Product Review: FINIS Swimsense

(Warning: This is LONG. Notes are at the bottom.)

One of the biggest challenges of training for triathlon is dealing with the repetitive nature of the workouts, especially during the cold weather months. Unless you live in SoCal, where you deal with the cold weather months by pulling on a long sleeve tech shirt for your hill repeats. And while you can find ways to distract yourself, by looking a bit at scenery on the bike, or listening to music during your run (or nowadays even your swim), that distraction can come with a price; a price like losing track of your training.

That’s where all the lovely bits of technology that we as triathletes clamor for come in. Not only do they keep track of the things we don’t want to think about (did I just jog 10 miles or 12? Is this lap 50 or 51?) but they also give us tons of data that will let us or our coaches break down every second of our training in order to try and squeeze every last extra second out of our potential and bring it into our races.

And while technology empowers us, it has it’s limits. One of the biggest limits right now is that GPS doesn’t work indoors. If we could somehow make that work, several solutions on the market now (for example the the Garmin 310xt), along with a few add-ons, and every workout could be tracked through a single device and system. Until then, there will be a place for devices like the FINIS Swimsense.

Swimsense Watch, charging/upload base, and cable

I head about the Swimsense initially in a press release leading up to CES, and after reading about it, I just had to see one, and hopefully try one. I’ve always had trouble keeping track of laps on longer swims, and with my recent memory problems, even as few as 20 laps is long enough for me to possibly lose count. Pathetic huh? Anyways, it seemed like a device that might have some value to me in just it’s simplest functionality.

So what is the Swimsense, and how does it work? Think of it as a Nike+ system for the pool. Simply put it’s accelerometers and magnetometers inside a watch that along with a complex series of software algorithms can be used to keep track of not just how far you swim, but what type of stroke you swim, your pace, stroke count, stroke pace, distance per stroke, calories and other metrics. You can upload the individual workouts to the online Swimsense Training Log via a piece of desktop software called the Swimsense Bridge.

The Seimsense has an advantage over the Nike+, in that by telling the system how long your pool is, it knows how far you’re swimming each lap. It simply looks for a big change in direction and can use that to identify that you’ve completed a lap. You also select which hand you’re wearing it on so that the system knows which motions it should look for.

Clearly, I didn’t take this picture

That’s where the real trick with the Swimsense comes in; identifying which stroke you’re swimming at the time. To be sure the software supporting this process has to be pretty complicated as everyone’s swim stroke is different. As their Sales Manager pointed out to me, it’s one thing to track the swimming movement of world-class swimmers who have ideal form, and quite another to identify that of the everyday recreational swimmer who may have never taken a formal lesson.

Swimsense training log dashboard

The above screenshot is an example swim I had earlier this week. 850 yards in the 25 yard FitRec competition pool. 300 yards freestyle with the Swimsense on my left wrist, 300 with it on my right, 200 breaststroke, and 50 backstroke. If you were to see the details of this swim, you’d see that the Swimsense identified the first 300 pefectly, with all of the splits and strokes correct. The second 300 after I switched wrists and changed the setting on the watch, it recognized all of the splits bit it saw me as swimming mixed strokes instead of freestyle. I honestly would have thought my left arm had worse form, but it wasn’t the case.

You may have noticed above that I said I swam 850 yards, but the log shows me as having done 900. That’s because the Swimsense had real problems capturing my backstroke and even more problems with my backstroke. This is the big issue I see with the unit, that if you are not a super strong swimmer, there will be times where the unit simply won’t recognize your stroke. I did find that overall the system recognized my freestyle stroke, and reported them properly.
The good news is that that for a new product, they did a really good job of thinking about the future. The software that runs the Swimsense is upgradeable. When FINIS releases an update, the next time you connect to upload a swim, the system update process will start. This allows FINIS to continue to evolve the product with additional features, including additional software options.
Because it’s a young product, there’s still room for it to grow. The user interface is pretty intuitive, but if you wear shaded, tinted or just foggly goggles, you may have trouble reading some of the smaller text on the screen that is associated with the buttons. Because the text is small, perhaps color coding the buttons would add some value. 
There are some other issues, such as the weight limit stops at 250, which FINIS says it can easily raise in a future software update. There are other updates that will come, such as support for additional online training systems (TrainingPeaks is about to be released, and others will follow). Most importantly, they’ve said they’re working on even better ways to use the system, which I’m hopeful will include a training mode that will let you record your own strokes for the Swimsense to work against.
In closing, I think the Swimsense is a pretty nice tool for anyone who swims indoors. I got my review unit for free, but if I had paid for it, I feel I would be happy with the performance I’m getting. And unlike a lot of other systems, because it is firmware upgradeable, buying now won’t mean you’re stuck with a system that will be outdated in a few months.
I give the FINIS Swimsense a score of 3.75  out of 5 trees, and I’ll revisit the score in a couple of months as the firmware is updated. 
Notes:
- I had a snow day today in the sense that I didn’t go into work. But I did work all day from home. Between a very busy day and a getting the review done, I didn’t get a chance to hit the gym tonight, but we’re getting up early for a swim.
- I swam 1250 yards last night. It wasnt a full on workout in that I wanted to finish my testing of the Swimsense, but I worked pretty hard for the first 300 and the last 400. 

A picture is worth a thousand words

My 2011 Season goals

I’ve been trying to get my mind right following a fairly disastrous January during which I only trained about 1/3rd as much as I wanted, and ate pretty much all the time. With stress at work, a health problem that has gotten into my head (literally), and more snow than you can shake a snowplow at; I’ve had lots of excuses to be at less than my best. 

I’ve been working on my plans for how to make this right and really begin training for the season. We have just 3 months until our first race, and 4 months until Patriot half. When you compare that to last season when Timberman was in late August, it’s only half the training time, so that’ll be a new challenge. This time I have the experience of being through this kind of training before, and though I’ve been less than fully motivated, I know I can be prepared, and do it in the time we have.
You’ll notice that Rev3 Cedar Point isn’t the central goal for the season. Sure, it’s important to me to finish and finish strong at Cedar Point. But it’s more important, and not just for this season, for me to really focus on losing weight this year. Last year, I cam up with every excuse under the sun as to why I wasn’t dropping weight while training like I did. When you train like I did last season, and you weigh what I weigh; you should lose a serious amount of weight. 
Sure, I probably won’t lose 100 pounds by end of the triathlon season, but the goal is to consistently lose weight. It’s a day by day challenge, one that will have it’s share of ups and downs, and that some periods of training will slow down due to the nature of working out that hard, and the fueling you need to do to support it. But even in those cases, I should still see a slow, steady progression downward.
I’ve also got Weight Watchers as a way of being accountable, and I’m really going to use it this time. I’m even blocking that time on my calendar, so work can’t schedule over that meeting. And that graphic above will go on the fridge, the freezer, in my car, and up in my cube to make sure basically any place I eat regularly (not that I eat in the freezer, but you know) so that I’m forced to think about what I eat and when I eat.
Notes:
- Last night, 2 miles on the rollers. I did it after the Blue Jackets game, and I definitely felt like I had the energy for more, but my legs were definitely quick to tire so I decided to take this restart slow and smart.
- This morning I stopped for breakfast at McDonalds. Before you start thinking “Shame on you! You’re sabotaging again!”, let me tell you what I got first. Geesh, mom! I ordered the oatmeal, sans fruit, and a small orange juice. Total points: 7. That’s actually fewer than I have for breakfast at home, and with oatmeal being pretty filling I’m not having any problems getting to lunchtime on just that.

Guess what?

We’re getting more snow! That’s right, tomorrow anywhere between 10 and 20 inches! It’s going to be insane. We already don’t have enough room to put all the snow we have. This also means another day of not easily reaching the gym, another day of gray skies (boo!) and cold temperatures.

I really haven’t adapted well to this winter, and that’s I think a big part of the what’s been going on with me. The food intake seems to be almost entirely stress eating. Stress from work is a big part of it as we’ve had issues that are out of my control but put a lot of pressure on me. I haven’t responded well, and the weather has simply killed my desire to go to the gym as a way of stress relief. I always feel better after a workout even if I am less than productive following the exercise. 
So tonight I’m doing something, whether it’s the rollers or the pool, but something. My hamstrings have been bothering me, and I’ve had calf cramps (that m was missing when i posted the first time. Thanks Bengi!), so running is out for now. Weight Watchers starts Friday, and I’m going to get myself in the right place mentally to be successful this time. 

My secret

What’s the one thing you like least about yourself? I admit to being fairly self-absorbed, and being that I write a daily blog about things that are often quite mundane, that’s sort of obvious. But I’m also generally a happy guy who likes his life. I’m married to an amazingly smart and beautiful woman who I love very much. I’m smart, I have friends, I have a good job, and I have all of the basics I need, plus plenty of the comforts that go way beyond that.

My secret is that I have a problem. A decidedly first world problem at that. You see, I eat too much. And not just occasionally. Food is some sort of crutch for me. I eat when I’m tired. I eat when I’m bored. I eat when I’m sad. I eat when I’m happy. I eat way too much, way too often. I eat too much even at times when I know I shouldn’t. I know it’s too much that with all the hard training I’ve done, I’ve still managed not to lose substantial weight over the past few years and have even gained weight when I’ve stopped exercising.

Here’s an example. I was training last year for as much as several hours a day 5 or 6 days a week for a good part of last year to compete partcipate just barely finish in Timberman. And yet, there were times when I would eat way too much throughout last summer. And I knew I was doing it. Even when I knew I shouldn’t. I actually remember thinking to myself “Why am I eating like this?” A big part of me (specifically: my stomach) didn’t believe I was going to finish, and it decided that by eating too much I’d have an excuse.

While it might not exactly be a secret that I eat too much (as it is sort of the point of the blog to stop), that I feel shame about it probably is. I’m not easily embarrassed, but I’m so ashamed of my poor eating, I do it alone whenever I can. On nights when Rach is working late (say 6:30), I’ll stop for fast food at 5:30, sometimes eating a days worth of calories in a meal (not hard to do at Mcdonalds). It’s difficult when the tastes of the short term tastes of these (and other “comfort foods”) are something I really enjoy. Even when I know afterwards I won’t feel comforted at all by either the way my body feels, or the way my mind/heart feel knowing how I just ate.

My whole season relies on being able to not eat like this anymore. And I’m going to do it.

Oooh… Bachelor weekend!

With school back in session and hockey games being played, the next couple months will have some weekends where I, as the man of the house, will be left alone to do my thing for at least a whole day at a time. Of course, “my thing” has different definitions based on who you ask. If you ask me, it’s some combination of working out, cleaning, playing video games, working on my railroad layout, or just chilling and watching TV. If you ask the Mrs., it is “being lazy and making a mess”.

Her version is probably closer to the truth.

My bachelor weekend has technically already started, as I won’t see Rach again until very late tomorrow night. Somehow the events coordinator for the Wheelworks team always seems to know when Rach won’t be in town, as those are the nights they always schedule something. So while I’d normally be enjoying a weekend of strippers and beer video games and trains, I’ll instead be bowling with current and future teammates. I’ll also be spending some time on the rollers tonight.

Tomorrow morning, the team has another event scheduled, but one that’s far less fun. A 4 mile run to encourage signups. It’s right in my neighborhood, so I basically have to go, and I know Rach would be dragging me along if she were here. I know I need to work on my running, but it’s just not where my focus wants to be ever right now.

Plus, I always wonder what sort of effect I have as a marketing tool for the club. On the plus side, my presence clearly shows you cannot be a bad enough triathlete that the club won’t let you in. We clearly do not discriminate based on shape or size. I’m also fairly affable, and for someone just entering their 3rd season, I feel I’m pretty knowledgeable about most of the triathlon scene here in Boston, and whats going on at the club level.

But I sometimes feel like in these tough economic times when triathlon club membership is down a bit, people are often looking for clubs that will help them win. A club that will let me in is probably not a club that is focused 100% on winning, even if it is a club where members work to help each other succeed. Plus, let’s face it, I have a strong personality, and that doesn’t go over great with everyone.

Either way, I’m going to go, and hope there are enough runners where I can just tell them to go on ahead, and I’ll make my way back to wherever we’re meeting as soon as I can. At other events where I’m meeting people after runs, usually i just do a shorter run so i can get back at the same time as them rather than be late getting back. My guess is i’ll be 4-6 minutes per mile slower than this group. I’d say it doesn’t bother me to be that much slower, but its a lie. I want to be a fast runner, but that’s not going to happen until I lose some more weight.

It hurts so good

So I didn’t quite get to 3000 yards last night. That was probably a bit ambitious considering I hadn’t swam more than 1000 yards since last fall. But I did do 2050 yards in an hour, which is just a few minutes slower than I did it for Timberman. Granted, I definitely couldn’t have ridden 56 miles to follow it, but compared to where I started last year it’s starting at a better place, with the stamina to go twice as far. I had the stamina to do more, but I also had a seriously painful leg cramp that struck for the second time in a week during my last 50 yards. It hit me first just sitting with my feet up the other day, and it hit hard enough that I had to have Rach help me relax it.

And I’ve lost 5 pounds since Sunday. I’m super excited to be going the right direction again. My eating hasn’t been what I am shooting for, but I’m being patient with myself about it, because it is coming around. I’m taking it day by day and making better choices with each meal. It’s actually a fun part of the year, because it’s easy to see progress after not doing much and eating sort of whatever I wanted in Vegas.
Oh, and about the half-ironman.We found out that Rach’s conference doesn’t actually start until 6/20, with the day before being just a registration day. After learning yesterday that the Ironman 70.3 Providence was available to us, the better understanding of Rachelle’s conference schedule also opened up the Patriot Half-Ironman, a local race run by the same people who put on the Multisport Expo and Cranberry Olympic.
Last year, we did the Minuteman Sprint held at the same time as the Patriot, and really enjoyed it. It was one of the best races we did last year, and it’s a great setting. The course is challenging without being overwhelming, it’s closer to home than Mooseman or Quassy, and it may wind up being a focus race for Wheelworks. Plus, it gives us the opportunity to do Quassy Olympic to contest the USAT Club Championship as the Quassy Olympic is the same weekend as Mooseman but two weeks earlier than Patriot.
Oh, and did I mention that Patriot is $100 cheaper per person to do? Finally, without knowing where we’ll be living after June, we didn’t want to commit to any later season races other than Rev3 Cedar Point, so that meant Providence didn’t really make sense. We registered for Patriot Half last night, and are excited for the opportunity to do the race. Doing Patriot also allows us to follow the race with a visit to Cape Cod, which was a lot of fun last year.

Notes:

- I used the Swimsense again with my swim last night. I was pretty happy again. I wound up swimming just shy of 2100 yards, but the system showed me swimming 2100. When I look at the logs, it’s obvious which two lengths it added. One was because I made some extra motion with my left arm during a turn/stop, and the other I’m not sure where I caused it to kick over an extra lap. I will say even when it picks up a motion that is not a swim stroke, thereby adding an extra lap, it’s super easy to tell where those issues are in the view of the workout. Now, FINIS just needs to allow you to edit workouts in the software.

Tonight…

Last night the weather was just crap, and with all the standing water and having been soaked severely once already, Rach was in no mood to go to the gym. I didn’t want to take a day off though, so I put in time on the rollers. Not a lot of time, but enough to work up a sweat and feel like I did something for the day.

Tonight, the weather looks better and we owe a big swim from this morning when I couldnt get out of bed (im still not sleeping right). Im excited for another night in the pool with the Swimsense, and more importantly to start laying down some serious laps. So serious in fact, that we’re scheduled to do 3000 yards, which would be the longest swim of my adult life, and I’m looking forward to it. Im sure I’ll be slow but it’s early in the training season and getting through it is the most important part. The swim in September will be 4200 yards, give or take, so we’ve got time, but my goals are to do more than just finish.

The other big thing tonight is that we’re paying for our half-ironman tonight. We’d originally settled on Mooseman, but that race doesn’t allow us to compete with the team at the USAT Regional Club Championship. When Rach finishes school, we might be moving for her to find work, so other than Rev3 Cedar Point, the rest of our schedule is somewhat tentative. That race could well be our last with our Wheelworks teammates, so it’s important to me that we be able to do that event. Plus, participating in a Rev3 event where we won’t be utterly exhausted afterwards (like we will at Cedar Point) would be a nice treat.

Adding to the discussion is that I just learned that Ironman 70.3 Providence has switched from an ocean to a lake swim. I’m still pretty afraid of sharks, so because of the ocean swim we had completely disregarded this race. It’s actually the closest to home of the four races between June and July, and it avoids both Club Regionals and Rachelle’s conference. The problem we have is that this is after our current lease ends and Rach is out of school, and Rach may have found a job by then. The June races we’re still planning on being in Boston for. Tonight, we’ll figure it all out and pay for it.

Almost normal

What a doozie this last week has been. First, I was sleeping too much, barely able to get through the work day before I needed to go home and conk out. Then I couldn’t sleep at all, as in Sunday night I was literally up almost all night, before I finally passed out and slept until almost noon. Looking at my schedule recently, you’d think I am junkie going on benders.

The big positive though is that I started back to my “in-season” Ironman training program on Sunday. It was the first day I felt normal since we got back from Vegas. That means workouts 6 days a week, ramping up from a short-ish swim on Sunday, and followed by a 1000 yard swim and a mile run on Monday. By next week, I plan to be working out at close to the distances we were doing last summer. We have a 2 hour bike ride tomorrow night which should be a good kick back into riding. 
The swims on Saturday and Monday were the first two swims I did with the FINIS Swimsense. It’s really an interesting piece of technology. So far, I like using it, and I’m still learning a lot about it. It’s going to be a couple more weeks of swimming before I can give a solid review. It’s sure nice to have something to help verify I’m counting my laps properly, though I’ve had a couple issues with accuracy so far. Their software is pretty similar to the Garmin Connect software, though I don’t know enough about swimming statistics to do a whole lot with it yet.
My 1/17/11 Swim
We had planned to use most of the weekend to clean the house, but we mostly had fun this weekend, and didn’t clean until Monday. In fact, it wasn’t until late Monday night that I actually took down the Christmas tree. We got a huge bin that actually holds the whole tree disassembled so no more carrying the half-broken tree box every year. This should be a good week for getting a lot done. I’m behind on stuff for Gaming Nexus and Wheelworks Multisport, so I really need to have a good week. 
Notes:
- Rachelle found this contest at Bodybuilding.com. We both signed up. We’re not planning on doing any more lifting than we already had planned, but it doesn’t seem to matter according to the rules. If anyone is due for a full body transformation, it’s me.
- It’s just a little over a month until Rach runs the Hyannis Marathon. I’ll probably do a shorter distance that day, just to have something to do other than stand around for 4 hours. 

Ugh, 48 hours of crap

So it’s Friday, and the last 2 days have gone not at all as I had planned. Working from home turned out to be a bad decision as I had a horrible day when I got back into the office. Plus with the snow and some transportation issues, getting anywhere has sucked. Thankfully, I got the truck back this morning, and we’ll now be able to get around.

These past couple days, even if we could get to the gym we wouldn’t have anyways. When I wasn’t working, I was sleeping. Vegas took more out of both Rach and I than either of us expected. We have barely unpacked, and I haven’t even had time to bring the swag I got at CES into the office to share. Martin Luther King day is Monday, so I get a 3 day weekend I can use to get into training, clean, unpack, and rest. It’s going to be really nice to have time for getting stuff done.

I mentioned the other day that I wanted to share info about some cool products I saw at CES, and the first one I wanted to talk about were the Sport-iiiis. The Sport-iiiis is a device that attaches to nearly any pair of sunglasses and uses the ANT+ communication standard in order to provide immediate visual feedback on your training zones. Using a set of LEDs just under the base of one of the lenses, you can see an indicator of where you stand in comparison to the heart rate zone you’ve set as your goal for that training session. If you’re training in a way where your hands are free, you can even click a button on the device that will allow you to get audio feedback on current heart rate. You can use the device as well to track cadence, speed, or even power if you’re using ANT+ devices that monitor those statistics.

Back from the black hole (Our trip, some product news, and getting serious)

Black holes suck in everything around them, and really when you think about it Las Vegas is a lot like that. They even have the saying “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”. That’s because it’s a black hole. It tries to take your money, your time, and based on The Hangover, your memory. Luckily (I think), I remember the entire experience.

When I left you last, I had just met Mirinda Carfrae and Tim O’Donnell while they represented yurbuds, who are the official ear buds of the Ironman brand.

Gratuitous re-use of this awesome photo

Dan Deville from yurbuds was kind enough to give me a set of their headphones to review, and I’ve already started the process on that. They’re in the same vein as H2O Audio’s Flex line, a sport headphone not truly made to be waterproof, but that can sustain through a rainy or sweaty run. At a higher pricepoint (MSRP $49), Mr. Deville said they’ve got drivers equivalent to $150 ear buds, so it will be interesting to put them head to head to other headphones.

So, here’s what happened after that:

  1. I lost some money. Really, this probably isn’t news for most people when they go to Las Vegas, but I haven’t lost in Vegas in several years.
  2. I won an iPhone. Technically, I won a $199 Apple gift card, and I am hopeful to put that towards an iPad when it arrives. The contest was from VoxOx which looks to be a Skype competitor/social media client with some legs. Interested to see their project in action.  
  3. We had a big dinner at Samba, the Brazilian steakhouse, and it was terrific. But we avoided all the buffets and only had one other breakfast that would be considered a large meal. 
  4. I walked over 50 miles in 5 days. My feet still hurt and it’s Wednesday.
  5. I saw a ton of amazing things, including some interesting innovations in sports technology. 
  6. I finally saw a show in Vegas. Rach is a big fan of Holly Madison from the “Girls Next Door” show on E!, so we saw her star in Peep Show, her first Vegas show. It was pretty fun, frankly.
Now that we’re back from Vegas, we’ve ended our off-season training and expected to begin our heavier training today. Unfortunately, Boston has been hit with a foot of snow, and our gym is closed, so whatever training we can do, will happen here inside the house. I’m going to hit the rollers today. 
Also, I’m going to feature a new technology or tool each day. I picked up a review unit for the Finis SwimSense, and I’m getting it in the pool as soon as I possibly can. Hopefully as early as tomorrow. I also have some interesting opportunities I might be taking advantage of, and I’ll provide details as I get them. But for now, the big thing is adjusting back to real life, and finding ways to train in snowpocalypse 2011.