After a $100 million fundraising event last month, you can expect to hear a lot more about the Whoop fitness band in your feeds and the media. The device is unlike most fitness bands in the market and is probably best thought of as a connected coach who can’t tell you what exercises to do, but can help push you to go further. It’s a waterproof sensor array you strap to your wrist that measures heart rate. Based on that, it will track respiration, sleep, heart rate variability, and pulse. It does not track steps. In the Whoop world, steps are meaningless. They are not hardcore.
The Whoop band costs $30 a month, with a commitment of 6 months. The company also has a 30-day return policy, so you can try it for a month and then ship it back if it’s not for you. But if you’re eyeing this device, I’m happy to share my failsafe way of deciding if this band is for you. After spending almost a month playing with it, I think you’ll know if you’re a good potential Whoop member if you can answer the following three questions.
Are you hardcore? Are you data-driven? And do you mind paying $30 a month for a service that will tell you how hard to work out, how much to sleep, and how to boost your overall athletic performance?
If you can answer yes to these questions, then you should probably get the Whoop band. Especially if you’re tracking toward some athletic goal or want to level up your performance. There’s a reason professional athletes and college teams wear the band. So let’s dig into these questions and tackle the nitty-gritty device details.
Answering the three questions
When I use the phrase hardcore, I’m thinking back to my days as a high school basketball player running sprints with a coach shouting at us to push ourselves. I’m thinking of my early twenties when I kickboxed and did a variety of Bootcamp classes or even in my thirties when I’d work out to ensure I could handle fast-paced hikes with a lot of elevation gain. When I worked out, I went all in. These last few sentences are all in the past tense because as I enter my 40s, I am no longer hardcore. I prefer Pilates and hikes at a less grueling pace.
But the Whoop universe (the app, the design decisions, and the accompanying user groups and podcasts) is decidedly hardcore. And if you aren’t, then it’s probably going to feel a bit like joining a cult. As for being data-driven, the app generates a lot of charts and has proprietary metrics that can take some education to understand. If you want to understand your sleep latency (how long it takes you to fall back asleep) or plot your workout effort on a logarithmic scale in real-time, then the Whoop service will be great.
And finally, if you think spending $30 a month for fitness insights delivered through those colorful charts is worthwhile or won’t break the bank, then you’re clearly in the target demographic. As someone who discovered I’m no longer hardcore and resentful of shelling out $30 for insights that tracked close enough to how I feel, I decided the Whoop isn’t for me. But check out what it does and see if it’s for you.
What is Whoop?
First up are the details. You wear the Whoop strapped around your wrist a bit above the wristbone, where you might wear any number of other activity trackers. The band should fit tightly, and it’s surprisingly confusing to figure out how to adjust and orient the strap right out of the box. The band is waterproof, so the idea is you wear it all the time. The battery lasts for about five days, and to recharge it, you don’t remove the band; you slide a charging pack over the strap.
This too, was a bit confusing trying to figure out the correct orientation, but simple once I learned. The battery back isn’t waterproof, so don’t shower with it, but in keeping with the idea that all the data is essential, you can charge while sleeping or working out with no ill effect. I did struggle with misplacing the battery pack, however. It’s just one more thing to lose.
Whoop’s main metric is your heart rate. It uses that to track sleep, respiration, and a metric called heart rate variability, or HRV. For Whoop users, the HRV is key. HRV is simply the amount of time between your heartbeats. Whoop uses it to assess how hard your body is working and how well it has recovered from prior work.
HRV purportedly can offer insights into both physical recovery and also overall well being in the sense that people with lower HRV might be experiencing stress in their parasympathetic nervous system that leads to the lowered HRV. This isn’t just a Whoop insight. Trainers and the fitness world have focused on HRV for a few years as a recovery and stress metric.
Whoop uses HRV to generate what it calls a Recovery score. This will range from 1% to 99%, and the higher the number, the more work Whoop believes you can do. It also breaks the Recovery score into three colored segments of red, yellow, and green. Red (1%-33%) means you’re pushing it too hard, and you should take some time to recover. Green (66% to 99%) means you can push yourself as hard as you can. The flip side to recovery is in Whoop world is Strain.
Whoop calculates Strain on a logarithmic scale that ranges from 1-21. I initially found the concept of Strain baffling, so I listened to a 40-minute podcast produced by Whoop to explain it. About thirty minutes into the podcast, I was realizing this band was not for me because I don’t usually enjoy taking what feels like a mini class on my devices. They should be more intuitive. But the podcast cleared up a lot, although it never really explained where I as a user fit on the Strain scale.
So the TLDR version of Strain is that it measures your cardiovascular activity throughout the day and uses that to calculate how much work you do.
Because the scale is logarithmic, it gets harder to build up more Strain as the Strain numbers get higher. For example, I usually spent my days achieving about 11 or 12 Strain unless I worked out pretty hard. A day I did a 14-mile hike with 3,000 feet elevation I did achieve a Strain level of 17, which was the most I could bring myself to do.
However, the Strain score is individual, so I might generate a lot more Strain from an activity than another Whoop wearer. LeBron James, who wears a Whoop band, probably could play an entire basketball game and get a 12 Strain for the day, whereas I might hit 15 (or keel over if I was playing LeBron James).
I’ve had friends tell me that they check their Recovery score before doing big activities, such as a 50-mile bike ride, so they can see if they have the energy to do it.
I personally just check in with myself, but I am also a bit doubtful I could do a 50-mile bike ride because I’ve really only managed a 10-mile bike ride before, so my Recovery score wouldn’t really matter. Also with noting is that Whoop doesn’t measure muscle strain, so if your heart isn’t pumping it’s not going to count as much.
Using Whoop in daily life
Now that you have the basic Whoop concepts of Strain and Recovery down, here’s where the band starts getting a bit more interactive. Last year, Whoop introduced something called Strain Coach that will tell you in the middle of the workout how much Strain you are generating and when you’ve hit your optimal point for the day based on your recovery score. The app also shows your heart-rate range, and at the end of a workout will let you know what range you spent most of your workout in.
I would love to see a feature that lets you tell Whoop what you want to optimize (endurance versus aerobic improvement) and then Whoop could coach you to raise or lower your heart rate depending on the goal.
I tried the Whoop out because I tend to work out too hard and too fast, which leads to an exercise-induced headache that then turns into a migraine.
I wanted to use the band to try to find the sweet spot where I could work out and build stamina but didn’t end up knocking myself out for a day or two with a headache. I had hoped watching me build Strain during a workout might correlate to the onset of a migraine, but that didn’t happen. I will note that the Strain metric closely correlates to my perceived fatigue and effort at the end of a day.
The app provides a lot of useful summaries about my sleep performance and individual workout performances. It has a lot of activities you can manually log and the ability to auto-detect activities. It also offers a journal that asks questions about the day before and lets you make notes. Whoop later uses that data to suggest things that might help your performance.
As an example of how hardcore Whoop users are, the app doesn’t autodetect walking because walking isn’t a workout in the Whoop world. I was worried that meant it wouldn’t detect my hikes automatically. It doesn’t track an entire hike, just the chunk of time spent really huffing and puffing, which it counts as a generic “activity.”
As a person whose fitness goals have been focused on covering 35 miles a week and making sure I have at least two or three strength workouts and one cardio workout a week, the Whoop is a bit too much.
I was glad that my perceived effort and readiness for exercise matched well with its strain and recovery metrics, but I am not hardcore enough to need the level of data it provides to push myself that extra bit to really maximize my fitness gains. Nor am I eager to shell out $30 a month when I can just listen to what my body is telling me. The 30-day trial certainly gave me the confidence to do that.
So if you’re hardcore; if you like data, and if you’re ready to spend $30 for a little extra coaching to keep you maxing out, the Whoop is a great device. For everyone else, it’s a lot of money to spend.
Dan Frazier says
Very nice post! I’ve been interested in this device for a while but I hear they have a lot of sensor issues. As you know with data analysis, garbage in, garbage out. The analytics platform is really neat but the hardware has a ways to go according to DC Rainmaker and others. This is the same issue most devices that just use an optical heart rate monitor have. Please see the following article and pay attention to the HRM tests under section “HEART RATE ACCURACY” https://www.dcrainmaker.com/2020/05/whoop-3-platform-review.html
I ended up not buying the whoop band but instead added a Stryd pod (to measure power) and Garmin HRM-Pro chest strap (more accurate HR data+advanced running dynamics) to use with my Garmin FR945. I don’t have a problem shelling out $30/month if it provided value but what Garmin provides ‘free’ (after purchase of hardware) is probably better than what whoop is charging for.
If you are really interested in adaptive fitness plans or daily workout suggestions, check out the newer Garmin devices. Garmin acquired FirstBeat which is the company that provided most the back end algorithms for various features. From all day stress, sleep tracking, vo2max, race predictor, etc. https://firstbeatanalytics.com/en/features/
They have a ‘body battery’ feature which is based on HRV to measure stress and sleep scores for recovery. They have adaptive ‘garmin coach’ training plans and now have daily suggested workouts (if not in a plan) based on your past workouts and your recovery. https://www.garmin.com/en-US/blog/fitness/daily-workout-suggestions-for-runners/
Right now this is mostly focused on running (FR745/945/Fenix6) but they do have a cycling computer(Edge1030Plus) that it also works with. I expect to see this drop to their lower end lines such as the Vivoactive and Venu in the near future as they refine the feature and expand to other activity types like yoga, strength training, hiking, etc.
I would love to see more of content like this from you or hear interviews with the developers of the algorithms such as First Beat. There are not many people out there covering stuff like this besides Ray Maker, GPLama or the5krunner.