Quantified Self and the London Olympics
sleep | sports & fitness | stress
In early 2012, Sky talked about using self-tracking to figure out how to get more sleep. He went on to break a track cycling world record. His experience, and the friends he made in the QS community led him to work with the 2012 US Women's Track Cycling Team while they trained for the London Olympics. In this talk, Sky shares his journey training an underdog cycling team to win a medal in the Olympics.
Notes | video clip | zeo
And so I can give you a quick background. This is just a photo here from Google, and my wife Tamara, who is also an Olympian and also Adam Laurent are here tonight and the three of us kind of did this project together. I’ll give you a quick background on my experiment.
So Adam and I were athletes on the US national cycling team in the late 90s, and this was kind of the peak of American armature cycling, and you know there is this thing called Project 96 which was a huge investment for the Atlanta Olympics, to make sure the Us cycling team had the best equipment and the best training techniques. And this right here is the super by two, which was a radical boomerang looking you know bicycle and it was so aerodynamic is that they actually banned it right after the Olympics, well the International Committee banned it so.
So we had this great technology but we could understand how each athlete was responding to the training as an individual, and this has been the biggest change in recent years. So what we used to do was take this kind of template training program and this is really inspired by the Eastern Europeans. So you know you make the spreadsheet through the year and you have these pretty extreme loading blocks you know, where you put the athletes though kind of insane workloads. And the problem was that a lot of athletes would crack, not having those adjustments for them.
And the solution really was to give them performance enhancing drugs. If you have enough athletes you can get away with this. If you have enough drugs you can get away with this, but it was really frustrating, but on the inside what happened there was a rift you know in the team. So at times there was pressure to do drugs and I think we all retired in a very frustrated state, feeling that we didn’t reach our potential and for being the holdouts for doping and drugs you know left kind of disappointed.
So my wife and I you know, we retired, went to school, UCSD, started an internet startup. And this was the focus of my talk at Google, was really this you know we just wanted to put athletics behind us. We thought we could dive head first into the startup culture up there in Seattle. I was at a tech company and maybe our fitness would carry us through for a while, you know maybe a decade.
So we got about three, four years into this. The company was doing well financially but the crazy thing to us was all the KPIs are based around business metrics, and they have nothing to do with you know the founders, or the contractors, or the employees’ health wise, you know as far as you’re sleeping or others. So we thought that was interesting.
I went through a rough period of stress where I started getting a lot of symptoms. I was doing sedentary; we were doing frequent all-nighters, bad diet. And this crescendo with a heart attack attack scare and actually took an ambulance to the ER. I was having this chest pain and this cramping and very concerned. They put me through this full heart attack workout, CT scan and all of that.
So the doctor cleared me of having good health and in all of three minutes that he had talked to me you know offered some drugs to deal with high blood pressure and stress and I felt right back where I was when I left sport; ‘Here take a pill and we’re going to solve these problems’., and in three minutes – all of three minutes. How can this be a solution?
So somewhat serendipitously I was down in San Diego. I saw a TED talk by Doctor Eric Topol. And for you who don’t know Doctor Topol, he’s into this data driven health solution using numbers. Its data driven health revolution, promising to make us better, faster, stronger, call it living by numbers.
And I thought this is it. This is what we need, not only in health but I think in sport to because a lot of those things that we couldn’t quantify and understand as athletes is you know, how we were recovering at night when sleeping. You know he had the Zeo Sleep Tracker and some of these other tools. I talked to him right after the TED and said you know I want to do an experiment to see if I can get my health back, maybe start training again because this technology was fascinating.
So it was a one year experiment and it was looking at how to quantify sleep exercise diet and wellbeing to increase health and maybe performance. So I actually started riding again, and this led to a world record on the velodrome after getting my health back. And funny enough, the previous holder of this record had a lifetime ban for performance enhancing drugs. Because it’s thought that especially once when you pass your prime in your 30s and your hormones start to drop and you know it was believed that the only way you could succeed was to exogenously supplement those hormones, so this was really promising.
I was getting excited about competing in London. The problem was they didn’t send a men’s team. It was a dead end. I’ll get into the funding issues in a second, but my team mate, Jenny Reid called me asking she knew about this experiment. We talked and she did say they did qualify to go to London, but they were severely underfunded, and I thought maybe this is something that can help them out on a very low budget on this Quantified Self style you know experiment scale from n of one and maybe 3 n of one and there’s actually four.
So we agreed to fly out to Spain to help out this team, the problem was when we get there and there’s no staff. There was one member of staff on the ground; the coach, and typically you have you know 10 – 12 people and millions of dollars to go for an Olympic medal. So what we did – this is Brandon here, Jenny’s husband but we kind of bandied together on try to figure out to get this done.
We had an insight shortly after as to why we were in this situation. So this guy as we all know had actually worked with wealthy San Francisco investment banker to buy out the US Cycling Federation and reorganize it to put all of the funding towards men’s professional road racing. And the idea was really to eliminate the amateur programs which is track cycling; you have 10 medals. It’s kind of like swimming or track and field.
In the Olympics, road racing obviously there’s a lot of money there and a lot of sponsors. So I mean Armstrong was indicative of a much broader culture, and you see the top finishers on the Tour de France always got this, were either caught or were implicated all the way down. And I think a lot of these white spaces are likely candidates as well, they did the drug test, didn’t catch up.
So clearly we needed a different way forward; this was not going to work. So what we did with this quantified Self model with the girls in Spain was really to put the athlete in the center of all of this data feedback and all of this support. And we did that through- this was actually the bag that we packed as we went to Spain. Anything we could find, we had these companies, people in this room thank you to help this out.
I just wanted to mention the power of community. And when we were in that talk there in Google just how people shared information with us. Things that might be able to encourage us to think outside of the box, and try things we wouldn’t have dreamed of. Because you think maybe not in a white coat in a laboratory that you know the science won’t be valid. The encouragement was ‘hey just experiment’, just try things and just see any little advantage we could get.
Another ing we did is – so this is actually one of the genetic tests, these pathway genomics, someone mentioned 23andme. Earlier we did a lot of video feedback on and off the bike, and this is Tamara here videoing the girls on the track.
The beautiful thing about track cycling is that – and you know, the questions about that usually follow, ‘well does this apply to normal life?’ The beauty here is that it’s a very simple equation. You know you have this power meter here in the crank of the bicycle and it’s doing millisecond per millisecond readings so exactly how much power is being generated. And obviously you have the velodrome, and it’s a controlled environment and it’s this beautiful experimental space. And I think it was talking to Doctor Paul Abraham earlier said it’s you know real life is much more messier and much more challenging.
An example of the power readout, genetics test, interesting insights. Actually one of the endurance girls on the team found out she had the sprinter gene. And so adjusted her training bast on that new kind of confidence.
Blood work, you know we had Inside Tracker. Someone mentioned wellness effects as well, and these are companies doing the same thing. Giving you these personalized blood biomarkers. We found in one of the athletes, she was a world champion actually, she had a sever vitamin D deficiency and she was riding indoors or putting sunscreen on outside and these levels got very low, so we dealt with that.
This is the sleep tracking. Interesting insights there as far as – this is my data actually of a personal experiment of the declining values into the spring. As the room got warmer this is continuous blood glucose tracking. So of you want to stay on a (balack?), really the key is you know fueling; maintaining consistent blood sugar. And we don’t have sensors built in to really accurately gauge what our current blood sugar levels are so.
This is a little patch by Dexcom that we had on the athletes, some insights like drinking a sugary recovery drink and seeing how much it’s spiking the blood sugar and the crashing. And overnight the values are dropping really low. So we were getting some good data but the problem, and a lot of people mention spreadsheets. You know this is what we were doing. It was on our laptops and we literally reached the point where we go the spinning beach ball of death. So I couldn’t even open the spreadsheet anymore which was a huge problem.
So this company here in San Manteo Datameer helped us analyze the data; integrate, analyze and visualize - these are just linear regressions you know taking two measurements, put them against each other on the next slide. These were interesting. We did see some higher correlation values on these, but really the fascinating thing was when they kicked back tis circular relationship diagram which was multi-varied correlation, and showing how all this stuff is really interconnected which led to actionable things that we could change in their routines of their lifestyles.
So you can go to Datameer’s website and get an account and start using their cloud processing to analyze data. So one of the actionable things was deep sleep at night. That’s where we’re releasing human growth hormone and testosterone naturally. And we found that when their body temperatures were lower and I had this insight earlier, and we saw this mirrored in the girls data as well that they were getting more minutes of deep sleep and releasing these hormones naturally. And this was the thing before, we had no insight into.
This is my data here, where you see the increase, once it went down to 66 degrees and of course this was different for each person. Some people are a little warmer, and some people are a little cooler.
Light levels, we saw that morning light exposure without sunglasses was leading to improved sleep latency, soap meaning you fall asleep faster. And this was really strongly anchoring circadian rhythms. And so these rhythms are the key when you look at them I mean they drive everything, they drive hormones they drive recovery and energy.
When we got to London, and this photo is from the Olympic village, and it was cloudy in London so we used light boxes. You know, they would sit with their breakfast cereal in the morning and do this lightbox therapy. I think at some point someone asked you know were your athletes depressed, and I said no I mean it’s not about not being depressed it’s about you not maximizing human performance and using things that are new and unexpected ways. And that this community it’s just been amazing and encouraging sort of out-of-the-box thinking like this.
Okay so London. We get to London and we are the underdogs big-time. You have Great Britain, with $40 million into their program; Australia, France huge favorites. We had 50 to 1 odds against us when we went into the you know, betting booth before. I think it’s legal in Britain.
So they get in the qualifying ride and they qualified second which blew everyone away. It was completely unexpected. So once you qualify you get matched against you know the best teams, and they made it to the semi-final ride, but they were against Australia. And Australia is favorite to win. You know, there were expected to blow them out of the water and they were leading by over two seconds in the middle of the race. And it looked like there was no way we were going to come back. I mean at one point I even thought well it’s been a good run, I mean we came this far right.
But halfway through the race they start bringing it back you know it’s like 1.8 seconds, 1.6 seconds, 1.4, and it’s literally into the last lap they’re identical. And you see this, we videoed a lot of this, and you’ll see this in the teaser, they come through identical in the last lap. And it was coming down to a full to finish and I still thought well there’s no way this is going to happen, and they cross the line and they beat Australia by 8/100 of a second, securing gold or silver.
So it was a shock to everyone, it was a shock to us, the end of this crazy journey here. This was moments after, I mean completely unexpected. And this is just us with them right after with the medals. That Jenny Reid, Dottie Bosch, Lauren Smile, we had Sarah Hamer who was out of this photo. That’s me, Tamara, and Adam right there.