Gear Guy

Q:

What Are the Best Winter Swim Electronics?

The pool bores me. But I swim a few days a week during the winter to stay fit. Is there any waterproof gear that can make it more interesting?

What Are the Best Winter Swim Electronics?
(Dmitry Berkut/Shutterstock.com)
A:

Many people retreat to the pool for a winter workout when either the temps or circumstances aren’t quite right for snowshoeing or skiing.

For me, the best items in a pool survival kit are headphones and a pace watch. Music and podcasts get me through long lap sessions, and the watch helps me set pace goals. With all that going on, pooltime goes by in a flash. For the purposes of this article, I borrowed several new products for a two-week review period, in addition to my usual favorites.

Being a recreational swimmer of modest skill, I was also curious as to what an experienced athlete takes into the pool. “Not much,” says Kevin Doak, an elite who competed in both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic trials. “Top-level swimmers are sensitive to stuff attached to their bodies. We wear so few items in the name of efficiency that any additional equipment is an annoyance.”

That said, Doak does like music players that are engineered to send vibrations through the bones of your cheek instead of through headphones. “I found that bone conduction offers nearly flawless audio underwater,” he says. “Plus, I found the products easy to control; you can even change songs during a flip turn if you’re fast enough.”

My own impressions, I’m guessing, will be different from that of an elite. I’m willing to put up with a little cable management around my swim headphones. And I’ve enjoyed using the Garmin Swim, which automatically counts your laps and compares your average 100-meter splits with those of your previous swims. “We have coaches that tell us that,” Doak informs me. And there’s the difference. When people see me swim, they often comment that I probably need a lifeguard more than a coach. As a raw beginner, I find the metrics on my watch encouraging.

The following are our picks, and feel free to chime in in the comments as to what you use.

FOR UNDERWATER AUDIOPHILES: Waterfi Waterproof iPod Shuffle with Dual-Layer Protection and X-1 Surge Mini Waterproof Sport Headphones
FOR POOL PODCAST LOVERS
: Pyle Waterproof Headphones
FOR FLIP-TURN LISTENERS: Finis SWIMP3 X18 Audio Player
FOR POOL PACE SETTERS: Garmin Swim

Waterfi Waterproof iPod Shuffle and X-1 Surge Headphones

X-1 Surge Mini Waterproof Sport Waterfi Waterproof iPod Shuffle outside gear guy bob parks
X-1 Surge Mini Waterproof Sport Headphones and Waterfi Waterproof iPod Shuffle. (Bob Parks)

FOR UNDERWATER AUDIOPHILES

It’s an iPod Shuffle in every way, except that it happens to be waterproofed to 100 feet. Waterfi buys up the players from Apple, pours special rubbery goo inside, then resells them to you with a two-year warranty. The latest version has two-step protection to keep out corrosive chemicals like pool treatments. I’ve been using this system as part of my routine, and have found that it’s small enough to attach to my goggles strap unobtrusively. And in contrast to pool-only audio players, if you buy this one for the $135 price tag, you get an iPod for use out of the pool (ordinary Shuffles are around $50.) Because of the waterproofing, I found the buttons disconcertingly stiff at first, but then got used to pressing a little harder. Apple’s VoiceOver navigation on the Shuffle is good for swimming. To hear what songs or albums you're playing, you press a button and a women’s voice tells you the album titles to pick from. All at the bottom of the pool.

The clarity on the X-1 Surge Headphones ($49) is so good you feel like your swim has its own soundtrack. A selection like Mariano’s Cristal, performed by Yo Yo Ma, elevates any lap with crisp piano runs and a texture to the cello that sounds live. The set has great intimacy, resolution, and can produce good volume in the pool. The only thing missing was the powerful low tones on Ma’s cello, as well as the punchy bass on a certain Ludacris tune I play when there are too many people hogging the lanes (you know the one). The set is waterproof to 12 feet and comes with five different silicone adapters to fit different ears. Once they were in, they stayed in, but it was hard to hold a conversation with anyone during the session. If I took them out, it became a hassle.

Pyle Waterproof Headphones

pyle waterproof headphones outside gear guy bob parks
Pyle Waterproof Headphones (Courtesy of Pyle)

FOR POOL PODCAST LOVERS

The Pyle Waterproof Headphones are optional with the Waterfi Shuffle—you can buy them on their own for around $14 online. They sounded like listening to AM radio, with bad clarity and little midrange. But if you are the type to lose things at the gym, keep these on standby.

Finis SWIMP3 X18

Finis SWIMP3 X18 Audio Player outside gear guy bob parks
Finis SWIMP3 X18 Audio Player. (Bob Parks)

FOR FLIP-TURN LISTENERS

Finis has a whole different take on audio for swimmers. Its SWIMP3 X18 conducts the music into your ear through your cheekbones. You merely place them under your goggle straps, resting the transducers against the sides of your face, and suddenly you hear music inside your head, whether Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring or the Japandroids. Elite swimmer Kevin Doak found the X18s delivered the best sound for the least hassle while performing flip turns and fast maneuvers. I found it made my Yo Yo Ma sound echoey and muddled. It wasn’t as rich as the iPod Shuffle and X-1 heaphone combination, and didn’t create the same, ahem, immersive experience.

But the X18 is easier to use in the pool. My wife often tries to pull me into quick conferences mid-swim, reporting such things as “There’s a strange man in my lane. Can I swim with you?” With the bone-conduction device, you can have a conversation without rearranging the whole setup each time. The second-generation Finis product is also easier to control and you can upload songs right from your computer. It has the same capacity as the Shuffle (2 GB) and is sells online for $144.99.

Garmin Swim

Harmin Swin outside gear guy bob parks
Garmin Swim. (Bob Parks)

FOR POOL PACE SETTERS

The Swim has changed my whole relationship to laps. Pre-Swim, I could never keep track of them in a 25-meter pool. This device counts for you, and captures your pace in minutes per 100 meters. It’s motivating to see your times improve, or simply keep a steady pace on an easy day. With the watch, I’ve gotten in a good routine of trying to hit a mile under 33 minutes after a warm-up. At the end of the week, the watch totals my distance and reports trends in pace.

Out of the pool, Swim lets you easily view totals on the watch, or download them to a computer for in-depth analysis. It also traps stroke count and something called swolf, but those metrics are beyond my ken right now. I do miss the accuracy of a GPS sensor (unlike Garmin’s other products, this watch has none), though it wouldn’t work under a roof anyway. Instead, the Swim uses an accelerometer to sense your arm movement. If you stop swimming (say, to field reports of “a strange man”), the device generates errors in your pace and lap count. That said, it keeps me going. $149

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