I have to confess: it took me longer than expected to get a proper grasp of what the market has to offer and what I myself really need (Do you really need an Activity Tracker for swimming?) but, with your help, I have managed to clarify my thoughts and set myself a series of questions to let me make the right choice.
1. DESIGN OR FUNCTIONALITY?
Some devices are really sexy-looking, like the waterproof Bluetooth earphones or The Dash products by Bragi, which even let you listen to music. The Withings Activité watch has a wonderful vintage design (starting with its fingers), so unusual for a “smart” object. Then there is the minimal design of Misfit Shine (that I have had for about a month now), which is now working in partnership with Speedo, so that it can record activity in the water. Nevertheless, as is often the case, design means accepting certain compromises and if you want the highest accuracy possible, at least in the case of swimming, you have to make some minor concessions in terms of aesthetics.
2. OPEN WATER OR THE POOL?
What is the difference? A GPS is extremely important for open-water swimming, because it obviously allows you to set your own course in the water. Of course you cannot do that in indoor pools (there is no signal inside buildings).
There are some excellent devices equipped with GPS that can also be worn in everyday life, but, unfortunately, they can be rather expensive. See the Garmin fēnix® 3 HR, Suunto Ambit3 Run or Polar V800, the top of the range in their category and loved by many triathletes. If you are willing to make some concessions, the TomTom Multi-Sport GPS Watch is extremely functional and definitely has a more competitive price tag. These devices also work in the pool, but does it really make sense to spend so much money when you will not be using even a third of the functions?
3. IN A TEAM OR ON YOUR OWN?
That is an easy one. Certain kinds of technology are only useful if you are part of a team with a coach who watches you swim. All the rest are “self-service”.
Technology like Triton is designed to help coaches train their athletes more effectively, allowing them to monitor several different swimmers in the pool in real time. Avida Sports Swim Faster works on the same principle but also allows real-time vocal feedback from the coach to the swimmer. In the UK various pools now offer SwimTag, a device you are given when you enter the water and then give back when you leave the pool. This means the user can access all their data online and even take part in online competitions.
4. COMPETITOR OR AMATEUR?
Expert swimmers have taught me that heart rate is everything. And it is not necessarily a bad thing if your heart rate goes up, it depends on what kind of training you are doing. In a nutshell, when you reach a certain standard, knowing your heart rate is vitally important for improving. You can usually read your heart race from green LED or infrared lights, which calculate your heart rate based on the blood flow from your skin. There are some problems with this kind of technology in the water, both in the sea and the pool. In this respect Swimovate uses “conventional” technology based around a chest strap and a smartwatch. But, once again, it is water that puts a spanner in the works and creates problems in terms of fit and wearability. On the other hand, Instabeat is a futuristic device to be attached to your goggles, which measures your pulse rate from your temple, records your heart rate, and shows the reading in the form of a luminous LED.
Even though it is really designed for “pros”, Xmetrics ignores heart race and focuses on providing as much information as possible through a device you wear behind your neck that can even record the quality of your breathing.
5. REAL-TIME OR DELAYED (i.e. smartwatch or smartband)?
Okay, so you like all the functions, swim on your own in the pool and consider yourself an amateur. There is only one more question I need to ask you: “when do you want to get all the information and readings”? A device with a display, i.e. smartwatches, lets you know how you are performing in real time. This category of devices includes Garmin Swim or Swimmo (a promising start up), which are tailor-made for swimmers and have a display so you do not have to do keep count of how many laps you have swum or remember how many strokes you have made etc. Of course a display means a bigger device and if an ordinary watch bothers you when you are swimming, then perhaps these devices are not for you. Among the devices providing feedback in real time but without a display, it is worth mentioning Swimbot, which even lets you see video tutorials to improve your technique and also provides audio input to correct you.
Smartbands, on the other hand, work on a different principle and memorise your activities so that you can look at them later in a more organised manner using apps: the most popular include Jaybird Reign, Amiigo, Moov (which even has motivation and personal coaching functions) and Atlas Smartband (although the metrics for swimming are allegedly “coming soon”).
If, after studying all this information, you still have doubts about the usefulness of an activity tracker but you are still curious to find out why they are becoming so popular, perhaps you need to test one out.
My advice would be to buy a second-hand or low-cost device (or even better borrow one from somebody else!), use it regularly for at least a month and then decide whether you get any real benefits from it: it might really widen your horizons and become an enjoyable habit providing you with extra motivation. Or it might just be the latest gadget you will never miss. But without actually testing one out, you will never really know.
After all, remember how many people used to say “what do I need with a smart phone?” just 10 years ago.
Perhaps you only need an app downloaded from your mobile to record all your training, watch demonstrative videos and take notes….. but we will be looking at all that in our next post. Stay tuned!