Heart Rate Monitors - The Basics

Do you need a £360 heart rate monitor - or will £30 be enough? Here's how to buy a versatile training ally


Posted: 20 October 2008
by David Mitchell

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The conundrum: push yourself too hard and run yourself into the ground. Don’t push yourself hard enough and never improve. The answer: start listening to your heart, not your head, by using a heart rate monitor (HRM).

What does a HRM do?

Training using an HRM makes sure you don’t train too hard or too easily by setting limits, making sure you get the most out of your training for the least amount of effort. Once you’ve worked out what your limits are and have started training with an HRM you’ll have clearer targets, more focus and better results.

When would I want to use a HRM?

The first step is to think about what you want to achieve - whether you’d just like to improve your aerobic fitness or have a specific race goal in mind. This will dictate how you will use your HRM and what functions yours will need.

The monitor will play a key role once you start following a schedule, specifically if you start threshold training (running at your maximum aerobic steady state to improve your speed in races).

Coming back into full fitness after a lay-off is also made much easier with a structured heart-rate training programme. It will keep you focused and stop you from being results driven by keeping your heart rate down until you’ve recovered sufficiently to train harder.

Can I use a HRM to perform better during races?

Yes! Wearing an HRM during a race helps prevent you from going off too fast in the early stages – by keeping your heart rate low – and more advanced models can tell you when you’re running at your target pace.

How will I know if I’m using it properly?

You will need to calculate your target heart rate before you start using your HRM. One you’ve done this and have stuck to training within your limits you’ll know you are using it properly when you start seeing the results of better fitness and faster times.

How does an HRM work?

If you haven’t used one before having a basic understanding of how a heart rate monitor works will help you to get the best out of yours.

There are two parts to most models. The chest strap you wear while you are running – this reads your heart rate – and the receiver you wear on your wrist that stores and displays the data. This also doubles as a watch.

More advanced models use GPS technology or foot pods to measure your speed and distance and give a range of more detailed and highly accurate statistics on your performance.

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How much will I need to spend?

You can spend £360 on a bells-and-whistles, top-of-the-range model or £30 on the most basic model. The key to choosing the right one is to ask yourself what functions you are going to need – and use. The more advanced your running and training becomes the more your HRM will come into play.

What will I get for my money?

Basic Models
"Basic HRMs let you set limits and control heart rate intensity for individual training sessions, record exercise duration, calculate calories burnt and record the time spent in and above your set heart-rate zone," says Tristan Haskins from www.heartratemonitor.co.uk. If this suits your needs then there’s no need to spend any more.

Intermediate Models
The mid-range HRMs include all the features of the basic models with additional functions including laps, split times, and average heart rate for each lap. You can also expect a countdown timer for repeated intervals (useful for speedwork sessions). For just a little more money, you’ll usually be able to set multiple target training zones. In addition, footpods and GPS units give distance feedback in real time and use alarms that allow you to control your pace.

The Most Advanced Models
The top range of HRMs have the capability to download your training data to your PC for analysis. "Recent years have seen function and performance of HRMs improve with larger memories and smaller footpods and GPS units that give more accurate data," says Haskins. They can also track the intensity of your training to prevent over-or under-training. Other models now tell you the status of your last completed session (over-trained – needs rest and so on). Other features include multiple timers for more complex interval sets and fitness tests.

Jargon-buster

Zone High and low heart-rate limits that you aim to stay between during a particular training session. Most monitors let you set them in one-beat increments; others only five or 10. A few monitors can help to calculate zones for you. Most can be set to beep if you stray outside your zone, and some monitors let you set and switch between more than one zone in a session.

Summary memory Time spent in target zone during your last run; may also include time spent above/below the zone, and average and maximum heart rate in the session.

Sampled memory Storage of your heart rate at regular intervals for playback later. You can choose the intervals – usually five seconds to five minutes, but some monitors can only store a small number. Many monitors can only store one run’s worth of data. Monitors with a lap stopwatch and memory also record average heart rate per lap.

Recovery A recording of how fast your heart rate drops to a certain level after a burst of exercise (this reflects fitness), and/or an alert when your heart rate has dropped to a certain level (this is one way of controlling the rest periods in a speed session). Some recovery functions are more sophisticated than others.

%max Your current heart rate as a percentage of your maximum. It’s usually shown as a small figure in the corner of the screen. The monitor either calculates your maximum heart rate by age and sex, or allows you to enter the figure yourself.

Calories An estimate of the calories you’ve burnt in a session. Different monitors use different methods of arriving at a figure; the decent ones incorporate your weight and sex into the calculation. Some monitors also estimate a percentage of fat calories burnt.


Five First Steps
  1. Roughly estimate your maximum heart rate (MHR) by subtracting your age from 220 (or a little more accurately, 214-(0.8 x age) for men, and 209-(0.9 x age) for women. If you’re a regular runner, you can test yourself for your MHR by warming up and then doing a combination of short, fast runs as follows, ideally on a treadmill: run as fast as you can, evenly, for three minutes, then rest with two or three minutes gentle running, then repeat your three-minute maximal run; at some stage during the second effort you should get a higher MHR value than with any other method.

  2. Work out your training zones: 50-60 per cent of maximum for easy recovery runs; 60-70 per cent for basic weight management; 70-80 per cent for aerobic training; and 80-100 per cent for threshold runs and speed training. The figures are more accurate if you find percentages of your working heart rate, then add them to your resting heart rate. You find your working heart rate by subtracting your resting heart rate from your maximum.

  3. If you don’t already have a training schedule, plan your runs for the week ahead and allocate a target heart rate zone for each run.

  4. Stick to these zones!

  5. Be alert for unusual readings. If you’re ill, tired, stressed or not fully recovered from a race, then your resting heart rate may be higher than normal. If it’s 5-10 beats above normal, make your day’s run an easy one. Any higher than that and you should definitely have a rest day.

"...But It Won’t Work"
(Common problems and how to solve them)

Problem: There’s no reading

  • The monitor needs to be activated You need to press a button on some monitors before they start receiving.
  • Poor contact Check that the electrodes on the chest belt are well-moistened with saliva, check that the fit is snug (but not suffocating) and that the belt isn’t too high or too low – it should be around the third- or fourth-lowest rib.
  • Dead transmitter battery Unlikely in a new monitor, as the batteries in the belt usually last for more than two years.

Problem: The reading is erratic

  • Belt slipping Make sure it’s snug and properly moistened.
  • There’s interference Power lines, some treadmills and other heart rate monitor users can affect the reading. Try stepping a few feet away if you’re running in a group.
  • Poor monitor Monitor readings from good companies don’t fluctuate of their own accord; less reliable ones sometimes do.

Problem: The monitor keeps beeping

Your heart rate is outside the current target zone and the sound alert is on. You can switch the alert off (consult the manual) and/or run in the target zone and/or change the zone.


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Discuss this article

I have a Polar RS400, and the band just broke for the second time.  Is there a good but tough heart rate monitor watch?
Posted: 02/06/2012 at 21:14

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