The swimming pool is a relatively gadget-free zone. But that also means that the swim part of the triathlon is the least advanced in terms of training. The Incus Nova is looking to revolutionise your pool training sessions
Incus Nova – Coming to Revolutionise Your Swimming Performance
TLDR: With the potential to revolutionise swimming, the way power meters have cycling, the Incus Nova is definitely a product to watch
TG SCORE: PENDING
Ok, a lot of the time we talk about new products from well-known companies here. I’ve personally reviewed four versions of the Garmin Fenix as an example. But it isn’t often where we get a brand new company in the vein is Incus. So perhaps the first order of business should be to discuss who is Incus, and why is it that they are so confident about launching a sports gadget into the pool, a training area where few very companies have gone before
I was invited up the Incus Demo day earlier this year at Loughborough University. Given Loughborough Uni is one of the premier sports institutions in the UK, (The accolades on the walls of the pool really speak to that)
It makes sense that a university with such a strong focus, not only on the fitness of their students but also the successes of their sports teams and associated athletes is exceptionally keen on promoting and developing products in the fitness market. Something we’ve already seen this from the Hedkayse Helmet – who are actually housed in the office next door to the Incus at Loughborough’s Advanced Technology and Innovation Centre (ATIC)
Incus is the brainchild of Chris Ruddock, lead engineer and MD, born from an idea he had 10 years ago during his time as a competitive swimmer, about how to monitor the movement of an athlete in the water, and relay this information back to the coach. Given the support available working in ATIC, and an Innovate UK grant, it has taken Chris’ team 3 years to turn his idea into a working device.
I often find that the most interesting parts of a companies story come not from the device, or the fancy PR presentations, but talking to the people behind the scenes. Where their drive has come from and what has been the story behind a product coming out of the team’s minds, and into the hands of the users. Part of that and in fact where the company takes its name from is in Chris’ personal history
As I’m sure you are aware, the Incus is one of the three bones of the inner ear (collectively given the funky title: The Ossicles), which allows the transmission of sounds, from the eardrum, through the bones of the inner ear, to the nerve cells of the ear, which in turn is converted into electrical impulses our brain can interpret and thus hear as sounds.
As a competitive swimmer, Chris developed an inner ear infection which regrettable destroyed one of those vital bones. The Incus. Given that the Incus Nova is a device aiming to improve the communication and analysis of swimming performance, I see how the name was chosen. More than that though, I love how Chris has taken a personal tragedy – the loss of his hearing – has owned it, and is now running a company with its name.
So what is the Incus Nova?
The Incus Nova is a device built for swimmers, by swimmers, with the aim of improving communication between the athlete and coach, and delivering quality data, about swimming metrics which have only ever been poorly monitored, indirectly measured or rarely discussed due to lack of accuracy.
Can you see where the Incus name has come from now, with the big push of recording high-quality data, enabling the communication of that data, but crucially with their app making the data accessible
The product which most people will be familiar with, where parallels can be drawn with the Incus Nova, is an advanced foot pod such as Stryd or the Garmin Pod. Depending on the parameter being measured a foot pod, or a wrist-based activity monitor for that matter can have a limitation placed in the accuracy of the data, due to the recording is being done off centre. This imbalance is one of the reasons for a lack of coming from the swim segment of most triathlon devices. The recording location has a significant impact on the swimming metrics, even something a simple as stroke rate. As the Incus Nova is worn centrally against the upper spine in a special swimming top – the Incus Fiine – more advanced metrics such as body roll and velocity gain/loss as now possible.
I was lucky enough to be invited along to Loughborough University pool to try out the prototype, albeit final hardware design, of the Incus Nova. Whilst I was exceptionally interested to try out the unit, I also recognise that swimming is NOT my strongest sport, so must confess to having feeling a little self conscious when I zipped into the Incus Fiine vest
The Incus FIIN vest is an internally developed garment made from e way stretch on the clavicles so doesn’t move and rub against the neck – which is the same material as the Mo Farah uses in his chest belt
The FIIN is a necessary evil, in order to position the Incus Nova directly over the spine. I do think it is one of the biggest hurdles which Incus has to overcome, mentally, for users.
I say mentally as when you are in the pool, the vest does disappear, and has no impact on the user.
In order to be able to use the Incus Nova during a Triathlon event, it means that the Nova also needs it’s own designed kit with a pouch to hold the device. Obviously you don’t need to go and buy the Incus suit if you are using the Incus Nova, as you can wear the FIIN vest over your normal tri-suit… but I certainly felt a lot more at home in the Incus tri-suit than I did in the vest
There were two other athletes testing out the unit on the day of my visit, given that one, Samuel Page is in the GBR tri squad… I felt sufficiently outclassed (esp as I’d forgotten my contacts!!) when it came to the physical testing, but it allowed us to generate some data to look over, and that is really the reason we were there
Unfortunately on the day, we were using prototype devices, all information had to be downloaded, onto laptops, and we reviewed it at the poolside. The date was very much in raw form and lacked the software Incus Analytics dashboard and app which will be available when the Incus Nova launches. So what is being measured by the Nova?
- Kicks – left and right
- Body pitch and roll – including
- Velocity gain
- If I am over-rotating when breathing and by HOW much
As you’ll notice here, a lot of these metrics have previously only been possible in a lab, or with intense video observation. Incus is really looking to democratise this data, and I think has the capability to have the same impact on swimming, and power meters have had on cycling.
Here was one factoid, clearly apparent from my data during the test swim, which highlights the ease of improvement from the data: My speed slows with I breathe on the LEFT side during a stroke
Here is that raw data on the Incus server of three tests during front crawl. On the first test segment, I’m just swimming as I chose, which was breathing on the LEFT stroke. The second segment, I’m instructed to breathe on the LEFT, and on the third and final segment, I’m breathing on the RIGHT.
What the graph shows is that I lose velocity when breathing on the LEFT side, but then compensate by pulling harder with the RIGHT stroke. Conversely when breathing on the RIGHT, velocity loss/gain remains similar. Thus I’ll fatigue slower if I transition to breathing on the RIGHT.
Incus have also during development discovered facts during a swim which has been previously overlooked. For example, when reviewing data from tumble turns and pushing off quickly from the walls of the pool, highlighted spiky data has indicated is poor form and loss of speed whereas smooth graphs at this point have been associated with greater velocity gains
With this one finding, Incus’ attempt to try to reduce personal variations across the swim, which might be greatly impacting a technique became clear. Crucially putting all of this in the context of velocity gained makes it much easier for the end-user to gauge an impact.
One of the reasons that Incus has tackled swimming, as mentioned is that there are no comparable data recorders currently on the market. On the test day, we had a smattering of sports watches from Garmin and Sunnto in the group. Even with wearing the Fenix 6 during the test, the watches could basically provide summary data “We went for a swim, this quickly, over this distance, stroke rate and SWOLF”. None of which is able to provide coaching information from specific points during the swim, such as we are used to when analysing run and cycling activities.
One major issue with wrist and head based devices, that the data simply is not as accurate due to something call drift errors. This occurs when the users stop during a session with those devices, whether to adjust goggles or give feedback from a coach. Watches tend to give data the at the end of a length, whereas the Incus Nova has been designed to provide information on how an athlete got to the finish, ie during a length, and thus reduce drift errors, giving greater power to any changes which might be implemented to improve performance during that length
But Incus is still bound by the laws of physics, and the knowledge that is that ANT+ and Bluetooth has a transmission distance of only a few centimetres in the water. Hence the self-contained fitness devices like the Garmin Tri HRM, and the Polar OH1 which have onboard memory to record heart rate whilst in the pool.
So the Incus Nova also has built-in memory to record all of your stroke/swim data, but the light on the rear can be programmed to change depending on different recordings, to give a poolside coach direct feedback on an athlete in the water. Real-time feedback – via onboard processing – is also available to those without a coach, so the unit provides vibration feedback to the user, eg if over-rotating.
But Incus is looking to the future even with the first generation unit. As a result, there is an ANT+ / BLE radio in the unit, both for communication with the Incus app, but also for connection to the other sensors as further functionality online
Incus Nova – Real-World Usage
Whilst still in prototype, but in final hardware form, Incus asked if I would like to test out a Nova during the London triathlon. To which I obviously said a resounding yes.
Whilst I didn’t have a unit for test at home, I’d been applying the advice from the Incus Demo day on my swimming technique, as was very keen to see how those changes translated to the race.
Incus has been working with both athletes and coaches since their soft launch and uses every available opportunity to test the devices and gain additional data. As a result, I was pleased to see a group of other races, which Incus terms “Incus Enabled Athletes” on the day
Whilst the Incus device does disappear in the pool, I was very interested to see how the unit would feel during a swim with a wet suit. It certainly didn’t rub or chafe, which is a good thing, but in the current casing – which is being reviewed, the unit is a touch fiddly to engage when suited up. But perhaps the biggest, and most important learning point of the day was that I look particularly daft in a wetsuit and tri gear!
The units during the day were also set up to review the event during the bike and run sections, which is an area which if Incus can find new metrics and areas of study given their midline location is really going to make the Incus Nova a valuable device for triathletes
In terms of race times during the day, whilst I’m not going to go into specifics I had my fastest ever open water swim time, and have booked to face off against Chris Ruddock at another event in 2020, hopefully on the back of a full review, where I’ll be able to devel more into the Incus App and the dashboard services which are still being developed
Incus Nova – Conclusion
The Incus Nova will be available, as a bundle that includes the FIIN vest for £349.99, but currently, I don’t have a price including the tri-suit
That feels a little bit steep, especially when you consider that the service packages are going to run at £6.99 a month – however these are not required, but are certainly going to be useful for serious triathletes, who are looking to get the most accurate data for their coaches to work with. Incus is very clear that the Nova is not a tracker – this a is a wearable analytics tool, and it needs to be framed in this way with the coaching
Note I’ve also not said swimmers for their coaches to work with. Whilst the Incus Nova was originally intended as a swimming wearable, over the development of the product, Incus has widened that scope, and will be releasing updates to cover cycling and running metrics as well.
With all three disciplines in place, if the Nova is able to provide further enhanced data compared to classical wearables or sensors, then Incus could be sitting on a device we’ll soon be seeing on the back of podium winners at the Kona triathlon. In which case, I think that the unit will be able to justify its price tag – you can check them out at www.incusperformance.com
Regardless of price, the Incus Nova is one of the most innovative products I’ve seen in 2019