How to swim with your Garmin Forerunner GPS

After purchasing the Garmin Forerunner, I was determined to use it as much as possible to get the most out of my money.  On an average day I have two training runs/rides/swims, and I use the GPS for every outdoor workout I do.  One of the more challenging uses though is swimming with it when doing an open water swim.  Once configured you’re all set, but getting a good configuration can be a bit tricky.  So after using it a number of times this past summer during open water swims (salt and freshwater), I can offer the following little tidbits of advice.  Keep in mind that this is based on my use of the Garmin Forerunner 305 device, but most devices will be similar.  I also take no responsibility for breakage to the device, although everything described below is within the allowed operating limits of the device.

To start with – here’s what the manual says on page 53 regarding its aquatic functionality:

Water Immersion:
The Forerunner is waterproof to IEC Standard 60529 IPX7.  It can withstand immersion in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes.  Prolonged submersion can cause damage to the unit.  After submersion, be certain to wipe dry and air dry the unit before using or charging.  NOTE: This product is not intended to be used while swimming.

Let’s take apart this paragraph.  You shouldn’t go deeper than 3 feet.  But that shouldn’t be an issue unless you’ve got some whacky submersion swim style (or you’re drowning, in which case you should probably concentrate on rectifying that issue first).  You should ensure that if you do go longer than 30 minutes, you keep the unit dry – or that it’s not actually fully submerged.  Typically the reason for most devices having time limits is that it’s dependent on how long the seals can withstand the pressure of water (which is 800 times more dense than air).  The last line is there primarily because my guess is that they don’t want you putting it on your arm (which would be very bad as you’d constantly be whacking it against the water).

Before we talk about placement, let’s talk about protecting the device.  While I’ve gone swimming with the device straight in the water, I prefer to put it in a small Ziploc bag under my swim cap.  The best size of Ziploc bags are the small little ‘snack’ sized ones, they fit the device perfectly.  Also – it’s easiest if you remove the device from the armband.  One of the best ways to do this is to buy the quick release kit, which makes it really easy to pop the device off and on (such as onto a bike as well).  Either way, I find the Ziploc bag makes me feel ‘safer’

With all of that said, let’s address the issue of placement of the GPS.  The best place to place the GPS is on your head.  If you place it in your pocket (assume you had a pocket), it won’t get signal.  Been there, tried that.  If you place it under your wetsuit on your back – you might get signal (I haven’t tried that) – but then how would you easily push the buttons or review it if you had to?

With placing it on your head, you have easy access to it for button pressing.  The key is exactly where you place it on your head.  The best place to put it is roughly where a ponytail would normally be if you had one.  If you were to put it directly on the top of your head when you put your head in the water (horizontal), the GPS would actually be lower in the water.  By placing it essentially on the back of your head, when you put your face in the water it will be pointed towards the sky.  I found some random photo on the Internet and doctored it up a bit, here’s an example.  The orange square is the GPS.  Obviously the real thing is much smaller and rounder.

SwimmerBadGPS

SwimmerGoodGPS

As you can see by the above photos, once you go horizontal, you want the device as close to the sky as possible.

Ok, so we’ve got the device in a bag, and you’re read to place it under the swim cap.  This is where the trickery comes in.  The easiest way I’ve found is to simply place the device on your head first – and then put the swim cap on.  Also – I’ve found that by always placing the front of the GPS in the same direction as the front of your head, you can remember the button layout (start is simply the lower right hand corner).  And to state what may be obvious – turn on the device and get it ready to go BEFORE you put it on your head.  The only remaining task will be pressing the start button and ensuring you hear the little start beeps.  Make sure that it’s firmly under the swim cap and won’t slip out (that would suck), if you do it right – it shouldn’t go anywhere.  If you’re really concerned about losing the device to the deep blue, just get a small piece of string (maybe even a shoelace) and tie it to the zipper on your wetsuit.

So now the device is ‘mounted’ and you’ve pressed the start button.  This would be a good time to start swimming.  There really isn’t anything more to do than swim.  Once your done swimming simply hit the stop button (also lower right on the face).  If you forgot, don’t worry – you can easily edit the track later to remove the offending portions.

After you’re done swimming you’ll want to use a program to see how far you went.  I use Sport Tracks, which is where the below screen shots come from.  It’s a free application with a very active user community – available here.  Either version 1.3 (current non-beta) or version 2.0 (beta) will work great (including working great with Vista).

Regarding the heart rate strap – I’ve had varied results with it.  I haven’t had much of an issue without the wetsuit, but while wearing a wetsuit I seem to get intermittent to no signal.

Here’s a couple of examples of what the different placement locations will do.

Good Placement (distance and swim direction consistent with reality):

GoodSwim

RoundDaLake

Bad Placement (plus moderate waves – ocean swim) – the distance way off due to the bad signal: BadPlacement

Hopefully this helps.  If you have any questions – I’m more than happy to answer any questions!

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65 Comments

  1. Thanks – that was fantastic. I have a 201 but it will work the same, I’m sure. I’m doing an SF Bay swim this weekend and really wanted to track it. Now I can!

    Reply
  2. Thanks for the write-up, I’d heard other people doing this too. Don’t you think though that a company as successful as Garmin could make the watch waterproof, even if the GPS didn’t work while swimming. Using on your wrist for a triathlon would be great if you could get HR and lap times including the swim.

    Reply
  3. tinman

    Nice! I’ve had my 305 for years, but I just did my first swim with it today. Very Cool.

    Weird though – the watch says 0.93 miles (which seems about right), but after I uploaded to SportTracks 2.0, it showed 1.44 miles for the ‘calculated values’. I’m checking the discussion boards on SportTracks now.

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    Rainmaker – your blog is fantastic. I regularly read your adventures and look forward to each new post.

    Your review seems to indicate that the heart rate monitor strap can be worn while swimming w/o a wetsuit. Am I correct in that interpretation? Are there any limits to doing this? HRM strap lifespan, etc…

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

    This is so helpful. I’m looking to get my first GPS watch to train for the Reno/Tahoe Odyssey next May, and have found your discussion immensely valuable. Thanks so much! (I read this and the main 305 review) I’m going to give the 305 a try.

    Reply
  6. DD

    This comment has been removed by the author.

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

    Excellent! I stumbled upon this posting accidentally and I’ve wanted to do this very thing. Thanks for the tips… just one question… have you used the Heart Rate Monitor… if so, any advise on that?

    Reply
  8. I typically always have my HRM under my wetsuit during swims so that when I transition to the bike/run it’s already there and is just picked up (I use the HRM strap on EVERY run/bike during training and racing).

    However, when I have swam with my Garmin 305 and the HRM is on under the wetsuit the data gathered is fairly slim. I think the combination of the water and the wetsuit breaks down the signal. I’ve had a little better luck without the wetsuit in picking up random bits – enough to kinda create an average, but not enough to capture short sprints, etc…

    Reply
  9. Anonymous

    Get the new waterproof Garmin forerunner 310XT – waterproof to 50m.

    Reply
  10. You can also try wearing the HRM backwards under your wetsuit — so the electrodes read on your back instead of your chest. Having the transmitter closer to the watch, rather than on the other side of your body, might help.

    Reply
  11. Anonymous
    Reply
  12. I highly recommend this case –

    link to aquapac.net

    I’ve been using it now for a few months. It fits well, it’s easy to tell that it’s closed and waterproof, plus you can loop the hole through your swim goggles.

    Great review on the 310XT! I’ll be sticking with my 305 until it dies. :)

    Reply
  13. DC Rainmaker–great post. I came to the same basic set-up on my own but your post helped me avoid some mistake, like bad placement. Also answered my question on whether the heart rate monitor can be submerged. I’ll stick with my 305 until the 310XT is down to $150.

    Reply
  14. Anonymous

    Great blog, went swimming with my new 310xt this morning, and it told me Id done 5km in 39mins!! and when I looked at the track on google earth I was swimming on the beach haha (gave my tri club a good laugh. Will try again with it on my head tommorow rather than on my wrist.

    Reply
  15. Thank you for this tip! I never even thought that 305s could be used as such!

    Reply
  16. Rui

    Hi Rainmaker,

    Isn’t a problem for HRM strap using it in salt water?
    I’m mentioning, the strap that cames in 305 box.
    Thanks for the advice.

    Thanks and congratulations for your blog contents

    Rui Marques

    Reply
  17. Hi Rui-

    Nope, there’s no issues at all with the HRM’s in salt water, at least from a ‘surviving’ standpoint. The HR data still won’t pickup, but I’ve swam dozens and dozens of openwater salt swims without issue with it.

    Thanks and good luck!

    Reply
  18. excellent comments, I want to start practicing triathlon, and would like to use my Forerunner 405 unit to swim, any ideas on how to do that?

    Reply
  19. Hi Daniel-

    It’s much the same way with the 405, works just fine. One thing I’d suggest is picking up the fabric strap though, as it’ll make the whole on-top-of-head experiance much smoother. Good luck!

    Reply
  20. Once again, kudos on the excellent job reviewing. Your blog has helped me make the tough decision of buying my first training GPS that much more simple. And the helpful tips to maximize the use of my Garmin for multi-sport is invaluable. I wonder what we did before the internet?

    Reply
  21. Adnam(Manda)

    Seu blog e incrivel…sobre o 305 o ZIPLOC com o Fororunner 305 e usado por baixo da touca?

    Reply
  22. Adnam(Manda)

    Your blog is amazing … about 305 with the Ziploc Fororunner 305 and used under the hood?

    Reply
  23. Marik

    Hi all,

    but from garmin support:

    “The FR 305 and the HR monitor are not water proof units and we do not recommend swimming with them. Please refer to page 53 of the manual. The only two units that you can swim with are the FR 60 and FR 310XT.
    If you’re a triathlete the 310XT is the unit you would want to use. It also comes with a HR monitor that can be swam with. However, the HR readings in water may not be accurate.

    Any comments? so there is no way to use clock and ALSO HRM in a swimming pool!! i am quite disappointed about hearing that.

    Mark

    Reply
  24. Anonymous

    Hi Rainmaker,

    do you think is better to use HRM under the wetsuit during swim?

    I’d like to use the HRM when go to swim but i am afraid to damage it – support is saying that the HRM is not waterpoof.

    thank you Mark

    Reply
  25. Anonymous

    Alternative thought … would a solid-state compass mounted in the cap with on / off course readouts in the goggles be enough of an aid that people would want one? It would not report where you have been, but would help you get where you wanted to go.

    Reply
  26. How long would you recommend swimming with it when you have it in a Ziploc bag? My swims would be about 1 hr to 1.5 hrs in the pool, maybe with some flip-turns thrown in. Would that make a difference?

    Do you find your Ziploc bag leaks? Is it relatively safe in there?

    I just got a FR305 and am kind of weary about swimming with it for extended periods of time when it’s so brand spanking new.

    BTW, your reviews are amazing! Totally convinced me to go with the 305 and it’s well worth it.

    Thanks!

    Reply
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  28. Niamh Moloney

    Hi DC,

    Hope all is well and love your page.

    I have a slight problem I have followed all your advise about the 305 forerunner in the water but all it did was time it. I had no heart rate or distance covered. I was outdoors and swam in the sea to a distance of 1.4km (which i already knew). i noticed that whe i got out of the water i was reading my heart rate it just didnt record it. Now I have my first tri of the year on friday (14/1/11) and i want this to work properly. Can you help!

    this watch has been great for running and monitoring my HR but i need more out of it now.

    Reply
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    Reply
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    Reply
  32. Kel

    I finally get to try this out on Sunday. Have my 305 but have never used the multi-sport thing or for swimming.

    Actually I’ll probably try it Saturday during the test swim just to make sure everything works right. :)

    Reply
  33. craking review – just been looking at garmin watches and this has made my mind up for me – the 610 it is!

    Reply
  34. Thanks – I have only used my Garmin 305 for running so far – enrolled for a Triathlon sprint in nov – thought it would be good to track swimming now – I need a 3 months training plan for a sprint – where to get it??? Thanks – lke a lot the way you write!

    Reply
  35. Hi Imimdnul-

    I’d recommend picking up the Triathlete Magazine Week by Week guide. It’s what I used for my first few tri’s and is super easy to follow. You can find the link up above by click on the ‘Equipment’ button near the toolbar.

    It’s about $10-15 I think.

    Good luck!

    Reply
  36. Sebastian

    Rainmaker – I just love your blog, keep up the good work with all the posts!

    I´m about to do my first tri and wanted to wear my 310xt during the whole race to se my overall time (the distance of the swim is not that important). Were do you usually have the watch during a race? Since I have the quick release kit its quite bulky, is it a good idea to have it under the wetsuit? Will it fit? Drawbacks on time?

    Reply
  37. If you place it under your wetsuite, it’s definitely more secure, though, certainly plausible to bump it – so time-wise you lose what you had there. Additionally, track isn’t as accurate. The Swimcap is usually where I place the FR310XT in a race, but, beware, that anytime you use a FR310XT in a race during the swim section, you’re at the mercy of everyone else and how rough the swim start is.

    Reply
  38. Anonymous

    Hello, and thanks for the article. Your instructions say “After you’re done swimming you’ll want to use a program to see how far you went.” Does this mean the distance function on the 305 does not work when swimming? If it doesn’t, then is wearing a waterproof dive watch functionally equivalent? If it does work while swimming, would it still work inside a waterproof case such as one from aquapac?

    Thanks!
    Lake MI Swimmer

    Reply
  39. It works just fine, my comment was mostly aimed at the map aspect. As long as you place it in your swimcap you’ll get accurate data.

    As for a watch on your wrist, you don’t need a dive watch – just one ideally waterproofed to 30m or 100m, since most of the time those are also fine for swimming (vs an IPX7 watch).

    Reply
  40. Anonymous

    Hi.
    I’ve seen Lance Armstrong swimming with his Garmin610 and the watch seems to work (as far as I can see from pictures). Whats your take on it?

    Reply
  41. On the FR610, his is pretty rough. See my comments in this post about it and the history of it (straight from the horses mouth!):

    link to dcrainmaker.com

    Enjoy!

    Reply
  42. Hi
    Please check this workout: link to connect.garmin.com

    I think the distance is definitely not accurate… obviously because of the jaggedness of the course…

    What I want to know is if the timer on the Forerunner 310 is “real”… meaning… even though the GPS might not know where I am, does the timer keep going as a normal watch would or does it pause/slow until the GPS finds me again?

    Reply
  43. Yes, the timer is real, and does keep going even without the GPS aspect working correctly.

    Btw – for the Garmin FR310XT does have an openwater mode. I see that you specified running, instead of Other > Openwater Swimming.

    Reply
  44. I know this is an older post, but I’m sure I’m not the only one still using my 305. This summer we took a quick dip/wade (maybe ten minutes, at most 2 feet of submersion) in a creek before a trail run and my watch went berserk a few minutes later. I called support and they said that the 305 is not waterproof at all. I quoted “1 meter of water for 30 minutes” and the Garmin lady said that isn’t correct, it should not be used in the water at all. This really surprised me. Have you heard anything else like this?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Unfortunately, I think you’ve got a confused Garmin support person. Their unit is IPX7 waterproof, per their own manual (it’s in the index). It’s on page 64, manual below:

      link to www8.garmin.com

      I’d call back and escalate if need be.

      Reply
  45. JAVI

    Hello! I have found very useful your tips. I am also a triathlete and I would also like to find useful my Garmin on this sport. I have just purchased the Forerunner 410 unit, with a heart rate monitor. I have always used polar units that worked perfectly underwater displaying heartrate information, but unfortunately, this feature did not work with my Garmin 410, as it gets disabled as soon as the unit goes underwater.. Is it supposed to happen or there is something I must check? Thanks a lot!

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      No, ANT+ doesn’t transmit successfully through water (only goes about an inch). So for swimming, no luck there.

      Also of note is that the FR410 isn’t really waterproofed for swimming and after a bit of time it’ll die (many stories from many folks on that). It’s the pounding that’s the issue (against the water).

      Reply
    • JAVI replied

      OK, it is a shame as this unit has a lot of nice features. Thanks a lot for your answer!

      Reply
  46. Xavier

    Hello, very useful tips!
    But before I place my Forerunner 10 under my swim cap, I would like to get your thoughts on whether this is actually safe, radiation wise?
    I don’t even know if GPS devices emit radiation at all. But if they do, how much is a safe number? I couldn’t find any information related to this from Garmin.

    Regards,

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      I’ve never heard any issues. Keep in mind, it’s less ‘dangerous’ than a cellphone in the sense that these watches don’t emit/transmit anything – just receive. Whereas a cell phone next to your head both emits/transmits and receives GPS.

      Reply
  47. wouter

    1 meter immersion implies STATIC immersion. If you make too much sudden movements (in the extreme, dive), water pressure will increase exponentially during that brief moment of time. Do not swim with devices like the 305. in the long(er) run, you WILL break it.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Correct. Hence the whole post about putting it in your swimcap to avoid such scenarios.

      Reply
  48. Juan

    Hello!

    Just to congratulate you for this excellent post.

    I have been testing this technique with my Forerunner 305 and it works like a charm. Check this training I did this morning:

    link to connect.garmin.com

    I will participate on a sprint tri on a couple of weeks, Finally I will be able to track the whole event!! :-D

    Regards
    Juan

    Reply
  49. Thank you for writing this article. Although a few years old, your solution may get me out of having to buy the 910. I have the Garmin swim and the 405 and have finally started getting more involved in the open water. All I care about right now is the distance I’ve covered at the end of my open water swim. I do have one request. Since I don’t really want to spend $300-400 on another device, I would like your opinion on which of the following solutions you would recommend. If I survive my upcoming olympic, open water swims will be part of my future:
    Option 1 – Keep the Garmin Swim, 405, and buy the 310xt. The 310 is between $160-$190 these days.
    Option 2 – Don’t buy anything new and use 405 in my open water swims as you’ve suggested in this article.
    Option 3 – Sell the Garmin Swim, 405, and buckle down and buy the 910.
    Option 4 – Look for upcoming DC Rainmaker Giveaways and pray hard.

    Looking forward to any insight you can provide!

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      That’s a tough one. The absolute most accurate method is still the swimcap, so if accuracy is key, then swimcap method is ideal.

      If you’re looking at doing lots of openwater swimming, check out the Safer Swimmer buoy (see my review). I saw this because I’ve heard of a number of people sticking the GPS in that and getting even more perfect accuracy (since it sits above the water 100% of the time, as opposed to 95% of the time).

      Reply
  50. Myrna

    Thank you Ray!

    Reply
  51. Nick Martin

    Hi Rainmaker
    G’day from Australia
    Just got the 310XT and can’t wait to try the swimcap method to track distance and path in open water swims here in Sydney.
    One question though – do you suggest taking the strap off by removing the pins so it is just the unit itself that goes under the swim cap? As I’m guessing it might be uncomfortable or bulky to put it under the cap with the strap still attached
    Thanks for the advice – great site
    Nick
    cheers

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      I generally don’t. The reason is that it actually makes it easier to fall out of your swim cap than if the strap is there. This way, the straps can act as a bit of an additional chunk of grip to hold everything under your swim cap straps.

      Just my two cents.

      Reply
  52. Mark

    Would the above advice work with a garmin edge 500?

    I already use this for the bike and my run, I only want the basics of the swim ie gps route and time, don’t need stroke or any of the more technical stuff.

    I was in the process of buying a 910 purely for the swimming discipline but reading posts on the garmin 910 forum about issues with this watch then I may hold off buying it and even consider a garmin swim purely for counting laps in the pool although I believe there are issues with this as well.

    Cheers

    Mark

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      It would work for the Garmin Edge 500, no problems there.

      That said, I wouldn’t over-think forums issues. Remember that company support forums are ONLY ever used by people who have issues. Thus that’s pretty much the only thing you’ll see there.

      If you look at (for example) the FR910XT post/review here. You’ll see the vast majority of people are quite happy (especially in the pool).

      Just my two cents…

      Reply
  53. Mark

    Ray, thanks very much for the quick reply.

    I can pick up a brand new 910 for £210 in the uk, so it seems a no brainer over buying the garmin swim.

    I was just put off with some of the problems in the garmin forums, but you are right in the sense nobody shouts hey this product works really well on these forums.

    I have read your review on the 910, took me more than a couple of attempts to get from the start to the end, you do go in depth :) but I like that!

    Decisions, I don’t need all the extra data that the 910 gives you BUT it nice and shiny and it is in my price range.

    Will have a think about it.

    Thanks again

    Reply
  54. Rob

    Do Garmin watches give off the same radio frequencies as cell phones? If so then it’s like holding a phone to your ear making a 90 minute call, otherwise I would check it out before strapping this to the back of my head. I’d just put the watch in the front of my speedo, had 3 kids and the chop so there is nothing much of value down there :)

    Reply
  55. tim

    Useful invention!I can not wait to try with my fr620.But can I press the button in the water?

    Reply

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