How to select a heart rate monitor

You’re ready to take your training to a new level and buy a heart rate monitor. So, what should you look for in your new training partner? A basic bare bones heart rate monitor will cost you about $50 and will do just as the name suggests. It will monitor your heart rate. For the geek at heart (we know who we are), the monitors at the top end of the range will connect you to your computer, plot your location and route by GPS, store your data, offer comparisons against other workouts, and more. I’ve owned several Polar monitors and have been very happy with them. Suunto and Garmin also make great products.

Here’s a summary of the most popular features that you’ll find and what they mean. The more features, the higher the price.

  • ECG accurate – The monitor is considered to be as accurate as an electrocardiogram. A monitor from a good quality company will have this as a basic feature. The monitor does this by taking constant readings through the use of a chest strap.
  • Large easy to read display – A bright and easy to read display is a joy when you’re trying to see your monitor while on the bike, running, pool, or whatever your favorite exercise. No stopping or squinting needed.
  • Target zone alarm – Tells you when your heart is below or above a particular zone.
  • Multiple customizable zones – Allows you to determine several zones
  • Recording time in zones – Allows you to review the time you’ve spent in certain training zones so you can make sure you’re working hard enough, or that you’re not working too hard.
  • Fitness tests – Will take you through a fitness test and determine max heart rate, VO2 max, or other measures of fitness.
  • Calorie measurement – Tracks your caloric expenditure based on your workload, your weight, height, and age.
  • Water resistant – This one’s really important. You might not plan to use your monitor when swimming, but you might get caught in the rain or the condensation from your body will exposure the unit to moisture. Make sure your chest transmitter is also water resistant. Once again, if you’re buying from a quality company you won’t have a problem here.
  • Lap counting – Allows you to compare your times over laps during your workout. Great for runners on the track or anyone who uses a short repeatable route multiple times in a workout.
  • Interval programs – Allows you to program the monitor to vary your intensity and alerts you when you increase or decrease the intensity.
  • User serviceable – It’s great to be able to change the batteries by yourself rather than having to send the watch or transmitter to a service center. If your monitor is water resistant, this may be a pie-in-the-sky dream as the company will not support a warranty if you change the battery yourself. Water resistant monitors usually have a seal inside that they want to make sure is properly replaced and they’ll only guarantee it if they do it themselves.
  • Bike functions – Tracks your bike speed, distance, cadence, and more. Since bike wheels are different sizes and provide different readings, you’ll want your monitor to allow you to switch between multiple bikes (road and mountain bike, for example)
  • Computer interface – Connect to your computer to download data. Allows you to compare your workouts and see what progress you’re making. Some will even allow you to create workout profiles on your computer and upload them to the monitor. This is much better than trying to push tiny buttons on the monitor and create a workout.
  • Large buttons – I want mine to be a good size so I can activate them easily, even with a gloved hand. 
  • GPS – The high end monitors like the Garmin Forerunner 310XT HRM incorporate GPS functions that can plot your location on a map. If you use the same route regularly, you can store the route and compare your progress today against previous exercise sessions and see how you’re doing.