STILLWATER — Before Mason Rudolph goes to sleep, he slips on a pair of orange-tinted sunglasses to block out blue spectrum light.
He can look at his phone — which looks green through the orange lenses — without the negative effects of blue light, which suppresses melatonin and, in the past, likely kept Rudolph awake.
And soon enough, the Oklahoma State quarterback is fast asleep.
“That is like, almost taking a sleeping pill,” Rudolph said.
If you could have eavesdropped on the conversations in OSU’s Sherman E. Smith Training Center Wednesday after practice, you would have been surprised to hear all the conversations about … sleep. Rudolph, linebacker Chad Whitener and receiver Jalen McCleskey are just three of 35 Cowboy players who became acquainted with sleep science this summer in an effort to improve their productivity and mental focus.
It’s perhaps Oklahoma State’s latest effort to keep up with innovations in college football. The program hired Rise Science, a personalized sleep coaching company that works with athletic programs, including Clemson and Alabama, to emphasize the importance of sleep and to introduce technology that enhances sleep.
According to Rise, which is based in Chicago, reaction time speeds up by 7 percent for every hour of improved sleep. When sleeping for more than eight hours on average, injury rates decrease by 70 percent.
The hope in Stillwater is it can help improve speed and playmaking ability, too.
“Sleep is the most potent performance-enhancing activity that we really know of,” said Jeff Kahn, one of the founders of Rise. “There’s nothing that you can do, there’s no drug, there’s no routine, there’s no food you can eat that’s going to have a bigger impact on your performance scientifically than the sleep you get at night.”
The players who participate have a sleep kit. It includes a sensor that goes under the mattress and picks up every heartbeat, to track length and timing of sleep as well as recovery levels.
It also includes the sunglasses Rudolph and others use to accelerate the drowsiness process.
Players can see their sleep data on an app and can even get sleep coaching through the app if they have a question.
When they began working with Rise, players filled out a questionnaire that gives them a target time for hours of sleep, based on their history.
Rudolph said he’s at about seven hours and 45 minutes to eight hours.
“Kind of gives you a psychological edge when you know you’ve gotten good rest throughout the whole week,” he said.
Rise’s founders began their work as students at Northwestern in 2013, when they worked with the Northwestern football team to try and improve their sleep behavior.
They gave some Northwestern players individual sleep plans and discovered those players slept 54 minutes more per night compared to those who simply got sleep measurement feedback. The increased sleep led to approximately four more plays executed per game and 50 percent fewer mental errors.
Since then, Kahn said it has spread to where they work with both college and pro teams, including the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“In the same way that these players had resources for strength and conditioning, in the same way they had plans for installing that week’s game plan against their opponent, they had nothing for sleep and that just seemed so obvious to us,” Kahn said.
While Kahn said there’s no magic potion in their strategy to improve sleep, perhaps the most important part of it is the individual sleep plans.
“It turns out that everyone actually has a specific amount of sleep they need and a specific time that’s optimal to be sleeping,” Kahn said. “And so we have some algorithms based on the sleep science that help us learn those traits about each player. So one guy might be a six-hour guy and going to bed at 2 a.m., and one guy might be an 11-hour guy and going to bed at 10. Those are extremes obviously, but we have seen that type of range.”
At OSU, Rise connected with strength and conditioning coach Rob Glass.
Glass said he liked Rise’s program because of the technology. The under-mattress sensors that collect sleep data also transmit it all into the cloud, so players can access it themselves on their app.
The technology also allows him to generate reports that can be broken down by offense/defense or even by position to show Mike Gundy.
“The big thing for us is just trying to educate the kids, but it’s been an interesting process,” Glass said. “Just the big thing is, how to get your room temperature, make sure it’s good and dark. Can’t fall asleep with the TV on or anything like that. Make sure your phone’s turned over.”
The effects of Oklahoma State’s dalliance with sleep science might not be fully realized until later in the year — an extra hour of sleep every night means 140 more hours of sleep over the course of the season — but some are feeling fresher already.
Whitener said he used to have trouble falling asleep during fall camp.
Now, he puts on the orange sunglasses for a few hours and he’s ready to snooze. His sleep plan recommends he gets six hours and 10 minutes of sleep per night, but Whitener said he usually tries to get seven hours or more.
“Being able to track your sleep and see how much you’re actually recovering, it’s huge for us,” Whitener said. “And the science behind it is actually really great as well so I’m excited.”