Quantified Me

It all started back in 2002 when I signed up for my first triathlon and joined Team in Training to help prepare me for it. It also set me on my big science experiment which was “how fast can Dave Shen really go?”
You see, I had a lot of negativity surrounding my first (and also subsequent) triathlon attempt. People told me that my knees would give out, that I better be careful or else I would get hurt. They told me that I was 37 and that trying to race a triathlon “at my age” was a risky proposition for my overall health.
But I didn’t believe them. And now, here I sit 10 years later and still going strong and injury free at 46 years of age. And getting faster each year.
When I got started on my big on-going science experiment, I decided that I was going to stop training with these programs provided by books and magazines. I was determined to train like what I thought a professional athlete trained like – lots of technological and physical support and a great coach too. Someday I should write what it was like to come from zero swim/bike/run experience to completing 6 Ironmans, numerous swim and run races, and ultimately becoming a Total Immersion swim coach last year. For now, I want to talk about one aspect of my training which has led to wiring myself up in many different ways, gaining insight into the future of training and health through technology.
My coach was Mike “M2” McCormack, a popular triathlon coach in the SF Bay area. It was he whom I credit with introducing me to truly data driven scientific, high technology bike training using a Computrainer. We also explored the training via heart rate zones, but we ultimately switched to training via perceived exertion which yielded better results. Logkeeping in Excel kept me on track and now I had a way to go back into my training and look at what went well and what went wrong. I also bought a Garmin 305 GPS watch to track at a detail level my heart rate and performance on runs.
Along the way, I read an article about Andy Potts training for triathlon and Ironman using a data driven, scientific approach. It was a fascinating look into an elite’s training regimen. His coach would take data from his previous workouts and derive workouts for the next day adjusted for his performance on the previous day, and what his condition looked like in the current day! Wow! This meant that if we could gather enough information about our bodies during workouts and our subsequent recovery, we could, in theory, generate an appropriate workout for the day after, whether hard intervals or total rest.
Fast forward to 2011. I was peaking for the LA Marathon and came across Tim Ferriss’s popular book 4 Hour Body. Yet another eye opener on two levels – one was the realization that there is a lot of crap out there on training, health, and fitness, and two, that you have to be data driven in your health and training or else you will never know if you are doing better than the day before.
Going on his suggested diet, I dropped in weight and body fat % to my usual race weight at the LA Marathon, but then I dropped even lower post marathon and plateaued underneath my racing weight! I would never have known that if I had not been tracking my weight and body composition daily. The constant feedback and monitoring were necessary to know that what I was doing had any effect at all, and whether I had to adjust or not. It was gratifying to see that I did not return to my higher pre-race weight.
In following the 4 Hour Body regimen, I got really interested in tracking everything about me. Here is my current complete list of gadgets for tracking me and what I track with them:
Withings Scale – Weight, Fat % sent to website!
Omron Body Composition Monitor – More weight, body fat %, muscle %
Tracking weight, body fat, muscle % for fat loss, and also muscle gain due to weight lifting.
Garmin 305 GPS Watch w/ Heart Rate Strap – the best training tool for running
I store all my runs here, in addition to storing them on Runkeeper. It is good to refer back to my workouts and see what my times are for certain distances.
Finis Swimsense Watch – swim metrics tracking – strokes, lengths
I can track a lot of swim metrics with this watch, but not nearly as many as the ones we need for Total Immersion. Still it’s the best swim watch out there. I now swim with two Swimsense watches to track the action of both arms and am working with the developers on creating a data driven training program for swimming.
Lark Sleep Monitor – tracks your sleep patterns
I don’t have problems sleeping, but I am interested in the amount of sleep I get versus athletic performance. It’s vibration alarm is best in class just as a simple alarm clock.
Fingertip Pulse Oximeter – measure heart rate in the morning
Measuring heart rate every morning can give you insight on whether you’re fully recovered from a previous day’s workout or not. A Pulse Oximeter is much easier to use than holding a heart rate strap onto your chest and reading a watch display.
Microlife Peak Flow Meter – Measures lung function
Following my discovery that had mild exercise induced asthma, I got interested in seeing what my typical air flow numbers are for my lungs. A fancy peak flow meter in my doctor’s office costs several thousand dollars; this little gadget only cost $39.99 on Amazon!
After discovering all these devices, I realized that the cost of these sophisticated instruments had dropped considerably. With the advent of the internet, we are able to take measurements and send them instantly to the Web for storage and further analysis. Most significantly, technology has commoditized a lot of the hardware components required to build these devices. At one time, it took rocket scientists with a lot of infrastructure to create these tools; this is not true any more. And the technology is getting smaller, cheaper, and requires less power than their predecessors. We can now wear these sensors and devices all day and have our measurements beamed to the internet for storage and analysis! Certainly, the Quantified Self movement is gaining momentum where self tracking is promoted and explored.
Still, we are early in the evolution of human data (see my post The Evolutionary Path of Data). Along the data continuum, we have just begun to enable data collection on a regular basis although we are just touching on being able to do it 24/7. For sure we can display/visualize/graph what data we do collect, but it needs to be more complete, consistent and frequent to enable discovery of more knowledge.
Coupled with my experiments in fitness, training, and health, I also realized that the insight we could gain from tracking our body’s metrics constantly was an enormous opportunity. For example, in the area of fitness and training, I see huge potential in guiding people to better health and fitness by exposing the results of what we are doing to ourselves at any time, like what we are eating, how we feel, and how we exercise. Already in Total Immersion, we are experimenting with individualized data driven training. It is my belief that beyond fitness and training, the ability to give us better feedback and guidance on treating our bodies better is untapped and presents the next horizon in health and wellness.
It is gratifying to see startups emerging in this area. Still, we are in very early days on the Quantified Self movement. At the moment, I am resigned to tracking and compiling metrics by hand and then working out insight from the data. I welcome the day when we are uploading our body metrics every second of the day and having intelligent systems tell us where we can do better, stop doing stupid things to our bodies, and live better, healthier lives.