A heart rate monitor is a very useful tool to help measure and improve your fitness level. At Eastern Mountain Sports, heart rate monitors are increasingly popular across all sports and levels. In this article, we'll give you a quick understanding of how heart rate monitors work, why they’re so useful, and how to choose the right device for you (feel free to skip ahead!).
What is a Heart Rate Monitor?
Heart rate monitors (HRMs) come in several forms. Maybe you had one of those funny little clips placed on your finger at the doctor’s office to monitor your heart rate during your last check-up. You’ve probably also watched the peaks and valleys of someone’s heartbeat float across a monitor in a hospital setting, whether in real life or during that House marathon you secretly watched in your pajamas last weekend.
In the outdoor and fitness worlds, however, a heart rate monitor typically takes the form of a wrist watch. (In fact, in many cases, these HRMs can be worn as regular watches when you’re not working out.) When you exercise, a HRM does exactly what it sounds like it does—monitors your heart rate. Additionally, depending on the model, a HRM can also tell you: how many calories you’re burning, where you’re running/cycling/walking/hiking, your pace/speed and distance, when you need to eat, and loads of other information that can help you in your quest to become fitter, faster, or stronger.
Who Uses a Heart Rate Monitor?
Despite what you may think, they aren’t just for the elites—lots of people use heart rate monitors for lots of different reasons. Whether you’re training for a road race, preparing for a cycling event, making an attempt at a speed hiking record, or just want to drop a few pounds, training with an HRM can make achieving your goals easier, more efficient, and maybe even a little more fun.
Do You Really Need a Heart Rate Monitor?
If you only want to know steps, distance, and approximate calories burned during your nightly walk with the dog, a pedometer with its internal pendulum will suit you just fine. However, if you’re looking for more detailed and accurate information about your current level of fitness so you can make progress toward improving it, a heart rate monitor is the way to go.
HOW DOES HEART RATE REFLECT OVERALL FITNESS?
Your heart rate is one of the best, most easily measurable indicators of overall fitness. When exercising, 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 push, the more fuel your muscles demand, and the harder your heart beats.
To maximize the benefits of exercise, you need to tailor the intensity of your training to what your body is capable of...and your heart rate acts as the gauge for modifying your efforts. As you gain fitness, your heart becomes more efficient, pumping more blood to your muscles with fewer beats. A heart rate monitor allows you to track your heart rate and see whether it's staying at the same level or decreasing as your training progresses.
HOW DOES A HEART RATE MONITOR WORK?
Heart rate monitors utilize chest straps with low-bulk sensors to detect your heart rate and wirelessly transmit the data to the wrist unit where you can see how hard and efficiently your heart is pumping. The data is always expressed in “beats per minute,” or BPM.
Higher-end HRMs feature wrist units and chest straps with special coding—such as ANT+ technology—to eliminate interference, or “cross-talk,” with other devices. (This is particularly useful if you train at a gym where there are a lot of other similar data transmissions flying around.)
Do I Need to Wear a Chest Strap?
There are some models of heart rate monitors that don’t require a chest strap, but the HRMs that do use them are far more accurate.
Are the Chest Straps Uncomfortable?
As long as you’re wearing the strap properly, you’ll most likely forget it’s even there. For women, HRM chest straps typically end up sitting in the same place as the band in your sports bra, so it’s a sensation you’re already accustomed to.
These straps generally consist of a stretchy fabric band and a hard plastic piece that rests in the center of your chest (at the top of your rib cage). One thing to keep in mind is that the smaller the plastic piece is, the more comfortable the strap will be.
HOW DO I CHOOSE A HEART RATE MONITOR?
While there are many heart rate monitors to choose from, picking the right one isn’t as overwhelming as it may seem. 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, a heart rate monitor is an investment that lasts for years, and we would advise that you select the highest level heart rate monitor you think you'll need so you're not "penny wise and pound foolish."
“Basic” Heart Rate Monitors
The basic models tend to run in the $60-$120 range and generally provide three key pieces of information: heart rate, calories burned, and time in zone (more on heart rate zones later). These HRMs also typically allow you to set custom heart rate zones based on your fitness level. In addition, these models will usually have a stopwatch feature, lap timer, and basic watch functions like time, date, and an alarm. When you’re done, you’ll be able to see a workout summary that will provide your average and maximum heart rates, workout duration, and total calorie expenditure.
These devices are perfect for people who aren’t super-serious about training, but who want to make sure they get the most out of each workout. If you run a few times a week, like to hit the gym on your way home from work, or begin your days with a brisk walk and want proof that your efforts are paying off, stick with one of these “lower-end” heart rate monitors.
“Better” Heart Rate Monitors
These middle-of-the-road models will perform the same functions as the basic models while adding a few more features. They can range in price from $120-$300, depending on whether or not they incorporate GPS and altimeter functions. 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. They are also often compatible with other sensors—such as a foot pod for running or a cadence sensor for cycling—to monitor speed and distance. If you’re going to use your HRM to train for road races, cycling events, or even triathlons, a device from the “better” range will be exactly what you need to maximize your efforts.
“BEST” HEART RATE MONITORS
The “best” HRMs provide a wealth of information, and will help you analyze nearly every aspect of your training, regardless of sport. Predictably, they are also the most expensive, ranging from $300 to $550. Most of the devices in this category are equipped with not only GPS, but also provide altimeter and barometer functionality.
While this class of HRM is suitable for any type of training, their altimeter/barometer features make them particularly suitable for athletes who primarily train in the mountains. Whether you’re trail running, hiking, skiing, or mountain biking, these devices will track all the data you care about most and help you reach your fitness peak.
SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH HEART RATE ZONES?
You’ll notice that most heart rate monitors allow for zone training. There are multiple zones, and each one helps you in your pursuit of improved fitness in a different way. Here’s what you need to know about each zone:
i. Workouts below 60% of your maximum heart rate (max HR) feels like everyday exercise (e.g., walking, going up stairs) and is very easy on your body, which is ideal for recovering from bigger workouts or just starting a training program
ii. Workouts at 60-70% of your max HR is ideal for longer cardiovascular workouts and burns a lot of your body's stored fat
iii. Workouts at 70-80% of your max HR starts to feel like hard work, and works to improve your efficiency of movement by forming lactic acid at a rate which your body can still able flush out
iv. Workouts at 80-90% of your max HR can lead to overtraining, but is great training for competition when done carefully (e.g., interval training, speed work)
v. Workouts above 90% of your max HR 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
How Do I Determine My Maximum Heart Rate?
Good question. You’ve likely encountered the old 220 – your age = max HR formula at some point, but this is probably the most inaccurate method. Unfortunately, the best way to determine max HR is with a maximal stress test in a lab, which most of us don’t have the time or money for.
Many HRMs will tell you how to calculate your max HR (usually with some sort of fitness test), so your best bet is to follow the instructions your device comes with. You can also consult your doctor or a professional trainer for additional advice.
Why is Zone Training Important?
To exercise at the right level—regardless of sport or activity—your heart needs to work at a certain percentage of its maximum to make progress. Exercise at too high an intensity and you’ll hit the wall; too low and you won't see any improvement. HRMs monitor your percentage of maximum heart rate zone so you consistently train at the right intensity.
WHY BUY A HEART RATE MONITOR?
Without an HRM, most of us either under-train or over-train: we expend too much or too little energy, we might take too long to recover, and we make slow (or no) progress in our quest for better fitness. It's difficult to be objective about our fitness level without some outside help.
Lack of sleep, job stress, overtraining, and illness or injury can impact our fitness in ways we may generally feel, but 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 as fast as we want to. Heart rate monitors—even the “basic” ones—provide objective information to help us measure our improvement.
Our friends at Polar, one of the top heart rate monitor brands, sum it all up quite nicely in this two-part video series:
Benefits of Heart Rate Training, Part 1
Benefits of Heart Rate Training, Part 2
(Note: while these videos focus specifically on Polar HRMs, the information holds true for other brands as well, including Suunto, Garmin, and Timex.)
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