In 1996, Sky Christopherson was one of the promising young cyclists in Project ’96, the ambitious development program built around Lance Armstrong and expected to redeem USA Cycling’s embarrassing performance at the ’88 and ’92 Olympic games. In 2009, with his Olympic-level intensity now focused on building an internet startup, he worked himself into the back of an ambulance with tightness in his chest and pain in his shoulder. Two years later he broke a track cycling world record in the 200-meter sprint, a physiological coup made possible by an experimental program leveraging health tracking and data analytics.
In the just-released documentary Personal Gold, Christopherson convincingly proves the program reproducible when he leverages the same data-rich approach to help a ragtag women’s pursuit team win the first USA Cycling medal in twenty years. Soon, he says, his digital health and performance consulting company, OAthlete (short for Optimized Athlete), will make the same analysis available in an app capable of turning our mountains of self-quantifying data into meaningful insights.
On a recent August evening, Christopherson took a call from his office outside Los Angeles and, starting from the beginning, outlined his plan to optimize our health like never before.
“I left [cycling]very frustrated with the doping problem. It was so apparent on our team. At that time – that was in the late 90s to 2000 – you could tell, night and day, who was doping and who wasn’t. It was really frustrating because when you’re not, you’re getting sick and injured. Quite a few of us retired really frustrated and just put sport behind us.
“I started an Internet company up in Seattle. I dove into that with blinders on, pushing the limits in every way we could: thirty-six hour coding sessions, pulling all nighters, all these things that are worn as a badge of honor in startup culture. After two years of doing that, my body just started falling apart. I ended up in an ambulance thinking I was having a heart attack. I went to the hospital and they did the full heart attack CT scan with contrast and all this. And even though it ended up being stress, they couldn’t differentiate it from heart attack symptoms.
“The doctor who I met with in a couple minutes – literally, it was a two-minute conversation – had a list of drugs I could use: ‘Here’s how to lower your blood pressure, here’s how to lower anxiety….’ I felt like I was right back where I was when I left sport. This guy was standing here saying, ‘Here’s some pills to solve these things.’ And I thought, there’s got to be a better way, here.
“It was serendipitous that, a month later, I went to San Diego and saw Dr. Eric Topol giving this TEDx Talk about this data-driven health revolution. I was literally on the edge of my seat. I talked to Dr. Topol afterwards. I wanted to do a one-year experiment where we re-prioritized sleeping, nutrition, and exercise.
“I not only got my health back, but started training again, hitting times that were better than when I was in my twenties. I decided to go for a world record that was held by a guy who had a lifetime ban for drugs. I broke that record that fall. That’s really when I thought, wow, this data can impact the way we train and the way we make decisions every day in a way that, I think, can get the most unique potential out of each individual.
“I connected with my old teammate Jennie Reed and she basically said, ‘Hey, I’m putting this pursuit team together, we’re going for a medal.’ They had never ridden in the Olympics together before. We talked and I said, yeah, let’s give it a shot, let’s try to set you guys up with some of the same data.
“The British team, before London, had – it was rumored – custom beds made, and they were shipping the beds around with them. And they had different devices they were using to computer model the surface of the track. Being on a budget, we had none of that. We only had consumer-available devices. And, in a way, that was kind of beautiful.
“For example, we had no way to understand sleep quality, so we used the Zeo sleep managing headband, which pulled the EEG activity from the forehead. In the case of Jennie, especially, we saw way better performance the next day when she was hitting better deep sleep numbers when we cooled her mattress with a water-circulated pad.
“But our data was siloed. Each device had its app and a database. Ultimately, the most important thing was getting [the data]out of those silos, getting it into a personal data model for each athlete. [Big data analytics company] Datameer, created a circular relationship diagram for us, which is a beautiful visual way of seeing how different lifestyle areas affect one another. These are like puzzle pieces. We were getting a new kind of data and putting that into a model, looking at it in this unified, holistic way, and then making interventions for each individual. That’s the key model, right there.
“We’re now looking to impact a much broader population, and, of course, that’s going to mean people outside of elite sport. We’re doing market research and seeing a huge gap. Consumer devices like FitBit, they’re doing step tracking really well. MyFitnessPal tracks diet really well. A lot of the other apps are made by engineers in Silicon Valley, and there’s this gap in taking this data and figuring out how it’s relevant to human performance or human health.
“With OAthlete, we’re developing an app that utilizes data from FitBit, Misfit, Jawbone, Withings, all these accessible consumer devices…and making recommendations, giving people insights about what that data means in terms of their lifestyle, their daily routine, and what they can change. Sometimes it’s simple stuff. You like eating pizza or a big meal? Ok, you usually eat that for dinner. Just move that and eat it after your workout where you need this glycogen replenishment and have a smaller meal before bed. Or, you usually go for a walk in the afternoon to get sunlight? Move that walk to the morning where we see sunlight in the eyes impacts your hormones and your sleep patterns, your circadian rhythms. Simple things like that can have huge improvements in people.
“When you look at the numbers, the people who were utilizing pharmaceuticals not just for essential disease management or acute issues – I would call it life doping, where people want better performance and more energy…Putting the ethical part of drugs aside, you look at its impact on systems in the body. You’re always going to have side effects. You’re going to have your body adjusting to things. In a sense, you’re weakening your body’s own natural systems by adding, exogenously, these substances. Our focus is really on using data to leverage the natural strengths of our bodies.
“If we could have doctors, in a sense, prescribing an app like this, it would be so powerful. Sometimes doctors become resigned or cynical about the daily lifestyle choices of their patients. I understand behavior change is a hard thing and some of these patients are dug in and it may not work – it depends on the patient.
“An n=4,000 study was the biggest, most recent look into how people are using these digital health apps. The biggest percentage of longer term engaged app users right now are people who had a recent health scare or have gone into the hospital, right? They go in and they get scared, and they suddenly get motivated to take real action. They’re like, ‘Screw this, I’m not going back to this bed again. What do I have to do?’
“These people are hungry, they’re motivated. If we can address that group, if the doctor can prescribe the app and then finally get answers about those everyday puzzle pieces…. We call it the four pillars: sleep, exercise, nutrition, and wellbeing or happiness. Our app, basically, is a circular interface, twenty-four hours a day, and it shows you right there when you should eat a meal and what you should eat. When should you exercise and what should you do? Let’s say you get a bad night’s sleep, do you take a nap? When do you take a nap? These are the daily decisions, as athletes, we’re trying to figure out. As a patient, if you want to prevent disease or be healthy, it’s the same equation, the same puzzle pieces…. We hope, by building this app and using the existing data people are getting, we’re able to actually share these insights and recommendations that, currently, are just really scarce in the market right now.
“We have an alpha [version]. We’re talking with investors about our first seed round. The film is finished, the narrative is established, and we feel as though the technology is finally there in ways it wasn’t four years ago when devices were less accurate, harder to use, APIs maybe didn’t even exist yet. This is the time. We’re looking at a seed from an investor in Silicon Valley and we’re going to get the first version built sometime next year.”