Since No One Asked – My take on WHOOP

If you’ve been out on a group ride lately you may have noticed a couple of people with an understated black band around their wrists. It doesn’t have a watch face, and no blinking lights are visible, so what is that thing?  Does it ward off demons from the underworld?  Is it another wrist band ploy by Lance Armstrong to rebrand himself?

Wrong and wrong.  It’s a WHOOP, and they’re everywhere.

WHOOP is a fancy little wearable retrofitted with an optical sensor and an accelerometer that captures your heart rate data and movement through the day.  During the night, it doesn’t rest but continues monitoring your heart rate which it uses to ballpark your sleep cycles.  The only time it’s not watching you is when it’s admirable battery finally requires a recharge every five days or so.

Why would any athlete subject themselves to this profound interrogation of their inner workings?  Because WHOOP provides dumps all that heart rate and movement data into a closed-door algorithm and spits out a ‘Strain and Stress score’.  Based upon these scores, the clever little app recommends adjustments in your routine, like taking an easy day or asking you to maybe lay off the booze for a day.

If that sounds brilliant, you’re right. It sounds brilliant. There’s just one issue:

The Optical Sensor isn't accurate. Like at all.

Since the optical sensor isn’t accurate, nothing downstream of it, which is everything, really has value. And since the value proposition of WHOOP is to make training and lifestyle decisions based on that information, it’s essentially useless.

But let’s set that aside. Let’s say they fixed it and it was accurate – awesome!  Now what?  WHOOP is our latest attempt to narrow down the mysterious processes in the body and model load. Does the algorithm get it right?

Nope. Biology still defies the algorithm. The model is helpful, but still deeply flawed and wrong.  e.g. I’ve had days with terrible recovery scores with some of my workouts and vice versa. 

Given that WHOOP is imperfect, it’s perilous to use that to dictate when to do hard workouts because you might WHOOP yourself into not training when you could, or not going hard when you could just because somebody that went to Harvard and thinks they figured out human performance trumps a simple question you can ask yourself – how do I feel?

How do I feel still might be the most important question in training, followed by this – what workload do I need to sustain in order to perform at the required level to achieve my goals?

Because here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter how you feel if you’re not doing the work you need to do – something in your life needs to change or you need to adjust your goals (or give in to delusion and pretend not doing the work will produce the results you want). 

That’s my central issue with WHOOP – it simply develops a baseline for you after it gets enough data and then has the audacity to pretend it knows how much ‘strain’ you should take on for optimal adaptation.  

The devil in the detail is that it says nothing about whether your baseline strain is enough to achieve your goals. 

To summarize, I think WHOOP is a useless tool on which to base one’s training.  I know that’s harsh, so I’ll say some nice things as well.

OK, so what is WHOOP good at? 

WHOOP generates Monthly Performance Assessments based upon your morning journal entries (basically a little quiz) combined with your metrics. I find this report useful because it makes you think about how your lifestyle habits contribute to your recovery on a macroscopic level. Some are obvious e.g. don’t drink.  Others, less so e.g. effect of blue light on sleep.  Even with flawed foundational data, WHOOP still can provide an athlete a nudge toward lifestyle adjustments that can make a big difference in the long run.  WHOOP delivers that score to you every day, so if constant reminders are what you need to make better behavior changes, WHOOP would provide plenty of value for you.

That said, all of the insights you learn from the data you already know, just not the magnitude of the effect on your recovery. e.g. 1 drink = -10 HRV or -3 BPM in RHR.  That’s amazing, right?  

Is it though?  You already know what isn’t helping you.  You know terrible sleep won’t make you more fit.  You know drinking is terrible for recovery. Most people know what slows them down – do you need to spend $30/mo to confirm that?  

Is it though?  You already know what isn’t helping you.  You know terrible sleep won’t make you more fit.  You know drinking is terrible for recovery. Most people know what slows them down - do you need to spend $30/mo to confirm that?  

So, as a device that helps you improve recovery, if you’re the type of person that finds it easier to make more positive changes with a constant flood of data, then maybe WHOOP is worth it for you. 

My deep down take?  WHOOP is just an expensive data overload that merely gives shape to all the bad habits people have but don’t really want to change. 

You don’t need more data to make the changes that matter, you have to want to change. 

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