Brittany L. Usinger ’19 checks WHOOP on her phone every morning.
Usinger, like nine of her 32 teammates on Harvard’s women’s varsity swim team, wears a WHOOP strap on her wrist that tracks her heart rate and collects an enormous amount of other data. WHOOP is a “performance optimization system” founded by two Harvard graduates and one Harvard drop-out. It was designed for elite athletes and is currently used by students as well as professionals, including LeBron James and Michael Phelps.
Like all college athletes, Usinger faces the challenge of balancing academics, extracurriculars, and her sport. These athletes need adequate rest and recovery time in order to perform at their best each day. That’s where WHOOP comes in. The WHOOP system analyzes exertion, sleep, and other variables to produce a recovery score, which indicates the body’s readiness to perform. On any given morning, a WHOOP user may wake up to a high green score—a “go-ahead” for practices and competitions—or a “no-go” low red score.
WHOOPED INTO SHAPE
Only a handful of athletic teams at Harvard use WHOOP, and most coaches introduced it at the beginning of this year. So far, WHOOP has received generally positive reviews from Harvard’s student athletes.
“I think it quantifies things that I didn’t really understand before,” says Kendall P. Crawford ’16, another member of the women’s varsity swim team. “I knew that I maybe needed about eight hours of sleep, but I didn’t understand how that fluctuates with exertion.”
Crawford, like many of Harvard’s WHOOP users, appreciates having greater awareness of what her body needs to perform well and having those needs presented in the form of “cut-and-dry” data.
“It has definitely made a difference in me understanding my body and being able to communicate with my coach,” she says. “If I realize that my recovery score is low and I haven’t been sleeping well, I’d be able to tell my coach, ‘I think I’m getting sick. I think I need a lighter workout.’”
Coaches see the benefits their athletes gain from using WHOOP’s many features and utilize the information to push their players to their limits, but not over.
“When athletes customize the amount work that they’re doing and do it sensibly according to the way their bodies are actually recovering—not the way their work ethic tells them to do—they actually train smarter,” Dave Fish, the head coach for men’s tennis, says.
Coaches also benefit from the WHOOP system because they can access a snapshot of the data, including strain and recovery information, if the athlete agrees. They can then tailor workouts according to how their players are feeling that particular day.
“We’ve always sort of done that qualitatively like, ‘How are you feeling this morning? How’s this workout going?’” Christopher City, head coach of the Harvard skiing team, says. “But what the WHOOP strap offers is a chance to get some quantitative data on how athletes are recovering from the workouts.”
Not only can coaches see some of the information, but teammates can also use the WHOOP app to view the strain and recovery scores of their teammates. Like many things at Harvard, WHOOP promotes a bit of friendly competition.
“You can see who got the most intense training score and you can compare yourself with your teammates and kind of make fun of them a little if they got a lower score than you,” Usinger says.
Competition aside, WHOOP seems to have the most significant impact on an individual level. “It can help to make people more accountable for getting the recovery that they need,” Crawford says. “If you’re not trying to use it to better yourself and your training, there’s no point in doing it at all.”
John Capodilupo, a former member of Harvard’s class of 2014 and Chief Technology Officer at WHOOP, met his future co-founder, Will Ahmed ’12, in the dining hall of Quincy House, where both of them lived. Ahmed, a senior at the time, was captain of the men’s varsity squash team. Capodilupo, a sophomore, was a computer science concentrator. The two were introduced by mutual friends.
“He was doing super high-performance athletics, but really received no quantifiable data about what he was doing to his body,” Capodilupo recalls. “He intended to found the company right out of college.”
After Ahmed graduated, Capodilupo worked with him over the summer and ultimately chose to “put Harvard on pause” to help build the company. Aurelian Nicolae ’12, a co-founder and Product Development Engineer at WHOOP, joined the team soon after.
“Along the way, [Ahmed and I] realized that we were building a hardware product and neither of us knew anything about hardware,” Capodilupo says. “One of my good friends from Harvard, Aurelian Nicolae, graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering. I asked him to come aboard and he agreed.”
Ahmed, Capodilupo, and Nicolae spent the first year-and-a-half after the company’s founding at Harvard’s Innovation Lab across the Charles. Since then, WHOOP has transformed from a concept to a physical product, and the team behind it has expanded enormously. WHOOP boasts an all-star list of advisors, including Nicholas Negroponte, professor and founder of MIT’s Media Lab, and Stephen Wolfram, creator of Mathematica and Wolfram Alpha.
Equally impressive is WHOOP’s current roster of clients, which includes Olympic athletes and teams from various institutions such as University of Michigan and Vanderbilt, according to Capodilupo. He said that WHOOP has also been in negotiations with professional leagues such as the MLB and NFL, and that the company is “definitely in discussions with various branches of the military.”
The product officially launched in September of 2015, although access to the WHOOP system is still limited. To access the WHOOP app, one needs the brand’s signature wristband, which the company has sold to a limited number of teams and clients. However, the WHOOP team intends to market the product to a larger audience in the long run.
“If we build brand recognition around working with the best athletes in the world, we could use those factors to move further downstream into the market into a more open sales commission,” Capodilupo explains. “Whether you’re LeBron James or a CTO programmer who doesn’t get to exercise too much, you’ll get valuable insights into how you’re sleeping, how you recover, how well you’re going to perform, those different things.”
Capodilupo too wears a WHOOP strap to track his rest and performance, but the fast-paced life of a startup founder often leaves little room for lifestyle adjustments.
“I try, but the schedule here doesn’t allow too much time for more sleep,” he says.