For professional athletes who regularly attend high-intensity practices, travel across time zones, and play late-night matches, getting enough sleep can be an epic challenge. But a Canadian company called Fatigue Science is striving to change that—and demonstrating that when it comes to peak athletic performance, sleep can be a real game changer.With a client roster that includes teams from every major sports league, as well as Olympic and collegiate teams, Fatigue Science is in the business of “fatigue modeling.” The company’s innovative Readiband wristband captures wearers’ sleep data with a level of accuracy that rivals in-lab sleep studies. Then, Fatigue Science runs that data through a U.S. Army-developed algorithm to predict an individual’s level of fatigue with near certainty.
The results allow coaches to assess which players aren’t getting enough sleep, measure the impact of the team’s practice and travel schedules on fatigue, and then make adjustments to promote better rest and recovery. And the outcomes have been pretty stunning: The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl after a few seasons of using the technology, and the Chicago Cubs won the World Series right off the bat after partnering with Fatigue Science.
The science of sleep
Of course, these triumphs can’t be attributed entirely to better sleep, given these teams’ world-class talent and leadership. “I would never say, ‘This team won the Super Bowl because of Fatigue Science,’” says Jeff Zeilstra, the company’s senior account executive for high performance. “But we’re certainly helping these elite athletes with their fatigue awareness and providing some tools for them to plan and manage their busy schedules in order to put themselves in a position to compete at their best.”
Sleep offers players a boost because it “cuts through all the major domains of performance—physical, cognitive, social, and emotional,” explains Zeilstra. “We know that there is a critical physical component to sleep as it pertains to the body’s recovery. It helps with tissue repair, regeneration, and immune function, but it also plays an equally important role on the cognitive side as it influences things like motivation and memory consolidation.”
An idea awakens
When Fatigue Science was created in 2006, founder Pat Byrne—who had previously worked in occupational health and safety for the Canadian government—was primarily interested not in sports, but in finding ways to minimize fatigue-related accidents in the workplace.
Byrne was able to secure proprietary access to the US military’s fatigue-prediction algorithm known as SAFTE (Sleep, Activity, Fatigue, and Task Effectiveness). After building the Readiband device, the company began bringing the technology and algorithm to industries like oil and gas drilling, mining, and trucking, “where workers, if they are fatigued, are putting themselves and potentially others at risk,” says David Trotter, the senior vice president of sales and marketing at Fatigue Science. Providing data that allowed managers to make informed adjustments to shift schedules has led to “significant reductions in accidents and fatigue-related incidents” across industries, he says.
“On the other side of the same coin,” explains Trotter, “you could use the algorithm to show how you can adjust your sleep to get to your peak,” which is exactly what the company started doing in 2009, when the Vancouver Canucks approached Fatigue Science about becoming their first sports team client.
Access for amateur athletes
Today, about half of Fatigue Science’s customers are on the sport and human performance side, and the other half are on the industrial side. But soon, you won’t have to be a pro athlete or part of an organization contracted with Fatigue Science in order to access the company’s cutting-edge technology. That’s because Fatigue Science is currently testing a direct-to-consumer model that will allow individuals to buy the Readiband and a subscription to the data service.
And as artificial intelligence and machine learning become more advanced, Zeilstra predicts that such data will offer more than just a snapshot of how alert a user will be on the job or during their workout on any given day. Rather, it will help you “plan your entire work week or any critical events going on in your life. Your own personalized data will basically guide you to a full sleep-optimization plan based on those insights.”
To anyone interested in sleep and performance, he says, “Stay tuned.”
Sleeping on the job
To improve their team’s performance, coaches engage with Fatigue Science technology by: assigning players to wear Readibands either at night or all day (in order to capture napping data too) and to sync their individual data to the Readiband app
determining acute versus chronic fatigue trends for individuals and tailoring their training load and recovery accordingly monitoring athlete fatigue levels throughout the week with real-time dashboards that show each athlete’s daily Effectiveness Score, a measure of mental fatigue or performance ability based on sleep and circadian factors that correlates with reaction time (coaches see the whole team’s scores; players see their own score in the mobile app) establishing training and practice plans to optimize recovery (especially after travel) implementing recovery protocols (like naps) for players with sleep debt referring players struggling with insomnia or anxiety to the team’s sport psychologist.
Rachel B. Levin is an LA-based freelance writer covering food, health, and sustainability. Follow her on Instagram: @rachelbethlevin.