How I Use Sleep Tracking to Improve My Fitness

For the past few months, I’ve been wearing an Oura ring to track my sleep. In December, I added the Whoop group for comparison. I was curious to hear about them because I’ve seen so many athletes – both professional and recreational – say they use these devices to track how well they are recovering from strenuous workouts. Some even use testimonials from gadgets to plan future workouts. So I had to try it myself.

By the way, welcome to the 2021 Lifehacker Fitness Challenge . So far, we’ve tried to provide readers with exercise ideas that can be done in the gym or at home. But there are a lot of problems with home workouts (and many of us aren’t going anywhere for a while), so we’re adding a new spin to this column in the coming year. I (and other Lifehacker staff soon) will be trying out various fitness hacks and reporting weekly on how they changed – or not! – our life.

Track your experience this month by tracking your sleep. Today I will share with you what led me to this task, and in the coming weeks I will give you a complete rundown of what it is like to live with each of these devices.

How did I start

I learned the hard way about the value of sleep for athletic recovery. That is, I already knew that this was important , but I just assumed that while I was sleeping seven to nine hours a day , I had this base.

I also read Christy Aschwanden’s book Good to Go on the science of recovery, which confirmed my suspicions that most “recovery” technologies are of little use. The biggest takeaway I realized was that sleep is the best tool we have to help our bodies deal with the stress of exercise and make us perform better the next time.

So you think I know better.

But this year, while lifting weights in the driveway during the pandemic, I learned a thing or two about myself. First, the stress of the pandemic really takes a toll on your ability to focus and give 100% of your workouts. Second, my need for sleep increases dramatically when I do high intensity weightlifting.

In terms of lifting, intensity means the weight is heavy. You can only do the lift once before rest, instead of doing sets of many reps, but this single lift is going to be damn hard. One 6 week program I did this summer, which my coach called “Bulgarian” (after the famous Olympic team ), had no weights or percentages. Instead, I constantly had to look for ” mine”. Maximum reps ”, or sometimes two or three reps of maximum in a daily exercise.

Usually in weightlifting, powerlifting, or any other strength sport, you only train to the max when you’re really serious . You keep these max effort attempts when you’re on the platform during the competition, because after that you can take a week off and rest as long as you like. Lifting weights really takes a lot of your strength. And so I trained a maximum of four days a week.

By the second week of the program, I was hungry all the time. This is what I expected. I’m a little tired too. Okay, I thought, that makes sense. I definitely go to bed early.

But it did not help. In the third week, I was still emaciated. Not during training – it was fun and challenging and I was breaking personal records right and left. But for the rest of the day, I felt like a toddler who needed a nap. I made sure to eat a lot. I wondered if there was something else wrong with my body – could I get sick? In the fourth week, I ran out and bought a pregnancy test, just in case, because pregnancy is the only time in my life that I have ever felt so tired for so long. (This was negative.)

I finished the program, set up killer PR, and after a few days, returning to my routine, I felt the same again. I thought that I must just need a lot more sleep than I was getting.

Time to start tracking

After that, I switched to a more normal program, which seemed a little boring to me. To be honest, max training is kind of a hurdle for me, so I did the high intensity program again last fall. From the beginning, I decided that sleep would be my number one priority.

As luck would have it, around the same time I started the program, I received an email from a PR man asking if I would like to try out the Oura sleep tracking ring.

I’ve always been skeptical about technology that claims to tell you something about your body that it should already know. I’ve heard that Oura gives you a “readiness” rating and that people who love their Oura rings will check it every morning. “Why would I do this,” I thought?

If I feel great, would I want to ruin that feeling by letting the app tell me that I should feel tired? And if this is the opposite, and I get good points when I feel bad, why should I trust the app and not what my own body tells me?

In fact, the 2014 study we wrote about here showed that we are susceptible to the placebo effect (and its evil counterpart, the nocebo effect) when it comes to sleep quality. During the study, researchers told people how well they slept, but sometimes they told the truth and sometimes they didn’t. The subjects’ performance on the cognitive test matched better how they were told they slept, true or not, than how they actually slept.

I was determined to outsmart myself. During the first week, I wore the Oura ring, I did not look at the app at all, but instead wrote down how I felt every morning so that I could compare it with the numbers in the app later. After a while, I decided to take my blindness off of myself, but I still don’t let the app tell me how to feel. For both the Oura group and the Whoop group (which I added later), I first analyze the inside information and then see what the app thinks.

I thought it was pretty smart, but when I asked sleep specialist Amy Bender , she noted that if I look at my data at all, it can still influence my perception of effort during training. And one of the ways we know that sleep can affect exercise is by changing how hard we think we work. If you don’t sleep well at night, it will be more difficult for you to run at the same pace than if you were fully rested. I don’t have full control over this when using the app, as it’s all about using its feedback to make day-to-day decisions.

I wore the Oura ring during the second round of my high-intensity training program in November and December, and then continued wearing it when I returned to my regular training. I added the Whoop band during my regular workouts and currently I still wear both.

I will detail how the Oura ring and Whoop work and how they compare to each other in future posts. (In the meantime, you can check out their Gizmodo reviews here and here .) But in a nutshell: I did find them useful. Not to decide whether or not to exercise and how much, but to give me feedback on whether I am getting enough sleep to support my recovery.

And during the second round of the high-intensity program, I really learned that more sleep is exactly what I need. I rescheduled my workout to a later time so that I had time to sleep, and I tried to go to bed early every night. All day fatigue went away and my climbs were still great. Making more sleep time is something I could do without a gadget, of course, but I really appreciated being able to track how much I slept and whether other metrics, such as my resting heart rate, indicated that I was recovering. … enough. We will talk about them next time.

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