Last October, WHOOP conducted a study to determine the effectiveness of training for runners based on recovery. Runners are notorious for pushing themselves too hard, risking injury and overtraining. In efforts to better understand how WHOOP could be an effective tool, we put the data to the test.
Ask any competitive runner why they stopped running, or why they gave up on the sport after graduating college. Nine out of ten times, it’s because of injury and the reality that running is an incredibly tough sport on the body. Without the physical therapists, coaches, and strength training that a collegiate program provides, many runners give up on their younger glory days and switch to a non-impact sport like cycling or swimming.
Even for beginner runners picking up the sport later in life, starting a running program can be just as challenging as you navigate the odd aches and pains that come with repeated pounding on the joints.
What if there was a smarter way to train that reduced risk of injury and kept runners healthier, longer? To answer this question, we launched Project PR: The Personalized Recovery Study. Our goal? Study the effects of personalized training based on WHOOP recovery.
To kick off Project PR, we partnered with Outside Magazine to help recruit participants and spread the word. We then reached out to Mary Cain and Nick Willis of Tracksmith Running to develop an 8-week 5k training program for beginners and experienced runners. For those unfamiliar with Mary and Nick’s accomplishments, they are both professional runners with numerous accolades, including world records, Olympic medals, and multiple championship titles between the two.
When recruiting participants, we needed both WHOOP members and non-WHOOP members for the control group who had never used our product before. We then broke up training groups based on the following criteria:
Experience level determined the weekly mileage and intensity participants would follow, while training protocol determined whether or not they’d be adjusting workouts based on WHOOP recovery.
Every week participants had a mix of running workouts, including intervals, hill sprints and recovery runs. For participants following the static plan, runners had a singular workout plan each day. Participants following the dynamic plan had to modulate their workouts each day based on their red, yellow, or green recovery and were given all 3 options to choose from based on their status that morning. Here’s an example:
Prior to starting their 8-week plan, participants were asked to complete a time trial or share a recent 5k time to establish their baseline performance. During the next eight weeks, participants were required to log all runs on Strava to verify compliance, and those who were WHOOP members had to log daily recovery, strain, and sleep data.
Participants were also asked to completely cut out additional cardiovascular fitness routines to prioritize Project PR training (activities such as yoga, strength training, and PT exercises were encouraged if this was part of a participant’s existing baseline).
After 8 weeks of dedicated training, Project PR culminated in a final 5k time trial. Overall, the results were astounding. From an anecdotal point of view, our community of runners (both beginners and experienced) expressed major excitement and satisfaction upon completing their program. Training for a 5k in the midst of a pandemic when gyms are closed, running in groups is discouraged, and winter weather is fast approaching, is not an easy feat.
Just ask Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows, a 54-year-old bishop from Indiana who put running aside after dealing with some sidelining injuries years prior. When she signed up for Project PR, she didn’t know what to expect, she just knew she wanted to get back to an activity she loved.
“For the first time in a long time, I got a consistent seven to eight hours of sleep each night because I was focused on making that a priority,” she said. Jennifer followed the Beginner Dynamic training program, which required her to use her WHOOP recovery and modify workouts accordingly. After 8 weeks, she completed the training injury-free and managed to knock a full minute off her 5k time. “Learning how to train and pay attention to my recovery made all the difference.”
Jennifer’s results were not uncommon. Here are some of the positive highlights from participants:
This speaks to the power of what can happen when you commit to a plan. We received hundreds of messages from participants who could not believe the transformation that happened over these 8 weeks. Many shared how they felt more motivated, regained their love of running, were able to finally lose some weight, or simply enjoyed the virtual community aspect.
But what about the differences in those who trained based on their WHOOP recovery, versus those who didn’t? The results were astounding.
On average, participants who modulated workouts based on recovery (WHOOP Dynamic Groups) were up to 32.4% less likely to experience injury than those who followed a static plan. These injuries were self-reported and ranged from common injuries such as shin splints and achilles tendonitis to more sidelining injuries, like a pulled muscle or stress reaction.
In addition, the WHOOP Dynamic Groups reduced time spent training by up to 80 minutes each week depending on their recovery that morning. For context, a long run day for an experienced runner with a green recovery would run 60 minutes, while a runner with a red recovery would run 45 minutes.
While shaving off 15 minutes of mileage here and there may not seem like a lot, over time it certainly adds up and results in less impact on the body. Although both the static and dynamic groups experienced nearly identical physical gains, the dynamic group on average did less work, proving that it’s not always about more volume; it’s about smarter training.
A common question runners ask when considering WHOOP is why they need another wearable in addition to their GPS watch. The answer is simple–WHOOP is not a GPS watch; it does something entirely different and provides data that can help you navigate the extremely difficult sport of running through smarter training.
Project PR uncovered critical insights that support the need for personalized training programs. It’s easy to download a standard running program online, but every human body is different and responds to training differently. Using WHOOP to customize your training needs can have profound impact for runners looking to reduce risk of injury and avoid overtraining.
In addition, WHOOP helps alleviate the common concern amongst runners who wonder How do I know if I’m even getting fitter? Key physiological indicators such as changes in resting heart rate and adaptation to training loads via heart rate can answer this question. In the chart below, you can see that over the course of 8 weeks, participants’ average strain decreased even though their workload increased by about 10% each week. This indicated to our team that participants were adapting to the training and improving fitness by being able to handle more mileage and intensity.
In the words of Joe Vigil, running coach to American record holder Deena Kastor, “There is no such thing as overtraining, just underresting.” This quote rings true for any runner who’s ever thought that getting in 2 more miles was more important than 30 minutes of extra sleep.
When using WHOOP alongside your running program, our study showed that participants were more likely to prioritize hours of sleep and recovery protocol, and they improved 5k performance by doing less work compared to the control counterparts.
This program only lasted 8 weeks. Imagine how training based on recovery could help your running career over 8 years? We hope it could be life-changing.
To learn more, listen to our Project PR podcast episode with Mary Cain, professional runner and World Junior 3k Champion, who helped design the 5k training.
Related: Running Heart Rate Zones & 4 Essential Runs to Train Smarter