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Written by Hannah Kuchler

Compare swims with the PoolMate2, Garmin Swim and Instabeat, but the devices do not offer apps

Swimmers have long had just one number by which to measure their workouts, whether they are speeding through the water like a sailfish or plodding in circles like a goldfish.

Counting the number of lengths suddenly feels insufficient when fitness fanatics have become back seat statisticians, compiling charts on heart rates, calories and what they ate for breakfast. A new set of waterproof wearable devices aim to help swimmers track their performance in the pool as well as runners and cyclists can on the road or in the gym.

The PoolMate2, made by UK company Swimovate, is a bright plastic wristband that resembles fitness bands before they got their fashion makeover. But for £70 ($95 in US), and to match an outfit that probably includes an unflattering swim cap, who cares?

In addition to tracking laps (two lengths) and total distance, it gives speed and efficiency scores. While I found its metrics hard to understand at first, over time this could be another way of pushing you to improve your swimming. It also gives a crude calculation of calories, which should probably be taken as a rough estimate given that it does not measure your heart rate or ask for information such as gender or height.

During my time in the pool, I could see how far I had swum, which is useful if you find counting lengths a pain or when swimming in open water. To set it up for the latter, you have to swim a stretch where you know the distance. After that, you can cross lakes, rivers and oceans, knowing your metres are being monitored. Afterwards, I could scroll through the history of my swims by date, comparing scores.

Making comparisons
The Garmin Swim, $149.99, is a little more advanced and would be useful for swimmers who like to do drills and interval training in the pool. It tracks intervals and strokes on its normal settings and has a special drills setting. You can review most of the data on the watch when you pause. At the end of the swim it also gives a score that shows how efficient you are with your strokes and an overall time per 100m. Like the PoolMate2, it gives a calorie count but is not linked to weight or heart rate, so I wouldn’t rely on it.

Both the PoolMate2 and the Garmin Swim seemed useful for comparing swims but failed to encourage me while I was swimming. When I’m in the gym, the exercise machines’ heart rate monitors, though often rudimentary, make me realise when I’m slacking.

A reminder to concentrate
The most ambitious swimming tracking product is the Instabeat ($149 to pre-order), designed by a former professional swimmer in San Francisco. Attaching the device to your goggles, a sensor presses against your head to take your heart rate as you swim, giving a more accurate sense of the effort you are putting into your workout.

Most importantly, these data are shown to you in real time as you swim — rather than having to pause at the end of the lane to check your wrist. Small LED lights sit at the bottom of the window of your goggles, indicating when your heart rate is normal (blue), in the best zone for exercise (green) and beating faster than desirable (red).

I found this feature a really useful reminder to put my back into my swim. Swimming along, when I started thinking about how I was going to fit in a trip to the supermarket, my heart rate sank back to blue. I felt motivated to stop mentally perusing the grocery aisles and concentrate on swimming my hardest to get the light back up to green. It also confirmed what I suspected: I am being lazy when I fall back on breaststroke, so I did more front crawl in this swim than any of the others.

The device has flaws. The biggest problem is that sometimes the heart rate monitor disconnects; it indicates that it is no longer tracking your heart rate by showing a pale blue light, which I could not distinguish from the normal blue. Fitting it to your own goggles can be tricky, so it doesn’t work well with every pair. But the first batch of devices are sold out and in the second batch, due later this year, the company says it is addressing these problems.

Verdict
Where swimming wearables fall down is where other fitness devices excel: apps. None of the devices had their own mobile app where you could see your data immediately on screen and chart your performance to your (fast-beating) heart’s content.

The Instabeat will have an app for the second version, but for now you are stuck syncing it with your laptop, not getting an instant update in the changing room.

The Garmin Swim comes with a small USB stick that can help you enter the data into your Garmin account, but again, it isn’t automatic. And the PoolMate2 is totally app-less, relying on you clumsily thumbing the small screen to compare swims.

Swimming apps are still in the baby pool, but I have little doubt they will become an important part of training for professionals and fitness swimmers alike.

 

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