The Real Deal with Recovery Trackers
First it was calories, then counting steps—is recovery the next big thing for technology to keep track of?
Sure, you know to take a rest day after you hit your back squat PR during CrossFit (and you’ve got massive quad burn to prove it). But thinking about recovery after your morning run or Hatha yoga class in your favorite sweatpants seems unnecessary.
If you’re like most people, you probably don’t spend a ton of time analyzing your recovery habits. But maybe you should. More and more research suggests that what you do with your body in the 23 hours of the day when you’re not working out could be as important as exercise itself.
Recovery is a major 2020 wellness trend, and wearable technology is pivoting from exercise trackers to recovery monitors, offering data that goes beyond your heart rate in cycling class. Led by brands like Biostrap, Polar and Whoop, the fitness tech market is primed for a recovery revolution. Here’s what to know about tracking recovery.
Evolution of Fitness Trackers
It’s been a wild ride in the world of wearable activity trackers, ever since FitBit was founded in 2007. From tracking steps to estimating calories burned during an intense HIIT workout, this staple of the fitness scene has helped users gain a deeper understanding of their workouts, their heart rates and daily miles. Next-gen FitBit Classic, released in 2009, moved the ball forward with the addition of tracking sleep.
In 2015, Apple released its first watch, compatible with several third-party apps to supplement data about nutrition tracking, GPS-enabled running workouts and more.
Today, the smart wearables market is worth around $14 billion, with expectations that it will nearly double to $27 billion by 2022. It seems people can’t get enough when it comes to information about their bodies and how they perform in various physical contexts.
But what about how they recover from those performances—how well-rested is your body from one workout and the next? That’s where the new wave of activity trackers comes in: Instead of monitoring just exercise metrics, these programs track stuff like heart rate variability (Whoop), recovery baseline (Biostrap) and Nightly Recharge™ (Polar), a metric that captures how quickly you rebound in your sleep from the demands of daily life.
Sameer Sontakey, CEO and co-founder of Biostrap, believes gym-goers are just starting to understand how major resting their bodies can be. “Fitness enthusiasts are realizing that recovery is key to helping them perform at a high level,” he says. “You can only sustain putting out maximum effort for so long before you exhaust yourself and do more damage than good. It is during recovery when your muscles grow and when body adaptation happens, allowing you to improve your performance.”
Other companies see recovery devices as reaching beyond the pure fitness market. “At a foundational level, I think people want to be available for life,” says Kristen Holmes, Vice President of Performance Optimization at Whoop. “Managing your recovery in a proactive way is a path to being present more consistently.”
Sontakey agrees. “Today’s technology allows anyone to use recovery tracking as a way to understand one’s physiological state and how much stress their body is under.”
Recovery trackers work by counterbalancing information on activity level with rest variables, taking into account both the physical stress of exercise as well as the mental stress of life, on a daily basis. Rest exists on the opposite end of the seesaw and is calculated based on heart rate variability, resting heart rate and sleep.
The metric of sleep goes beyond just quantity. In addition to measuring how much time you spend in each sleep stage, recovery tracking devices measure sleep “performance” (the quality of your zzz’s) while simultaneously helping you pinpoint exactly how much sleep you personally need for optimal recovery.
Armed with this information, the user’s goal is to balance out activity and rest for maximal efficiency training. So if you go for a six-mile run instead of your usual three miles, or hammer a 5k race rather than doing an easy jog, your fitness tracker might suggest balancing it out with higher recovery (taking an easy day at the gym or skipping your evening weights session).
Interpreting the Data
At its simplest, a recovery tracker can help you keep tabs on a night of restless sleep or low-quality sleep, possibly leading to realizations like you sleep better without the pre-bed glass of wine. But for measurements that reflect a deeper level of recovery—heart rate variability, say—the “fix” isn’t always as straightforward.
In these cases, the data is best used to “rebalance” your routine, says Holmes. “If you wake up and you’re on the lower end of your recovery baseline, you can adjust your plans for the day,” she explains. “People use this data to hyper-optimize their activity. They can course-correct and get back on track.”
The overarching idea is that humans are naturally predisposed to adapting to different stress levels. Recovery data reveals not only the level of stress (exercise exertion) you are experiencing, but whether or not your daily behaviors (eating, sleeping, stretching) are helping you adapt to that stress. Armed with this information, you can modify your actions to raise your fitness performance.
A Daily Difference
Sarah de Jong, a Chicago HIIT fitness instructor and strength-training enthusiast, made changes right away as soon as she started tracking her sleep. “The recovery tracker asks questions when you wake up—did you drink more than two alcoholic drinks last night? Were you reading in bed?—which has made me look at the differences in my sleep based on my habits,” she says. “For example, I had one glass of red wine last weekend, and my REM sleep was far shorter than the previous night. It makes you realize that your actions before bed really do take a toll on your sleep quality.”
“Ultimately, people can learn about themselves and understand what works and what doesn’t,” agrees Sontakey. “Having a data-driven approach lets users figure out what brings about the best results.”
But with so many data points available 24/7, some experts wonder if there’s such a thing as too many numbers to analyze. After all, if you’re constantly obsessing over your heart rate variability, are you actually keeping your heart rate elevated due to stress?
Proponents for these devices don’t think so. If anything, they believe, the new breed of activity trackers puts you more in tune with your body. There’s also the fact that recovery trackers are fast learners: The more you wear one, the better the device becomes at learning your usual rhythms and providing relevant feedback.
Recovery for Recreational Athletes
For her part, de Jong, a self-described data nerd, feels empowered by the insights she gleaned from her activity tracker. Better recovery means she can go harder in workouts, allowing her to build her fitness from one session to the next.
“After trying it myself, I definitely recommend recovery tracking for everyday athletes because it takes a 24/7 approach versus just tracking your workouts,” she says. “Anyone who struggles with sleep consistency, external stress or has a hard time figuring out when to take rest days should definitely use recovery tracking.”
The technology is also enabling recreational athletes to access information previously only available to the elites. “Anyone who’s interested in optimizing their potential should be thinking about how they’re adapting to stress,” says Holmes.
Plus, says Sontakey, tracking your recovery will help you reach your goals even faster, whether you’re aiming to break a four-hour marathon or working towards weighted pull-ups on the rig. “Efficiency is what we are all striving for,” he says. “That is, getting the most results in the least amount of time possible. Being data-driven helps you reach your goals quicker.”
The Final Word
Recovery is an important part of anyone’s routine, whether you’re a casual jogger, a professional marathoner or somewhere in between. And tracking your recovery through sleep and performance metrics can pay off in the long run as you learn to listen to and interpret your body’s cues. Using this data can help you make more informed choices about whether you opt for a high-energy spin class one day or a slow, restorative yoga flow instead.
But whether you’ll be happily geeking out over the numbers or frustrated by seemingly endless data depends on the person. Just as there’s something to be said for going for a run and not stressing over your pace, there’s a case to be made for going to sleep without worrying about your REM.
Ideally, you can find middle ground: During your off-season or if you’re taking it easy after a big race, go by how you feel. But if you’re gearing up for a major competition or building peak fitness for a specific event, the more you know about how your body recovers, the better your chances of success.