A Guest Post from David Carlson
Those who have been members for a while might remember the CMSC newsletter article I wrote on The Million Metre Challenge a few years ago. It’s been fun to track my way to a million metres, even if Rob Harris beat me to it by at least a year, that scurvy dog. Though I continue to track my distance at mymsc.ca, I’ve received my last free bathing cap and it’s time to look for new challenges.
I’ve had a training watch for a few months now. It really did get me to think more about my daily physical activity, and it has motivated me to work toward a new goals. The one I bought was a Garmin 310XT, and subsequently got a Garmin 910XT. Before you think I’m extravagant, my daughter works for a store that sells exercise watches, and she occasionally gets the returns for dirt cheap – as a result both the 310 and 910 are older models. The latest & greatest that all my triathlete friends rave about is the 920XT – hopefully I’ll inherit one of those next year.
The watches have really opened my eyes to a whole other world of training information that I never knew existed.
I’ll talk about pool swimming in a minute. The GPS technology watches like the 310XT, are really aimed at any exercise where you move outside. Open water swimming, running, biking, hiking, skiing, kayaking, or walking the dog are all easily tracked. As you move, the watch creates a GPS data file containing workout information including speed, distance, time, and elevation. You can review all information on the watch as you move, and then have a look at it again after you upload the file to the Garmin Connect website and Strava.com… everything is free once you buy the watch.
Here’s an example of a bike ride around the Glenmore reservoir as viewed after uploading in Strava.
Strava or Garmin Connect tells you exactly how far you moved, how long it took, and gives an estimate of how many calories you burned. If you have a heart rate monitor or bike power meter, it will record your heart rate and watts of output on a bike. For those of you that are trying to train in a specific heart rate zone, or have a specific power output as you pedal, this is ideal. The cool thing about biking or running is that both Garmin Connect and Strava compare you against every other person who has biked or ran that segment – even those you don’t know or follow. It will also tell you how you’ve done compared to previous times that you’ve done that segment: A leisurely bike ride becomes something more when you remember that you are being tracked against all the other times you’ve biked the same route. In the picture below, you can see how I did compared to others for one particular segment of a bike ride I did. The upper graph shows the profile of the entire route I did, and the bottom window is the comparison against others for the blue line on the map and the shaded segment on the graph.
Open water swimming is interesting too. My watch gives an accurate distance and time of all my open water swims, as well as showing my exact route on a google style map – and it will show a separate graph of the pace time in seconds /100m just to give you an idea of your pace through the entire swim. So the graph under the map below shows about a 1:30-ish pace except for when I popped up to talk to friends in a passing boat.
There are a handful of watches that can track pool swims, and the 310XT is not one of them, so I recently got the 910XT. The 910XT does everything the 310XT does, plus monitors pools swims. GPS doesn’t work in a pool because you’re inside a building, so the pool swim watches rely on accelerometers and magic to determine how many lengths, and what stroke, you’ve swum. On my watch, you choose whether you’re swimming in a 25m or 50m pool, and then press the ‘lap’ button when you start a swim, and the lap button again when you finish. So for example, on a 100m swim, press the lap button as you push off, and press then again when you’re finished four lengths – the watch will track your splits automatically.
Garmin Connect does a much better job of reporting your swimming than Strava. This graphic below was the 6x100m set descending 1-3 followed by 100m recovery that was part of last Saturday’s workout with Coach Erik. If you add the swim time and rest time, you can see we were swimming them on 1:45.
Note that the watch correctly identified that I swam my recovery as 100m back/free… but I forgot to start my watch until I was part way through the first 25m, so it appears that I have an extraordinarily good 25m backstroke time on my first length.
And that brings me to the problems with using watches to monitor swimming, because the pool swim mode is not nearly as good as biking/ running/ open water swimming mode.
The problems I’ve found with pool swims are:
- since the watch uses accelerometers and the watch is on your wrist, it does not track kick or most drills because your arms either don’t move, or don’t move enough. You can enter manually the distance for each drill/ kick set… but that’s too much work so I don’t bother and consequently a typical 4500m CMSC swim will routinely show up as something hundreds of metres less on my watch.
- It makes a good guess at the stroke you’re swimming, but it can’t differentiate between fly and free. It does do a good job between free/ back and breast.
- Pressing the ‘lap’ button after each set is a nuisance and often I forget – particularly if I am leading the lane.
- With foggy goggles, water drops on the watch, and my poor eyesight, I can’t easily read the watch in the pool. At least I provide amusement to my lane buddies.
- Finally, it’s not as accurate as a Coach with a stopwatch (or even just looking at the swim clock on the wall) because of the errors inherent with starting/ stopping swimming and pressing a small button on the watch at the same time.
But it does automatically calculate your magic number on every lap, so the next magic # drill set when Coach Kevin asks what my magic number was, I could say: “I won’t know until I download it from my watch. But historically it’s been 72.37, +/- 3.26, 19 times out of 20”. I’m sure he’ll be “impressed” and then never ask me again.
Overall, I find my watch very powerful for biking and open water swimming. The novelty is wearing off for pool swimming, and I wonder how often, if ever, I will look back at all this data. I think the real long term value in pool swimming with a watch is to have a heart rate monitor so that you really can monitor your effort and get the value from proper VO2 Max or threshold training. I’ll get there one day as soon as someone returns a heart rate monitor to my daughter’s store. But for now, my swim data from CMSC swims on Strava is adequate to keep my biking / running friends from thinking I’m a lazy sod.
Interested in a watch? You should be! There is a universe of watches to look at out there, and I really don’t know much about them because of the way I fell into my own watch ownership. However, if you are in the market for one, here are the questions I think you should research in addition to the usual price/ warranty issue:
- What sports do you want it to track? The difficult one is pool swims – many watches are waterproof, but if you want to track pool swimming, your options are very limited.
- What data do you want to track? If you really want to do a proper VO2 max or threshold workout, then a heart rate monitor (hrm) is mandatory. Ask about compatibility of the hrm – for example, my garmin 310XT and 910XT are compatible with the waterproof garmin chest strap type of hrm… but it will also link and record data from the new smaller wrist type hrm’s like the Mio Link using a communications protocol called ANT+. Similarly, if you have power meters on your bike, make sure they are compatible with your watch.
- How much detail do you want?… or conversely how simple do you want it. I like having a lot of data and I like comparing myself to a community of people, whereas my wife just wants to count her steps every day for her own use – those are two completely different types of watches.
- Do you want a watch that makes a positive fashion statement, or one that makes you look like a nerd if you ever wear it when you are not exercising? I definitely have the nerd watches.
- They now have smart watches… which is an exercise monitor with email capabilities. Interested?
- What do you want to do with all the data? Do you want to use a web site like strava and/or garmin connect to keep all your workouts and compare them to your friends? Not all watches are compatible with Strava.
Enjoy – it’s a whole new way of tracking your exercise. Black Friday/ Boxing Day are coming up, so your purchase timing is good. And if you do end buying an exercise watch, join the CMSC club I set up on Strava: it’s an easy/ free way to see what else your CMSC teammates are up to.