Briana Williams arrived at the World U20 Championships earlier this year as an underdog. Then she won the women’s sprint double at the impressively-young age of 16. When Henry Cejudo squared up then-UFC Flyweight champ Demetrious Johnson in August, he, too, was rated the underdog. But Cejudo would snap Johnson’s 11-match streak of title defenses. Behind the scenes, those upsets were linked by a single piece of technology: a clinical-grade device that told Williams and Cejudo exactly how hard to push in training sessions and when to takes rests.
That device, the Humon Hex, measures muscle oxygen use in real time to get a read on exertion. After launching in February, Humon, a company which was born out of MIT Sloan, has boasted a 40 percent month-over-month growth. And now, a number of world class athletes are leveraging the Hex to seek an edge.
Williams, who has arisen as Jamaica’s newest and youngest sprint sensation, made history this year as a sophomore in high school when she set a world age group record for 15-year-olds in the 100m. A few months later, she became the youngest person ever to bag the U20 women’s sprint double. She’s now eyeing a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Her coach, four-time Olympic medal winner Ato Boldon, who also trains the 20-year-old Trinidadian sprinter Khalifa St Fort, said he is looking to expand the use of the Hex across all the athletes he trains.
“This thing enables me to have a lot of precision with how I work. I don’t just go in there and throw the whole gym or track at them and say ‘If they survive, great,’” Boldon, who now serves as an advisor to Humon, said. “This says ‘Here’s where we are going to go, and we’re not going to go past it.’ And when I see that it gets into the red or stays in the red too long, then we’re going to back up. It’s about being able to know where the edge is by looking at a live real-time read-up from the Hex.”
Cejudo’s coach, Kevin Longoria, is a clinical exercise physiologist and the chief science officer of Neuroforce1, a data-driven athletic training program based on medical-grade research. He said the Humon Hex exceeded his expectations and quality standards.
Henry Cejudo kicks Demetrious Johnson in the second round of the UFC Flyweight Title Bout on Aug. 4 in Los Angeles. (Photo: Joe Scarnici/Getty Images)
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There are a number of wearables on the market with sensors and GPS technology that promise to help athletes train harder with a lower potential of injury, but the Humon Hex stands out because of its clinically approved status and real-time metrics. Personalized muscle exertion metrics were previously limited to professional trainers in sophisticated facilities. Humon wants to democratize this metric so more athletes can benefit.
“Our vision is to empower people with the body insights they need to be better version of themselves,” said Humon CEO and co-founder Alessandro Babini.
In addition to receiving data on distance and splits via GPS and heart rate, an athlete wearing the Hex can receive graphical feedback on their smartphone, smartwatch, or bike computer to quickly understand how hard they’re pushing. The Hex guides athletes through a display of colored training zones—green, blue, orange, and red—which change in real-time based on the athlete’s level of oxygen demand versus consumption. A blue shade indicates they’re in recovery, while orange indicates a person is at their limit, and red warns that the current level is unsustainable. A person might spend most of their time on recovery days in the blue and green, while bursting into the orange and red on interval days. The scale is personalized and changes based on a person’s level of fatigue heading into the workout. As Babini explained, “your red zone today is going to be different than your red zone tonight or tomorrow.”
Using the device, athletes can perform regular lactate threshold tests and measure the exertion of their muscles to understand when they need to push harder or ease up for recovery. Babino said lactic acid is a lagging proxy for muscle oxygen, but that oxygen consumption enables real-time feedback. Compared with a heart rate monitor alone, this enables athletes to get a more accurate read on their workouts so they can determine how hard or easy they’re working.
“Heart rate is great but has huge limitations,” Babino said.
Humon Hex platform provides a color scale for exertion. (Courtesy of Humon)
The Hex is just the first wave of Humon’s long-term vision. In the next iteration of the platform, scheduled to launch next year, Humon plans to unveil a subscription-based AI coach so that athletes can pick-up the device and gain personalized training insights even if they don’t have a trainer.
“If you want to run a half marathon in three weeks, it will guide you through the whole process,” Babini said. “You don’t have to look online at those training programs that are supposedly going to help a billion people train the same way. We tailor the training specifically to you.”
Further down the road, the company plans to use the optical sensors that power its technology to measure a range of body insights beyond just muscle exertion. Humon is hoping to eventually link up with existing apparel and shoe makers to partner on smart sneakers, shorts, and shirts, which would enable Humon to place sensors on specific muscle groups or organs to provide more granular and targeted readings.
Humon isn’t planning to build its own apparel. Rather, it aims to partner with and leverage large brands, such as Nike, to activate their clothes with its sensors and platform.
“Clothing seems to be the perfect path because it gives you access to not only a lot of parts of the body, but it’s also something we all already use,” Babini said. “We’re big believers in this market. It’s going to be a big industry and we want to position this company as a market leader.”
Humon ultimately aims to be the platform underlying smart apparel insights. With a number of elite athletes already on its roster, and some of the best optical sensor researchers out of MIT acting as advisors, Babini and his team believe Humon is well-positioned take body insights into the future.
“Sports are so competitive now—everyone’s trying to get that edge,” said Boldon. “I had nothing remotely like this. But if I did, being the athlete I was, it probably would’ve benefited me in ways I couldn’t have imagined.”