Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Published: September 14, 2011
LAST night I slept on athletic shorts. Or more accurately, I slept on the stuff athletic shorts are made of: high-tech performance fabric, the sort of super-Lycra that goes into the uniforms of, say, basketball players.
My sheets were, in fact, made by two former women’s college basketball coaches, Susan Walvius, 46, and Michelle Marciniak, 37, who worked together at the University of South Carolina, and liked the feeling of their athletic shorts so much that they decided to make sheets out of them.
Their sheets, which they called Sheex, would be a “performance” product, imbued with all the properties you associate with athletic gear: they would wick moisture away from your skin, stretch and breathe better than cotton, dry fast and wear long.
Indeed, Ms. Walvius and Ms. Marciniak hoped to carve out a whole “performance bedding category” by reminding folks that sleep is a fitness issue.
“I sleep hot, and I think most people do,” Ms. Walvius said by phone the other day. “But I don’t think people realize that if you sleep hot, your sleep is disrupted, and the next day you can’t perform well.”
Ten years ago, she said, “as coaches, we were cotton purists. Then we saw the whole evolution of performance fabric. Now, you don’t train in anything but performance fabric, because of the moisture wicking and the temperature management. It just helps your body function better. We thought it would be great to take this technology and apply it to bedding.”
Ms. Marciniak, who was sharing the phone with her business partner, added: “Everybody needs sleep. Whether you’re a mom or an athlete, everybody has to perform the next day. We’re making a performance home story. We want to own the consumer from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m.”
Doesn’t everyone? Sleep has always been big business. In 2010, Americans spent more than $5.8 billion on their mattresses and box springs, up 4 percent from the year before.
But as sleep studies have increasingly focused on the health risks associated with lousy sleep, from Type 2 diabetes to hypertension, obesity and a weakened immune system, the makers of so-called sleep products have begun marketing their sheets, pillows and mattresses as fitness aids, crucial gear to prep for the athletic event that is your life.
It looks like a bed, but it feels like a sneaker.
A new mattress called Blu-Tek actually looks like a sneaker, when its innards are viewed in the cross-section graphic that mattress makers love to show, with pockets of blue gel atop crenulated layers of foam.
There are also odor-blocking sheets, like Therapedic AlwaysFresh (ideal for college students who do their laundry only on term breaks) and a host of mattresses covered with CoolMax (the performance fabric the Sheex makers hope to trump).
Magniflex, an Italian company, says it uses “nanotechnology” to infuse its CoolMax pillow covers with lavender and chamomile, turning the pillow into a “vehicle for well-being,” its brochure promises. And Outlast sheets, made from yet another performance fabric, “balance the microclimate under the covers.”
You can even find sleep power bars: NightFood is made with a chocolate extract and melatonin.
“The race to control the bedroom is the great game in retail,” said Marian Salzman, a trend spotter and chief executive for public relations operations of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR, North America.
And beyond the so-called science, the notion of selling bedding products as athletic gear seems intuitive, tapping as it does into the American competitive spirit.
“We are hyper-competitive, even when it comes to stress and relaxation,” Ms. Salzman wrote recently in an e-mail, still at work at 9 p.m. “And we want to amp up our lives, to ensure we have and enjoy the very best, better than others. Thus, who wouldn’t spring for a few extra bucks for a better, more sporty sleep?”
She continued, “Seriously, we want everything in our worlds to be high-performance, including our beds, our pillows, our bolsters, to ensure an empowered snooze and also a better next morning, a wittier, faster, smoother day.”
Travis Dove for The New York Times
IN his new book, “The 4-Hour Body,” the tango-ing, testosterone-injecting human guinea pig and lifestyle guru Timothy Ferriss tries sleep “hacking” — that is, trying to engineer the perfect night’s sleep in the least amount of time.
Mr. Ferriss packs himself in ice (cooler core temperatures send you to sleep faster), buys an REM sleep monitor to tweak his REM-sleep-to-total-sleep ratio (higher is better) and tests the polyphasic sleep habits of super-programmers in Silicon Valley. (Polyphasic sleep is naps, and a blogger/computer tech called PureDoxyk is the cheerleader of a nap regimen called Uberman that prescribes 20-minute naps every two hours during a 24-hour period, which adds up to a total of 4 hours of sleep a day.)
“You can learn a lot by exploring the fringes,” Mr. Ferriss said recently. Though these days, he is happiest with 10 hours of sleep, not 4, he added, and he has replaced the ice-packed bathtub with a simple cold shower. His most elaborate sleep aid, he said, is paying for business-class seats on long flights.
Meanwhile, the Bedtime Network, an online community and lifestyle site that went live this week, offers the services of seven life coaches (including a decorator, a stylist and a “mind-body expert”), all cozily photographed in white Hanes T-shirts. The site’s creators, Cindy Bressler and Lisa Mercurio, are two former music industry executives who got into the sleep business a few years ago, after reading a study that suggested that soft classical music playing at 60 to 80 beats a minute was an aid to sleep.
Since then, they have made four “Bedtime Beats” CDs, collections of jazz and classical music that play at the sleep-perfect rhythm.
“But it was never just a CD,” Ms. Bressler said. “It was a sleep solution, something to incorporate into a bedtime ritual.”
Their goal now is a familiar one. “We want to own bedtime,” Ms. Bressler said. “Babies have a ritual that signals that sleep is coming. But adults are falling asleep in front of the television, or checking their BlackBerry. Technology has taken away that time before your head hits the pillow when you should be transitioning to another place.”
The Mattress Development Company has taken the athletic theme even further, by looking at sleep itself as an athletic event. Its Ecstasy mattress, which sports the Playboy label, was designed, said Stuart Carlitz, the company’s chief executive, to mimic “the ride and the motion” of a water bed.
Individually wrapped coils are involved, as is natural latex. Also, there is a steel bar in the middle of the mattress. Less bounce, in other words, for better sex.
The mattress has sold well in independent furniture stores, but hasn’t been picked up by larger retailers, Mr. Carlitz said, because “the buyers were concerned that Mrs. Consumer might be offended by the name Playboy.”
Now, he said, you can find the same technology in the company’s Eclipse mattresses (look for the ones in the Conformatic series).
Who can keep up?
“Sleep fitness” is the buzz phrase from the National Sleep Foundation, which promotes a “sleep fitness plan” on the hang tag that comes with Sheex. The sheets are one of nine branded products the foundation promotes on its Web site, including room-darkening curtains and shades, and an air filter.
“We see a lot of products,” said Tom Clifford, the group’s director of development. “Shucks, we hear from people a couple of times a day. Yesterday, it was like a far-out thing. Everything from adult diapers to bedding and pajamas.”
Mr. Clifford doesn’t like the word “endorse.”
“We partner,” he said, in a relationship that requires those manufacturers to provide a copy of the foundation’s sleep fitness plan with each product, which includes an exhortation to “keep your bedroom cool, dark and quiet.”
In fact, most new products are in service to this manifesto.
“Cool gel” has become the rallying cry of many mattress makers (the biggest complaint with foam mattresses, a staple for decades, is that they sleep too hot). And the Blu-Tek mattress might be the swankiest version of that technology.
“We started with Nu-Tek” as a name, said Bob Hellyer, president of Kingsdown, the company that makes the mattress. “It evolved to Blu-Tek, because what we were really after is a cooler sleep surface, and in our consumer research, ‘blue’ seems to hit on the cool-support technology.”
His target is women 25 to 35, a new market for an industry that has been mostly geared to baby boomers. Why would a young woman spend $1,500 on a mattress?
“There is a larger number of single females choosing to delay marriage,” said Dr. Robert Oexman, director of the Sleep to Live Institute, Kingsdown’s research division. “They are more affluent and more athletic, and they are saying: ‘If I want to look good, I want to feel good. I need my beauty sleep.’ And research is showing them that their cognitive performance really decreases if they don’t get a good night’s sleep. They know about all this.”
In addition, said Karin Mahoney, the director of communications for the International Sleep Products Association, a trade group for the mattress industry, young women “tend to respond to the ick factor when it comes to mattresses. Over time, your mattress collects dust mites, skin cells, perspiration, body oils, and they really respond to those messages.” (Bedbugs, one assumes, have been a boon to the industry.)
It’s true that most of these products aren’t going to win any beauty contests. Aesthetics is the Achilles heel of many performance sleep “products.”
I loved the feel of the Magniflex Airyform pillow, for example, with its lavender-infused CoolMax cover and orthopedic humps. But you’d have to hide it in the daytime. (A scene from “Planet of the Apes” kept running through my mind: As Dr. Zira said to Charlton Heston, “You’re so damn ugly.”)
And Sheex draped flaccidly off a pillow, while the edge of the top sheet folded over a coverlet looked sort of like underpants.
But they felt better than you would imagine. They were a bit slimy, and your feet do tend to catch audibly on them, which is disconcerting on the way in. Yet they were comfy over all, in the same way those jersey cotton sheets that feel like T-shirts are.
The stretch factor was fun, too. You can pull that top sheet up, up, up, over your head, and then let it spring back.
Did I sleep deeper and longer? Did I dream more? Did I perform like a champ the next day?
Probably not. I’m the sort of sleeper that conks out the minute my head hits the pillow, no matter what the pillow is made of, or what it’s covered in, and I wake with a start at 4 a.m. to gnaw on existential questions.
To my knowledge, there is no product yet on the market that will answer those.