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May 21, 2021

How WHOOP Makes Me a Better Cyclist (Without Being a Pro)

Ted King discusses why he retired from pro cycling, his love of gravel racing, and how WHOOP helps him perform his best as a father, business owner, coach and competitor.

By Ted King

The sport of cycling is steeped in tradition. For example, it’s rumored that mushrooms are little caloric furnaces and you’ll quickly shed weight by adding them to your meals. And while shaved legs are the norm, it’s suggested to not reach for the razor the day before a race because that causes microscopic damage which saps valuable energy from your body that would otherwise be put towards competition.

The stories passed down through generations will make you laugh, or just scratch your head.

 

Marginal Gains

One of the most hot-button cycling terms over the past decade is “marginal gains.” Riders spend enormous resources to shave fractions of a second off their time in the wind tunnel, they go to great lengths to find the fastest clothing material or the speediest sock height, and they break valuable sponsor obligations to use the most aerodynamically slippery equipment.

I raced professionally for 10 years, from 2006 through 2015. I tackled the world’s biggest races from the Tour de France to the Giro d’Italia, the hallowed northern classics, and the world championships.

Half a dozen years prior, I got into cycling for the simple sake of fun. Sure, it became therapeutic – it was my recreation and motivation, it was my friend group and as competitive as I wanted – but fun was at the foundation.

Moving up through the ranks from amateur to high-level professional, like any sport it takes on a much more serious tone. So long as there’s a bottom line or money being exchanged, it seems there are never-ending lengths to be taken to be better.

My time in professional cycling saw the creation of the mighty Team Sky, the New York Yankees of bike racing with their bottomless budget and knack to win. Moreover, they were the first cycling team that really capitalized on marginal gains while others were still steeped in tradition.

 

My “Retirement” From Pro Cycling

Fast-forward to 2016 and my first year of “retirement.” I was 32 years old – not old, but certainly not young for the sport – and I consciously chose to step away for a variety of reasons, but right up at the top was that I still loved cycling and I didn’t want that to change. I could see it getting ever more acute, more sacrifices needing to be made, and to what end. I’d seen friends and former teammates end their careers and spitefully never ride a bike again. I didn’t want that to be me.

Cyclist Ted King Using WHOOP

Cycling can become robotic as it rewards a powerful strength-to-weight ratio, so there’s a forever chase to be leaner. Eating disorders are common, especially on traditional teams. It was only towards the end of my time in cycling that sports nutritionists were suggesting to fuel amply with a variety of healthful foods rather than just mountains of pasta.

Please let me make a confession: I love beer. I also love food. As much as I embraced the process, trained and worked hard to earn that sinewy 5% body fat, I came to a point that I’d achieved everything I wanted in European cycling, and frankly I wanted to start enjoying life more and enjoying time on my bike again.

Unlike football which fans watch on TV once per week, one of the coolest aspects of cycling is its tangibility. Anyone with a bike can ride the same climbs or join pros on training rides… for as long as they can hang on! For all the good that NFL and NBA stars provide, I’m not aware of their daily public workouts and shoot-arounds.

 

Gravel Racing

Furthermore, enter the booming aspect of gravel cycling which is a recent and wildly popular side of the sport. Gravel is incredibly tangible and is purposefully catered to the masses. If you want to hammer and race, there’s room for that, and if you’re entirely new to riding a bike, you’re eagerly welcomed to the sport too–and certainly won’t be the only one in those (cycling) shoes.

Safely away from cars and traffic, it’s about getting down and dirty, but having a really good time. And most notably, you wrap up events or with a beer or tasty meal, rehashing the day’s adventure with your friends and cycling community.

In short, gravel is fun. And with an ever-growing list of things that I was missing while racing and living a life of austerity, the timing at which I chose to step away from World Tour racing was perfect because I could embrace this nascent sport of gravel starting in 2016. Gravel is all about the fun, the beer, the food, the friends, the community.

 

WHOOP, Micro and Macro

Without question, I would have been a better professional cyclist had WHOOP been available a decade prior during my career. The hyper acute side of professional cycling now capitalizes on marginal gains–the micro.

Meanwhile WHOOP also points out the macro gains to which we are otherwise blind. Now as I’m up to my eyes in family life, parenting, owning a business, coaching, and lots of time riding and racing my gravel bike, I use my WHOOP every single day so that I’m still up to perform the best I can.

Let’s take a busy April 27 for example. We’re lucky that our one-year-old daughter sleeps well, so recognizing the value of quality sleep for Mom and Dad means we try to log a lot too. I recorded a 100% sleep performance (9:04 in bed resulting in 8:19 sleep) the night prior giving me a 78% recovery going into the day.

Ted King's WHOOP recovery and sleep performance

A 100% sleep performance and a green WHOOP recovery leading into a very busy day.

While I’m a firm believer in the expression green means go, I also had a wildly busy day behind a computer screen, so I wasn’t able to get out until late in the day. Just before 3pm, I logged a quick hard outdoor riding session where I attempted a KOM (an acronym for “King of the Mountain,” which represents the fastest known recorded time on a particular, popular segment of road) and landed a decent third–coincidentally behind two other former World Tour professionals (13.0 strain).

Next, with an emphasis on efficiency, I hopped aboard my trainer and did some high intensity training in the indoor pain cave (13.6 strain). After that, I took advantage of some spectacular spring weather by loading up our daughter and riding to Taco Tuesday with my wife and some friends (5.9 strain), making it three bike sessions in the course of four hours, culminating in a hefty 18.2 day stain.

Ted King WHOOP heart rate

Ted’s heart rate data over the course of a day tracked by WHOOP, including sleep and strain from 3 cycling activities.

Following that jam-packed afternoon, in addition to a couple cervezas, it’s no surprise that the next day I wasn’t deep in the green, but only 51% recovered.

That’s what I value so highly about WHOOP for everyone, from top-tier pros to fledgling amateurs–it learns you and teaches you where to optimize. Amid the busy life of a World Tour cyclist, we move overseas to train and race, and in doing so, forego birthdays, weddings, and celebrations of all kinds.

So, back to a normal reality where I can enjoy these occasions, on Friday afternoon, April 9, we headed off to a friend’s outdoor birthday get-together. It was terrifically fun, the afternoon ran into the evening later than expected and the libations were plentiful. I knew I had a group ride planned very early the next day and was expecting to be deep in the red and not feeling my best on Saturday morning when the 4:30 am alarm went off.

To my surprise, however, I registered a 91% recovery.

Ted King recovery and strain

The overview screen in Ted’s WHOOP app, showing a 91% recovery and 20.0 day strain following a below-average night of sleep.

Deciding to believe my WHOOP over how I thought I should feel, I was able to go out and really turn the screws to the group, and even set some PRs along the way. The data insights enabled me to push myself and perform at my best when my instincts would’ve told me otherwise.

For me, it’s among the masses that WHOOP returns the highest value because amateur athletes and everyday go-getters are not hellbent on earning those microscopic, marginal gains. Instead we can look for the macro – the big differences to be made – to make you a better you.

 

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Ted King

Ted raced for 10 years at the pinnacle of professional road cycling before retiring in 2015 and turning his attention towards the burgeoning world of gravel cycling. He has won the biggest races in gravel, but more importantly he's excited to get more people on two wheels. With his wife Laura, they created their own gravel event, Rooted Vermont, and they support the now 11-year-old charity event, King Challenge, among other community oriented endeavors.

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