as well. It seems ingrained in some coaches that you should get players training early in the day to deter them from going out the previous night. That may come at a price. Players might skip the clubs, but they also might skip the sleep.


* * *


NESBITT: So I'm here in the South Side, walking up to the Steelers facility. It is a frigid day in early January. We had plans to use today to talk to some of the players, hear about their sleep patterns, sleep habits. But the bad news is the Steelers players are long gone. They didn’t make the playoffs, you may have heard, so all that’s left are the people who work in the building year-round.


NESBITT: John, how are you.


JOHN NORWIG: Good. Have we met?


NESBITT: I don't think so. We have now.


NESBITT: The man I’m meeting is named John Norwig.


NORWIG: I am the head athletic trainer for the Pittsburgh Steelers.


NESBITT: How long have you been in this role?


NORWIG: I have been doing this for 28 seasons.


NESBITT: Wow. So you’ve seen a thing or two?


NORWIG: *laughs* Perhaps. I’d like to think so.


NESBITT: Norwig led me past the Steelers empty locker room, through the trainers’ room, and into an exam room where it was quiet.


He’s been the Steelers’ head athletic trainer for 28 seasons. When he took the job, Bubby Brister was the starting quarterback. Norwig said that back then, trainers were told that sleep was a form of recovery, and they should instruct their athletes that 8 hours was an appropriate amount of sleep.


That mantra still holds true, for the most part, but now there’s much more data behind it.


NORWIG: Sleep experts, so-called sleep experts in athletics, have sprung up in the last, I'd say 5 to 10 years. It's becoming more prevalent in our world.


NESBITT: The football schedule doesn’t have nearly as much travel as baseball or basketball or hockey, but Norwig has the challenge of monitoring a much larger roster of players.


NORWIG: I think what you'd find, at least in our case, we have about 60 guys and there would be 60 different sleep plans for those guys. Our hands are tied to a certain extent because there are certain things we can't monitor in our athletes. I think too that when you're dealing with 60 young men that have been very successful that we can educate them and tell them that science says we're supposed to do certain things, but it's something else to actually have it happen. These guys make up their own minds.


NESBITT: Now that’s not only a sleep issue. A dietician can tell players how to eat, but that doesn’t mean they won’t eat fast food or stay up late and eat a bag of potato chips.


But you may already have guessed that one of the biggest problems with trying to get players more, and better, sleep is video games.


NORWIG: We have a number of experts that play video games here. Fortnite has kept many of our athletes up past their bed time, shall we say. The only thing I can do, or the Steelers can do, or the experts can do, is to try and educate those athletes. The rest is up to them. They’re adults.


NESBITT: That wasn’t the first time Fortnite came up in my conversations with sleep experts. Here’s Tomczyk when I asked how he stresses the importance of sleep to young players who’d rather sit in front of the TV.


TOMCZYK: Well, in today's generation, they're gamers. So the way to connect with them is to educate them through games on how important sleep is. I haven't played it, but I've seen it. I believe the game Fortnite, they actually have the general status based on their general rest and recovery.


NESBITT: OK, that’s kind of clever. Points for creativity. No way to know whether it actually worked.


Two years ago, the Steelers brought in UCSF researcher Dr. Cheri Mah, who I mentioned earlier, to give a presentation during training camp.


Dr. Mah studied at Stanford and has become a preeminent sleep expert in the sports world. She consults with many teams, most notably the NBA juggernaut Golden State Warriors.


Dr. Mah’s presentation at Steelers training camp made waves. Within a couple days, Norwig reached out to Dr. Mah saying the Steelers’ late owner Dan Rooney was interested in hearing more.


One topic that piqued the Steelers’ interest was Dr. Mah’s research about the disparity between East and West Coast teams in evening games. She sent Norwig two studies to show Mr. Rooney.


The first was a 1997 study which looked at every Monday Night Football game from 1970-1994. That study showed that West Coast teams had a significant advantage over East Coast teams — which, for the record, included all teams in the Eastern Time Zone, so the Steelers were considered an East Coast team.


Every Monday night game started at 9 p.m. Eastern, regardless of where it was played. That benefitted West Coast teams, because at kickoff their internal clocks would read 6 p.m., which is close to the proposed peak athletic performance time of the circadian cycle. For East Coast teams, on the other hand, their circadian clocks are at 9 p.m. when the game begins and around midnight when it ends, which is close to the nadir of the circadian cycle.


The findings showed that the West Coast team won 63.5 percent of these Monday night matchups between West and East Coast teams. The 9 p.m. start time enhanced home-field advantage for West Coast teams and eliminated it for East Coast teams.


When West Coast teams played at home, they won a whopping 71 percent of the time. When they played out East, the West Coast team still won 56.3 percent of the time.


I’m sure some of you may be griping about how good the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders were at that time. But that disparity should be stamped out by the point spread. And in those Monday night matchups, the West Coast team still beat the spread in 67.9 percent of games.


The second study Mah sent the Steelers was from 2013. It built on the previous study to determine that in all evening games between West and East Coast teams over a 40-year period, the West Coast team beat the point spread 66 percent of the time. As a control, they analyzed day games and found no such advantage, with East Coast teams actually beating the spread in 51 percent of those day games.


Dr. Mah and I swapped emails, but we weren’t able to find a time to interview. She and the study’s other authors suggested that teams may want to redesign their travel schedules when crossing multiple time zones. That’s something the Steelers have considered. Norwig said the Steelers generally leave Pittsburgh the night before a road game, even a West Coast game.


NORWIG: I think with [former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher] we may have left a day earlier. We have not done that with Coach Tomlin. You may know because you're a reporter. I didn't look at what our West Coast record is.


NESBITT: Not good.


NORWIG: It's not good? Maybe we need to change some things for next year. That's one of those things I'm sure we'll consider when we enter this offseason.


NESBITT: In November, Deadspin reporter Dom Consentino, who grew up in Pittsburgh, was watching the Steelers struggle on the road against the Denver Broncos when his cousin sent him a text.


“Well this is now officially a Steelers game west of the Mississippi.”


Consentino felt like there was truth behind that comment, but how much? Turns out, a lot.


Despite being the NFL’s winningest team since the 1970 merger, with a .614 winning percentage, the Steelers have been abysmal out West. Consentino found that from 1970 to 2017, the Steelers were 26-47-1 in games played in the Mountain or Pacific time zones, a .358 winning percentage. No other East Coast team had a larger gap between their overall winning percentage and their winning percentage out West.


Sadly, I need to offer this small update to those numbers: The Steelers played two games West of the Mississippi this season. They lost both, to the 6-10 Broncos, then the 4-12 Oakland Raiders. But there’s something even trickier than going West. And that’s going to London. The NFL has held regular-season games in London every season since 2007. The Steelers have played there once, in 2013.


It wasn’t a pleasant memory. The Steelers were 0-3 and coming off a Sunday night loss to the Chicago Bears. Their next opponent, the Minnesota Vikings, arrived in London on Tuesday so players could start synchronizing to their 7-hour time change.


Mike Tomlin, on the other hand, opted to keep the Steelers in Pittsburgh until Thursday in order to keep their schedule as regular as possible. Norwig advised players to take Melatonin to help them sleep on their red-eye flight.


The Steelers touched down at Gatwick Airport in London on Friday morning, dropped their bags at the team hotel and went straight to work, thinking a light practice would help players loosen up and start to adjust.


Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is sacked by Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen and linebacker Chad Greenway late in a game at Wembley Stadium, London, Sept. 29, 2013. The Vikings defeated the Steelers, 34-27. (Matt Dunham/Associated Press)


NORWIG: We had about a 30-minute bus ride to the practice field, and the bus was quiet because everybody was taking a nap, which was unusual.


NESBITT: Norwig was dragging, too.


NORWIG: I can tell you I was exhausted. And then I woke up at an odd hour in the middle of the night. It wasn't even the early morning. I would call it the middle of the night. I can't speak for all our athletes, but speaking for me personally, it crushed me when we went over there, adapting to that time schedule.


NESBITT: Norwig believes the change in time and the players’ sleep pattern had an effect on the Steelers in their game against the Vikings. The Steelers never led. They fell behind Matt Cassel and the Vikings early, then clawed back within a touchdown in the fourth quarter.


Their comeback was foiled when Ben Roethlisberger fumbled at the Minnesota 6 yard line with 19 seconds left. The Steelers were 0-4, their worst start since the 1970 merger.


* * *


NESBITT: We’ve spent all this time talking about how pro athletes have improved their sleep habits. But how about improving your own?


Today, when Dr. Winter meets with athletes who are sleeping poorly, the first thing he tries to correct is their mindset. He wants them to understand their sleep can be helped.


WINTER: Sleep is not a trait. I think a lot of people think that way. That's the old way of thinking. “Oh, I'm a terrible sleeper and that's just the way it is.”


It’s like saying “I can't hit a curveball.” If you can’t hit a curveball, practice it and we can get you to be able to help you hit a curveball. Put this thing on your head at night, it’ll help you meditate. You can actually hear what your brain is doing so that you can practice the art of settling your mind down. Then you can look at the results on your phone. There you go!


NESBITT: Dr. Winter occasionally meets with players and their partners, because if one person in the house is having trouble sleeping, it can impact everyone. He’s had situations where players prefer to be on the road because they’ll sleep better when there’s no newborn twins, or no extended family in town, or no child begging to sleep in your bed … and then wetting the bed.


WINTER: Crazy situations that you never would think the guy on the poster in your bedroom would be dealing with at home. But everybody puts their pants on one leg at a time.


NESBITT: Norwig, the Steelers’ head athletic trainer, said many pro football players struggle with sleep apnea. They’re snorers, which means they aren’t getting enough oxygen while they sleep. The Steelers have had a number of players undergo sleep studies at UPMC, and some have attempted to further address their sleep apnea through surgery.


NORWIG: If we have athletes who are suffering from sleep apnea and have that procedure, we've seen dramatic increases in performance. They'll tell you immediately that they feel better. I can think of more than a handful of athletes — we see it in big, thick-chested athletes. We have a lot of those guys. That procedure for sleep apnea has benefited us dramatically.


NESBITT: There are plenty of other factors affecting everyday sleep patterns, and no shortage of products promising to help. Here’s what our experts said.


Research indicates an optimal sleep environment is dark and cool. Basically, a cave.


What you’re eating and drinking before bed matters too. Sugary treats may not be your friend.


Tomczyk, from the Pirates, said he’s noticed that players who prioritize sleep have one habit in common.


TOMCZYK: What I've noticed is they kind of turn their phones off. If they're more engaged with their families when they're home, regardless of if they have little kids and unbelievable supportive families and wives, they'll turn their phones off. Which is not easy for people to do.


NESBITT: You probably know that staring at the TV or your phone before bed is a bad idea when you’re trying to shut down your mind for the night. That’s why newer phones have a sleep mode, which dims the screen and tints it a blue hue. But it’s one thing to hear good information. Making lifestyle changes based on that insight is another thing entirely.


WINTER: I can sit there and talk about how important sleep is until I'm blue in the face, but when somebody like LeBron James says, “It's one of the most important things in terms of me being able to perform at my best and stay healthy and have a long career,” it makes my job as a sleep doctor so much easier.


NESBITT: He isn’t pulling LeBron James’ name out of thin air. In November, James and his personal trainer went on Tim Ferriss’ podcast and talked about the importance of sleep.


James said he regularly gets 8 to 9 hours, sometimes 10. He makes sure his room is cool and dark, with no distractions. He shuts off his electronics about 30 to 45 minutes before bed. He turns on a sleep tracker, and then falls to sleep to the sound of raindrops falling on leaves.


If you won’t take sleep advice from a doctor, maybe you’ll listen to King James?


That brought me to my last question for Dr. Winter. I admitted it might be overly simplistic. But what is the target sleep duration for an athlete? As you might imagine, Dr. Winter had an analogy for that, too.


WINTER: That question is similar to: Is there a target caloric intake these days? It is so much dependent on that athlete, and not only that, but what the athlete is engaged in. Is the athlete in the offseason or is the athlete literally in the thick of training or competing?


To me, another one of our jobs is to make that athlete understand specifically, this is the amount of time you need, and maybe this is the amount of time you need in-season and out. A lot of these guys once they get out of the season I get calls and communication from them saying they can't sleep. They're having insomnia. A lot of times it's because they're seeking 9 hours of sleep in the offseason but because their workload is so reduced their body's sleep need is changed, but they have not changed their sleep schedule.


So you can still say, factually, the average individual needs 7-8 hours of sleep, probably the average elite athlete 8-9. But it's still very much an average. We have to be careful with those, because it's the athlete who needs 8 but is trying to get 10, they're going to fail, and they're going to feel like something is wrong with their sleep when in fact nothing is wrong with their sleep, it's just that the expectation of what they need is off from what they need.


It's like thinking you'd feel much healthier if you ate an extra-large pizza all by yourself every day for lunch because you met a Baltimore Raven lineman and that's what he did, and he looked pretty fit. You tried it and you got maybe halfway through the pizza felt like you were going to throw up. So you go into your doctor and say I have something wrong with my appetite. I can't finish my lunch.


A smart doctor would say, “What is your lunch?” And you'd say, “An extra-large pizza.”


A smart doctor would say, “Why in the world would you think you would be able to eat an entire extra-large pizza for lunch?” You'd say, “Because my friend does it.” “Who's your friend?” “Well, this linebacker guy.” “That's crazy.”


NESBITT: So don’t try to eat an extra-large pizza at lunch.


And maybe, just maybe, the next time you see an Eastern team looking sluggish on the West Coast, you won’t call them lazy. You’ll just wonder if they’re sleepy.


* * *


MORET: That does it for the first episode of Field Study. Hopefully you enjoyed it, because we have a lot more coming your way.


We’d like to thank all of the guests who helped with this episode, as well as Post-Gazette editors Meagen Fekos and Tyler Batiste for letting us create Field Study in the first place. I produced this episode and Ryan Winn helped out with scripts.


Check back next week for the next installment, which is about how artificial intelligence may be affecting head coaching in the NFL.


And If you’re listening through iTunes, be sure to leave us a review telling us what you thought. Thanks for listening!