Review: FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor

Note: I wrote a follow-up review of the Swimsense in May 2013.

The FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor is a watch that, through various marvels of technology, monitors your pace, lap count, and stroke count as you swim.

I still maintain that for interval training, nothing beats a pace clock. Doc Counsilman’s ’50s-era invention will never go out of style. For long steady-state training, though, a watch that monitors laps, strokes, and pace might be nice. Personally, I can’t keep a good count after about 40-50 (more if the pace clock is large and digital).

In my case, it’s no idle question: I’m doing some long swims this year, and steady-state training is a regular part of the training diet.

But with niche products like this, one inevitably asks: Does it work? Counting laps and strokes is one thing – but does it count the correct number of them? This review is on the long-ish side, so for those short on time, here are the major bullet points:

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Review: Oregon Scientific Swim Watch

Last summer I bought a swim watch. In preparing for a 10-mile river swim, I started adding occasional aerobic steady-state swims to my usual interval-heavy diet. I needed something to keep track of how far I swam while I zoned out and listened to music on my SwimP3.

Back then there were two swim watches on the market – Swimovate’s Poolmate, and the Oregon Scientific swim watch. I don’t remember why I chose the Oregon Scientific – they were both priced at $99.99 – but that’s what I did.

I ended up not using the watch much, for a few reasons:

  • The holes in the strap are too far apart. My wrist is right between two sizes, so it’s either too tight or too loose, and thus uncomfortable to wear.
  • The watch is a bit bulky and I didn’t like the feeling of increasing my drag in the water (especially just on one arm).
  • The open water season ended in October, so I stopped doing long steady-state swims.

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Do you need a swim watch when you have a pace clock?

If you like gadgets and/or swim toys you may have found yourself, at some point over the past couple of months, drooling over the FINIS Swimsense Performance Monitor. And after playing with one for a few weeks now, I’ll admit, it’s pretty cool.

Before you fork over $200, though, consider the question: What does the Swimsense – and swim watches in general (e.g., the Swimovate Poolmate and Oregon Scientific’s watch) – offer that a simple pace clock doesn’t?

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Marathon swimming, boredom, and toys

Lake Michigan is cold right now. Too cold to swim in. It hit rock bottom (33F) sometime mid-December, and there it has stayed. What’s a marathon swimmer not living in SoCal or SoFlo to do?

The typical answer is: Long Course. And that actually has been a reasonably good solution for me… until this week. With the UIC varsity teams now approaching the championship phase of their season, the pool we share has now switched to short course ’til mid-April. So… three months until Tampa Bay and nothing but flip turns every 25 yards? Oh no!

Marathon swimmers need endurance, but equally important is being able to psychologically tolerate swimming for long stretches without stopping. This isn’t as relevant in pool competition, where the longest race is only a mile. In the mile, you still need good speed, so lots of interval training is the norm. Even in my younger days when I routinely covered 10,000m over a morning & evening practice, I’d rarely do sets that required me to swim more than 20 laps at a time (500 SCY or 1000 LCM).

In preparing for a marathon swim, though, long steady-state swims should (in my opinion) be an important part of the training diet. If you have year-round access to open water, the task is less daunting. But if you’re limited to short course and, like me, your eyes start to glaze over after 40 laps or so, you may have to get creative.

Thanks to recent advances in technology, there are now some interesting ways to mitigate boredom during long swims. In particular, waterproof MP3 players offer musical distraction, which runners have enjoyed since…I don’t know… the Walkman? And swim watches – which automatically count your laps and strokes – offer freedom from maintaining your own internal lap count (which, for me, is unreliable after about 40-50).

Over the next few posts, I’ll review four of these “swim toys,” two in each category:

Check back soon!

On pull buoys, ctd.

A few follow-up thoughts on pull buoys:

First, to be clear, the use of pulling gear for motivational reasons (as Mark described) is probably only relevant if you’re a distance/marathon swimmer who trains enough volume that mental fatigue is an issue. Or perhaps (as I described) if you’re just having a bad day of training and pulling gear means the difference between getting through a workout or bailing out early.

If you’re a sprinter and/or stroke specialist, pulling equipment probably isn’t too useful, aside from certain types of drills.

But Mark is a marathon swimmer, and so am I – so that’s why I wrote the post.

Second, I want to highlight one particularly important quote from Mark’s interview:

To make up for the lack of swimming I do a lot of running, cycling and kicking to make sure that I have strong legs and I do a lot of core work to make sure that my abs are ready to handle the body position requirements for a race, so it’s not like I only do pulling sets.

So, it’s not that he doesn’t think leg strength is important, even as a marathon swimmer – he just finds it easier (from a motivational standpoint) to break up his training into different activities.

What I didn’t realize at the time was how much leg-focused activity he does. In his recent Open Water Wednesday interview with Steven Munatones (excerpt only), Mark said he runs on a treadmill for an hour to an hour and a half daily.

That’s a hell of a lot of running for a swimmer!

On pull buoys

This is a pull buoy ————–>

At once the most common of training aids, and the most disrespected. According to conventional wisdom, pull buoys:

  • encourage weak body position – swimmers don’t have to kick and engage their core to raise their body position as they would without a buoy.
  • inhibit body rotation, causing swimmers to swim “flat” and thus less efficiently.
  • put extra strain on the shoulders, making injuries more likely.
  • discourage underwater kicking off walls.
  • are, along with hand paddles, a crutch used by lazy swimmers to help them swim faster and with less energy.

See, for instance, this thread on the USMS discussion forum, or one forum member’s memorable suggestion of a drill to “throw a pull buoy as far away from yourself as possible.”

Personally, I’ve always liked pulling with paddles and a buoy. I try not to overuse them – typically, I’ll use them at the end of a main set (say, the last round of a 4-round set) for a little extra “oomph.” Actually, it’s more than just a little – I’m usually about 6 seconds per 100 faster with paddles+buoy than without.

So, I’ve never paid much attention to the scorn heaped on pulling gear (buoys in particular). But what do I know? Would I be a better swimmer if I “tossed my buoy away as far as possible”? Might the haters have a point?

Here’s the thing, though: I’m not the only pulling enthusiast out there. And some of these people are actually fairly accomplished swimmers. More accomplished than, say, your average USMS forum participant.

One particularly passionate pulling proponent is none other than Mark Warkentin. Mark, of course, was a 2008 Olympian in the 10K open-water event, and a two-time U.S. national champion in the 25K. He had an impressive career in the pool before that, including four NCAA All-American honors at USC and three individual golds at the 1999 World University Games in the 200 Free (1:51), 400 Free (3:53), and 800 Free (8:00).

Mark also does (and has always done) an enormous volume of pulling. I know this because we swam together with the Santa Barbara Swim Club from when we were 7 years old until we left for our respective colleges. Mark still lives in Santa Barbara, and I occasionally work out with him when I’m in town for the holidays. Knowing that he has a somewhat unconventional view on pulling, I decided to ask him a few questions. Here’s what he said:

[Evan] Why do you like pulling so much?

[Mark] In my experience I don’t have mental/emotional fatigue as quickly when I have a pull buoy sustaining my body position.  Because I do not have naturally good body position in the water I find that when I swim a lot in practice I get “burned out” quickly because I have to focus so much on maintaining good body position.  A typical distance swimmer or open water swimmer needs to spend a lot of hours in the pool on a weekly basis, but a 1500 race only lasts 15-16 minutes and a 10K only lasts about 2 hours.  If you’re tapered and rested you should be able to handle the mental/emotional stress for that period of time, however it’s a lot harder to justify 20 hours per week (every week) at that same stress level.  I can do 20×400 with a buoy and go fairly hard the entire time without too much emotional duress, but if I were to do that same set swimming I would be very burned out afterwards.  If a swimmer has naturally good body position then it may not make any difference, but in my experience I can emotionally recover from a 8,000 meter pulling set significantly faster than an 8,000 meter swim set.

[Evan] Do you find that you have trouble maintaining good body position during races when you don’t have a buoy?

[Mark] To make up for the lack of swimming I do a lot of running, cycling and kicking to make sure that I have strong legs and I do a lot of core work to make sure that my abs are ready to handle the body position requirements for a race, so it’s not like I only do pulling sets.  I find ways of working these necessary muscle groups outside of swimming because I find that it’s emotionally easier.

[Evan] What do you think of the view that buoys can compromise stroke mechanics?

[Mark] I don’t think that buoys can compromise stroke mechanics – in fact I’ve found that my catch in the front of the stroke is much cleaner after I’ve done a long buoy only set.  Additionally, I think that I emphasize body roll more when I have a buoy than when I’m swimming because I know that I need to get my hips into the stroke to give me more power (because my power source is limited to my arms only).

Lessons learned? Here’s what I take from Mark’s comments:

  • Beware of broad generalizations and one-size-fits-all training recommendations. Each swimmer is different, and it’s important to find methods that work for you. Long pull sets might be sub-optimal for a sprinter or a breaststroker, but might work for a marathon swimmer who swims most of his race with a 2-beat kick.
  • Mental fatigue is an obvious and important but not-often-discussed issue for marathon swimmers – especially those with careers as long as Mark or Petar Stoychev. Mark is now 31 years old, and has been training almost nonstop for 25 years! How does anyone maintain motivation over that period of time?
  • The issue of motivation is another long conversation in itself, but I think part of the answer is in finding ways to “trick yourself” into training even when the motivation is absent. For Mark (and for me, as well), pulling sets are fun. We swim faster but with less energy. It’s a crutch, perhaps, but a useful one. On days when I’m fatigued or feel terrible in the water, using pulling gear might mean the difference between getting in a full 90 minute workout or getting out after 30.
  • Another useful “trick” Mark mentions is mixing up his training. Swimming for hours on end can be mind-numbing, but mixing in various dryland activities (running, biking, weightlifting, core work) can help you extend your overall workout time while making it more interesting.

So, next time you hear a coach or fellow swimmer mock the pull buoy, remember Mark. You can’t argue with his results.

The death of tech suits

At long last, the minutes from the Long Distance committee at the recent USMS National Convention are available. I’ve cut and pasted the most interesting excerpts (IMO) below.

Bottom line: The era of full-body tech suits (B70 Nero Comp & similar) in USMS-sanctioned open-water events is now over. I believe this is a good thing, but I present the following without further commentary.

Well, aside from saying: From now on, my friends, you’ll have to keep your man-boobs in check the old-fashioned way!



Swimwear allowed for open water events is defined below and is not impacted by decisions of FINA, USA-Swimming or part 1 of USMS rules. It is the swimmer’s responsibility to understand the appropriate swimwear allowed at a particular event.

303.6.2 Rules for Category I swimwear for open water events

A. Swimwear shall include only a swimsuit, cap or caps (which may include those made of neoprene), and goggles. Swim caps shall be defined as head gear conforming to a traditional swim cap design and shall not extend to protect the neck and shoulders.

B. The competitor shall wear only one swimsuit in one or two pieces. All swimsuits must shall be made from textile materials. For men, the swimsuit shall not extend above the navel nor below the knees, and for women, shall not cover the neck, extend past the shoulder, nor extend below the knees.

303.6.3 Rules for Category II swimwear for open water events

A. Swimwear that does not meet the requirements for Category I swimwear shall be considered Category II swimwear. Swimwear may include a swimsuit or wetsuit, cap or caps, goggles, arm bands, and rash guards. Nose clips, ear plugs, wristwatches and grease are also allowed.