Runners, cyclists and athletes will have heard of the big names in sports wearables – but they might not be so familiar with Firstbeat. But the company is the secret sauce inside a host of sports devices, including Garmin's mighty Forerunner, Vivo and Fenix ranges – as well as the Huawei Watch 2 and Jabra Elite Sport wireless earbuds. It's also recently been added to a large range of TomTom sports devices too.
So what does Firstbeat do? Put simply Firstbeat is the ingredient that turns the heart rate sensor data from your Garmin or TomTom running watch into the metrics about your run. It helps you understand your physiology and if you live for stats such as VO2max, Training Effect or TomTom's brand new Fitness Points, it's Firstbeat's algorithms doing the hard work.
But before we get into exactly how it works, let's go back to the beginning. Firstbeat started back in 2002 in Finland as an off-shoot from the Institute for Olympic Sports and University of Jyväskylä and has spent the past 15 years refining the expertise needed to bridge the gap between research and consumer technology.
The company focuses on interpreting heart rate variability, measuring the time in between two heartbeats (its algorithm largely focuses on studying R-R intervals), which can provide serious insight into how exercise is affecting your body. Its research became the basis of the Firstbeat body analytics engine, which can take the data from any heart rate sensor and analyse it using its unique algorithms. The aim is to create actionable feedback from your heart rate.
All in a heartbeat
Just on the Garmin Fenix 5 alone, a dozen different features are powered by Firstbeat analytics – including Training Status, Aerobic and Anaerobic Training Effects and Training Load. These quantify the effect of exercise on your fitness and the amount of toll it's taken on your body.
But perhaps even more key to fitness is VO2max – which has served to be a huge breakthrough in personal fitness devices. A universal and indisputable measure of fitness, VO2max describes your body's capacity to utilize oxygen; your heart, lungs, circulatory system, and muscles all working together. The more you can use, the better you will perform.
Measuring VO2max is often performed in conjunction with a lactate threshold detection protocol and may have previously meant a hard session in a sports lab, hooked up to a face mask and having blood extracted after every increasingly difficult interval… an unpleasant and expensive process.
Firstbeat's technology has democratised the VO2max test measurement, achieving accurate results from just 15 minutes of moderate exercise, with an optical heart rate sensor or a chest-strap for company. Firstbeat can also detect lactate threshold using a combination of HR and HRV date. This has been available on high-end Garmin Forerunner and Fenix devices since 2015.
And this same algorithm isn't just about hard-core fitness. Firstbeat's algorithm also looks at 24/7 heart rate variability, which enables it to measure stress. By studying HRV, Firstbeat can detect how your nervous system is operating, and whether it's responding to stress.
Long term stress can lead to an increased risk for illnesses such as cardiovascular and immunological diseases. As a metric it's been beyond the reach of most fitness tracking devices, but Firstbeat's algorithms are finally offering an insight into daily stress, which is being implemented via the company's corporate wellness scheme.
Bringing elite data to everyday consumers
But it's not just wannabe athletes and hyper-stressed office workers who are benefiting from Firstbeat's heart rate variability experience. Firstbeat started off with elite sports, and still works with sports teams to provide insights into player training.
It works with over 800 sports teams as large and varied as Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City, the Golden State Warriors, and over half of the NHL. Firstbeat technology looks at whether players are training too hard and whether they're sufficiently recovered from games and training.
Not only does that ensure players are fit for big games, but it also helps coaches determine the correct training strategy for individual athletes. And it's those principles that have filtered down into the consumer level, too.
Metrics like Training Effect, both available on Garmin Forerunner and Fenix devices, will measure the improvement of a session an aerobic and anaerobic fitness, while Performance Condition will guide you on how your body is responding to a run - comparing your current internal/external workload data to your baseline so that you can see how you are doing compared to normal, or at the current point in your run compared to an earlier point. All these metrics have been passed down from pro-sports to the consumer world, enabling everyday runners and cyclists to benefit from the same data as the elites.
So what's next? Proving that the power of heart rate variability extends beyond just training, a focus on wellbeing is a natural next step. As devices become more powerful, the latest smartwatches will become key tools for tracking more than steps – graduating onto stress and cardiovascular diseases as well as alerting users to dangerous symptoms.
But for all the sensors and hardware, the hard work is done by these complex algorithms, that are truly delivering the next wave of health devices.