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.



About stelph82

I am a rower who is a lot of a technology geek as well!
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9 Responses to Garmin Vivoactive HR – Review of a GPS watch when used for rowing

  1. Thanks for the review. I like to strap the watch to the scull. I guess that would work as well.
    If the watch syncs with Strava or SportTracks, you can get your data to Concept2 by using the functionality of (shameless plug of my website).

  2. I like the idea of strapping it to the oar. I worry about having something on my wrist while I row.

    Thanks for the review. It looks like an interesting product (but a damn ugly watch!)

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  6. This is interesting, I hadn’t really thought of rowing as an activity that could benefit from a Garmin GPS watch. Bummer about the heart rate readings, though.

  7. This is really interesting. I have never really thought about buying a GPS watch before, but I guess I should get one for myself now

  8. Al says:

    Thanks for a great article! I paddle Outrigger canoes and I’m not sure if we train the same as you, but I noticed there is no “auto pause” for water sports. So now my resting periods between say a 1 mile piece will be calculated into my average pace. Makes it hard to calculate improvement. I had my 310xt set to pause under 2.5 mph. Love having the stroke rate now though…

    • stelph82 says:

      No im not aware of an autopause, but then personally I prefer the watch to log both rests and workouts as if I am monitoring my fitness that data is really useful

      If you are wanting to set up workouts then the new Vivoactive HR 3 may be a better shout, its larger due to the fact it is round but according to reviews it has workouts that can be programmed, or perhaps an NK GPS which can do workouts?

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