Lately, we have been getting a lot of questions about different ways to track your fitness and recovery. It makes sense that in todays world where we are trying to add data and turn everything into a game (I just read about a bluetooth toothbrush that tells you how to brush your teeth better!), that companies are trying to bring this same model to your workout. I wanted to take a few minutes to tackle the two biggest types of fitness trackers. The Apple watch which is a heart rate monitoring tracker and the Whoop which is a heart rate variability tracker. We’ll talk about what they do, how they can be helpful, and if I really think they are necessary at all.
The Apple watch
The Apple watch is first and foremost a heart rate monitor. This means that it measures how fast your heart beats throughout the day. The Apple watch is insanely popular but not because it is a fitness tracker. Instead it is popular because it is a swiss army knife that can send texts, answers calls, do basic app functions, and offers the fitness tracking option. We are just going to tackle the tracking side for our purposes. The main focus for the Apple watch is on activity. It measures 3 main areas of activity – how much you move in a day (and calories you burn), how much you exercise in a day, and how much you stand during the day. It uses a ring system and the goal is to reach a certain level for each activity. You can also count the number of steps you do in a day. During the workout, you can see your heart rate as you move and it has other apps designed for specific activities, there even is one that can track your running cadence and another that keeps your mile splits while running.
One really cool aspect of any fitness tracker is the sheer volume of data they collect. I recently saw that the Apple watch is FDA approved to do mini-EKGs on you through the heart rate sensors and may be able to detect arrhythmia signals and suggest you go see a doctor. We are hopefully 5-10 years away from being able to detect major health issues before they happen through health trackers and it’s cool to see that the Apple watch is already trending in that direction.
Basically, the apple watch is an activity tracker at its core. The most common affect it has on its wearer is to get them to do more – stand more throughout the day, stay active and walk more, and make sure you are working out. This can be a great tool for those who have very sedentary jobs, tend to have days where they don’t move at all, or like the motivation that comes from hitting certain goals. The data that the watch tracks is very broad though and the levels you hit to complete the goal are very basic. They have a compete with friends option that Dana has been using and she could never hit max points until they looked it up and realized max points for activity was simply doing an extra 30 minutes of working out. Next thing you know you will be spending 30 minutes on a bike everyday simply because it gives you max points on the watch even though your goals may be better served by learning a new skill, working on some strength work, or just going home and resting. The watch is not differentiating what you specifically need but instead is just tracking arbitrary activity numbers.
The Whoop has become really popular the last few years. This tracker measures your heart rate variability instead of your heart rate. This means that it picks up data not from your heartbeat specifically but from our heartbeat over time and the consistency it has. I was first introduced to heart rate variability 5+ years ago by my friend Larry. He had a system using a chest strap where he would put it on in the morning and night for a few minutes and then it would use that data to give him information on his recovery using his heart rate variability. It looks like Whoop has taken that same technology and turned it into a sleek package and watch (with a price tag to match). The whoop mainly tracks 1 thing – your recovery. It uses your heart rate variability information, your sleep information, and a basic daily survey to give you a ranking on how your recovery is. It’s main focus points are your recovery level, your sleep, and your day’s strain. The day’s strain measures the whole day and how much you are working so it includes your daily activities and your workouts. It has other information but it’s main focus is on your recovery and giving you feedback for that.
One article I read on the Whoop says that users drink a reported 79% less alcohol over time because they see the detrimental affect is has on their recovery. It also has a basic question on the morning survey – did you drink 2 or more drinks yesterday? Which I imagine has you double checking if you want that extra drink when you are out. For the sleep side, the Whoop lets you know how much you sleep but also will key you into the quality of your sleep. You may have spent 8 hours in bed but between falling asleep, moving around in the middle of the night, and other things, you may be getting way less. It also displays the information in a very clean way and makes it easy to connect the dots between what helps and hurts your recovery.
I don’t personally use any fitness tracker. One of the things that I first loved about Crossfit was how you didn’t need anything other than a notebook to see you were improving. You also don’t need a heart rate monitor or points to know if you are working hard during a workout. On the other side, data can be powerful thing and I think both trackers can have their benefits as long as you understand their limitations and know yourself and how you are motivated.
I am not a huge believer in the Apple watch as a fitness tracker. As I mentioned before, the Apple watch’s power is in its ability to force you to do more. Stand more. Workout more. Move more. This can be very beneficial to someone who struggles to get moving consistently and the gamification really clicks with some people to get them moving. On the flip side, it is using very basic rules to create its goals and it is always pushing for more activity. If you are someone who already does too much, tends to over-train, and falls into that more is always better mindset. I would highly suggest leaving the Apple watch for texts and calls. I also think it is important to remember how open source the Apple system is. You will continue to see more add-ons and apps added to their system so you will probably see niche specific programs come out in the future (such as the cadence tracker) that may add some extra benefit depending on your goals and specific exercise.
The Whoop is a powerful recovery tool. I am so impressed with the information the Whoop provides, mostly because it gets us focusing on the big things that affect our recovery that we tend to ignore – sleep, alcohol consumption, and our activity levels. The Whoop system trains you over time. You’ll figure out what things lead to a great recovery score or great nights sleep and which things cause it to tank. When Larry used his system years ago, it gave a green, yellow, or red recovery ranking. On a green ranking, he came into the gym and crushed the workout, yellow he would come in and focus more on form or pacing, and red told him to take a day off, eat well, and get a good nights sleep. I saw in one article someone said that the “Whoop makes you a recovery expert.” and I think anything that gets us to focus on recovering better is really cool.
The Whoop is ideal for people who are training for big events. Things like a half marathon, want to compete in Crossfit, triathlons, or a 150 mile bike race. Big events tend to lead to overtraining because we are entirely focused on making sure we are prepared for the event and will sacrifice our recovery (to our detriment) to get in more training time. We often will override that feeling over being overtrained and under recovered because we have a bigger picture in mind. The Whoop is also great for people who just tend to workout too much in general or for people who have very demanding jobs for the same reasons. I can think of a few people at the gym who worked out 6-7 days a week, no matter how much we told them not to. Once they started using the Whoop, they had cold, hard facts on their recovery and that was more effective at getting them to take a rest day than what we would tell them.
One of the biggest takeaways from the Whoops is that the information it shows you almost always lines up with how you are feeling. You can simply get the same information (and save money) by just listening to how you feel and paying attention to your lifestyle (drinking, sleeping, stress). This means for the average person the Whoop is definitely not necessary. If you are driven by facts and information then it has its value. When I was training hard in Crossfit 5 years ago, I would definitely have used a Whoop. Now where my main focus is on moving consistently and staying healthy, I don’t know if my desire for data overrides how much I hate wearing watches.
At the end of the day. Data is all about what you do with it. The most important thing is having a goal and creating a plan to get there. No amount of tracking or data will replace that. However, if you are a data driven person, I can definitely see the benefit of all the information the Whoop provides. For the Apple watch, I think their tracking helps more than it hurts, but most of its data is more of a recap of your day than something you can take action on.