Garmin Swim, or “My Magical Adventures into the Realm of Sorcery, Witchcraft and Hocus Pocus”

Posted: January 18, 2015 in Equipment, Swim
Tags: ,

I admit that – like every other triathlete on the planet I suppose – I absolutely LOVE my gear.  I bond with it; I name it; I build meaningful relationships with it.  Of course, this is all well and good as long as we’re talking about shoes and bikes, but when the subject suddenly turns to technology (i.e. gadgets and gizmos), well, not so much.

You see, I’m a technology Neanderthal.  Seriously, I’m about as close as one can get to actually being anti-technology in that I have never owned a cell phone and the digital clock on my microwave flashed 12:00am  for approximately 10 years when I lived on my own.  Now setting the clock falls under Kelly’s umbrella along with updating the computer software, programming the cable box, adjusting the settings on the tablet thingee and locating addresses on the GPS in the car.  Me?  I bitch.  That’s pretty much my jam when it comes to technology.

Now, I have been using a Garmin Forerunner 305 (which, for the record, is practically obsolete) for running and biking for about six years now, but I really only use the most basic time/distance/pace features.  In other words, I only use about 10% of its overall capabilities.  In other words, if you ever dropped me off in the woods somewhere and asked me to only rely on using the GPS coordinate tracking features to get out I’d be fucked; total bear bait.

For swimming (both in the pool and in the open water) I have been using the Polar F6.  This too, is a pretty basic device.  It tracks my heart rate, total time, calories burned and…that’s it.  It has no GPS feature so I have to manually calculate all my distances and then do the required math to figure out my pace which, of course, I never do.  It’s just a way of logging my total time spent in the water and the amount of calories I burn.  And if I should ever forget what lap I’m on, I’m pretty much screwed.  The real downside with the Polar monitor however is that it comes with that blasted chest strap which I have had to replace now at least a zillion times as the chlorine tends to eat through it like battery acid given the amount of time I spend in the local pool.  Plus it’s annoying as hell; nevermind that it makes me look like a dinosaur.

However, I have just recently taken a huge step forward in my embracing of technology by purchasing the new Garmin Swim device.  My Coach has one and she sure loves it and I see some of my training peers on Garmin Connect using one and their data is pretty cool to look out so, yeah, I was certainly tempted.  I figure I have to get with the times sooner or later and Lord knows I love me my swim workouts and I am looking to improve even more so it appeared like a good investment.  So I reluctantly slapped down the $140 on my credit card (at Giant Tiger no less!) and five days later, there it was sitting on my front door step.

Bedhead not included

Bedhead not included

Now, I won’t lie…at first, it scared the bejesus outta me.  So much so, that upon arriving it sat in the package for at least three swim workouts.  You see, I am not necessarily what you would call an “Ambassador of Change”, particularly when it comes to anything resembling modern technology.  I tend to look at new technology – specifically the “wireless” kind – the same way a mid-16th century pioneer might view, say, a 3D hologram – it’s witchcraft.  I just don’t have a very good track record when it comes to these kinds of things.  Will it work?  Will I be able to make it work?  Will it be accurate?  Etcetera and so forth.  It all kept me up at night.  But finally, I opened the package and decided to give it go.  It’s a brave new world after all.

My first course of action was to attempt to figure what the buttons – all six of them – actually did.  By comparison, my Polar only has one and I only ever use the ON/OFF and Start/Stop features (two buttons in total) on my Forerunner.  SIX?!  Fuck.  I might have to take a night course to figure all this shot out.  Furthermore, the direction manual is only a whopping four pages…FOUR!  It’s madness.  The user manual for my Forerunner rivaled a Chinese telephone book and that learned me how to use two buttons…so what are four measly pages going to teach me?  I wanted to package it back up then and there, admit defeat and ship it back.  It seemed hopeless.  Fortunately, a buddy linked me to a website by a guy named DC Rainmaker (click HERE) who featured an “easy” step-by-step review of the Garmin Swim device.

Easy, eh?  I’ll be the judge of that.

As it turns out, programming the initial settings (you techies might refer to this process as “presetting the data”) was pretty easy.  So, yeah, I got the date and time and even my weight (never you mind) programmed successfully.  Yay me!  Take that blinking microwave.  I was feeling so confident that I even programmed the pool size (25m) as well.  Booyah bitches!  Take that you nerds.  So, okay, so far so good.  I was actually ready to start swimming.

So far this Garmin Swim thing is pretty awesome.

After hitting the ‘Start’ button (I’m pretty good at that by now) in the pool, I swam a length and paused to check out the results and – sure enough – it had registered 25m.  But…but…how?  What kind of sorcery was this?  I was flummoxed.  Like I said before…witchcraft.  But cool witchcraft for sure; so I kept swimming .  And it all was all going great until I tried to do some drills, then…nada.  No distance logged.  Huh.  Then I tried to do some kicking.  Nothing.  Did it somehow loose its voodoo all of a sudden?  What gives?

Well, as it turns out, the Garmin Swim (like the Forerunner 910XT/920XT and the Fenix 2) houses a sensor, called an ‘accelerometer’, which measures motion.  With software specifically designed to analyze motion, the device will measure three basic metrics for swimming:

  • Stroke count – counts a stroke for every full cycle of the arm wearing the watch
  • Length count – counts pool lengths by detecting your turn or stop; one length count is one trip down the pool (25m in my case)
  • Stroke type – displays different types of strokes detected by specific swimming motions

Pretty neat-o, right?  But here’s where it gets even neater.

The stroke count and length count are used in combination with timing to compute other swimming data, such as distance, pace, stroke rate, and your “SWOLF”.  What is “swolf” you ask?  Well, swolf is derived from combining the terms ‘swimming’ and ‘golf’.  The swolf data adds the time and the number of strokes it takes to swim a pool length.  For instance, 30 seconds and 10 strokes to swim the length of a pool will equal a swolf score of 40.  A lower score is better, just as in golf.  So this gives me something to measure my overall efficiency with.  I like that.  Who knew that all those years caddying for my grandfather would actually pay off?  Well, okay, it didn’t really…but it’s still kinda neat.

Here’s what the drill sets look like in Garmin Connect (of course, getting to this point to view them was a completely different challenge, but I’ll come to that later):


Pretty bad ass, huh?  But what are those blank parts between the colored bits?

Well, the problem is that without that motion, the device can’t register its distance (lengths) properly.  Crapsticks!  Not so neat.  So after returning home and scanning DC Rainmaker’s post a little more, low and behold, it turns out the device has a solution for this problem.  I learned that I can log “drill time” with the watch similar using its “Drill Log” feature the same way I would add a manual entry on the Garmin Connect site.  In essence, while in this mode it keeps the timer running and allows you to manually set the swim distance after you’ve completed that drill set; essentially an override.  So I returned back to the pool to give it a go and, well, I completely fucked it up.  But after a few swims – not to mention a ‘cheat sheet’ of instructions (thanks Coach!) – I finally managed to use all the buttons to log my drills correctly.  The real amazing thing about all this is that now I am using not one, two or even three buttons in conjunction with one another…but FOUR!

So, apparently, the watch even makes you smarter as well.  How awesome is that?

So those blank parts between the colored bits I pointed out were the points of my workout where I enabled the Drill Log, so despite still swimming (be it drills or kicking or whatever) the timer was kept running but no actual lengths were recorded by the device itself.  I just entered the drill distance manually and it then added that measure to my overall accumulative distance.  Am I kicking technology’s ass or what?


The next challenge, however, was bit more dubious: connecting all this shit to my online Garmin Connect site.  It’s one thing to have the information, but it’s entirely a different thing to actually be able to review it.  I.e. look at the pretty colored graphs n’ shit and, hey, let’s face it, I loves me some colored graph shit.  Now I mentioned before that the Garmin Swim is “wireless” (which still sends shivers down my spine just to type it) but fortunately, despite my still running off the stegosaurus of operating programs (Windows XP) I am still able to use Garmin Express to upload my workouts to my Garmin Connect site…barely…except this didn’t go as easily as you might expect.  Ha!  Who am I kidding?  This was bound to be a disaster and it was.

For uploading from my Forerunner, Garmin Express completely blows.  I basically have to download the .tcx file (whatever the fuck that is) from the Garmin Training Center after I sync my workout, then manually upload it to the Connect site afterwards.  It’s a bit of a process but I manage to get it done.  Now, for those of you in the know Garmin has been experiencing some, shall we say, “issues” with its online site.  Don’t get me wrong, their customer support (when you can get through to them) is amazing n’ all, but the fact that I now know them all by name might give you some idea how utterly shitty their website is right now.  So my first effort to sync my swim workout to the Connect site crashed and burned and, ultimately, my workout disappeared like Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370.  Even after spending an hour on the phone with Lars from Garmin, we still couldn’t retrieve the file from my device and successfully upload it to Garmin Connect.


He did though encourage me to give it another go upon my next workout suggesting that it might just be a corrupt file or something; just my luck.  But try I did two days later.  I swam in the morning, logged in my drills, swam my intervals, stroked my swolf’s and what have you, and then went to work.  Now I think it’s worth mentioning here that the Garmin Swim is just hip and ungawdy enough that you can actually wear it throughout the day as a normal watch without attracting negative attention.  Try doing that with your Forerunner 305!  Anyway, when I arrived home it wasn’t without a certain amount of trepidation.  So much so I just dropped the watch on my desk figuring I’d play with it after dinner, maybe give Lars another dingle to say ‘hi’ and simply go from there, but I hadn’t even gotten 5 ft. from my desk when my computer beeped and happily announced that my “data had been transferred”.  Really?

I immediately checked my Garmin Connect site and…AWESOME!

I almost did a happy dance right there on the spot.

More happy colored charts to peruse.  Here is what the displayed interval information looks like:


Notice how the device recognized and listed my stroke during my warm up interval as either freestyle and breast stroke.  Notice how the second interval is listed as “Drill”.  Also listed in there is my rest periods (in grey) as well as my third interval which was actually the first interval of my main set and I can scroll down to see the rest of the intervals to boot.

Yup.  Witchcraft.

There is even a Table display that shows the data for each of my intervals, telling me the number of lengths, my times, average pace, best pace, the swolf, total strokes, average strokes and, shit, it even tells me how many calories my fat ass is burning per lap.  How fucking sweet is that?


I wonder if Gandalf has it this good?

So, yeah, initial spooks aside, it turns out that I love this thing.  Heck, I might actually even try to figure out how to set that microwave clock next.  It’s all enough to make me reconsider my views on technology and embrace all things modern…almost.


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