The Life & Times of Training Trackers
show me the numbers
WHOOP is a faceless robot on your wrist. It takes measurements of various bits and bobs, and then churns the bits (and bobs) through its algorithm to calculate the level of “strain” that you’ve experienced. WHOOP also calculates a recovery score, which, combined with strain, tells you your readiness to train.
WHOOP is popular among the jiu jitsu crowd because it’s unobtrusive. My relationship with WHOOP was less…enthusiastic. It came down to how this robot was interpreting my jiu jitsu training. You see, no matter how hard I had face-planted that day trying to defend an omoplata, or felt my neck begin to crinkle like cheap wrapping paper, or how many pounds my gi gained from training, WHOOP would hilariously characterize this as “active recovery.”
After three months, I decided that I didn’t need more robots in my life, and I discarded the WHOOP. I thought I had escaped the matrix and would be able to live a free independent life.
For the first half of 2022, I’ve been running an experiment with a new training tracker, to see if I could have a different experience. Here are my findings.
Finding #1: You can bring a jiu jitsu practitioner to a rest day, but you can’t make them take it.
After two days of back to back training, I decided to do heavy squats and deadlifts on the next day, even though I had just finished practice the night before.
My tracker had told me to keep things easy — it was in the “red” zone — but I felt pretty fine and in the mood to flex at the gym. Several hours later, I felt a wave of fatigue sweep over me, to the point that I realized that I couldn’t really think. The next day, feeling like a zombie, I took a mental health day.
I had hoped that my tracker would help me with my overachieving addiction by nudging me to take it easier or to take the day off. Instead, I had to admit that the only source of real accountability was myself.
If I had to miss work because I wasn’t mentally present, then I had to take ownership of my choices. If I did poorly on the mats because I overdid it in the weight room, then I had to take ownership of that, too. If I was too tired to cook dinner because I chose to spar instead of drilling as planned, well, you know.
Like a pilot guiding an aircraft through the sky, I learned that machines can only do so much. If we understand what the dials are telling us, but we don’t take the appropriate steps, then nothing will really change and we risk crashing and burning.
Finding #2: I use numbers as an excuse to judge myself.
This training tracker was not fancy. Red meant “please stop” and green was “you are in God mode, please proceed to the next boss.” In between there were shades of mandarin and pinkish-purple, which you’re going to have to trust are completely accurate metrics.
In my WHOOP days, people advertised their strain as a humblebrag of how hard they had yeeted. I would see people post screenshots of their “strain” after a long day’s training on IG stories. Now, even though I wasn’t on WHOOP or IG anymore, I still felt like the numbers said something about my effort. If I had started in the green and didn’t at least make it to the red at the end of my session, then did I work hard enough? But if the rating dropped too much, did it also mean my fitness level was terrible?
During this period, I was also trying to make jiu jitsu fun again. Using the numbers to judge my performance seemed to go against the carefree and lighthearted nature that I was trying to cultivate. So, I decided to take a break from the tracker.
Almost instantly, I was surprised at how training became way less stressful. Instead of worrying if I was working hard enough, I was worrying about making my jiu jitsu work. When journaling after class, I forced myself to find other frameworks to judge my performance: the degree to which I stuck to my drilling plans; what new details I picked up from old-hat moves; and how present I was during sparring.
When the break was over and I started taking measurements again, I had a new attitude towards the readings that I was seeing. I didn’t need them to determine my value. If the number stayed in the green, I congratulated myself on my resilience and ability to train sustainably that day. If the number dropped in the red, I saw it as a chance to take extra good care of myself in the next few days.
Finding #3: My actual physical state often did not match my perceived mental state.
I had just finished a horrendously stressful day of work and was absolutely convinced that I was not ready to train jiu jitsu.
Me: i’m ded 🥔🥔🥔🏳️
Meanwhile, my booper:
I had my theories. Perhaps the booper was calibrated incorrectly. Or, perhaps, I could have elected to use the app’s feature to adjust my “intensity” values to match how I felt.
However, I eventually accepted a more likely explanation, which has to do with the relationship between my thoughts and my feelings. My Thoughts and My Feelings have lived separately for most of my life. At some point, due to predilection, upbringing, or trauma, my brain decided to divorce my body. And up until recently, Thoughts had custody of my life, never really allowing Feelings to see me. So, I grew up learning not to trust Feelings, but instead to rely only on my Thoughts as a source of information.
Whenever my mental state and physical state diverged, I came to recognize that sometimes, it was a product of self-sabotage. Things were actually okay, but I would convince myself in my head that they were not. (I’ve worked on this with a professional too, don’t worry.)
So, putting aside if the booper was accurate, I came to recognize and accept the tracker as a good pattern interrupt. It made me pause and question whether my stress levels were as awful as I believed them to be, or if I was just slipping into my habitual patterns of despair.
As I was finishing up this essay, I received a direct mailing from WHOOP about a special deal to restart my subscription. To be continued…?!?