This is what happened when writer Chloe Gray tried to follow all of the advice her fitness tracker gave her.
Activity monitors have become such an ingrained part of our lives that it’s quite normal to see your colleague dart up from their desk as their watch tells them to move, or your friend shaking their wrist to trick their tracker into thinking they’rewalking.
Generally, activity monitors like FitBits track daily steps, exercise and overall movement. Now, however, a new breed of trackers aren’t just concerned with our immediate movement or daily calorie burn, but use your body’s data to optimise your sleep, exercise and health.
The Oura ring, Polar Ignite watch and Whoop tracker are all data-driven trackers. Rather than just focusing on your daily step count, they use metrics like heart rate variability, skin temperature and sleep latency to give you recommendations about how hard you should train or rest. I’ve had the latter of these trackers for a while and had been trying to follow its recommendations. But the advice my tracker gives me is specific and it usually involves diverging from my usual routine or going out of my way to move or rest, which I haven’t had time for during a busy few months.
But with a fairly free week ahead of me, I decided now is the time to put it to the test.
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That involved paying attention to my recovery score – a percentage based figure that tells you how well your body has adapted to its previous strain. The scores are either:
- Green: 67% recovery or above, meaning the body is primed to adapt to a larger training load
- Amber: 34-66% recovered, meaning the body can take on load but may struggle to adapt as efficiently
- Red: less than 34%, meaning you might want to take on less load
From these recovery scores, a ‘strain’ target is set – that’s a recommendation of how hard you should push your body. The less recovered you are, the less strain it recommends you take on.
Following my fitness tracker
In the first few days of my experiment, my recovery was in the amber range. As a perfectionist, I struggled with this. I wanted to be in the green, and saw chasing full recovery as a win. Despitescoring 100% for my sleep performance, my recovery was down because my respiratory rate was up (a trait associated with anxiety and illness). Clearly, Whoop knew I’d been under some stress. As someone who writes a lot about the impact of mental and emotional stress on exercise, seeing the impact of it tracked like this was a great reminder to dial back the physical stress and allow my body and mind to recover.
Whoop’s strain score is focused on cardiovascular load – meaning the higher your heart rate, the greater your strain. The majority of my workouts are strength training, so while my workouts are tough, they don’t sustain a high heart rate throughout the entire session. Instead, it goes up and down with my sets and reps. Because of this, I’d never found that my workouts hit the recommended strain score.
Whoop acknowledges that strength training, weight lifting and similar workouts that aren’t so focused on getting your heart rate up may feel harder than the reports suggest. But even on the amber recovery days, my lifting sessions weren’t quite reaching the strain rate. I know that doesn’t mean I didn’t work hard – in fact, I’m following a new programme and was pleasantly surprised with my lifts and had DOMS for days – but I was still a bit frustrated by the fact that I couldn’t hit the optimal strain for my workouts.
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As well as recommending a strain score for activity, Whoop offers a daily strain score. This is to take into account the other things in our day that may lead to strain on the body, like commuting, stretching and cleaning. The tracker tends to recommend that most of your daily strain comes from your workouts, for example on a day my overall target was 10.8, the tracker suggested my workout create a strain of 10.3.
This is probably because the strap is designed for athletes who train hard in their sessions but then spend the rest of the day recovering. But I’m someone who is active throughout the day – I’m in and out of my house, going for walks with friends, commuting to the office or having to nip out to the shops. That meant that, even on the days I didn’t hit my workout score, I tended to fare well on my overall day strain.
Later in the week, I book in for a spin class. It’s an hour of sheer cardio and I am ready to hit a high strain target in my session. Only, in a classic turn of events, the day I book in for it happens to be the day that my recovery is in the low amber range (I blame the sheer amount of tacos I ate the night before wreaking havoc on my digestive system). I can’t cancel so I head to class, concerned that I was going to be pushing myself too far and end up knackered for the rest of the day. Because of that, I’m strict about taking the class at my own pace, not going too fast just because the people next to me are. And it works – I go over my recommended strain but only just, and actually feel energised for the rest of the day.
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The next day, my recovery is still low – perhaps because I went over my strain on an already suboptimal recovery day. But, again, I have a class booked. I get up early and head to it as it’s a low impact pilates class. I leave with balanced strain and, again, end up feeling good for the rest of the day.
Another low recovery score the day after tells me my body is crying out for a rest day, so I skip my workout and instead get in a load of steps while walking around London with my mum. I manage to hit my strain target without a workout, and it’s a great reminder that sometimes a big walk is all your body needs.
What my fitness tracker taught me
A week spent listening to my Whoop has actually been incredibly helpful. I loved the guidance it gave me, and in a weird way, looking at data somehow reminded me to trust my own body. That goes against what we are usually told about trackers stopping our workouts from being intuitive. While I do believe that smartwatches won’t work for everyone, in my January grogginess it was actually great to have something remind me that I can do hard things. In that sense, I think it’s recalibrated my intuition.
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There’s a theory that suggests having a watch tell you you’re tired can make you feel even more tired. I think I’ve been a victim of this before, and prior to this experiment, I usually would have taken full rest days during the times I fell outside of green recovery. But this week, I worked harder than usual on those amber days, balancing my strain and recovery, and it did actually make me feel more energised.
It was nice to know that one suboptimal sleep doesn’t have to write me off, and that I can still look after my body through movement on the days that I’m a bit tired. Saying that, I don’t think I’ll ever be the sort of person who thrives by hitting specific numbers. Instead, it’s best to use the strain scores as a guide, and take my training at my own pace.
Mostly, I really like having insight into my body. Having such a wealth of information at my fingertips feels like more of a functional way to monitor my health and performance, rather than simply tracking steps or hours in bed. It was a great reminder that looking after myself has to be holistic – encompassing my mental health, stress levels, sleep and nutrition as well as just what I do in the gym. Logging my daily routines into the app, like whether or not I shared a bed, used CBD or ate close to bedtime, also made me really reflect on the habits that make me feel good. While it may be too knackering and not very flexible to always follow Whoop’s recommendations, the knowledge it’s given me has been crucial to bettering my health.
Images: Chloe Gray
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