Swimming and Tech. Is it worth it?

Swimming and Tech. Is it worth it?
Swimming and Tech. Is it worth it?

Moving into the 21st century.


Having finally arrived in the 21st century with my new tech, it got me thinking about the benefits of it? Yes there are many but I am also of the opinion that sometimes too Much is not necessarily better. What follows is by no means scientific or based on any professional findings but more a personal opinion.

For years I never ever had any toys -tech based or otherwise -to play with in the pool and I was extremely happy to just swim for the sake of swimming. I do not employ any coaches and make up all my training on the fly, myself. This fits in with the way I like to train on the basis that I never have any sets or training schedule in mind when I arrive at the pool, lake, river or ocean. Just Get IN, Get On and Get Out. It also fits in with one of my training adages, ” Total body Confusion”. Simply Put, my body and my mind have no clue what to expect when I jump in so everything is a surprise to it. Mostly I do not even have an inkling or what is going to happen as it is often made up as I swim. With this, all I ever used to use is a trusted £25 Casio/ Ironman digital watch and the only thing I used was the stopwatch. This method has stood me in good stead for nigh on 8 years.

About two years ago I had an opportunity to try the new tech. I had never ever wanted to try it and the thoughts about what the new tech can do came into question when I had a midswim blowout in  an Italian marathon swim I took part in. I finished the swim but I always wondered just how badly my midswim melt down had cost me. I would never know how badly it did as I had no way of tracking anything. I was then given the chance to get a second-hand watch and all I wanted it to do was to track me in open water and let me know my pace. Roll on the Garmin910XT. It had been well-loved but resigned to lounging around in someones draw as they upgraded to the newer models. Sadly it has now undergone the same treatment

Garmin 910XT

For the First time ever, I had an idea of what I was up to in the open water and this watch also had loads of other functions but the only two I ever used was the GPS tracker and the Pool swimming functions.  With the former not being 100% accurate due to the nature of swimming outdoors. Every time your arm is below the water, it loses satellite signal so It only has a very short opportunity to lock up to a satellite and log a point before your arm disappears into the water again. The software then joins the dots so to say. I found this invaluable in Open water albeit you look a bit weird holding your arm above the water just before the start of a race so as not to lose the satellites. I also found it very useful in the pool as well, with its only downfall is when you do drills and these are not necessarily logged. The data generated was mind-boggling and I could then get glimpses of improvements and also where in a big swim that I was floundering. Whilst being an awesome piece of tech, the battery life was a bit lacking so any swims over about 10 hours would most likely not be tracked as the battery drains very quickly when you are using GPS.


I soon found myself comparing data and due to the fact I do not have a coach, “chasing the clock”. I know my father would be in his element with all this data to compare and contrast, but for me who was never into that stuff, I found myself being drawn further and further into the rabbit hole of Top Tech. With the tech monitoring and recording my pace, times and distance and SWOLF, I still have no clue what this means, but apparently : SWOLF is an abbreviation for “Swim Golf” (who wants to play golf whilst swimming??? Who wants to play golf full stop.), and is a score obtained by adding together your strokes per length, and the time for the length. e.g. 25 yards swim at 30 seconds in 20 strokes is a SWOLF score of 50.

Even that sheds little light on what the hell it is so I label it “Swimming With Only Limited Faculties” I say this a bit tongue in cheek but chasing the data seems to take your focus off important things like technique, breathing patterns, the feel for the water etc. For me personally, it took my mind away from mental body management – Effectively using my mind to monitor, manipulate and resolve any niggles that manifest themselves in my physical body whilst I am swimming long distances. Which is one of the key reasons I believe that I am able to keep going. (just my opinion)

Now “chasing the clock” is not a bad way to train but one thing I did notice was that the entire set would be against a clock and very little time spent on just LOVING SWIMMING. I soon found myself falling out of love with swimming due to data chasing and I had to then leave it out of my training and just swim every now and again with no worries about the time and the data. This gave me the ability to switch my focus back on the important part of swimming – honing my technique.

Soon my trusted 910xt succumbed to a bit of old age and became slightly temperamental. It still worked fine, when I could turn it on, but it was becoming more and more problematic. I looked and upgrading with a 2nd hand “newer model” I was not in the market for a brand new one as I barely used 20% of its functionality. I put the word out there and then I had an amazing opportunity to buy the latest tech on the market at a 60% discount. Yes, I did not need to spend that sort of money but at that price, I figured, if I do not want it I will sell it for more than I paid for it. Suffice to say I still have the new recruit. The Garmin 935. My only two regrets are that I did not buy two or three to cover my costs and that I did not buy a heart strap.

So the new Tech arrived and Unpacking is a bit of an anticlimax as you switch it on, Link it up to your phone, download an app and viola, it is all set up with you having to do very little.  With it having integrated altimeter, barometer, accelerometer, thermometer, gyroscopes, bluetooth, WiFi, compass, heart rate monitor, tea making capabilities, chef, on board accountant, estate agent, vacuum cleaner……….. Okay, I think I got  a bit confused with this tech and the Slimhippo, who takes care of the latter points. A few days of use and the amount of data is just amazing. Nothing to do with my sport but the wrist based heart rate monitor – this does not work in water, hence the regret for not buying the chest strap based one. Daily steps, sleep monitoring, stairs climbed, stress levels, calories and sooooo much more. The first day I wore it, I realized exactly how sedentary my job is. It set me a target of 10000 steps, I went about my normal day and managed to walk a palty 2100 steps. Over the next few days the tech downgraded my goals until it and the Zimhippo came to a mutually agreeable level of exertion over the day. The Slimhippo even stole it off me for a week as she was interested in her stress levels, being a veterinarian, the garmin 935 often gave her advice that she needed to take more restful moments during the day. It still has that Swolf thingy. I have not managed to use it in open water yet but With the battery now lasting 15 – 17 days rather than 15 hours  – all without the GPS working, I am confident that it will happily track me over a 12 – 15 hour swim.

Once you are hooked on the tech, it seems you just want more. So this year, for the first time in my life, I actually found out I have a heart and it does beat!!!! But I now wanted to know what I could push it to during exercise. A friend who has most Garmin Tech offered me the heart strap and I used it for the first time last night and put myself through a varied swim set to see if it all worked – well, after fitting it properly and it not sliding off.  Now I have a way to see what my heart is capable of and with the ability to track my heart during exercise, and, you guessed it, more tech = more data. I can track my Training Effect – still have no idea what that means but it relates to Anaerobic and Aerobic fitness. I at least recognise those words from my high school biology lessons and the Slimhippo can let me know more about what they actually mean. All packaged into a very neat watch that can be used as a day-to-day watch and immediately links to your Phone and the Application and then can be seen on all devices you have. As the watch links up to my phone, it also acts as a smart watch and alerts me when I have any messages and I can control my phone music from my watch. Yes, this Tech is pretty awesome and the new features are pretty amazing

My first time tracking my heart rate during a fairly short set but one that was done specifically to stress my heart, believe me I need to after sitting in front of a computer all day long

Heart rate. the peaks showing the 100m sets at full pace


overlaid with my pace.


showing different heart zones and how long I spent in them. The yellow bar is where I would spend most of my time in a long distance swim. An average pace of about 1 min 30 per 100m and this is where I would hope to maintain my effort for Long distances. The red is where I would hope to be should I end up in a sprint finish on any swim – which sometimes happens on shorter races.


Overview of the set. Calories is another very interesting set of data, especially when you relate it back to how much junk we throw into our bodies. bearing in mind that 1 x 100g Blueberry muffin (you can see where my heart is) is 377 calories. it makes you realise just how much effort is needed to burn that off. WTF!!!!


Just a few snapshots from the plethora of data that this little package produces. All very interesting the most alarming is how much you have to do to burn off that packet of crisps, muffin. At this rate I would need to swim a pretty long way to get rid of the muffin top above my jeans! Do not get me wrong, I think this technology is pretty amazing and offers so much information and If I ever totally lost my marbles and took up something really silly, like triathlon for instance, then the data collected would be huge but using that data to achieve meaningful results is the conundrum that most who rely on this tech now find themselves in.


So Is it worth it

I certainly would not spend the eye-watering amount of money to get something like this had I not had the opportunity to get a massive reduction. The Information is definitely interesting and nice to have. it also puts it in your calendar so you can see exactly what you have done and when. In the world of Marathon/endurance sports there are many ways to approach your training and I have never been one to worry about data but more interested in results. On the other hand, I know people – you know who you are who are, who are completely mesmerised by the data and log absolutely everything. Before Tech I logged and recorded nothing but my focus during training was very different. There are people out there who can tell you to the exact metre how far they have swum in training thanks to Tech and then there are the likes of me. The ones who – until now have never been interested or worried about it but having it in such a simple to use package makes it very easy to accumulate the data. For me it is just a nice to have at the moment whilst others rely on it to build their training plans, and this, in a way keeps them focused. Having used this for about 2 years now, has it made me any faster? No. Any better? No. Improved my technique? No. Improved my endurance? No. For that You have to get out there and do it. It is a bit of a pointless exercise to try to crunch the data without having the fundamentals in place. This includes a decent technique, a love for what you do and more importantly the ability to NOT RELY ON DATA alone.

I still often just get into the water and turn off the tech so I can focus entirely on the art of swimming, things like realising how your body moves through the water, concentrating on how the water feels and how your hands catch and move the water. How your stroke can be adapted to the situation at hand. How to make those adjustments. Knowing what your breathing patterns are and what works best in certain circumstances. Do I need to breathe every stroke? Can I go without breathing for a while? No, not indefinitely, that would just be silly and most likely catastrophic, but sometimes the ability to just put your head down and go for 10 – 15 strokes without breathing has its benefits and no amount of collected data is going to improve that. knowing what the water around you sounds like whilst moving through it?  All this attention to detail is lost when you are just chasing a clock.

I do find it useful to be able to compare data but as of yet, I have not figured out how those comparisons can be built into my training to correlate to a direct improvement.

I find in this fast paced world where we are constantly trying to capture, correlate and log everything, we are fast losing site of what it takes to become competent at anything and that is the Fundamentals. I am extremely lucky in that I had very good foundations laid for my swimming at a very early age so my technique, whilst not being the best in the world, but one that works for me to be able to compete at a fairly high level, affords me the ability to find this data very interesting. For many, I would throw away the tech on a regular basis to focus on the important things like technique that will serve you much better than a whole bunch of data to improve your overall ability and subsequently your overall enjoyment of any activity.

If I had to make a choice of TECH over TECHNIQUE training, I would go with the latter every time. There is a common saying in nearly every sport out there. “All the gear, No Idea” This is one of the reasons I love the purity of Open water swimming. It is very difficult to rely on technology as there is not a great deal you can do to seriously affect the performance of an athlete dressed only in a set of budgie smugglers, cap and goggles. Whilst having the capability to monitor your improvements is great, It is by no means an essential item to be able to love swimming, If anything I think having the tech around can have adverse effects and cause you to fall out of love with a sport. Especially as improvements are only ever gained when you go back to basics and work on those.

So am I going to get rid of it?  the answer to that is no. I can see the benefits of having the tech and as long as I do not fall into the trap of relying on it as a training aid rather than a data gathering device and realise that any improvements in both my ability and my enjoyment are only going to be made when I go back to basics.

I hope that you enjoy my utterances and I am pretty confident that many of you will be able to relate to it. Happy swimming and I look forward to catching up with you somewhere in a lake, river or ocean.

About the author

Ameteur Endurance athlete and marathon swimmer

Having taken up marathon swimmng in 2008 with the challenge of the English Channel, I then continued on to Cycle up Britain, Kayak across Scotland and run a few marathons.

None of those held the draw that marathon swimming held so in 2014 I was back in the water to Swim the longest swim in Switzerland and then, in 2015 I opted to take on my biggest swim to date.
SCAR challenge.- 4 lakes in 4 days with distances Ranging from 6 miles to 18 miles.

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