It’s unfortunate and inconvenient that commercially available wearable trackers are not actually moving the needle with athlete performance. The stark truth is most wearable sensors to monitor and track health either lack enough validity to be useful or require more effort than they are worth. This is not to say that technology can’t help the modern athlete, it’s just that biology and other sciences matter more than ever.
In this short blog post, I don’t pull punches on what I am seeing: an ever-increasing amount of junk sports tech that badly needs oversight. We can’t depend on science to save us, especially since what creates adoption is marketing and investment dollars looking to use our data against us. There is hope though, as the same technology that is fashioned to mesmerize us (and control us as well) has the potential to be an incredible opportunity to help all of us, not just athletes.
Oura, WHOOP, and Kinexon in the NBA Bubble
Heart rate variability (HRV) peaked in interest a decade ago with Omegawave followed by iThlete with smart device innovation. Soon, novel companies followed suit, focusing on extracting more value from the beat-to-beat temporal changes of the heart. Sleep architecture, estimated by HRV algorithms, was growing until WHOOP and Oura took the lead with wearable sensors designed to be worn full time. Instead of sampling data in the morning and making simple choices, these companies measured HRV in real time.
Both companies made bold claims about how the sensors would be a tool against COVID-19, and an athlete tracking company even joined forces with them to help track and trace athletes. Instead of workload management, they pivoted to use their hardware like radio collars for criminals or endangered species. One question was whether Kinexon was useful in the NBA “bubble,” as the biggest need was keeping non-athletes out, while the NFL (which didn’t have a bubble) seemed to constantly struggle with an environment that wasn’t fully controlled. It’s not that Kinexon can’t help teams reduce injuries or the hardware doesn’t work, it’s that they didn’t learn from Jurassic Park to understand that chaos will always surface no matter the science and technology.
Having a wearable—whether a bracelet or ring—is clever, but the problem is that neither science nor practical application kept pace with the hardware advancements. In addition to the applied gap with HRV, the data may have been stretched too thin, as the sleep accuracy was lacking. The lesson learned is that, while science and technology are great, it seems marketing sometimes promises too much.
I remember seeing the WHOOP prototype in person in Boston in 2013, and while I am happy the founders now have the product commercially available, the data is still less than stellar, and practice is at best questionable.
From Heart Rate to Motion Capture
You can make a fair argument that the first wearables were cardiac telemetry devices in the 1960s, and in 1977, the Polar company was born. Now heart rate is viewed as easy to measure, and smartphones utilize their camera and flashlight to estimate pulse rate with some success. The endurance community benefited later with GPS watches and foot sensors, but it wasn’t until recently that motion capture with IMUs made real progress.
To balance out the physiological innovation, sports wearable companies focused on biomechanical aspects of training, and soon the running stride revolution began. Unfortunately, there isn’t much traction or progress due to the conflicting data on what good running really looks like.No matter the accuracy or precision of data, the key is validity, or whether the assessment actually measures what it’s supposed to, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
No matter the accuracy or precision of data, the key is validity, or whether the assessment actually measures what it’s supposed to. If you are trying to improve running cadence to hit a divine threshold, make sure that adjustment actually has significant value worth changing for. Stride frequency and other parameters are important, but only when coached up properly.
The standard today is determining what measurements and what interventions are valid, assuming they are actually useful in improving performance. Some sensors are not perfectly accurate for research purposes but precise and reliable enough to be useful in the field. Dr. Clark presented information on limb velocity recently, but the question is how to use the information properly, as new or novel findings must have strong purpose. With all of the wearable sensors available, only a few actually provide value.
Gait retraining and changes in biomechanics are especially difficult, so the question is are wearables useful for an older population that is likely stuck in an entrenched running style or are they useful for youth athletes? It’s hard to say, but for now I know that the evidence isn’t strong for particular metrics, and more data requires more experience to tease out what is ornamental and what is truly impactful.
There is an effort now for computer vision, leveraging affordable cameras or smartphones in a coordinated effort to get markerless and sensor-less data from artificial intelligence. The problem with cameras is that anyone in a coaching environment knows they are obtrusive, and companies such as Perch are feeling the limitations of camera solutions with simple barbell tracking. Computer vision companies like KinaTrax and Uplift are hoping for baseball and golf to be big enough markets to keep them in business, but the challenge is not capturing the data, it is actually training the coach to use the measurements properly. Without tutorials and best practices, most sports technology solutions sit and collect dust months later, so we need to do more with education.
What You Should Treasure and What You Should Trash
My call to action is to consolidate and prune the technology you have to the essentials. This may sound strange coming from me, a sports technology enthusiast and professional, but I believe in better solutions, not more “stuff.” More data is sometimes necessary, but with wearables there is an obvious limit for day-to-day living. You can only wear so much hardware and run so many apps before the experience becomes a digital prison.You can only wear so much hardware and run so many apps before the experience becomes a digital prison, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If you are not happy, it’s fair to blame technology. If you work with others as a coach, you are also responsible for their mental health as well as physical health. An athlete worried about sleep performance already has their own sports performance to worry about, so let’s not pile on more unnecessary stress.
After stripping it down to key tools, it’s time to commit resources to fostering the changes that are needed to see better “strain scores.” Take a simple heart rate measurement, for example. With all of the HRV data being used for various purposes and proprietary metrics to measure fleeting stress, how many of those systems guide you in having a stronger heart? Basic resting heart rate, arguably the crudest but most powerful indicator of aerobic fitness, is tossed away like it’s antiquated. HRV is highly connected to aerobic fitness, and it seems that measuring stress is more profitable than creating a solution to combat it.
I can’t give recommendations on what to buy, but I can give suggestions on how to buy. The first step is looking to see if you really need the information or whether you are just being marketed a new device with a false promise. Second, make sure you don’t buy early; wait a few years, as nothing that is commercially available in a sporting goods store is a life-changing product. Last, make sure you know you have the resources to change your behavior if the data is accurate and valid.
Frankly, if you are not committed to making a life change, what usually happens is the sensor of choice goes through a cycle of honeymoons, like yo-yo dieting, with the metrics you hope would change forever. Measurement is very important and should be treated with respect and appreciation, but a solution is more than the device—it’s the advice.Measurement is very important and should be treated with respect and appreciation, but a solution is more than the device—it’s the advice, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Wear What Really Counts
Don’t wear a sports wearable unless it truly has a function that matters in your life, as most are not worth it. Instead of counting steps or worrying about sleep, seek deeper meaning and dig for pay dirt. This is not to say I don’t have a classic sports watch or don’t value data from sensor technology. The average person needs a foundation to determine what choices matter in life, and most wearable trackers are nothing more than digital mirrors usually reflecting your behaviors in the form of hyped metrics with little science to back them up.
The right technology can change your life if used properly with a coach or by an educated user. Unfortunately, in the digital era, wisdom and experience are seen as the enemy of profit, as those qualities can’t be scaled like software and hardware. It’s disappointing to see the insidious marketing hype and narcotic-like user experiences but being informed is the antidote to the problem. Coaches and athletes can leverage technology properly for the greater good, and it’s up to all of us collectively to make the right choice.
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