Polonius (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, for those keeping track) said it best: “To thine own self be true.” The Quantified Self Movement aims at just that.

It’s about knowing yourself, and there’s no more romantic, eloquent or accurate way of doing this than with hard data: a collection of numbers on a spreadsheet.

A Definition

At its heart, the Quantified Self Movement is about collecting information about yourself. Of course, this concept is nothing new, but it has been brought to the forefront of consumer consciousness by the prevalence and accessibility of collection devices. Data that was once collected in the lab is now gathered in the home while you eat, sleep and play. Biometric devices such as Nike’s Fuel and FitBit have given everyday folks a glimpse into information that’s more than the sum of their body parts.

A Perfect Fit(ness)

Quantified Self participants gather information on all types of things, from diet to exercise to lifestyle choices. They use spreadsheets, pedometer data and journals to track data, drawing conclusions from that data they’ve amassed. Some users share this information via social media; others keep it as a private progress report on their life.

This trend is especially evident in the fitness industry. Obviously, there is a huge range of what that encompasses, from die-hard marathoners to moms doing Zumba. Specifically, cyclists epitomize the Quantified Self culture. From the lowest amateur rungs to the highest tier professionals, cycling culture has been full of quantified selfers for decades.

At the introductory level, rank and file riders keep copious log books of distance, temperature and average speed. At the intermediate level, cyclists track heart rate, calories and elevation change. Finally, top cyclists look at wattage, wind speed, direction and power balance between legs. The entire sport is a pantheon of number crunchers in search of personal satisfaction, knowledge and advantage.

And that’s what makes it glorious.

A Quantified Sport

Cycling is particularly keyed into the Quantified Self thought process because the entire sport is composed of small gains, margins and repetition. Its very essence allows people who want the data to collect it, and (relatively) recent inventions have allowed the data gathering to reach new levels. Everyone knows about heart rate monitors (invented decades ago for the thoroughbred horse racing industry); cyclists have used them for years.

Now, we have power meters, the gold standard for cycling data. Simply put, cycling—performance cycling, specifically—is about power: the ability to do a certain amount of work over a certain amount of time (sheer watts). These devices physically measure, through strain gauge instrumentation, how much power the rider is exerting. They simultaneously correlate this data to heart rate, elevation and dynamic maps information. This is downloaded into one of several analytics cycling dashboards (which have existed for at least five years) and shared with coaches who are usually continents away.

And it’s about to get even more prevalent.

A Quantified Future

Power meters are becoming less expensive, which means more people can afford them. This means even more data will be generated and uploaded to sharing sites like Strava. Ironically, the propagation of the Quantified Self Movement is a never-ending evolution of data collection coupled with new ways of analyzing the information that’s become accessible and mainstream. The two feed off each other in a never ending—ahem—cycle.

Josh Benton

By Josh Benton


Published on November 05, 2015