Buyer’s guide: heart rate monitors - and six of the best
Outdated technology or easily accessible performance data? Here's everything you need to know about heart rate monitors
While the coaching industry has largely concerned itself with power as the benchmark metric to measure performance, there are still many factors that make a power meter unobtainable for some riders.
Prohibitive cost, the complication of setup and, in some cases, the individual rider's preference and goals are all significant barriers to adopting the technology.
So what about heart rate monitors? Time was that it was the industry benchmark for measuring performance, especially back in the 1980s and 90s, but there’s still plenty of relevance for the technology in today’s data-driven world, especially if a power meter is just a bit out of reach.
If you’re thinking of investing in a HRM, here’s what you need to know - and six of the best.
How do heart rate monitors work?
First up, if you’re going to buy a heart rate monitor, what exactly are you purchasing? Put simply, HRMs usually work by one of two ways.
The first is a battery-powered heart rate strap that fits around your chest and uses electrodes to sense your beating heart.
It then transmits the readings to a compatible head unit or wrist device to record it in isolation for live reference, or simultaneously along with other data such as GPS, power and cadence.
Second, and more recently with the development of so-called activity trackers and all-day fitness monitors, are optical scanners that monitor blood capillarisation at the wrist.
While historically accepted as being less accurate than chest-mounted straps, recent advances in the wrist-based solution can now yield results that are claimed to be equally as accurate.
How are heart rate monitors useful?
So that’s how they work, but how do they benefit you? Heart rate monitors are useful for several reasons; because they measure one of your key physiological responses to exercise, they can be a good means of getting a general indicator of fitness, while the data gleaned from them can help you to set your optimal training zones in order to improve that fitness.
Back when we spoke to coaches Dan Fleeman and Pav Bryan for our critique of whether you should opt for a heart rate monitor or power meter, both indicated that it’s a comparatively easy way of monitoring performance.
It’s arguably best suited for long-range efforts like club rides or sportives, rather than short and sharp intervals where instant power data trumps the natural delay in receiving accurate heart rate data commensurate with your effort.
Additionally, we also know that measuring heart rate against established benchmarks can be very useful in helping to indicate fatigue or potential onset of illness.
But aren’t they now outdated technology?
While we’ve heard this view in and around our local club runs, it’s a view that is only partially right – it really depends on your perspective.
Those who either already make use of, or desire, accurate and instant performance metrics in the form of power, are likely to view wattage as the golden standard of performance monitoring.
And, from an accuracy and repeatability perspective – especially when you consider how heart rate can be influenced by factors other than the in-the-moment effort – they’re absolutely right.
However, older technology is not necessarily any less useful, and in the case of heart-rate monitoring it’s really simply a variation on a theme.
The benefits of using heart rate to monitor your biological performance, as long as you know your individual capabilities (which can vary wildly from person to person), are well-researched and recognised in sport.
And, if you needed convincing further, just check out how many pros still resort to this 30-year-old method of recording physiological data.
How can I use a heart rate monitor effectively?
This question probably deserves a feature all to itself, but our conversations with coaches, alongside with our own personal experience, reveal some key messages.
Keep it simple
Heart rate recording is one of the most simple ways to record performance data, so the interpretation of that data logically needs to be kept simple too. For example, while you may wish to try to keep your heart rate as close to a specific figure as possible, it’s important to note that with biological data comes room for error (even power meters are not immune to this), so aiming for ball-park figures – like training zones – is recognised as the best way to make the most of a heart rate monitor.
Establish (and regularly update) benchmarks
Training zones established from recorded data are only relevant if they relate to your actual physical capability.
So, those benchmarks you set six months ago are likely to be out-of-date, especially if you’ve noticed other improvements in your performance, such as power data from a Wattbike, improved Strava times or a general feeling of ease with training sessions that used to feel hard.
You can use these other cues to determine if you need to retest yourself, or you can keep things uniform and retest every two or three months regularly.
Don’t be a slave to it
This is partly a philosophical view, but general wisdom dictates that getting the most out of any device necessitates the ability to let go from time to time.
Obsessing can lead to misinterpreted data, self-imposed limits or variances (e.g. ‘white coat syndrome’), potentially add to stress levels, or detract from the enjoyment of riding your bike.
Be mindful of your approach to using a heart rate monitor, and treat it as a tool – not a dictator.
Have clear goals, but…
…remember heart rate can be a fickle thing. It’s a great way to monitor how your body is coping with training load, as well as spotting fatigue before it gets too deep and complete rest is requires.
However, you need to bear in mind there are a multitude of factors that can influence heart rate simultaneously, alongside your actual activity.
Also, biological adaptations (such as a stronger cardiovascular system) can manifest themselves in different ways in different people, so using one set of metrics to measure improvements is unwise. If you’re struggling to interpret your heart rate data, discuss it with a coach or performance physiologist.
Six of the best heart rate monitors
Garmin Soft Strap Premium HRM
Garmin’s premium heart rate strap (you can have a basic one for a fiver less, which features a less flexible strap) often gets paired up in the performance bundles of the brand’s Edge range of head units.
It has ANT+ connectivity that makes it a perfect matchup to its own devices, while it’ll also work with any head unit or device that supports the ANT+ protocol.
It’s waterproof to 30m depth (so use in a deluge is likely to be ok), and also features an easy-to-adjust tensioner, while the fabric-based band is comfortable against the skin.
Wahoo TICKR HRM
The TICKR is a feature-packed heart rate monitor band for a tenner less than the Garmin equivalent.
Over and above ANT+ connectivity, you also get Bluetooth Smart that can be run simultaneously to two recording devices, while the front of the unit features two LEDs that indicates heart rate detection and connection status.
It can communicate with your phone (via Wahoo’s own app among a host of others, including Strava), to overlay data in the absence of a dedicated head unit, while it’s also waterproof to IPX7 standards.
Connectivity: ANT+, Bluetooth Smart
Polar H10 Heart Rate Sensor
Polar have been on the heart rate monitoring scene for decades, so it’s safe to say that they know how to make them.
The H10 uses Bluetooth for a wide range of compatibility (although there’s no ANT+), and uses a 5kHz connection so that it’s powerful enough to be used while swimming if Richie Porte-style cross-training is your thing.
Polar claims it to be the most accurate heart rate sensor it’s ever made thanks to an electrode redesign, while the central unit has the ability to record and store heart rate data for later uploading to Polar’s Beat app.
Mio Link Heart Rate Wristband
There are a plethora of all-in-one fitness trackers on the market right now, but if a straight substitute for a chest-strap-based monitor is on your wish list, you should consider the Mio Link.
Mio were one of the first to offer strapless heart rate monitoring, and have remained at the forefront of this iteration of the technology.
This model offers ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity, covering all bases, has a water resistance rating of up to 30m, and features five LEDs that can be programmed via the Mio app to display indications of which heart rate zone you’re in.
Connecitivity: ANT+, Bluetooth
Suunto Smart Sensor
Finnish brand Suunto sells its Smart Sensor with a real all-sport focus to pair with its range of watches.
However, it’ll also work with any Bluetooth Smart-enabled device too. This is another that’s rated for use in water for the swimmers among you, and can record heart rate data for later syncing with the Movescount app.
Connectivity: Bluetooth Smart
Decathlon Geonaute ANT+/Bluetooth Smart Heart Rate Monitor Strap
If you’re not fussed about using a major brand, then it’s worth taking a look at the Geonaute ANT+/Bluetooth Smart strap.
The brand won’t be familiar to many, but it’s available through Decathlon, and has all the major connectivity features a cyclist could hope to see; namely ANT+ and Bluetooth Smart.
The sensor unit is rated as having splash resistance, which covers usual sweat and outdoor use minus a real soaking in pouring rain, while the strap is textile-based and claimed to be comfortable against the skin.
Connectivity: ANT+, Bluetooth