Swimming with the times

InstabeatSwimming is one of the top priority sports in Australia and has been one of the most successful sports in the international arena. As such there’s a lot of attention put into improving the performance of athletes. In fact, for those who are new to this blog, research in swimming performance is one of the focus areas of Queensland Sports Technology Cluster (QSTC), and you will find some recent published work here and some related blog posts about them here. There has also been lots of work done in various research institutes in Australia and here are some notable ones in the last 4-5 years:


Mini-Traqua in action

The AIS itself has set up the Aquatic Testing, Training and Research Unit (ATTRU), where there has been even more research and testing done on swimming research, often working in tandem with research institutes mentioned earlier above. These and other similar type of research and innovation is what will give the Australian swimmers the edge to win on the international stage. Some of these research outcomes stay at the elite level of sport because they may not be relevant to the casual swimmers or do not have any commercial application or they are just ‘secret squirrel’ stuff. But some of the developed technology do get commercialized, though it may take a while before they get released into the public, but they do.

Commercialized Sports TechSo what kind of technologies/gadgets are available to everyday swimmers today?

1. Lap and stroke counting. How many times have you swam in a pool and lost track of the number of laps you covered? It can be pretty annoying. That’s why engineers developed swimming specific wrist watches that counts strokes and laps. These watches have motion sensors that enable them to count strokes, laps, and even estimate speeds and distances. Some of these include: the FINIS Swimsense, the Swimovate Poolmate, the Speedo Aquacoach, and the Garmin swim. The Garmin Swim particularly could even identify the type of stroke (front crawl, butterfly or breast stroke).

2. Music while swimming. One way to do it is to blast music at the swimming pool (assuming its your own pool, or everyone else at the pool likes your taste of music). The other option is to use waterproofed mp3 players. Some companies have developed swimming specific mp3 players, some applied waterproofing technology on existing devices, some made waterproof cases. Most of them did not stray far from the original mp3 player designed for land dwellers, all except the FINIS SwimP3 which used Bone conduction technology for audio transmission instead of earphones. If anyone is keen on swimming with music, they should check out DCrainmaker’s post comparing all (most of) the swimming mp3 players.


DCRainmaker with the AquaPulse

3. Heart Rate monitoring. For the more serious athletes who want to monitor their heart rates to keep track of how hard they are training (or if they are training in the correct zone), there are two options available in the market right now – Heart rate belts and Heart rate ear clips. Heart rate chest belts are a pretty common training accessory for most athletes, but not all heart rate monitoring (HRM) belts will work in the water. For example, HRM sensors that transmits via bluetooth (or any higher frequencies) will not work in water. So if you want to use a HRM chest belt for swimming, make sure they transmit in water (i.e. lower frequencies). As a guide, Polar sensors and the PoolMate HRM sensors will work. The alternative to chest belts is ear clips, and the only product in the market is the FINIS AquaPulse which uses infrared sensors to monitor capillary blood flow at your earlobes. The advantage of using the ear clip (I believe) is it is more secure than the chest belt which tends to slip while swimming thus losing heart rate readings. Although I can’t imagine the ear clip sensor being very comfortable during swimming.

4. GPS. This is mainly for open water swimming. Tracking where you have swam in the open ocean/sea/lake/river/pond. Many sports watches (targeted at runners and triathletes)  have a built-in GPS module. That’s your Garmin, Suunto, Timex, Polar, Magellan, Nike etc etc. But one GPS sports watch that stands out is the Leikr, because it actually puts the map on your wrist. Coloured maps! It’s not officially out in the market yet because it started as a Kickstarter project, but it has been successfully funded so it won’t be long. Would you really need the maps? It depends and I think it’s arguable.

5. Performance feedback. The traditional way of getting feedback is to have a coach scream at you. But with all these gadgets that count your stroke rate per lap, calculates how fast you swim and monitors how hard (heart rate) you are training, a swimmer can train without a coach yelling at him/her every session. These devices can tell you how you are performing. Since most of the mentioned devices are watches, the main feedback form is displaying all the calculated statistic on the screens. The one device that sets itself apart is the FINIS Aquapulse which used its Bone Conduction technology (what they used for their swimming mp3 player) to provide audio feedback of your heart rate. Saves you the trouble of trying to catch a glimpse of your watch face. Too bad it doesn’t work together  with their swimsense watch to also give you audio feedback of how many laps you swam and how fast you are swimming. Although that might make it worse than having a coach yelling…

So just when you think: that should be pretty much what swimmers need to help them train; along comes Instabeat – a heart rate sensor that is mounted on your goggles (and any other goggles), measures the laps, turns, breathing pattern, and gives you heads-up visual feedback of your training. Other than music and GPS, it does most of the things mentioned above. But how is it different from the rest?

  • For one, it measures heart rate from your temporal artery using optical sensors (which is patent-pending). 
  • Secondly, it becomes part of your goggles, so you are not wearing or clipping on an extra thing on your body.
  • Thirdly, it determines your breathing pattern. This is something new.
  • Lastly, it gives you real-time visual feedback of your heart rate training zone so you know if you are meeting your goals.

What led Hind Hobeika (Instabeat founder) to develop this was her deep dissatisfaction with existing heart rate monitors in the market. Utilising her swimming experience and engineering knowledge, she went through several designs, prototyping and testing them and the final result is this revolutionary heads-up display design.

Left: Initial designs of the Instabeat; Right: The final Instabeat design

Some of the challenges the Instabeat team faced included getting the right data from the sensors, coming up with a design that could fit all the different goggles, and not forgetting the challenge of making the sensor waterproof – the nemesis of all wearable technology. And now that they are past those product design challenges, they face the next challenge which is to bring it to market. They have decided to go through Indiegogo to crowdsource funds and you can support them here. The response looks positive so far and you know the Instabeat team is a bunch of forward thinkers because they have already planned a next version which includes wireless (bluetooth) data transfer and syncing with your smartphone. I even found out [Spoiler alert] that they would explore adding GPS for open water swimming and possibly make a version compatible with other eyewear, i.e. sunglasses. Sounds like the Sportiiiis could be having some competition in the near future.

In the meantime, I leave you with Instabeat’s pitch on Indiegogo:

Thanks for reading!


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