A great many athletes consider their heart rate monitor a virtually indispensible piece of gadgetry, but you don’t have to be a serious competitor to reap the rewards.
Heart rate monitors can be like your digital personal trainer – letting you know when you’re working hard enough and when you need to work harder, tracking your progress from week to month and even helping design fitness programs for you. Heart rate monitors keep you plugged in and engaged in your fitness journey by giving you continual feedback on a variety of metrics.
CHEST STRAP OR NO CHEST STRAP?
Some models feature an elastic chest strap with a small transmitter that fits right over the heart to measures its electrical activity (or EKG). The transmitter sends the information to the watch, so you can see in real-time exactly what your heart rate is at all times. The chest straps are designed to be comfortable enough that they shouldn’t cause you any discomfort. In fact, over time you’ll get so used to it you might not even notice you’re wearing it.
If you do find the chest strap uncomfortable, or if you just want to keep it simple, strapless HRMs are self-contained units that use touch sensors to monitor your pulse. Depending on the model of heart rate monitor, periodically during your workout you’ll need to touch sensors on the watch itself to get a reading of your pulse. With this in mind, you’ll have less real-time heart rate data to work with; instead you’ll have periodic records of where your heart rate went throughout your workout.
FEATURES AND BENEFITS
The technology out there is pretty slick and you can find a heart rate monitor that offers as many bells and whistles as you could ever need. Here are some of the features that you’ll find on a heart rate monitor:
Batteries Most HRMs have batteries in both the chest transmitter (if included) and the watch display. Some transmitters have batteries that can be changed. Others are sealed units with long-life batteries designed to last as long as the transmitter. Some display units let you change batteries like you do a watch battery. Other models, you'll have to mail to the manufacturer for battery replacement. Some HRMs have a low battery indicator so you’ll have plenty of advance notice to change the battery before you lose all of your stored training data. Before you buy, make sure you’re fully aware of your HRM’s battery situation.
Interference If you're using your HRM in races, at gyms or in areas where there are other HRMs in use, there could be interference. Most HRMs use analog frequencies to transmit signals. These can be scrambled or broken by other HRM signals, electronic treadmills or even power lines. Manufacturers have coded the analog signal or used digital signals to help prevent interference.
Water resistance Basic water resistance protects your equipment from rain, snow or sweat. Some HRMs are water-resistant to 50-metres, which is very important for swimmers, kayakers and others doing their workouts in or near the water.
Wrist strap Cyclists or those working on home gyms may want to mount the HRM on their bike or equipment. Make sure the model you pick is as flexible as your workouts. Look for versatile wristbands, which allow the strap to expand so you can put it over a jacket for cold weather workouts.
Display Look for numbers that are large enough to read while you're moving. Some models have an icon that appears to show you the EKG is functioning. If you run, ride or work out at night, you'll want the HRM display to be visible in all conditions, so get one with a good light.
Target heart rate zone settings You can manually set target heart rate zones or let the watch do it for you automatically using an age-based calculation. An alarm sounds to tell you when your heart rate goes above or below your programmed settings. Great for those striving to work “in the zone” for improved heart health. Keep reading to learn more about target heart rates.
Watch Includes time of day and date, just to keep you informed about the world outside of your workouts and help ensure your lunch-hour run doesn't go too long.
Stopwatch If speed drills are part of your fitness plan, this feature is a must.
Elapsed time Planning to hit the treadmill for one hour? This will tell you how long you’ve been going and will let you know when your time is up.
Lap counter Great for indoor running or swimming. Just hit a button each time you finish a lap. The machine will count each lap and your average heart rate and time during the lap.
Interval training timer A timer that keeps track of your work and rest intervals, alerting you when to start and stop each interval phase.
Recovery heart rate calculation This feature will time how long it takes for your heart rate to return to your pre-exercise level. This time is considered your recovery rate. If your heart is in good condition, it will recover faster than an unconditioned heart. Tracking your recovery heart rate as you go through a fitness program motivates you to work harder. It's a good indicator of your progress.
Customizable training zones Your heart rate goals will be different for a hill training run than it will be for a long, steady-state run. Set different training zones on your HRM to make sure you’re hitting the right targets during every type of workout you do.
Calorie counter If your goal is weight loss, look for models that can tell you how many calories you've burned and at what rate you're burning them.
Speedometer For cyclists, this feature can replace your bike’s computer by telling you how fast you’re moving and tracking your speed throughout a workout.
Altimeter Climbers, cyclists and runners appreciate knowing how high they've climbed. The altimeter will tell you your altitude. It’s also handy when you’re travelling, as your workout intensity will increase or decrease as the altitude does.
Physical condition calculation Some HRMs can calculate your current physical condition by determining your maximal aerobic power or VO2max, one common indicator of aerobic fitness. The HRM combines your age, weight, height, gender, activity level and your resting heart rate to determine VO2max. This gives you an idea of how long or hard you need to exercise to maintain your fitness level.
Personal computer compatibility Many HRMs let you download all the information from your workouts to your personal computer. You can use various software programs and websites to upload and analyze your workouts. Look for heart rate monitors that come with USB drives to help you transfer and store your workout data. Some HRMs can even connect to your computer wirelessly.
GPS features Some heart rate monitors are GPS-equipped, allowing you even more access to real speed, distance and pace data. Map out routes, compare one day’s run on a certain route to another, and upload all of this information to your personal computer or websites to track and challenge yourself.
Monitoring Heart Rate for Fitness Above all else, your HRM is there to perform one important task: monitoring your heart rate. Your heart is a muscle, and the more it beats every minute, the harder it’s working. This helps to improve your heart’s fitness.
The best way to meet your fitness, weight-loss, speed or performance goals, is to train at the right intensity. With the help of your doctor or an exercise physiologist, find out your unique maximum heart rate in terms of beats per minute (BPM). One quick way to do it yourself is to use this formula: 220 – [your age] = your maximum heart rate.
Once you’ve got that number figured out, the next step is to determine the intensity in which you plan to work – that is, what percentage of your max heart rate do you want to use as your target training zone? You should be sure to consult your physician and get a clear picture of your heart health before embarking on your fitness program at any intensity level. Here are some basic target training zone guidelines:
Light to moderate intensity: 60% to 70% of your maximum heart rate. Improves health and helps control weight.
Moderate intensity: 70% to 85% of your maximum heart rate. Helps improve cardiovascular fitness.
Vigorous intensity: 85% to 90% of your maximum heart rate. Helps increases your speed and performance.
Don’t forget that your heart rate monitor can track many other facets of your workouts, from your calories burned, to the length of your rest periods in between sets, to the time you clocked for each kilometer you ran. Your HRM is the most reliable exercise buddy you’ll ever have.