Sports Science Explores New Frontiers Seeking An Edge, But For Whom?


LeBron's portable hyperbaric sleeping chamber (courtesy RJ's snapchat)
  • LeBron's portable hyperbaric sleeping chamber (courtesy RJ's snapchat)
The Cavaliers practiced first yesterday (as home team) at Quickens Arena, showing up at 11 a.m. after a game that ended just before midnight. After five days in Oakland, it may have felt like 8 a.m. We presume that’s why Tristan Thompson answered “take a nap” when asked what he intended to do to prepare for the Warriors at the end of his presser.

It could be a mildly amusing anecdote, but in fact it’s a burgeoning field of sports science, much like sports nutrition was almost two decades ago. W. Chris Winter is one of the country’s foremost researchers at the medical director of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, and a consultant with a slew of sports teams, that won’t allow him to share their identity. (Teams are super secretive about sports medicine for fear of revealing methods amplified by medical privacy laws.)

According to Richard Jefferson, LeBron is Team Edward
  • According to Richard Jefferson, LeBron is Team Edward
“Athletes get so taken care of from the time they arrive at the training center to the time they go home at night, but there’s always been an idea you’re on your own at that point,” says Winter. “People are sort of addressing the idea that we can probably do better than that.”

Winter’s field of sleep neurology has honed in on our everyday circadian rhythms identifying characteristics that make us morning or night people. This is far from trivial when it comes to sports, particularly baseball where there are day and night games. Winter’s researched how these different types respond.

“As the evening came on as with most individuals who are morning types they come to a point and their performance really crashes after that,” says Winter. “The night owls do okay in the morning but they really pull it together in the evening and kind of come alive. Those things are important when you’re trying to make determinations about who’s going to be on your team based on a whole bunch of spring training day games.”

While it comes into special play with baseball’s mix of day and night games, it manifests in basketball as well, it’s just not as readily apparent from the outside.

“I remember a player for an NBA team I worked with was such a strong morning person, I would talk to them and the GM and the coach, ‘This guy is really amazing, but he’s such a morning person I think he will struggle as time passes dealing with the travel and jetlag,’ because we know morning types don’t travel as well as night owls,” says Winter. “Within a season and a half he was traded. He’s still doing well but looking back it was absolutely the right trade because you look at his performance, it’s very inconsistent and a lot of that has to do with the fact that he doesn’t do particularly well with travel.”

It’s hard to roast a guy for that, but we haven’t given anyone a multi-million dollar contract. The fact is everyone suffers from travel to some extent. A recent study at Brown University looked into what’s known as the “first-night effect,” the phenomena where most people struggle to sleep their first night in a new environment. The study found that one that the left hemisphere of the brain remains more alert and prone to waking from sounds. The second night this effect disappears.

“We’ve all experienced it. When you wake up in your own bed, you wake up and look around, ‘Oh I’m in my own bed, big deal,’ you go back to sleep,” Winter says. “You probably don’t even remember it the next day versus sometimes it can be kind of startling when you wake up in a hotel room and it’s that moment of ‘Where am I?’”

Sleep Problems Big & Small

W. Chris Winter
  • W. Chris Winter
Winter works from the micro to the macro. The micro could be developing strategies ranging from sleep apnea and mad home environment with children or newborns to personal sleep hang-ups from noise to light to whatever other peculiarities human beings develop over the course of their lives.

The macro would be planning flights in a way that minimizes these issues. You’ll notice NBA Finals teams typically leave for the coast right after the game to quickly put the first-night effect behind them. It’s also about understanding the big picture sometimes, like resting instead of practicing after a bad road trip.

“That’s really hard to do but that’s exactly what some people are finding,” Winter says. “One of the things I always tell teams is, it’s all about the rest you’re getting right now. You’re resting now in the ‘preseason’ for the playoffs. So it’s all about managing that… almost like a camel manages water in the desert. Any time you have the opportunity to get water or get rest, you take it. And that’s hard.”

Teams that can diagnose these kinds of issues have a chance to make a real difference in a player’s performance. Maybe they have sleep apnea (like Mike Napoli for example) and have exerted more energy than most to reach this level of performance.

“Let’s work on finding these disorders in your players because you’ve probably got them at a premium, they’re pretty good players, but they’re devastatingly sleepy,” he says. “If we can figure out how to correct or reverse the problem making them devastatingly sleepy, they should be giant killers. If they can make it here not having this sleep problem addressed, fix this and you may have yourself a superstar on your hands.”

Winter consults with the team’s other specialists in what is kind of a roundtable format that not only addresses their sleep issues, but conditioning, training and every other aspect of the player’s health. The team’s players have enough handlers to be running for Governor.

“That’s the way teams sort of structure these things,” he says. “You all get around a table and say, ‘Let’s talk about this guy. What are you seeing sleep doctor? What do you think nutritionist? What do you think exercise physiologist? It is its own dept now, which is really neat.

“We should all be so lucky as to have a team of people like that managing us, our sleep and our nutrition,” laughs Winter.

Having a sleep specialist isn’t quite the norm, but it’s getting there.

“It’s definitely growing. I’ve been doing it for 10 years. The problem is not that many people are qualified to do it,” he says. “Its’ a relatively cheap investment. I’m not a training center. I’m cheap. So I think most of the teams are finding the cost to value added is very low. It’s probably the same as a really good nutritionist.”

You Are How They Tell You To Eat

L.A. Clippers Nutrtioinist, Meg Mangano
  • L.A. Clippers Nutrtioinist, Meg Mangano
To get a feel for how nutrition’s developing and its use by NBA teams, we spoke with Meg Mangano. She’s a registered dietician nutritionist for the Los Angeles Clippers and a member of the USOC Sports Science Network. A former athlete Mangano got into sports nutrition over 15 years ago, before it was called sports nutrition.

“I break nutrition down into three steps,” say Mangano. “It’s every day nutrition and hydration, so what are you eating and drinking and when? The next step is your training and recovery. What are you doing pre- and post- training? The third step is your competition day or game time. The biggest change in that is the timing of your meals and your snacks.”

As with sleeping, everything about an athlete’s efforts is managed, but the science is still evolving. Mangano points out that much of the research is based on long-distance runners.

“A lot of the science behind nutrition recommendations was on endurance athletes, which was a great starting point," she says. "But now we’re learning more about different athletes and the effect on their body of different types of sports, like intermittent sports versus endurance sports.”

Another big thing that’s developed in nutrition and really all biologic science is interest in the microbiome and gut bacteria. We’ve become aware that not only are our bodies filled with bacteria that help us function but they play an important intermediary function in immune response (and, hence, inflammation).

“It makes complete sense when 80% of your immunity is in your gut,” Mangano says. “So how do we nourish people from the inside-out and how does that affect the rest of the body?”

She says that anytime she takes on a client it’s a matter of building a relationship. Changing how someone eats can be hard or simple, and it has nothing to do with how committed they are as an athlete.

“You build that rapport with the person and you know what kind of steps to take with them,” she says. “Are they an all-or-nothing kind of person or are they the baby steps? Do we need to make a lot of little goals they need to accomplish?

“Oftentimes you make one small change that can make a difference in how somebody is feeling; maybe it improves their sleep or their recovery from a practice or their performance the next day. That’s really encouraging,” says Mangano.

Amie Valpone, Culinary Nutritionist, Author of Eat Clean
  • Amie Valpone, Culinary Nutritionist, Author of Eat Clean
According to Amie Valpone, a culinary nutritionist who’s worked with NBA Fits, as well as numerous players, actors and actresses, the results often almost speak for themselves.

She tells them, “You can do whatever you want to do, but I’ll be very honest with you, once you see life this way, you will never go back. Once you see how good your body feels, why would you ever do something that doesn’t make you feel good?

“They think this is normal and in society we accept too low a quality of life,” says Valpone, author of the book, Eating Clean. “It’s almost not even a sales thing; it’s just about getting them to try it… Once there’s the mindset of watching what they are eating they make a huge shift right there.”

Quick Recommendations

Valpone had another life doing marketing and branding for people like Ralph Lauren and Vogue Magazine before discovering nutrition in the course of dealing with her own health and dietary issues.

“It’s not about eating the processed gluten-free crap, it’s really about eating whole, one ingredient foods,” she says. “Eat fruits, vegetables, nuts and a lot of health fats. I’ll be honest, healthy fats are one of the biggest things I have all my clients on. People don’t eat enough fat because in the nineties we feared fat.

“Women try to cut back on fat to lose weight but really what they’re doing it shutting down their metabolism,” she continues. “In the meantime you’re stressing your adrenals, which happens to a lot of my guys, too.”

Mangano also recommends cooking as much as possible at home and becoming more familiar with the kitchen, making warm meals or preparing meals to take with them. But she puts her emphasis on an old standby.

“Number one is hydration,” Mangano says. “Most people are walking around in a state of dehydration. You think about your body, it’s over 60-65% water, your muscles are over 70% water. Being properly hydrated, you work better including your health and your mind.”

However A Few Cautionary Words

Jackie Buell, Director of Sports Medicine, The Ohio State University
  • Jackie Buell, Director of Sports Medicine, The Ohio State University
There have been dramatic advances in sports medicine over the years and those cutting edge surgeries and treatments eventually find their way into ubiquitous public use like arthroscopic surgery. Yet to assume all is progress is to be as naïve as Oppenheimer.

“Most of us would assume or would want to assume that an athlete’s health comes first,” says Dr. Jackie Buell, a registered dietician, athletic trainer and the Director of Sports Nutrition at Ohio State University. “In my world there’s a difference between improving performance and health, and that’s shocking but true. Who pays for it?”

Buell notes that professional sports, and football in particular, have a long sordid history with abusing their players. Baseball clubs used to provide players amphetamines. Last year’s Will Smith vehicle, Concussion, touched on this divergence between profit, health and safety.

“You will always have – I hated to call them scientists – because they give scientists a bad name, but we’ve got people working on the fringe who know how to beat the system and they’ll beat the system as long as they can until they get caught and then they’ll find another way to beat the system,” Buell says.

She notes the exploitive game of dietary supplements which for years have goosed their products with illegal stimulants. One gambit includes using a natural product or their derivative, which is legal. Only the company doesn’t actually do so, only it doesn’t come out until much later.

“It’s a continual cat and mouse,” she says. “You’re always going to have someone developing the stuff that’s causing a problem down the road, and before they get caught they will have developed their next product. It’s crazy.”

The appearance of an edge is often enough to tempt the ultra-competitive top shelf athlete.

“The hard part if an athlete doesn’t take it and they lose by that nanosecond, ‘Would they have won if they were taking it?’ is an ethical dilemma for the athlete as well as the person working with the athlete,” Buell says. “Of course we want sport to be clean and just based on your stuff. But there is such a grey line between foods and dietary supplements.”

Buell wonders at the way sport has become a business down past tweens, younger and younger.

“When you have kids looking at their diet when their 10? We’ve never done that before. I see young kids in the lab and their parents want them to have every advantage there is, so they bring their young men to me,” she says.

“They say, ‘I want to make sure their nutrition is right when their hormones come in and I agree with that, if you want your athlete to be good. What’s that doing to our population of athletes is they’re developing in a whole different way then how it was when you and I were kids.”

Then again that’s already true. Kids are already getting bigger and more physically advanced at younger ages.

“All of our population is getting more physically mature at a younger age. Young males hitting puberty at ages 9 and 10. Females are starting their periods at age 9 and 10,” Buell says. “What we’re seeing in our athletes is simply what we’re seeing in the whole population because of what? Who knows what? Our food, hormones, our environment. Who knows? Lots of theories, no hard evidence, but it’s a population-wide phenomena.”

Final Thoughts

As the Cavaliers prepare for tonight’s fourth game of the NBA Finals, it’s reasonable to wonder about the emphasis we place on sport. On one hand it’s a great testament to what’s possible with the right will and discipline. On the other, we coddle, prod, poke and provoke these young men, use them and spit them out like the gladiators of lore.

Their freedom is tightly circumscribed like the pop star who is hustled from event to event with very little agency off the stage. Nobody's lobbying for pity, more wondering, like Peggy Lee famously did, Is That All There Is?

As many kids spend their life reaching for the gold ring only to be trampled beneath a calliope of other young bucks, perhaps the orientation toward performance and excellence might be tilted back a bit from win-at-all-cost toward something that enriches both participants and the audience. (Owners don’t need help, they own a damn sports franchise fercrisakes, and probably enjoy free rent.)

We aren’t trying to stake out any territory or post-up on a soapbox, just pondering aloud the resources poured into this mostly noble combat and wondering if at some level and in some way our priorities have hardened like Dick Cheney’s sclerotic arteries in an unhealthy manner.

We’ll be at Quickens Loans Arena for Game Four of the NBA Finals. We’ll be posting live video, analysis and snark. You can follow along on Twitter @CRS_1ne, and read our in-depth postgame analysis Saturday morning here in the Scene & Heard section. 

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