For the past few months, I’ve been wearing an Oura ring to track my sleep. In December, I added a Whoop band for comparison’s sake. I was curious about them because I’ve seen so many athletes — professional and recreational — say they use devices like these to monitor how well they’re recovering from strenuous workouts. Some even use the gadgets’ feedback to plan future workouts. So I had to try it for myself.
Welcome, by the way, to the 2021 edition of the Lifehacker Fitness Challenge.
Until now, we’ve been all about giving readers ideas for exercises you can do at the gym or at home. But there are plenty of home workout challenges out there (and many of us won’t be going anywhere else for a while), so we’re putting a new spin on this column for the coming year. I (and soon, other Lifehacker staffers) will be trying out different fitness hacks and reporting weekly on how they did — or didn’t! — change our lives.
This month, follow along with my experiences as I track my sleep. Today, I’ll tell you about what brought me to this challenge, and in the coming weeks I’ll give you a full rundown of what it’s like to live your life with each of these devices.
How I got started
I learned the hard way about the value of sleep for athletic recovery. I mean, I already knew it was important, but I just assumed that as long as I was sleeping seven to nine hours a night, I had that base covered.
You can do intense workouts, eat the right foods and take the right supplements, but your muscles won’t grow without decent sleep.Read more
I’ve also read Christie Aschwanden’s book Good to Go, about the science of recovery, which confirmed my suspicions that most “recovery” tech doesn’t do much. The biggest takeaway I got was that sleep is the best tool we have to help our bodies deal with the stress of exercise and prime us to do better next time.
So you’d think I know better.
But this year, lifting barbells in my driveway during a pandemic, I learned a few things about myself. One was that the stress of living through a pandemic really takes a toll on your ability to focus and to give 100% in workouts. Another was that my need for sleep absolutely skyrockets when I’m on a high intensity weightlifting program.
Intensity, in lifting terms, means that the weights are heavy. You might only do a lift one time before resting, instead of doing sets consisting of a bunch of repetitions, but that single lift is going to be really frickin’ heavy. One 6-week program I did this summer, which my coach described as “Bulgarian-ish” (after the famous Olympic team), didn’t have any weights or percentages written in. Instead, it constantly challenged me to find my “one rep max,” or sometimes a two or three rep max, on the lift of the day.
Normally, in weightlifting or powerlifting or any other strength sport, you only max out when you really mean it. You save those max effort attempts for when you’re on the platform at a competition, because afterward you can take the week off and rest as much as you like. A heavy lift really takes a lot out of you. And here I was, maxing out four days a week.
Last week we did a little test to see how many reps you could do (whether of push-ups or your favourite exercise) and how long you could hold something like a plank. This week, let’s take a look at that classic strength benchmark, the one rep max (1RM).Read more
By the second week of the program, I was hungry all the time. That I expected. I was also a bit tired. OK, I thought, that makes sense. I’ll make sure to get to bed early.
But it didn’t help. In week three, I was still exhausted. Not during the workouts — they were fun and challenging and I set personal records left and right. But during the rest of the day, I felt like a toddler in need of a nap. I made sure I was eating plenty. I questioned whether something else might be going wrong with my body — could I be sick? In week four, I ran out and bought a pregnancy test, just in case, because pregnancy is the only other time in my life I had ever felt so tired for so long. (It was negative.)
I finished the program, set some killer PR’s, and within days of getting back to a normal routine I felt like my old self again. I must have just needed a lot more sleep than I was getting, I figured.
Time to start tracking
I switched to a more normal program after that, which I found a bit boring. To be honest, maxing out is kind of my jam, so this past fall I did the high intensity program again. From the start I decided that this go-round, sleep would have to be my number one priority.
Serendipitously, right around the same time I started the program, I got an email from a PR person asking if I’d like to try out the Oura sleep tracking ring.
I’ve always been sceptical of tech that claims to tell you something about your body that your body should already know. I had heard that Oura gives you a “readiness” score, and that people who love their Oura rings will check the score every morning. Why would I do that, I thought?
If I feel great, would I want to ruin that feeling by letting an app tell me that I should feel tired? And if it’s the reverse situation and I get a good score when I’m feeling crappy, why would I choose to trust the app over what my own body tells me?
In fact, a 2014 study, which we wrote about here, found that we’re susceptible to the placebo effect (and its evil twin, the nocebo effect) when it comes to sleep quality. In the study, researchers told people how well they slept, but sometimes they were telling the truth and sometimes they were not. Subjects’ performance on a cognitive test better matched 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 didn’t look at the app at all, but instead wrote down how I felt each morning, to compare against the app’s numbers later. After a while I decided to unblind myself, but I still don’t let the app tell me how to feel. With both the Oura and the Whoop band (which I added in later on), I take stock internally first, then I look to see what the app thinks.
I thought that was pretty clever, but when I asked sleep scientist Amy Bender, she pointed out that if I’m looking at my data at all, it could still influence my perception of effort during a workout. And one of the ways we know sleep can influence exercise is by changing how hard we think we’re working. The same pace on a run will feel harder if you’ve had a poor night’s sleep than if you’re fully refreshed. I don’t have a way to fully control for that while using the app, since the whole point is to use 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, then kept wearing it as I returned to regular training. I added the Whoop band while I was in that regular training block, and I’m currently still wearing both.
I’ll get into the details of how both the Oura ring and Whoop band work, as well as how they compare to one another, in future posts. (In the meantime, you can check out Gizmodo’s reviews of them here and here.) But to give a brief spoiler: I actually did find them useful. Not in deciding whether or how much to exercise, but to give me feedback on whether I’m sleeping enough to support my recovery.
And I did learn, during the second round of the high-intensity program, that more sleep was exactly what I needed. I moved my lifting workout later in the day so I would have time to sleep in, and I made sure to go to bed early every night. The all-day fatigue was gone, and my lifts were still great. Making more time for sleep is something I could have done without a gadget, to be sure, but I did appreciate being able to track just how much sleep I was getting, and whether other metrics, like my resting heart rate, indicated I was recovering enough. We’ll talk more about those next time.