Compiled with information from Eastern Mountain Sports® experts, Polar®, and Suunto®
A heart rate monitor is a very useful tool to truly measure and improve your fitness level. At Eastern Mountain Sports, heart rate monitors are becoming increasingly popular across all sports and levels. In this guide, we'll give you a quick understanding of how heart rate monitors work, as well as how to choose the right heart rate monitor for you (feel free to skip ahead!).
How does heart rate reflect overall fitness?
Your heart rate is one of your best, measurable indicators of overall fitness. When you exercise, your heart pushes oxygen-rich blood from your lungs to your muscles (which burn the oxygen like a car burns fuel) and back again. The harder you exercise, the more fuel your muscles demand, and the harder your heart beats. To maximize the benefits of exercise, it is critical to tailor the intensity to what your body is capable of, and your heart rate is your gauge for modifying the intensity level for maximum benefit. As you become more fit, your heart pumps more blood with each beat, your muscles get more fuel, and your heart becomes more efficient, beating at a slower rate. A heart rate monitor allows you to track your heart beat and see whether it's staying at the same level, or decreasing as your training progresses.
Choosing a heart rate monitor
While there are many heart rate monitor choices, it's not as overwhelming as it may appear. Not to overly simplify, but the price increases with the number of performance features. Think "basic, better, best." In many cases, you simply do not need tons of features. On the other hand, an heart rate monitor is an investment that lasts years, and we would advise that you select the highest level heart rate monitor that you think you'll need so you're not "penny wise and pound foolish."
Best heart rate monitors
Our "best" heart rate monitors provide nearly an internet worth of information. They often come with PC-compatible software to coach you through analyzing your workouts and building a program to reach specific fitness goals. They also often come with GPS tracking sensors or accelerometer foot pods to monitor speed, distance, and elevation. While the average outdoor enthusiast may be overwhelmed by the functionality of the best heart rate monitors, these are the tools Olympic athletes and world-class skiers use.
"Better" heart rate monitors
Our "better" heart rate monitors build on the basic models by offering coded transmitters that eliminate interference or crosstalk with other monitors, especially in a busy gym or spin class.
These heart rate monitors also offer personalized information that takes into consideration factors such as how well your heart rate has recovered from your last exercise session. As you get fitter, your heart rate will recover more quickly.
Mid-level units are often sport-specific (e.g., running or cycling), and they offer at-a-glance intensity level indicators and prompts that coach you into dialing it up or toning it down.
Finally, mid-level heart rate monitors are often compatible with other sensors (foot stride, bike wheel rotation) to monitor speed and distance. They are also often capable of downloading exercise information to a computer for analysis at home. That way you can observe your progress over a season and tweak your activity toward a specific goal.
"Basic" heart rate monitors
Our "basic" heart rate monitors indicate your "continuous heart rate", allow you to program your own training zone at varying "percentages of maximum heart rate", time your exercise, and provide a summary indicating average and maximum heart rate during the exercise. This means every heart rate monitor sold by Eastern Mountain Sports allows you to tune your workout to an appropriate intensity. In their off time, heart rate monitors are cool sport watches too!
What are the different fitness zones?
There are multiple fitness zones, and exercising at each of them stimulates fitness in differing ways:
- Below 60% of your maximum heart rate feels like everyday exercise (walking, going up stairs) and is very easy on your body (ideal for recovering from bigger workouts or just beginning a training program)
- From 60-70% is ideal for long duration cardiovascular workouts and burns a lot of your body's stored fat.
- Exercising at 70-80% starts to feel like hard work, improves your efficiency of movement by forming lactic acid at a rate which your body can still able flush out.
- Workouts at 80-90% of your maximum heart rate can lead to overtraining, but done carefully in intervals or constant speed are good training for competition.
- Workouts above 90% need to be done carefully and in a controlled manner, because they build lactic acid faster than your body can flush it out, and can lead to injury.
Why are fitness zones important?
To exercise at the right level, whether it's trail running, mountain biking, hiking, paddling, or Nordic skiing, your heart needs to work at a certain percentage of it's maximum. (Determining your maximum heart rate can be as inaccurate as the old formula 220 minus your age equals maximum heart rate, or as accurate as a maximal stress test performed in a laboratory. We recommend you follow the HRM instructions and ask professional personal trainers or your physician for additional information about determining individual maximum heart rate.) Exercise at too high an intensity and you hit the wall, too low and you don't improve. HRMs monitor your percentage of maximum heart rate zone so you train at the best pace for you.
How do heart rate monitors work?
To put it simply, heart rate monitors utilize chest straps with low-bulk sensor-transmitters to detect your heart rate and send it to a wrist unit where you can see how hard and efficiently your heart is pumping. For continuous monitoring, you need a chest strap transmitter. Finger-button pulse monitor watches do not provide continuous heart rate information and often times give inconsistent readings that is less useful for accurately measuring your progress.
Do you even need a heart rate monitor?
If you want to know just steps, distance, and approximate calories burned during the nightly dog walk, a pedometer with its internal pendulum will suit you fine. But if you are looking for more detailed and accurate information about your current level of fitness so you can make progress toward improved fitness, a heart rate monitor is the best tool.
Why buy a heart rate monitor?
Without an heart rate monitor, most of us over-train - we expend too much energy, take too long to recover, and ride a herky-jerky rollercoaster to slow or no improvement in our fitness. It's difficult to be objective about our fitness level without some outside help. Lack of sleep, job stress, overtraining, illness - all of these impact our fitness in ways we may generally feel, but we can't really measure. That's why we can't understand why we won't lose those last 4 pounds or can't run that last mile. Even basic heart rate monitors provide objective information that measures improvement.
Learn about your heart as a gauge of your fitness, use a heart rate monitor to improve your health without risking wasted time or injury, and get outside to play!