Garmin Vivoactive HR – Review of a GPS watch when used for rowing

Although it continues to grow in popularity, rowing has never have the levels of popularity that sports like running and cycling have, meaning that often the bigger sports tech manufacturers previously haven’t included rowing features in their products and so rowers have missed out the on wide range of newer GPS devices that have been coming out that promise so much for athletes who run/swim/cycle but ultimately hasn’t been able to track rowing in a way that is useful. Recently however this has looking to change as Garmin recently began to add more sports to their line of GPS watches, with indoor rowing and outdoor rowing being two that are now listed as officially supported by Garmin, so I wanted to check out these features to see how they work and if they are suitable for rowing.

The rowing activities currently are only officially supported in Garmin’s newer range of watches – namely the 735XT, Fenix 3 (and the HR version) and the Vivoactive HR – There are other sites that discuss these watches in general, and even one that compares all 3 watches, so I will focus mainly on using the watch for rowing – and I decided on getting the Vivoactive HR, partly because it is the cheapest and smallest of the three, but also because if you are mainly focused on rowing training, then most of the additional features in the other two watches are more specific to runners/cyclists and not so much rowing.

Out of the box, the Vivoactive HR is quite a sleak looking watch – looking more like a wide activity tracker than a full watch due to the rectangle screen. Many people may not like the design and prefer a round face (and if so you’d probably want to look at the Fenix 3) however I personally like the shape as I think the narrower profile helps keep the watch out of the way of your hand as you flex the wrist at the catch and finish,  I certainly find it quite comfortable to wear when rowing and sculling. The watch itself has the screen is very good in direct sunlight with no viewing issues even on the sunniest days and works as a touchscreen – there are two physical buttons on the front of the watch as well for menu navigation and starting/stopping activities

The Vivoactive HR has a number of activities available to run, although the two that I am focusing on are the indoor rowing and outdoor rowing, the main difference between the two being whether the GPS is activated to not. Now, just to nightlight some important points

  • Although the Vivoactive HR defaults to picking up HR using the wrist optical sensor, the HR data it picks up is junk it does not work whilst rowing – I’ve never tested a wrist based optical HR sensor that has worked and I am pretty sure I never will, the reason it works for running is because the muscles in the arms/wrist aren’t really used so the sensor is able to get a clean reading, in rowing the load being out through the arms, muscles, tendons seems to mess with the signal meaning you will never get a clean reading – on the plus side the Watch is able tom pick up readings from an ANT+ chest belt, so using a garmin belt means you will get correct HR for your data
  • The watch picks up stroke rate really well, however it only seems to work on your wrist – not if you attach it to your footplate or wing rigger, also it tends to lag 3-4 strokes behind when you change stroke rates, possibly due to smoothing – I don’t find this an issue however as due to the fact it is on your wrist, it’s not great for a stand alone stroke meter, it’s best as a workout logger and use a stand alone stroke meter like the active tools rate watch

The activities work very easily – press the right hand button on the front, select rowing, then the app has loaded.

If you press and hold on any of the info points on the screen, it will load the menu where you can select whichever data field you want it to display, and there are three pages of data fields that you can swipe through during the activity – You are able to also lock the screen if you are worried of water hitting the screen.

To start the activity – press the right hand button again on the front and it will start, press it again and it will stop and ask if you want to save/delete the workout

Once you have completed the workout and saved it, the radioactive HR will automatically connect and sync with the Garmin Connect app when it next connects to your phones bluetooth – This tends to happen automagically so I am not sure how much storage the watch has and how many workouts it can store, but I haven’t had any issues so far with losing workouts and whenever I open the Connect app the data is usually there for review or if not, it is after a short Sync with the watch.

The connect app is very feature packed but doesn’t seem to have the best UI to some other apps I have used and it does seem to focus mostly on the triathalon sports with most of its features – for example It has useful “snapshots” which pop up information about the day so far, how many steps you’ve take, your 24/7 heart rate etc which is useful,  however the only sport related snapshots are running, cycling and swimming which is a shame.

Going  into the calendar view is probably where you will spend most of your time as here you can look at each day in more detail – how many steps you’ve taken, claroies burned etc – then if you click on the workout more details about that workout

Here is a sculling workout for example – the first page gives an overview of the workout, how long it took, how far and calories burned – the map is a useful addition and it also helpfully shows what the weather was doing at the time – here you can see it was sunny but with a light wind from the south south east

next page is more specific details which includes stroke rate, distance per stroke, 500m split and heart rate

Next are the laps, and neatly the Garmin seems to be able to automatically set a lap from your GPS location, I certainly never set a lap manually!

And finally some nice graphs, again showing pace (500m split), heart rate, stroke rate, distance per stroke and time in HR zone

The Indoor rowing app basically does the same but without the GPS – Unfortunately it doesn’t connect directly to concept 2 so currently you don’t get the splits/wattage directly on the watch – you can edit the workout later to add the average wattage if you wanted.

On this point of connecting to the Concept 2 erg its worth highlighting that the Vivoactive HR supports Garmin ConnectIQ – this is Garmin’s app development system which means people are able to create “apps” that can run on these watches to track other non-officially supported activities – one example is a weight training app that you can download which you can run to remember your reps and sets for each exercise. I mention it as although Concept 2’s PM4&5 monitors support ANT+, currently none of the newer Garmin watches have apps supporting ANT+ FE so they cannot get the watts/split directly from the PM, but potentially a ConnectIQ app could be developed which could connect and sync the wattage/splits. ConnectIQ certainly has a number of intelligent developers already working on apps, for example the Beer Tracker which shows how many beers you’ve earned/burned that workout, so I am hopeful more support may come for rowers down the line.

All in all, I am very happy with the Vivoactive HR’s ability to track rowing, it accurately tracks stroke rate both on the erg and the water and because it automatically syncs with your smartphone, is a great way of backing up all your training data so that you have a log rather than having to write everything down or manually download files from your GPS/speedcoach to upload manually.

To to summarise then, here are the main points and some considerations

  • As mentioned (but will mention again) the wrist HR does not work whilst rowing, you still need  a chest belt to get accurate HR
  • The Vivoactive HR picks up strokerate very well but appears to have smoothing/lag of 2-3 strokes – plus it only picks up strokerate when worn on your wrist so I don’t consider it a replacement for a standard strokemeter
  • On the stroke rate – if you look at the graph of stroke rate you can see funny peaks every so often where its up in the 50’s, 60’s – this is because I wear the watch on my left wrist and when I am turning the boat round I tap with the left blade, meaning it registers a high stroke rate! I don’t see that as an issue but it is funny to see in the graphs
  • The GPS doesn’t have as much smoothing as the NK GPS, so it tends to jump around as you row due to the fact you are accelerating/decelerating every stroke and it just depends when in the stroke it takes the reading – this isn’t an issue over a whole outing/piece as it averages out, again however I don’t recommend relying on it as a live speed indicator while rowing
  • On the GPS as well, I tend to leave the watch running throughout without pauses as this is a lot easier, however it does means that it includes all the time spent turning which the Garmin doesn’t see as “stopped”since the boat is turning and also drifting with the stream, means the average is skewed slower
  • The app – although feature rich, isn’t as well laid out as I would like – for example although it contains all the data of the outing, it is difficult to review in detail what is going on as you cannot “zoom” into parts of the outing in the app (and even through the desktop app its still not ideal) – however I personally use Sportlyzer to review on the water sessions since it is developed with rowing in mind and automatically syncs with Garmin meaning if I wanted to zoom in at a part of an outing for more details, I could do it there

To Summarise then – the Vivoactive HR is the best GPS watch I have come across that works well as a support device for a rower. I don’t see it as a direct replacement to a speedcoach/strokecoach, instead I see it as a companion device to, say, the active tools rate meter  or the NK stroke coach so you can focus on the rowing specific device during the outing, the Vivoactive is good for logging your workout in the background for later review and also tracking all the other activities you do day to day so you can keep tabs on everything you do and hopefully work out what you can do increase the efficiency of your training.


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NK open pre orders for Empower oarlock

NK have just announced that pre-orders of their empower oarlock are now open, details of the oarlock and how it works are here
And the pre-order page is here

The announced price of $649 plus delivery per oarlock 

General thoughts – Aside from the relief that of one of the many promised power meters is now actually going to hit the market, the price  they are aiming for is a good target as its significantly lower than all of the current power meters on the market, which brings using power to improve your rowing into range of club athletes – particularly if you already have the NK GPS stroke coach which is used as a screen for the oarlock
Looking forward to getting hands on with one!

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New Kickstarter launched – The Rowing App

Launched today is a new Kickstarter for a product called The Rowing App

To summarize some of the main offered features

  • Able to log workouts on the erg and on the water in the same place
  • For water outings – Phone can be attached to the blade where it will track the GPS of the outing, but also track the position of the blade in/out of the water for later review
  • For erg sessions – Uses Optical Character Recognition to record the workout details
  • Calendar for planning sessions
  • Monthly subscription charge for using the Premium analysis part of the app

My general positive thoughts about the kickstarter are that it looks like quite a nice app, it has a number of big names behind it in the rowing world, it has been well thought out and a very good User Interface and there are a few nice features like being able to use OCR and photos to record erg sessions (meaning no need to faff with cables/firmware/monitors pre erg), and being able to add photos of the conditions for the log

On the downside, although I like the idea of tracking the blade path through the stroke, I feel that attaching a phone to the blade will be making it somewhat unweildly – particularly one of the narrow shaft sculling blades that are becoming more and more popular. Assuming that it is the phones accelerometer that they are using to track the blade path, an easy solution would be to use a separate accelerometer device (something like the wahoo cadence sensor) and connect that to the phone, that would be much smaller and easier to manage – adding ANT+ would also bring the added benefit of meaning in crew boats (with multiple sensors) all the phones in the boat would be able to recive the data from all the sensors, so blade paths could be overlaid – i.e. if each rower in a pair had a phone and sensor each, using ANT+ they would be able to see each others blade paths on their own phone, not possible with bluetooth smart which is 1-1 connection only.

In addition, there is the point of making sure that even though the data is being collected is presented in context – there is no point in seeing what your blade path is doing without seeing an example of what it “should” be doing or where it is going wrong, here I would hope the devs are using their big name rowers to install a number of “ideal” curves that people are able to follow and I suspect this is what the “premium features” will be that are being offered, however apparently the final feature set is to be confirmed after crowdfunding

In summary, I very much like the concept of the app but have not completely bought into the idea of using a phone on my blade as it is currently suggested, I will be putting my points to the devs and also closely following the project as I do think the app in particular looks very well put together and could be a useful way to track land and water training in one place



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Coxing magazine suggest summer release for NK Empower oarlock 

Another rowing magazine has entered the market with its first issue and, like row360, I’d recommend checking it out if you can as they often offer interesting and useful insights into rowers, coaches and companies lives and practices, often releasing small bits of information not previously seen or confirming one of the many rumours about rowing.

Coxing magazine has just such a piece of information in their article with NK where, alongside a picture of the NK Empower oarlock  it is mentioned that they are targeting a summer release. That alongside a demo unit being on display during Henley regatta (shown below) does raise hope it may be sooner rather than later that they becomes available 

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Sweetzpot Rowing Power Meter Announced

Another company has stepped forward and aims to bring a rowing power meter to market this year – A company called Sweetzpot (nice)

Based in Norway, they already have a free “speedcoach” app available on android, with apparently an iOS app coming later in the summer – and appear to be hard at work developing a rowing power meter that, according to the thread on (where I first heard about them) they aim to release this year



It is interesting to see how far along they are with the development of the product and that they are already beta testing it at several Norwegian events and with the Norwegian national squad – Following my rant last post its good to see frequent updates on their social media sites!

Regarding the power meter itself, it appears to be essentially the same as the Weba Sport Oar Power meter that is already available in that it is a sensor that is attached to one of the oars and measures the amount of flex of the shaft, a calibration of the sensor/app using a known weight suspended from the blade helps make sure the accuracy

I actually own the webasport device and plan to do a full review in the summer when I have some time, although some thoughts I had and how they apply to this product

  • Big advantage over gate based sensors in that it can work with rowing/sculling and is quick and easy to change between boats/rowers when needed
  • Not aware of any issues with accuracy with the Webasport OarPower meter when compared to comparative effort on a rowperfect (although havent been able to compare with another product) – easy to calibrate and be confident you have done so correctly
  • Having the device on one oar and not the other is a little disconcerting when sculling – a lighter product/smaller profile would help reduce this and it looks like the sweetzpot is smaller
  • The usual issues/risks of using a phone in the boat rather than a dedicated device (screen not ideal/overly reflective, water protection etc)
  • The Webasport app is Android only and very basic and not that user friendly, a better developed app would help improve the Sweetzpot product no end
  • The Webasport Power Meter is around £500, the Sweetzpot sensor is currently pre-ordering at about 2000 Nor Kr + shipping, so around £250 in the UK, a very competitive price

Looking forward to hearing more about this product as the year pans out

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First picture of the Nielsen Kellerman EmPower Oarlock

The EmPower oarlock has been mentioned by NK before, there was even a “dummy” model back at the HOCR showing the concept of the device, but there hadn’t previously been any pictures of the product available – This week NK released a photo of the Empower gate on their “get more speed” GPS Speedcoach facebook page in response to a comment that there was a concern that these new wireless oarlocks would be incompatible with the increasingly more common “rear riggers) – with the photo clearly showing the gate is fine with what looks like the Filippi back riggers, with a comment that they have been working with companies (including Fluid) to make sure it will be compatible with as many boats as possible

concep 2 gate

As discussed before, NK are in a good position with already having a solid head unit on the market in the NK GPS 2.0 so bringing in a wireless force oarlock would be a clever step by the company and would encourage people already used to using NK equipment to pick NK empower meter over other options. Currently there is no mention of potential release date and price

EDIT – NK have come out with the following comment “we are still working on a few things, but we are working really hard to have them available for the fall season” so It may be the aim will be to try and have the product available for HOCR, which if they manage it would be an excellent launch pad for the product 

As a side note (and not specifically aimed at NK) – although it is always good to see that the development of the gate is moving ahead, it is frustrating that information only leaks out in piecemeal like this rather than a more regular update from companies working on these affordable power meters – my experience is there is a lot of interest in these products, and a lot of excitement for when they will finally get to the market – it is appreciated that development of projects like this is complicated and so timelines are difficult to set, but in that case it is better to communicate the difficulties and shifting timelines so that potential customers can shift their expectations.





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Article on what technology can bring to Rowing

About a month ago I was asked to write an article for the May edition of the UK rowing & regatta magazine talking about how using technology in rowing can help with rowing, and in writing it I tried to not only talk about the big/well known/well used bits of tech (i.e stroke coaches/telemetry) but to also touch on other pieces of tech where I feel there are real benefits that could be had in using to monitor not only your rowing, but also recovery time which can be equally as important in getting the best performance possible on race day.

Sadly my article didn’t make the final cut for the magazine but I have shared it below for your consideration

The aim in competitive rowing is to make the boat go as fast as possible to win on race day. So it’s important to get the most out of every session; to make sure that every stroke you take is improving both your technique and fitness, and importantly continuing this improvement, session by session, so you reach your peak on race day.

Sports technology can help by making it easier to measure every aspect of your training and identifying where improvements can be made. Measurements like monitoring a rower’s power during a stroke – something that is a much more accurate data source than boat speed since power is unaffected by external factors like wind or current – can give a much better insight into how the rower is working, but as well as this there are other measurements that can be analysed to help improve the athlete by making sure they are working to improve their own weaknesses. Products like a lactate tester can be used during long endurance pieces so you can ensure that they are working in the correct training zone, or running a lactate step test (where you perform several 4min pieces with 1 min rest between, stepping the wattage up each piece and taking lactate during each rest to find you lactate profile) to find the rowers lactate threshold, and using this information to individualise their training plan.

There are benefits to be had using sports technology outside of training as well, for instance, ensuring that rowers have adequate rest between sessions. Using electronic training logs make it easier to their day/week/month training workload and, and with 24/7 heart rate tracking devices measuring resting heart rate, you can see how they are responding to those loads and whether you need to adjust their training in response.

These are just some of the advantages of sports technology but what are the drawbacks?

Often it can take time to set up the equipment each time you use it and extracting the data can eat into your valuable available training time. Also when using a new piece of tech, like a full telemetry system, it can be easy to become overloaded by all the additional data being presented. And if you don’t have the context of what the ideal result should be then it’s easy to lose focus on your primary aim of making the boat go as fast as possible on race day. Spending time understanding the biomechanics of rowing, for example on the website Biorow, can be useful for identifying what you should look for in the data being collected

Adding new pieces of technology can make it easier to track and analyse your rowing and help to identify how to improve, but you must balance these benefits against any potential drawbacks before deciding to include the technology in your training And it is key to remember that the technology is there as an aid only, an over reliance on technology may take the focus away from the need for a rower to learn intuitively through feel the boat handling skills needed to get the most out of the boat.

Here are 5 products I am looking forward being released in 2016

  1. Nielsen Kellerman’s EmPower Wireless Oarlock A wireless power recording oarlock, which will support the already popular NK GPS 2.0 speedcoach and make it easier and cheaper to adopt – I like the direction NK have gone with this, as supporting their already excellent NK GPS device is a clever move, however there is no information about price or idea when it will be coming out – and with important updates to the NK GPS software (that should be relatively easy to push out like enabiling a smartphone app to download workouts off the device, rather than needing a PC) seem to take a long time for them to release – fingers crossed tho

  2. Oar Inspired – A fully modular wireless telemetry system, ranging from the RowCom GPS screen up to the full rower power measurement and the first truly affordable system that has been announced, priced well below current models on the market – With the announcement last year that Australia Rowing will be collaborating with Oarinspired to release the product I am hopeful 2016 will be the year they make it to the market – another product I have my fingers crossed for!

  3. – An online training log in a similar vein to other online training logs, but with the difference that this is specifically for rowers and they are looking to work with other rowing manufacturers to collect all your rowing training data in one place, making it easier to track your overall training load

  4. FitPal – A comfortable stick-on heart rate monitor which allows 24/7 HR tracking, good for tracking time training and time recovering –  personally I really dislike HR straps and the restriction you feel with them – but wrist based sensors don’t work with rowing so this is the next best thing

  5. Lily Drone – The 2015-16 season seems to already be the year of the drone footage, but a waterproof/floating drone is probably a good idea to consider for a watersport! 


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