Quantified Self: How I’m using QS tools and techniques to aid my training for civilian military style events

On Mar 20 2013, I was invited to give a talk at Quantified Self Silicon Valley on how I was using Quantified Self tools and techniques to train for civilian military style events. This is a summary of that talk with some text notes and links to appropriate resources in case others are interested.

The video of the presentation is here:

Troy Angrignon – QS Tools for Military Style Training from Gary Wolf on Vimeo.

For those of you interested in the actual powerpoint slide deck, you can see that below:

The key take-aways are as follows:

Carl Jung talks about the 4 stages of life being the athlete, the warrior, the statesman and the spirit. The athlete says “how beautiful and strong am I?”, the warrior says “how can I best my opponents?”, the statesman says “how can I use my skills in the service of others?” and the spirit realizes they are a spiritual being having a human experience. Each stage has the capacities of the prior stage so the statesman for example has all the skills of the athlete and the warrior and can use them in service of others. 

Robert Heinlein, the famous science fiction author, wrote a quote which resonated for me early on in my life – this idea that we are generalists, not specialists and that ultimately “specialization is for insects.” This has been a driving idea for me in my own training.

I realized as I was putting this talk together that I had been moving from specialist to generalist and from athlete to statesman over about 25 years of athletic pursuits.

By the time I hit my early-forties, I was becoming interested in a raft of civilian military style training events, initially kicked off by Tough Mudder and Civilian Military Combine and those eventually led me to GoRuck and SEALFit and Extreme SEAL Experience.

As I got into these events, I realized there was a lot of learning to be had about small team dynamics, leadership, fitness, mental toughness, and athletic durability.

I also had the good fortune to meet a lot of amazing military veterans and to become interested in their issues and organizations, one of which was Team Rubicon, a veteran’s group that deploys in the early stages of natural disasters.

Based on all of this I’ve set out to do a number of events and to continue to build my fitness level and gain new skills and friends along the way.

I got to know some amazing coaches, read everything I could find on military training protocols, and adjusted things like my training plan and nutrition. I moved from pure crossfit style training to more SealGrinderPT.com style training with longer bodyweight / sand-bag style workouts. I also moved from pure paleo diet to more of an Intermittent Feasting style approach including a lot more starchy tubers like sweet potatoes.

I also got very interested in tracking my progress. When I looked at the market I realized that it was really split into three (or more) segments that slightly overlapped: medical,  lifestyle, and performance.

As I looked deeper, I saw that the integration between and amongst all the devices and applications was extremely poor, meaning that many devices are out on islands of their own, disconnected from leading applications.

Ultimately I decided against the following tools:

  • Nike+ Fuel Band: I went through 4 of them in about 2 months. They kept dying from exposure to sand and water so I gave the last of them away. 
  • Fitbit Ultras/Ones: hard to keep track of and easy to lose. Just not worth the headache.
  • Wahoo Bluetooth HR strap: Bluetooth Low Energy technology is extremely nascent. I liked the strap a lot and apparently they’ve done some interesting work to deal with the drop-outs that plague most straps but you could only use it with certain apps and certain phones. At the time I was on a Google Nexus 4 (the brand new model) and it didn’t support BTLE. Ultimately I just went back to a standard ANT+ HR strap that I use with my HR watch.
  • Timex Global Trainer GPS watch: too damned ugly and too hard to read. ‘nuf said.
  • Zeo Mobile. I love the sleep tracking data from my Zeo because unlike everything else out there, it actually tracks brainwave activity, not just physical twitching. But the strap kept falling off my head at night and I was getting a divot in my forehead from wearing it. Out it went. Also, the company is now defunct anyway.
  • Apps: I reviewed, tested, and compared all of these but had to stop using them all for pretty much the same reason. There is a trend towards sport specific apps (Strava cycling, map my run, etc.) and I needed an app that would let me choose a variety of training methods and track them all whether that was Crossfit, riding, running, bodyweight training, or whatever. Most apps are not set up for that. The exception was Endomondo which has a great UI and multi-sport setup but the graphs/dashboards were broken, their support was HORRIBLE (even on the paid account), and their lap functions were broken (they inserted their own laps and threw out the lap data from the watch.) One other exception and kind of oddball app was Moves, which sits in your pocket and uses your iPhone to track your activity, much like a Fitbit would do. It’s interesting but ultimately wasn’t that useful for my own purposes. Might be a good fit for the average person not wanting to invest in a Fitbit or Jawbone.

I also settled on a few key tools that would be my staple data collectors and aggregators:

  •  TrainingPeaks.com: I looked long and hard to find a “pro” level tool that would let me aggregate my training data and get decent dashboarding. The application looks and feels a bit old as it’s all done with a previous generation UI but once you get into it, you’ll appreciate the complexity of the application, the richness of the dashboarding, and the technical support (for the paid version anyway).
  • Garmin 910XT multi-sport watch: I like this watch a lot and it works for both open ocean and lap swimming as well as multi-sports. The integration into TrainingPeaks is simple as well. After picking up the Suunto though (below), I’m leaving it behind.
  • Suunto Ambit 1 (Firmware v2.0): I picked this up right as they launched the “Ambit 2” (their naming is getting funky between product models and firmware.) Overall, I like the fact that this can be worn daily, it looks like a (big) regular watch, and it does multi-sport well enough for my needs. It also can track for up to 50 contiguous hours of GPS and HR data for longer movements. Integration is painful to TrainingPeaks. I have to sync it via USB, then export the .gpx file from Suunto’s application and then import it into TrainingPeaks. That sucks but I’m trading it off against the longer battery life and the fact that I can wear it for long periods without charging it.
  • Fitbit Flex: On the upside, it has great wireless syncing, a decent battery life, and a simple to use application. Also, they’ve upgraded their web-based dashboard to make it simpler and easier to read. One downside for me is that the sleep tracker no longer differentiates between light and deep sleep which means it’s no longer useful for the sleep tracking side of things.
  • Jawbone Up v2: I’ve tried a lot of the trackers. My Nike+ Fuel bands failed repeatedly, I lost a few Fitbit Ultras and Ones, and out of desperation I tried the Jawbone Up v2 even though they had originally launched with a flawed product. I don’t love this product but I do like it well enough to keep using it. The band is ugly but flexible so you can move it up and down your arm if you’re typing or want to hide it in a dress shirt. The syncing is erratic at best, sometimes requiring iPhone reboots. On the upside the sleep tracking (if you remember to hit the button) is better than the Fitbit Flex and the smartphone screen UI is actually really nice. I use this to track sleep quality and steps per day.
  • Withings Scale: It just works. Step on it, and it sends your data to withings.com. In my case, it also sends that data to TrainingPeaks which means one less data point to input which is nice. I use it to track overall body mass and also body fat percentage.
  • Evernote: this is my go-to workout journaling tool. It holds all of my workouts and my workout log notes that are not in TrainingPeaks.

I have learned a number of things along the way that I hope will be helpful to others in their own training.

  • Purpose First: Have a purpose. Be clear on what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Everything else flows from there.
  • Learn from the best coaches you can. They should understand how to help you reach your goals with appropriate training approaches.
  • Once you have a goal in mind, find training targets that you can use to test your progress.
  • Track everything and journal it. But don’t let the tools distract you. Do the minimum you can do to still track things. I overshot on tracking for a while and had to dial it back because there was too much detail to sift through.
  • Find like-minded people to share the journey with. It will be a lot more fun suffering through your training together.
  • Realize that if you expand your vision of training, it can be physical, mental, emotional, intuitive, and spiritual. (thanks Sealfit for that learning)
  • Get GOOD quality sleep, eat well *for your goals*, take care of your body – learn how to become durable.
  • Have fun!