These days it seems like a calorie burned doesn’t count unless it’s recorded by some sort of app or smart device.
That technology can be great for runners, cyclists and hikers. But what about those of us who prefer a wetter workout?
Swimming has been my sport of choice for the past 15 years. I practice three or four times a week with the Temescal Aquatic Masters in Oakland and compete in open water races in local lakes and the Bay. After seeing a few of my Teme lane-mates sporting fancy gear on their wrists, I wondered if there was a device out there that would help me improve my workouts.
I tried out five devices marketed to swimmers and spent a few weeks testing their accuracy, usefulness and how enjoyable it was to wear them. I even took them to the Bay for a mile-long swim in San Francisco’s Aquatic Park to see how they did in the open water.
All the devices had shortcomings. None of them counted my laps when I was kicking, swimming “drills” or doing anything else that wasn’t clearly identifiable as freestyle, backstroke, breaststroke or butterfly.
The odd length of the pool I swim in also gave them trouble. While most pools are 25 yards, mine is 33.3. Many of the devices let me enter 33 yards as a custom pool length, but didn’t record the decimal, making their readings a bit off.
Despite these shortcomings, the devices can be a fun way to track how far you’re swimming, how fast, and whether you’re improving over time. But there were clear winners and losers. The Apple Watch was my favorite, while I found Mio’s Alpha 2 to be completely useless.
Apple Watch Series 2
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
With its sleek design and bright, colorful display, this one was the most fun to use. You just flick your wrist during your workout to see a real-time counter of how many laps and yards you’ve done, how many calories you’ve burned and how long you’ve been in the water. While it doesn’t provide the detailed data some of the others do, it was among the most accurate at tracking how far I swam.
What makes Apple Watch even better is you can download third-party swimming apps that offer additional features. MySwimPro, for example, guides you through pre-written workouts on your wrist, even telling you how long to rest between sets.
The watch worked great in open water mode too, keeping tabs on how many yards I swam in the Bay. Using its built-in GPS antenna, it tracked my route on a map, which I enjoyed looking at after my swim.
The watch doesn’t look waterproof (and the original Apple Watch is not), but it works well underwater. When you start a swimming workout, it goes into a “water lock” mode that prevents water from activating its screen and accidentally texting your friends.
Water can also interfere with heart rate readings in many wrist-worn devices. But Apple says the Apple Watch’s heart-rate monitor should still accurately measure your average heart rate, because it takes readings when your wrist comes out of the water.
Garmin Forerunner 920XT
Rating: 4 out of 5
While not as sexy as the Apple Watch, Garmin’s Forerunner 920XT keeps track of a wide range of information, including your pace, average stroke rate, average number of strokes and even your swim golf score, which is the sum of the time and number of strokes it takes to swim a particular distance. If you buy the $100 HRM-Swim monitor accessory, which straps to your chest, it will also track your heart rate.
The Forerunner was great in open water too, tracking my distance in real time and giving me a map of my route similar to the Apple Watch map.
Like the other devices, the Forerunner can’t track kicking or drills, so to get credit for those laps, you’re supposed to enter them into a special drill section during your workout. But that was way too much of a distraction from my swimming, so I didn’t bother. And the watch seemed to over-count my yardage slightly, giving me credit for more than I really swam.
Rating: 4 out of 5
I was underwhelmed by the Moov Now when I first saw it — it’s just a flimsy rubber strap that holds a plastic sensor to your wrist. There’s no fun display to look at while you’re swimming. And connecting it with your phone is a bit of a pain — before and after each workout I had to stand awkwardly in the locker room for about two minutes, waiting for the device to sync.
But once I started using it, I was impressed by the data it gathered and loved its light-weight feel on my arm. It was the only device to give me detailed information about every individual lap — it sensed which stroke I was swimming, tracked my time for each lap and timed every flip turn. I found myself trying to make my flip turns faster during practice because I knew Moov Now was watching.
The gadget won’t track your open water swims because it doesn’t have GPS. But on the other hand, it’s a fraction of the cost of its rivals.
Suunto Ambit3 Sport
Rating: 3 out of 5
The Ambit3 Sport is a smartwatch that can track your distance, average and maximum speed in miles per hour, your average pace per 100 yards and your swim golf score. It can also keep track of how you swim in open water, and seemed to do so accurately. And you can train the watch to recognize your different strokes. For $269.40, you can buy the watch and a heart rate monitor that straps to your chest.
But the Ambit3 Sport was the heaviest and clunkiest of all the devices I tried. It felt like it was weighing down my arm while I was swimming. It’s also less intuitive to use than other devices, and its display isn’t as easy to read. And like the Garmin, the Suunto tended to give me credit for more distance than I actually swam.
Most disappointingly of all, I couldn’t get the watch to sync with my iPhone, despite multiple attempts over several days. I may have had a faulty watch — the company assured me connectivity problems are rare.
Mio Alpha 2
Rating: 1 out of 5
The Mio website advertises this watch with a picture of a triathlon swimmer in the water, but I found it to be utterly useless for swimmers.
The watch’s main selling point is that it measures heart rate without a chest strap — but not in the pool, as it turns out. It’s “safe” for swimming, the fine print on the company’s website says, but “we cannot guarantee its accuracy under water.” There’s no swimming setting, so it can’t measure distance in the pool. Oh and the company “strongly advises” that you don’t press any buttons on the watch while in the water, because they might stick or break.
The first time I used the Mio, it kept beeping at me and flashing different colored lights. I finally figured out how to turn the beeping off and learned the lights indicate your heart rate levels — blue is low, yellow is moderate and red is maximum. But I gave up when it was still flashing blue after a few hard sets that left me winded.