If you’ve not heard of the WHOOP strap before, buckle up and get ready to be hard sold – because, #spoilers, when I say it’s been the most transformative piece of tech for my health and fitness I’m not speaking hyperbolically. In fact, it’s not just me that thinks so. Ever seen Michael Phelps swim? He trains with a WHOOP strap. Ever watched LeBron James dunk? Eh, you know where I’m going with this.
From the nitty gritty of how it’s helped me improve my sleep quality to a more consistent and better level than any other time in my adult life (way more than with any other sleep trackers I’ve tried), to why checking my recovery score each day is akin to waking up on Christmas morning, we’re gonna get into it.
What is the WHOOP strap?
First released in 2016, the WHOOP strap is a small, flat, rectangular tracker with elasticated strap. The colours vary – some elite athletes match with their team colours – and it’s worn tight on the wrist. The latest iteration, the WHOOP 3.0 is even slicker and more full of tech.
The tracker itself measures various metrics throughout the day as you go about your sweaty (and not so sweaty) pursuits – from your daily strain to recovery score and sleep performance, the data is available daily as well as condensed and analysed in weekly and monthly reports.
If it all sounds fairly Tron like, that’s because it kind of is. It’s a level of insight into what your body is actually experiencing that goes way beyond the classic “all good, just tired” response we normally fire off.
What is the difference between the WHOOP strap and other fitness trackers?
There are some key differences between the WHOOP and your more well known fitness trackers.
1. The way it looks
First up, it’s not a tracker like you’ve seen before. The absence of a watch face or screen means that without looking at my phone, I can’t check my output, calorie burn or what the time is whilst getting a sweat on. In terms of keeping me on the straight and workout-narrow, this is great. It forces me to focus on the work and the effort as opposed to the time and the burn.
Saying that, I do enjoy being able to time an exercise, switch songs or check my heart rate via my wrist, something my Apple Watch does brilliantly. The WHOOP strap also can’t facilitate my beloved walking meetings by forwarding calls to my watch, or detect if I’ve had a hard fall – all features of the Series 5 AW – but it does everything during exercise I need it to, in a stripped-back, acoustic-jams type of way.
What it does when I’m not exercising though, is the real selling point. Read on.
2. What it measures
In the beginning there was the word, and the word was FitBit – revolutionary in its ability to make what was essentially a pedometer “trendy”. Since then wearable technology has snowballed in making fitness more intelligent with ‘sleep scores’, heart rate monitoring and, daily step counts the baseline.
What WHOOP measures though, is way beyond this. Let’s break it down into three key areas: strain, recovery and sleep. Walk with me.
WHOOP measures your cardiovascular strain, which means exercise such as running, cycling, swimming (it’s waterproof) or walking will lead to higher overall strain for the day. As I split my workouts up – cardio in the morning and strength training in the afternoon – I was surprised that a heavy lower body strength training session could be marked as ‘restorative’ or ‘moderate’ in intensity by WHOOP, something I put to the brains over at HQ.
‘While you may not see a high strain on slower strength days, the work you’ve put in will be evident in your recovery and activities the next day,’ says Kristen Holmes, VP of Performance Science. ‘Studies show that strenuous lifting sessions can result in lower HRV [heart rate variability] and DHEA [the hormone: dehydroepiandrosterone] levels, which means your body is going to have to work harder the next day during basic activities as it returns to baseline and gets stronger.’
OK, so whilst my strain score seemed discouragingly low during exercise, it wasn’t that I wasn’t working hard – it was that my body would have to work harder to recover repairing muscle tissue I’d fatigued during exercise. Sciency, indeed.
Heart rate variability [HRV], is a cornerstone of the WHOOP world and is, essentially, measuring the time between heart beats when you’re at rest. The fitter, more recovered, and less stressed you are the more variability your heart rate will have between exercise and rest. The more stress your body is under – whether through overtraining or external factors – the less variability you’ll see, a key marker your body is working outside of equilibrium.
Each day, dependent on your recovery levels, you’ll be given a strain range to aim for based on your HRV, which helps you keep within the bounds of what your body needs to stay fit and well without overtraining. Which leads us on nicely to…
If you’ve ever trudged through a workout on five hours sleep and a hangover (hands up, we know you have), chances are you’ve pushed your bod a little far for how recovered you actually were.
WHOOP doesn’t let foolishness like that slide. Instead of patting you on the back for a workout well done, not listening to your body’s signals will result in a red recovery score. Not good. And it’s not just sleep that impacts how recovered your body is. Hydration, sex, stretching, alcohol, caffeine, menstruation or being under the weather, are amongst the things that’ll affect your overall score too.
Some days, when I’d been sensible, exercised to my strain limit and not much further, drunk water and got to bed on time, my recovery was well into the green – a little morning pat on the back for taking care of myself.
Other days, when I’d indulged in one too many homemade (read: strong) margaritas or considered going to sleep before 2am beneath me, my recovery score reflected it.
Controlling what I could control was a game changer for settling into a healthy routine, getting better sleep and ultimately recovering well.
I know sleep is important, we talk about it a lot at WH. But do I know it at 11:30pm when I’m 30-minutes into an Instagram click hole, oscillating between stalking exes and spamming my friends with memes? Not so much.
So, when I say I’ve been sleeping more, and better, than ever since switching to the WHOOP-life, I’m really not joking. Check my sleep scores. No really, check them:
Who knew having a rigid bedtime – in bed by 10pm, lights out at 10:30pm – would make me more productive, happier, and calmer, during my waking hours? The fact it was being recorded by the strap on my wrist made me more conscious to stick to it. Four weeks in, sleeping 8+ hours a night, working out twice a day, feeling more emotionally stable than ever? I am about it, people!
3. How it feels
There were times when I forgot I was wearing the strap – the pressure is easy to get used to and it can be made tighter or looser depending on your preference. WHOOP advise making it tight enough to just be able to slide a finger underneath which, after a while, really becomes like another part of you.
Is the WHOOP strap accurate?
Yes! is the short answer. I wore the WHOOP strap while also tracking my output on my Apple Watch and the resulting metrics were always within a very small margin of each other. My heart rate was identical between each one and calories burnt within ~ 10 kcals.
What I didn’t love about the WHOOP strap
To balance out all this yang with a little yin, there were a couple things the WHOOP strap left me wanting on.
Outside of liking to see what’s going on during my workout, I felt the data was difficult to get to grips with straight out the gate. Numbers, colours and percentages had me feeling like I was involved in an unsupervised science experiment.
However, after a quick trawl of their website for information and giving myself an adjustment period to get comfortable with it all, I was a changed (non-sleep deprived) woman. Word up.
Secondly, when my recovery was red (once or twice – don’t @ me) and yellow, I would have liked some indication about where exactly I went wrong: if I needed more sleep or less stress or just some GD water. No, I know, I don’t ask for much.
How much does the WHOOP strap cost?
Unlike most trackers, WHOOP actually works as a subscription service (how novel), so it’s not a buy and get out scenario. Instead, you’ll pay around £23 per month depending on exchange rates ($30 dollars) for the service – and the strap is technically free. You can pay upfront for 12 or 18 months to bring this monthly cost down if you’re sold on it already.
If you’ve got this far, you’ll know I’m a mega-fan. As someone who engages with fitness and fitness tech on the daily, it’s been a true game changer for me to slow down and treat my recovery with the same bullish determination I treat my workouts with.
If you’re a fitness enthusiast – note: not a beginner or someone who likes to see their steps and not much more – get after it. Being able to track how your body is performing athletically but also in repair and recovery could transform how you regard your fitness routine. It sure has for me. Whoop whoop. (Geddit?)
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Gallery: Fitbit’s New Tracker Can Track Your Stress and Measure Your Temperature (Women’s Health UK)