Screenshot of the WHOOP app with the heart rate during the dayScreenshot: Beth Skwarecki, WHOOP

In the final installment of the Sleep Tracking Fitness Challenge, I’ll share my experience with the WHOOP belt. This and the Oura ring that I do covered last weekare the two big players in recovery tracking. Both of them monitor your activities during the day and your heart rate at night and want to let you know if you are getting enough quality sleep to support your physical activity.

Both WHOOP and Oura more or less keep what they promise. You don’t need either of these to track your sleep;; Low tech solutions can do the job well enough. However, if you want more data, both are good devices for this purpose. They both monitor your sleep and give you a score; Both relate this score to how much exercise you got. WHOOP may work better for you if you are an endurance athlete or do a lot of cardio, while Oura may be a better choice if you are primarily into other types of exercise or are more generally interested in sleep. I preferred Oura’s real-life experience, but WHOOP’s monthly analytics are a delight for data nerds.

Illustration for article titled What It's Like Tracking Your Recovery with the WHOOP Strap

These thoughts are my best guide for choosing between the apps, but there are also two important questions to ask yourself before buying one or the other:

  • Would you fret if you kept wearing a ring or bracelet? If you have a strong preference, honestly, that’s the biggest factor.
  • Would you prefer to pay in advance or monthly? Oura costs $ 300 (or more) for the device, but it’s free to use the app after that. The WHOOP belt is free, but membership costs $ 30 a month for six months – although it’s a little less if you sign up for a longer membership.

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The WHOOP pricing model makes me ask: How long will it take you to track your recovery? I’ve encountered several discussions r / whoop subreddit where people said they only used the device for six months or a year. By the end of that time, it had effectively taught them how to prioritize their sleep and balance their activity and rest.

I didn’t have to ask myself this question because the WHOOP people gave me access to the app to test it out, but I find it a little unsettling to ponder the existential question: how long will it interest me?

Anyway, WHOOP has some cool features.

What it’s like to wear the WHOOP belt

The WHOOP bracelet is a device that looks like a watch, except that it doesn’t have a screen. It is a light rectangle with an elastic strap. There are green LEDs on the skin side of the rectangle that takes your heart rate and an accelerometer to sense movement.

The belt should be worn around the clock and can be charged in a clever way. There is a small plastic stone that you charge separately. When the strap’s battery is almost empty, pull the stone out of the string and pull it onto your bracelet. This way you never have to take off the strap yourself.

That is, if you get the tape wet – say, when you wear it in the shower – you are stuck with a wet tape. WHOOP sent me a spare part to change into on these occasions. (Replacement straps and replacement rechargeable batteries both cost extra.)

not definedScreenshot: Beth Skwarecki, WHOOP

Use the app

The WHOOP app is uncomplicated in some places and mysterious in others. At first I always forgot where I saw a certain number or function. But once you get the hang of it, you’ll find that the app has meticulously detailed views and additional information.

At the very front, where you can’t miss it, there are two numbers: your stress score for the day and a recovery score based on how you slept.

The stress score is based on your heart rate during the day. This makes most sense for people who do a lot of cardio, which makes using the app a little awkward for a person who just really walks and lifts weights. If I was a runner, or doing team sports, or doing a lot of aerobics videos, I would love that.

Your exposure gets higher as you exercise more, and the number is up calculated in a way that is not particularly easy to wrap your head around. However, larger numbers mean that you spent more time with an increased heart rate. This means that if you’ve been spending a lot of time on a high heart rate because you were nervous instead of exercising, your exposure is high – which honestly makes sense because it is still stressful to your body.

Recovery is another single number, this time in percent. If you’re less than 33% recovered, you’re in the red. If you’re over 66% you’ll go green. If you work hard but also sleep well, you will see lots of yellows and greens, possibly the occasional red. A range of reds, however, likely means something is wrong.

not definedScreenshot: Beth Skwarecki, WHOOP

While you’re looking through the app, my best advice is to mess around with whatever you see. If there is information on a small card, tap it. it could flip over and give you more details. When you’re looking at your recovery value, swipe up and a graph of last week’s results suddenly pops up.

The coolest surprise feature that I only noticed when someone from the company pointed it out to me is that when you turn your phone sideways you will see a screen showing your heart rate throughout the day, with sleep and Movement are highlighted.

One of the most fascinating features of WHOOP is the sleeper coach. They say when to wake up tomorrow and when to go to bed tonight. That is not so special in itself; Many apps do the same thing. What is different here is that you can choose to “Peak” or “Perform” or “Get By”. I don’t know how accurate the three estimates really are, but at the gut level they felt about right. For example, on a day where my sleep needs were calculated at 7:48 a.m., the recommended sleep time for peak performance was 8:33 a.m. to just get through it it was 5:59.

You can learn a lot from the weekly and monthly reports

I found the daily screens a bit confusing to navigate, but I liked the weekly and monthly reports. You won’t receive the monthly magazines until you’ve worn the strap for a full calendar month, but it’s worth the wait.

These reports keep you informed of your trends. Since the whole point of comparing recovery versus stress is to see if they balance each other out, there are graphs that show how well you’ve aligned the two.

not definedScreenshot: Beth Skwarecki, WHOOP

I mean just look at this:

not definedScreenshot: Beth Skwarecki, WHOOP

By far the coolest chart in the set, and probably the coolest feature, is the correlation matrix that you get from the daily journal feature.

To use the diary, you need to open the app every day (or find the clipboard icon on the screen of a past day) and answer a little poll that you set up for yourself. Basically, you select variables that you want to look at and the monthly report will show you whether those variables correlate with good or bad sleep. I decided on several, including whether I had drunk alcohol and whether my stress was particularly high. You can use the journal to evaluate the supplements you have taken, to see if your hydration is affecting your sleep, or to see if your recovery rate changes during your period. The only catch is that the app needs a mix of yes and no (at least five each) to be able to calculate correlations. Anyway, here’s one of mine for alcohol:

not definedScreenshot: Beth Skwarecki, WHOOP

I think every sleep expert I’ve ever interviewed mentioned that people rarely believe Alcohol affects your sleepand are amazed when they start paying attention and find out that it is. It’s interesting to see the data right in front of me.

These are correlations that differ from causality. I know that the nights I drink alcohol tend to stay up late, and that those nights are usually at the end of a week of training when I’m more likely to be under-recovered. Meditating or taking a supplement on nights when you are expecting insomnia may result in a negative correlation, even if it really helps you sleep. Hence, it is important to think carefully about how you interpret your data.

Even so, the usual caveats still apply: I wouldn’t rely on a consumer sleep tracking device to tell me for sure if I was getting enough of a certain stage of sleep (remember, Oura tells me that I always get too little REM sleepand WHOOP routinely tells me my REM is on the high side. I use the data from sleep trackers as a guide for my medium- and long-term planning, not as a prompt to skip workouts. Even so, I think both devices work fine for you to see these patterns in their own way.