Before you go out shopping for a heart rate monitor you need to make sure you understand what to look for. We have put together the following list of the most important features for a high performing heart rate monitor. We have researched and gathered information from experts like track and field coaches and professional athletes, as well as a variety of professional testing and review centers.
The market for heart rate monitors is made up of some very basic models and some very advanced models. Basic monitors typically only show your heart rate and are inexpensive, usually retailing for less than $50. More sophisticated monitors like the Garmin 405CX heart rate monitor not only record your heart rate, but can provide you with a wealth of information about your exercise and fitness levels. Some will even motivate you to do better and help you achieve your goals. Advanced monitors can run a couple hundred dollars, but it is money well spent. Having an advanced heart rate monitor is like having your own personal training coach on your wrist.
Many of the top track and field athletes in the world, as well as professional triathletes, use advanced heart rate monitors to plan their training. Marcus O’Sullivan, Villanova University’s head track coach, says that “Heart-rate monitors are an essential part of race success.” He finds it very hard to try and coach one of his athletes when they don’t want to wear a monitor.
If you are out racing, no matter what the sport, you can bet your top competitors are using only the best heart rate monitors to improve and advance their training. The last thing you want to do is to fall behind.
So here are twelve important features that you need to look for if you want to get the best heart rate monitor for your game, and take your fitness to the next level.
1. A large and easily readable wrist display.
When your sprinting to the finish at the end of your workout, the last thing you want to do is to have to break stride and slow down to look close at your monitor because the numbers are too small to read. You need a really bold display and if you are exercising at night, you definitely need a backlight display to illuminate the readings. Also if you’re a cyclist you will have the monitor mounted on the handles of your bike. You can’t really move closer to the monitor to read it, which makes display readability even more important.
2. Integration with your computer.
This is an essential feature if you plan on getting serious with your training. As the saying goes, “If you don’t keep score, you don’t know if you are winning.” Keeping score for endurance athletes means tracking time, speed, and distance covered as well as your overall fitness level as recorded through your heart rate monitor. You can simply write down your times and your heart rate from the data in the monitor, but it’s much easier to just sync it up to your computer and download all of the data you need. You can then track it and plan your workout according to the analysis performed by the software.
Most manufacturers that offer this feature have a range of highly detailed statistics that can measure your performance over time. Several manufacturers, like Polar, even have websites where you can register for free and load up your data for analysis. To load your data up to the Polar website you need a FlowLink which is a USB device that connects your watch monitor to your computer. On the Polar website you’ll find strength building exercises and fitness calculators, as well as the ability to design customized training programs and track your progress. There is even a community of users that you can interact with and compare workouts and training tips. I highly recommend it as a very valuable resource. You don’t have to have the FlowLink device to use many of the features on the site, although you get way more out of the site if you can upload your own training data.
3. A good fitting chest strap.
You really need your chest strap to fit tight to your chest to get an accurate heart rate reading. If the electrodes are not touching your chest the whole time you are exercising you’ll get false readings and not get the full benefit of your heart rate monitor. You want the strap snug to your chest, but not so tight that it chafes you. If you are exercising for a long period of time, and have problems with chafing, then we recommend using small amounts of Vaseline or some type of sports lubricant like BodyGlide.
Women often have a hard time getting the strap to fit right so we recommend using special sports bras designed specifically for women. One really good women’s sports bra is the Polar Cardio Sports Bra.
4. An encrypted signal from the chest strap to the wrist monitor.
You won’t see this being an issue in most heart rate monitors, however there are some models that may not have an encrypted signal. If that is the case and someone next to you on the treadmill is using a monitor as well, then your device may start to register some of the other person’s readings. If you are a fit marathoner, it can be quite a shock when you’re running at a moderate pace and you monitor shows your heart rate is at 200 beats per minute, which is really the reading of the 250 pounder huffing away on the treadmill beside you! So if your model is not encrypted you just need to be away of this and keep a moderate distance from others using monitors.
Another issue to be aware of with monitor reception that does not have to do with encryption concerns interference from other devices like cell phone towers and power lines. Most of these sources of interference are temporary and go away as you run past them. Usually you’ll just have a brief pause in the recording or a quick, abnormal spike in your heart rate reading.
5. Big control buttons that are easy to push on the wrist display.
When you’re in the middle of your workout and sweating your tail off you don’t want to have to deal with tiny little buttons to push on your monitor. Bigger buttons that respond easily and quickly are essential in a wrist monitor. If you are doing splits and using the stopwatch a lot or doing a multi-heart rate targeted zone workouts and pushing those buttons a lot, then large buttons become even more crucial.
6. An easily replaceable battery.
Many heart rate monitor manufacturers require you to send the whole thing back to the manufacturer just to get the battery replaced. This can be a real hassle as the entire ordeal can take a couple of weeks, during which time you’ll be without your monitor. However, most manufacturers will do a full service analysis on your monitor while they replace the battery, which is good and will certainly extend the life of the device.
Most batteries will last 1-2 years, depending on use, before they need to be replaced. A service at that time can be a good thing if you can handle being without your monitor for a couple of weeks. It’s your preference, but I like being able to change the battery myself.
7. A good fitting watch.
You don’t want a watch that’s bouncing around when you are moving or that’s too tight. Also in terms of appearance, you don’t want something that’s too bulky or appears too small on your wrist. Make sure you look at the dimensions of the watch head and the strap before you buy. All of our reviews on this site list the dimensions of the watches so you can get a pretty good idea of size.
8. A multifunction alarm.
There are several types of alarms you can get with your monitor that are very useful. A countdown alarm works in conjunction with a stopwatch and lets you know when to start and stop your interval training. Also having the monitor beep when you stray from your target heart rate is very helpful. That way you know when to slow down or speed up and you don’t have to keep looking at your watch to see if you’re in the right target zone, which can be a real pain.
9. Programmable target heart rate zones.
It’s not enough just to know your heart rate, you need to know what your target heart rate zones are in order to accurately and efficiently plan your training sessions. The best heart rate monitors can be programmed to beep when you are moving outside your target heart rate. If your heart rate goes too high you get a beep to back off a little bit. The same goes if you’re slacking off and going too slow and your heart rate drops down below the target zone.
Some monitors will only beep if your heart rate goes too high or too low but not both. Try to find one that has both functions. It’s also helpful to be able to program multiple target zones for one work out, although this can get complicated in terms of programming. Just make sure everything is laid out simply and clearly in the product manual.
Also included with programmable target heart zones is a feature called summary memory. This tells you how long you were in your target heart rate zone during your last workout. It should also record the amount of time that you spent below or above your target zone and your maximum and average heart rate during your workout.
The Polar FT60 heart rate monitor offers a complete training program based around programmable heart rate zones. It’s basically like having your own personal electronic coach monitor your fitness level and recommend ways for you to improve.
10. A heart rate recovery feature.
With this feature you can find out how quickly your body recovers after a hard workout. This tells you about your overall fitness level. The monitor determines this by measuring how many beats your heart rate drops after one or two minutes immediately following the conclusion of your workout.
This feature can also be used during speed or sprint sessions to measure your rest periods. For example, you’ll get a beep or some type of indication on the watch telling you that your heart rate has dropped to an acceptable level and you can start your next speed interval.
11. Easy to work and program.
We’ve all had those incredibly complex watches where you need an aerospace engineering degree just set the date and time. Push this button, hold that button x number of seconds, and so on. These can be a real headache. So you want a monitor that is going to have a manual that is really easy to follow.
Many of our detailed heart rate monitor reviews include the actual product manual for you to download and take a look at before you purchase the monitor. We also have information on what other users say about the difficulty level of programming the monitor. That way you know for sure whether it’s going to be too complicated for you to program or not.
12. A Stopwatch
I consider a stopwatch a very helpful item to have when training. But who wants to have to wear a stopwatch and a heart rate monitor at the same time? Your heart rate monitor should have a stopwatch function built into it and most of the best models that we list on this site do.
A nice bonus to have with a stopwatch is the ability to time splits or laps. This is where you can hit the stopwatch after interval one or lap one then start it again for interval two and so on. The stopwatch will record each of your split times.