Thursday, January 27, 2011

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. 


- 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. 


  1. Good review. That seems like a really neat product with a lot of potential.

  2. Thanks! I don't think it was my best review because it could have been a lot longer, because there's so much to cover.

  3. Great review. Sportsense is makng Swimsense compatible with TrainingPeaks and later with others. Do you know who the "others" are? Does being compatible with TP = WKO+?

  4. Scott -

    Thanks so much. I am sad to say I don't know the answer to either question, but I'll ask and post it in a future update. To be honest, I don't think Swimsense knows who the "others" are, but I have to assume it will be the big online logs out there.

  5. @Scott

    SportTracks will be able to import Swimsense time, distance and stroke data in - allowing you to stack up all your swimming metrics alongside your run & ride. I can tell you this with certainty because it is being worked on right now.

  6. Aaron - Thanks for the comment, I'll make sure to post as followup in notes next week.