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May 14, 2021

Training with WHOOP to Sail in the Olympics

How the United States 49er Skiff Squad is using WHOOP to optimize preparation for the Olympic Games.

By Hans Henken

The International 49er is the high-performance skiff class for the men’s double-handed sailing event at the Summer Olympic Games, sanctioned by sailing’s governing body, World Sailing, and the International Olympic Committee. Created in 1998, the 49er had its Olympic debut at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and has since remained one of the most competitive sailing classes in the world. Reaching the Olympic Games is the pinnacle of international sailboat racing and winning Gold is the United States 49er Skiff Squad’s ultimate goal.

 

The US Sailing Team Men’s 49er Squad

The US 49er Skiff Squad is made up of three independent teams (two people each) consisting of six individual sailors who train, travel, live, fundraise and compete with each other all over the world.

Even though only one team out of the three is able to represent the United States at the Summer Olympics every four years, we work together in an unmatched team-to-team relationship and unparalleled squad training dynamic in the pursuit of sustained excellence at the highest level of competition. Since the creation of the Skiff Squad in 2016, all three teams are internationally ranked within the top 20 and nationally ranked as the top three, each finishing on the podium at the 2020 United States Olympic Trials for the Tokyo Olympic Games.

 

How WHOOP Optimizes Our Olympic Training

WHOOP has played a critical role in supporting the Skiff Squad’s ascent to the top of the 49er Skiff Class through personalized self training, optimization of travel and event preparation, and the testing of the last piece of equipment left to tap into: The human element. As well, WHOOP has become vital to the squad’s safety during COVID-19.

 

Self Monitoring and Safety

With the introduction of WHOOP teams, we took advantage of our competitive mindset and applied it to self monitoring. Consequently, constant morning check-ins inadvertently led to a first line of defense against COVID-19. On a daily basis, we enjoy battling, competing and pushing each other to get the highest strain, best recovery, and the longest sleep on our team.

Olympic sailors WHOOP team

The sailors are on a WHOOP team together where they compare daily strain, recovery and sleep stats.

With the arrival of COVID-19, our WHOOP team took on a completely different meaning and role. Instead of waking up and looking for who had the best sleep and recovery, we now use the team to help self-monitor each other’s baseline recovery metrics as potential early warning signs of COVID-19.

Since we all spend the majority of our time living and training together, each person having the ability to look at everyone’s baseline metrics helps to quickly prevent the infection of the entire squad through self isolation, and ultimately avoid the spread of COVID-19 to others associated with our training group.

 

Personalized Self: Training and Fitness

Fitness and training is key to every athlete’s success and that is no different in the sport of sailing. Between sailing on the water and training in the gym, the Skiff Squad spends anywhere from 30 to 40 hours per week honing our bodies and minds. Since the weather plays a large role in when we can go sailing, the time spent in the gym is erratic and setting a rigid workout and recovery schedule is quite difficult.

Because of this, the Squad relies on WHOOP to help personalize daily gym training and evening recovery. Based on strain from an early morning sailing session or a late evening gym workout, we are able to use continuous heart rate monitoring to dictate what types of workouts we need to be doing. Or, how long we should be on the water to best optimize our energy levels on a day to day basis.

Olympic sailor heart rate

Sailor Hans Henken’s heart rate and activities, tracked by WHOOP, across a typical training day.

It’s a balancing act between getting the necessary time on the water, learning the sport-specific skills, and training in the gym to maintain the fitness level necessary to sail at this level–and WHOOP is right in the middle of it all, helping guide the decision making along the way. We don’t have full-time personal trainers to help monitor and tell us when to work out and when to take a break. Instead, we have WHOOP to lead the conversation and enable us to make educated decisions about our bodies.

Activity strain in WHOOP app

The strain of various training activities, as well as other metrics in the WHOOP app.

Event Preparation: Maximize Recovery

Sailing is an endurance sport of both the mind and body. Its athletes compete in events that are on average six days long in an environment constantly changing due to the weather. Sailors have to be ready to perform at any time of the day, making it incredibly important to “know yourself.”

Being able to assess when it’s time to ramp up the intensity or slow down and conserve energy at any given moment is one of the key attributes that WHOOP has provided the Squad. The need to produce an optimal performance day in and day out over the course of an event is part of the formula for success on the racecourse. WHOOP contributes necessary information for us to make calculated decisions on our daily recovery and mindset in order to not only be “in the green” on Game Day, but for six Game Days in a row.

Olympic sailor WHOOP strain and recovery

A week of day strain and green recoveries, displayed in the WHOOP app.

Learning how to create green recovery streaks and maintaining them during training blocks leading up to events has been a critical asset to achieving optimal performance during high-profile events like the World Championships.

 

Equipment Testing: The Human Element

Unlike many other sports, sailboat racing requires a large amount of time devoted to equipment testing. Sometimes the difference between winning and losing comes down to the quality of a sailor’s equipment, so no rock is left unturned in the never-ending pursuit of equipment optimization.

Sailors are constantly pouring over data analysis, from their carbon fiber masts to their kevlar and mylar sails, to find “that inch” on the race course. With WHOOP, the Squad now has similar data on the most important equipment we have: Our bodies.

Data acquisition and analysis was already an essential part of our training. Now we use WHOOP data to test ourselves in unique and interesting ways to better understand our bodies. Whether it is personalizing diets with specific food groups to promote green recoveries, or setting exact times for when to begin blocking blue light to decrease sleep latency and increase REM and deep sleep, we’re always looking for that extra edge.

Blue light blocking and green WHOOP recovery

Tracking blue-light blocking in the WHOOP JOURNAL, and the impact it has on HRV and recovery.

Since the squad has six members, we are able to talk and share experiences and data with each other to speed up the learning process, much like what we do when training on the water.

Our current area of detailed exploration is in relation to travel. Sailing requires a great deal of travel time and we are testing theories and hypotheses on how to best maintain high recovery scores when on the road. This enables us to hit the water sooner after arriving at a new training or event venue. Our biggest discoveries so far, drinking the right amount of water and achieving a particular level of strain to induce blood flow, have been key to helping get us from airplane to sailboat.

WHOOP tracks impact of hydration

The positive impact of sufficient hydration, via the WHOOP MONTHLY PERFORMANCE ASSESSMENT.

What Lies Ahead

The United States 49er Skiff Squad is determined to continue pushing the limit both on the water and in the gym, and we are looking forward to utilizing WHOOP to its fullest in order to achieve our goals.

Currently, we are in Europe, training and racing in venues such as Lanzarote, Spain, Cascais, Portugal, and Medemblik, Netherlands–and using WHOOP to refine the process as we eagerly anticipate an Olympic debut at this summer’s Games.

 

Learn more about the US Sailing Team Men’s 49er Squad on YouTube, check out @hanshenken, @snow_wilson_sailing and @melges_rowe_sailing on Instagram, and visit Han’s and Ian’s website at barrowshenkenracing.com.

Feature Image Credit: Alison Chenard

 

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Hans Henken

Hans Henken competes internationally on the United States Sailing Team in the Men’s 49er Skiff Class. Currently, he is actively campaigning for the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris, France. Hans graduated from Stanford University with a bachelor and masters degree in aeronautical and astronautical engineering and aspires to build rocket engines when the time comes to move on from competitive sailing.

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