Wearable fitness band enhances performance by 'measuring the quieter periods of life,' such as recovery and sleep
The human body is a sensitive mechanism and Will Ahmed believes that reaching optimum performance involves much more than simply measuring exercise. Recovery and sleep, he says, are just as important as exercise, perhaps more so.
"I became interested in measuring the quieter periods of life," says Ahmed, which is how Whoop was born.
Ahmed was the captain of the Harvard University squash team during his undergraduate years. Always at the edge of overtraining, he wanted to know what he was doing to his body. He wrote a physiology paper about measuring the human body and it eventually became the business plan for Whoop, which was formed in 2012.
"That was really the peak of 'more is more' — the more you exercise, the fitter you got," says Ahmed, Whoop’s founder and CEO. "The contrarian view at the time was that recovery was much more important than working out. Understanding not just how your body was involved in exercise but how it was involved the other 20 hours of the day."
Ten years later, there is Whoop 4.0 and the company has about 600 employees and "growing quickly," Ahmed says. The popularity of the Whoop band has spread to athletes like Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, who started as users of the technology but today are company investors. They are joined by Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs and Kevin Durant of the Brooklyn Nets, who have a financial stake in the company. Jessica and Nelly Korda on the LPGA Tour are also Whoop ambassadors.
While the Whoop strap measures some exercise data, it’s more focused on rest and recovery. "When you can measure recovery, you can measure 24/7 data and start to be able to identify things in people’s lifestyles and behaviors actually affect their bodies," Ahmed says.
"There’s the misperception that exercise was the only thing you could measure to understand performance. Turns out, if someone doesn’t sleep properly or they’re eating the wrong foods or they’re introducing good behavior like meditation. All those things contribute to performance just as much as exercise, in some cases, even more."
Sleep is the key indicator in the Whoop system of measuring recovery, concentrating on REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and slow wave sleep. Ahmed describes REM sleep as your mind repairing cognitively and during slow wave sleep, the body produces 95 percent of its human growth hormone (HGH).
"You really need REM sleep and slow wave sleep to function, not just as an athlete but as a human," he says. "For athletes, a lot of REM sleep research has shown it’s related to your amygdala response — the part of the brain that controls fight-or-flight — how your body reacts to stress.
"If you’re a golfer and under a lot of stress and in high-pressure moments, you want to be able to control your amygdala response. Getting a lot of REM helps with that. If you don’t get enough REM sleep, you’re going to feel heightened during pressure moments."
Having data is one thing but what can you do to change it? That’s where you start to look at lifestyle changes, Ahmed says.
"We’ve been able to show golfers that jet lag and alcohol can have a huge effect on their bodies and their performance," he says. "Most people know that alcohol is bad for them but they lack a sense of just how bad. Just one glass of alcohol can dramatically reduce their body’s recovery. Rory McIlroy said one glass of wine changes the way his body recovers and how he sleeps. As a consequence, he’s changed his behavior."
In 2020, during the height of the COVID pandemic, PGA Tour player Nick Watney was tested for the virus in advance of the RBC Heritage and came back negative. But after the first round, his Whoop strap told him he had a poor recovery the night before and an unusually elevated respiratory rate. He convinced a doctor to test him again for COVID and came back positive.
As a result, the PGA Tour ordered 1,000 Whoop devices for all the players, caddies and officials on the Tour. "That really speaks to what Whoop can so, which is to provide a lens into your body," Ahmed says.
"You can only manage what you can measure."