I recently got into a conversation with a friend about hear rate monitors or in short HRM. For the newbies, a HRM does exactly that; it monitors your heart rate as you exercise. Generally a HRM consist of a chest strap and a wrist unit with which you can monitor your heart rate. If you went out hunting for a HRM today, you will get so confused you might just drop the idea of getting one or worse still land with a unit you might not like or waste too much money on something your don’t need. There are units that cost under RM100 and you will also find HRMs going well into the two grand zone. So, what are the differences between the various HRMs?
I won’t go into brand specifics however I am most familiar with the Polar RS300X and the Garmin Forerunner 305 that I am currently using. I have also tested the Garmin Forerunner 310XT. My objective here is to cover the device in general and what to look for. To start with HRMs have evolved into computers that can measure everything from your workout time to distance, intensity and connect it to your PC or laptop where you can record and monitor your progress.
Before I walk you through what a HRM is, I want you to understand why you should get one.
A heart rate monitor will help you to monitor your heart rate so that you don’t stress your body more than you need to. It also ensures that you are doing the right amount of exercise. When I first started cycling, I would feel stressed out by the time I hit two kilometers. My heart was pounding and I felt exausted. After I got a HRM, I discovered that it was all in my mind. At the two kilometer mark, my heart rate had barely hit 55% of my maxHR. It was then that I realised that it was all in mind. Once I understood that, I started pushing five kilometers and then ten almost immediately after. When initially I could barely make a two kilometers run, I was suddenly going five kilometers with easy. The HRM also helped me to run more consistantly as it measured my speed. If I start to overexert myself, my HRM starts beeping so I know that I need to slow down a little. It is a really great device to know your limits with and how hard you can push yourself.
Now that you know this, let’s break it down and understand what HRMs can do.
The first and most important function of a HRM unit is to monitor your heart rate (of course). Most HRM require a basic setup before you start using the unit. It would ask you to enter information such as your age, height and weight. Based on this information, the computer will calculate what your maximum heart rate should be. An added feature that HRMs have is sound alerts that will notify you when you drop below a certain percentage or when you climb to a higher percentage. I can set up to 5 workout zones on my HRM and it notifies me every time my heart rate moves from one zone to the next. At the end of your workout, you can view your average heart rate and how you progressed throughout your workout period. A HRM computer can also calculate what you burn as you workout. This is particularly useful if you have a calories target for your workouts.
Another features you may find useful is the interval timer. This is a great tool for focused training where you switch through several types of workouts. You can, for example, set your interval timer for a three minutes high intensity workout and a one minute low intensity workout. This way you can manage your energy levels while you push your limits.
The next feature is what bumps a basic HRM to an advance level; training software. The more costlier HRMs can be linked to your computer or mobile phone where you can upload the data into a training software and monitor your progress. This is also a great way to keep track of your training schedule and your performance.
One thing you have to take note on is if you want to use your HRM for swimming workouts, check if the device works under water. My Polar RS300X can function under water but the manual said it will not give accurate readings as the optimal distance between the chest strap and wrist unit is short and it does not connect as well underwater. The dealer should be able to provide you with this kind of information.
Now, when you start to look at something that can monitor your heart rate but also track your distance and cadence; you will be looking at what some may call a sports computer. Sports computers are heart rate monitors with additional features such as a Global Positioning System (GPS) and a foot pod or something similar. Sport computers can cost above RM500 a set but they do a hell of a lot more than just checking your heart beat. You can track your distance, monitor your speed, analyse your performance and even map your route. These are sometimes categorised as ‘multi-sport’ devices as they are commonly used by tri-athletes.
More and more day-to-day equipment are GPS enabled that soon you will even be able to track the movements of your toaster. The HRM has not been left out of this technology. A GPS enabled HRM allows you to track your distance. speed and timing; particularly useful with outdoor activities such as cycling, running and tracking. There are different types of GPS units; some are made for cycling, others for running and tracking and then there are those designed for swimming. Ask the dealer if you will be able to add on a GPS device to your HRM as not all HRMs are GPS enabled. Some HRM such as the Garmin Forerunner® series or the Timex IRONMAN Run Trainer has a built-in GPS system. A built-in GPS only last eight hours or so as it consumes a lot of energy from a small rechargeable lithium battery and you don’t have a bulky strap-on GPS unit like my Polar RS300X. The new Polar RCX5 has a much lighter and smaller GPS unit. The plus side is that I can wear my Polar wrist unit as a watch without having to charge it up daily. Other brands like the Garmin, Suunto and Timex have built-in GPS in the wrist unit but you will need to recharge them regularly.
The foot pod is another luxury of the sports computers. The foot pod tracks how many steps you take and measures it against your speed and distance. There is a similar unit for cyclists that measures cadence (pedal rotation). Triatheletes commonly use these for training.
This may seem insignificant while you are standing at the store looking at the wrist units and everything is readable. However, it is a whole different story when you are bobbing up and down while cycling or running. The bigger the characters are displayed, the easier it is to read. However, you may want it to display more information. I have set my sport computer to display my heart rate, speed, distance and duration of my runs. I even have a preset display that I use for cycling. My friend’s touch screen enables him to switch views without trying to press small buttons while on the run.
The more advanced units have a backlight so you can read the display should you workout after sundown or before sunrise. Some have an energy saving mode that it will automatically light up only when you lift your arm to look at the display.
What Suits You?
So, what should you pick?
That comes down to what kind of workout you do and how serious you are. If you simply want to monitor your heart-rate for simple daily indoor workouts, then just look for a simple HRM. This should cost you under RM150. If you want to do some serious indoor training, get one with an interval timer. Should you want to get serious with exercise and you do go outdoors, then you may want to get something with a GPS and track your distance and speed. If you are on a budget and not concerned with size and design, spend about RM300 to RM500. Should you have a bigger wallet, then by all means hit the high end units; they are better designed, lighter and has more features.
It is importantly that you scout around first. Checkout the various brands and their models. You can find them in fitness stores, running outlets, cycling stores and some fitness centres. Go online and read reviews so you can get an idea of how each HRM or sport computer work. If you really have no patience, then you can either go straight for a top of the line model or start with a basic HRM first.
Below are some links you can checkout. This should get you started.
Remember though, have fun exercising.