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Podcast No. 74: The Story of WHOOP

May 19, 2020

The tables have been turned for this week’s podcast.

By Will Ahmed

Listen, review, subscribe.

Earlier this year, I was interviewed by NOBULL founders Michael Schaeffer and Marcus Wilson on their program, Behind the Horns, and we’re excited to now share that conversation with you on the WHOOP Podcast.

We dive deep on the founding of WHOOP, our mission to unlock human performance, how we track recovery, strain and sleep, the importance of HRV, and how WHOOP may indicate if you’re getting sick before you even feel symptoms.

Michael and Marcus are long-time friends of WHOOP and have built a very popular training brand themselves. You can check out their appearance as guests in Episode 25 of the WHOOP Podcast.

Stay in the green!

The Story of WHOOP Podcast Show Notes:

2:13 – Mission of WHOOP. “To unlock human performance. We believe every individual has an inner potential that you can tap into if you can better understand your body and your behaviors. We’ve built technology across hardware, software and analytics designed to continuously understand you.”

2:49 – Outworking the Competition. “We collect way more data than any other product on the market. We collect about 50-100 megabytes of data on a person per day and we sample data about 1,000-10,000 times as much as say a FitBit or an Apple Watch.”

3:09 – Starting Out Strong. “Our origins are really in professional sports. We started working with the best athletes in the world when the first product came out. Two of our first 100 users were LeBron James and Michael Phelps. We became partners with the NFL Players Association, so we were distributed to every player in the NFL. We became the first [wearable] approved in Major League Baseball. We got to work with incredible people like the Navy SEALs. And over time, we developed WHOOP into a consumer brand. … It’s been pretty fascinating to go from a high-end sports wearable to now a product that a lot of people are finding value in in just bettering their daily lives.”

4:08 – The Inspiration for WHOOP. “I got into this space because I was always into sports and exercise myself. I got recruited to Harvard to play squash and I became captain of the team there, but I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing to my body while I was training. A lot of athletes overtrain, undertrain, misinterpret fitness peaks, don’t necessarily understand the importance of recovery or sleep, and I was certainly one of them. I used to overtrain almost every season, which is the ultimate betrayal, because you’re putting so much effort into getting fitter and stronger and then all of a sudden you fall off a cliff because you’ve just pushed your body well past what it’s capable of. So I got very interested in what I could measure about my body to prevent me from doing that.”

5:05 – Studying Up. “I did a ton of physiology research. I read something like 500 medical papers while I was in school. I ultimately wrote a paper myself around how I thought you could continuously understand the human body. That really became the business plan for WHOOP. I didn’t set out to start a company as an undergraduate in school, but one thing just led to another and I just became completely obsessed with this concept of continuously monitoring the human body.”

8:25 – A Growing Market. “In 2012 [when WHOOP was founded], FitBit was probably valued at $20-$50 million, it just sold for $2.5 billion.”

11:04 – Strain and Recovery. “You can think of strain as the intensity of a workout or the intensity of your day. … We measure strain continuously, and then what we also do is every morning we give you a recovery score from 0 to 100 percent, red, yellow, or green. What that recovery score is doing is it’s telling you how prepared your body is for strain. So ideally, if your body is more recovered you take on more strain and if your body is less recovered you take on less strain.”

11:55 – The Goal of WHOOP. “What we’ve tried to do with WHOOP is make it actionable, where it’s trying to live a step ahead of you rather than focus on what just happened. That, in turn, can help inspire behavior change and performance gains.”

12:07 – What Drives Good Recoveries? “The way we measure recovery is a combination of the quality of your sleepheart rate variability, and resting heart rate. This single most important variable in that is heart rate variability, which is this incredibly interesting statistic that is kind of like a secret that your body is trying to tell you. It’s this fascinating lens into your body. Heart rate variability is the time between successive beats of the heart. If your heart is beating at 60 beats per minute, it’s not actually beating every second. … That variability of time between beats is actually a good thing. It’s super counterintuitive, but the higher the heart rate variability, the better.”

14:05 – Why HRV Plays a Big Role in Recovery. “We’re able to measure heart rate variability during the last 5 minutes of your slow-wave (deep) sleep. We measure it 24-7, but in particular if you measure heart rate variability during slow-wave sleep, that’s when your body is repairing itself. By measuring this lens into your autonomic nervous system while your body is repairing itself, we have this fascinating understanding of the status of your body, and that, in turn, is what’s generating your recovery score.”

15:16 – Measuring Sleep. “WHOOP has a big focus on sleep. In particular, WHOOP measures the stages of sleep quite accurately. We’ve done hundreds of studies against a PSG machine, PSG is the gold standard for measuring sleep, and we’ve been able to show that WHOOP measures your slow-wave and your REM sleep and the periods of time in which you’re in light sleep and awake as accurately as a PSG.”

16:11 – The Importance of Slow-Wave and REM Sleep. “REM sleep is when your mind is repairing. … Slow-wave sleep is when 95 percent of your human growth hormone is produced. So people think you get stronger in the gym, but actually in the gym you’re tearing your muscles. Slow-wave sleep is when you repair your muscles because you’re producing human growth hormone.”

18:33 – What’s a Good HRV? “A good way to think about heart rate variability is that you want to keep your heart rate variability at the same level or even increase it over a long period of time. Everyone has their own personal baseline and a good degree of that is genetic, but it also ties closely to fitness and health. So if over a 2 or 5-year period, you can actually keep your heart rate variability flat, that’s actually a very good sign. Age decays your heart rate variability.”

19:28 – A Precursor to Illness. Michael, Marcus, and Will discuss how WHOOP data can indicate that you might be coming down with an illness. Check out our research on respiratory rate and COVID-19.

22:40 – Alcohol and WHOOP. “Alcohol has a profoundly bad effect on your physiology. Having the flu and being hungover, from a physiological standpoint, are almost indistinguishable.”

24:17 – Guiding Principles in Making a Product. “Our overall philosophy is that wearable technology should either be cool or invisible. I think a lot of wearable technology is stuck in the middle. It’s something you notice and it’s not particularly cool. The justification for that is ‘Well, it’s tech, it’s supposed to do all these things for you.’ I think that’s lazy. So we try and straddle two pretty diametrically ends of the spectrum.”

28:20 – Separating the Best from the Rest. “If I look at the next story that high-performing people are going to tell to society, I think it’s going to be around sleep and recovery. That was the bet I made, effectively, 10 years ago in the process of getting interested in WHOOP. There’s this whole other aspect to your life which is around sleep and recovery that, to me, doesn’t feel like it’s getting properly covered. What does it take an athlete like Tom Brady to be performing at an MVP-caliber level at age 42 in the NFL? What is he doing to his body? Or Lebron James or Ray Allen? These people that had these long careers. The reality is that information isn’t just going to benefit the next Lebron James, it’s going to benefit you and me and thinking about how we live our lives.”

33:02 – WHOOP and Parenting. Michael shares how his 14-year-old daughter uses her WHOOP and how it’s helped drive home the importance of quality sleep. “She now pays more attention to sleep. I find her going to bed on her own earlier without my wife or I having to tell her.”

39:51 – Travel Hacks. “The thing about flying is it dehydrates your body, so you want to try and drink as much water as you can. … I also almost never eat on a plane. The thing about being at altitude is that your body is shutting down non-primary bodily functions, one of which is digestion. So if you eat food on a plane, it makes you really lethargic and you can actually feel your body not performing at a high level.”

41:02 – Managing Time Zones. “I like to try to get on the time zone that I’m going to be on if I am planning to be somewhere for longer than 2 or 3 days. … Your body performs better when it goes to bed and wakes up at exactly the same time. You’re building a circadian rhythm that’s consistent and then your body gets used to it and then it performs better. This is why traveling over time zones screws your body up because now your circadian rhythm gets screwed up. Let’s pretend you’re going to California (from the East Coast) for 48 hours, you may actually not want to get on the time zone.”

42:10 – Getting on Local Time. “If you land somewhere and it’s 10 am and you feel like you should be asleep, drink some coffee, get through the day. I’ll try pretty hard to get through the day because I think it shocks your body into shape. The other thing you can do is I like to try to get a light workout in, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, just sweat a little bit, it can help your body acclimate to a new time zone.”

44:16 – Mailbag. Will answers your questions in this week’s listener mailbag.

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Will Ahmed

Will Ahmed is the Founder and CEO of WHOOP, which has developed next generation wearable technology for optimizing human performance and health. WHOOP members include professional athletes, Fortune 500 CEOs, fitness enthusiasts, military personnel, frontline workers and a broad range of people looking to improve their performance. WHOOP has raised more than $400 million from top investors and is valued at $3.6 billion, making it the most valuable standalone wearables company in the world. Ahmed has recruited an active advisory board that consists of some of the world’s most notable cardiologists, technologists, marketers, and designers. Ahmed was recently named to the 2021 Sports Business Journal 40 under 40 list as well as 2020 Fortune 40 Under 40 Healthcare list and previously named to Forbes 30 Under 30 and Boston Business Journal’s 40 Under 40. Ahmed founded WHOOP as a student at Harvard, where he captained the Men’s Varsity Squash Team and graduated with an A.B. in government.