Heart Rate Monitors
With the ability to analyse your sessions plus a host of performance monitoring features, the modern HRM is an essential triathlon tool. Nik Cook dons 10 chest straps to find the best for your budget
How we tested
The first test was unboxing the monitors, tackling the instruction manuals, and seeing how intuitive and easy getting them up and running was. This also gave us a chance to assess their looks, size and range of features. Chest strap comfort was then considered before finally heading out for a run. Not wanting to give them an easy ride, we included passing under power lines and, with a rough off-road course, made sure there was plenty of bumping to dislodge any overly sensitive chest straps. Once back indoors, we looked at the quality and relevance of data recall on the monitor and, if applicable, simplicity of downloading the session and analysing online.
POLAR RS300X G1
You know that if you buy a Polar its syncing will be flawless – the RS300X is no exception. But other manufacturers are now equalling Polar for reliability, so are the Finnish HRM pioneers still leading the pack? This is a really compact wrist unit and, if you don’t fancy the day-glo orange, an understated black is also available. The wrist unit and most-comfortable-on-test WearLink strap combination is great, and receiving five programmable zones and decent memory recall is good value. But the extra cash for the arm-mounted G1 GPS unit is questionable. It works well, locks onto the satellite signal quickly and doesn’t drop out, but with other manufacturers managing to integrate GPS into reasonable-sized wrist units, it just feels cumbersome and outdated. We’d advise either getting the standard RS300X or, if you’re a number cruncher, spending more money on the FlowLink, which allows you to download workouts onto your Mac or PC for analysis.
Verdict: Don’t bother with the GPS and you’ve got a good-value HRM. 80%
BRYTON CARDIO 30T
The Bryton initially appears to have a lot going for it – GPS and heart rate for less than its competitors, scope for session download and training analysis via a USB cable, and it’s impressively compact. The battery housing on the chest strap is bulky but the rest is fabric and comfortable. Sadly, set-up is a nightmare and requires an uphill battle with the unintuitive operating system, poorly written manual, stiff buttons and tiny screen. Once that’s mastered, out running you’re able to train by heart rate zone, and the GPS acquires a signal quickly and tallies well with known distances. But the screen is just too small, and with only one decent-sized data field you’re constantly having to scroll using the frustratingly stiff buttons – forget trying to train with gloves on! Post-training analysis and sharing via Brytonsport.com is actually pretty good, but it’s such a struggle to get there.
Verdict: Great things don’t always come in small packages. 59%
TIMEX RACE TRAINER PRO
$300 is a lot to pay for a heart rate monitor without GPS, so we expected big things of the Timex. The white casing with mock carbon trim is on the bling side (and fake diamond screw covers wouldn’t be amiss!). We don’t quite get the supposedly ergonomic side of your wrist positioning as it feels and looks a little weird. The Flex Tech strap is comfortable enough but its central portion is a touch bulky. For a monitor boasting a strong line-up of features, set-up is relatively easy – as is pairing it with the ANT+ Data XChanger and logging into the Timex Trainer online training log software. Performance when running is spot on. You can program in five custom heart rate zones and, for interval sessions, assign varying target zones. Recall on the monitor is excellent, giving great data for 10 sessions. If you want more numbers, downloading is easy and the training software extremely comprehensive.
Verdict: A lot going for it, but we’re not sure about its looks, price or positioning. 70%
SPORTLINE DUO 1060
With fairly clunky styling, the Sportline’s wrist unit just doesn’t quite cut it in the looks department. Its predominately plastic chest strap is more suited to a monitor half this price and you’re certainly aware of it when training. The monitoring of performance isn’t bad but it occasionally drops signal and gives unusually high readings. Part of the wrist unit’s bulkiness is down to the touch plate that allows you to check heart rate without a chest strap on. We can understand the touch plate on monitors without chest straps, but apart from making checking your morning resting heart rate easier, we just don’t see the point when a chest strap is provided. Equally, the pedometer functions are superfluous and, unless you always run at exactly the same speed on a dead flat surface, are woefully inaccurate. You can input one manual training zone alongside the three automatically calculated ones, and although the memory functions aren’t bad, including time in zone, it’s not a contender.
Verdict: Even with its superfulous functions it’s more like a $60 monitor. 75%
If we’re being picky, the styling of the wrist unit of the FR70 is a little Fisher Price. But it’s compact and the display, with data fields you can customise, is clear. The Garmin Soft Strap is hugely comfortable and only beaten by the Polar WearLink. Set-up is intuitive and, for triathletes, a massive bonus is the fact you can program in five custom heart rate zones for both running and cycling. Out running, syncing is seamless and the chunky buttons make scrolling between screens easy. Once home, workout analysis on the unit is almost non-existent, but with the included ANT+ stick all your workout data is automatically uploaded and then, via Garmin Connect or other compatible training programmes such as Training Peaks, you can data crunch to your heart’s content. With upgrades such as a running foot pod and bike speed/cadence available, it’s the monitor that keeps on giving.
Verdict: Five custom zones for run and bike; wireless data transfer. Case closed. 92%
We like the look of the Quest, having a bit of an outdoorsy feel to it. Size-wise it’s good, the display is clear and the three buttons are easy to operate. On setting up, the actual watch initially seems limited, but once you plug the minuscule but very lose-able Movestick into your computer, log into the Movecount site and sync to your monitor, you find it’s an adaptable and powerful training tool. You can set five heart rate zones using a neat sliding scale and customise the display on your wrist unit. Out training, it syncs perfectly with the chest strap and scrolling on the go is easy with the large buttons. Both the additional foot pod and neat QR skewer bike speed pod work well, and the foot pod, on flat and gently undulating terrain, measures distances very accurately. Once home, there’s little recall on the monitor but download the session and you’ve got a data fest.
Verdict: Good looking, strong performance and intuitive training analysis. 88%
We’ve had one of these monitors for a few years and for simple training sessions it’s still our go-to monitor and day-to-day watch. Press the big red button to start recording and press it again to stop. Syncing is spot on, the wrist unit sleek and compact, and the WearLink chest strap comfortable. Plus, you can review your last session data at your leisure once home. You can only set one heart rate zone, but for sessions such as long steady runs or tempo workouts where you’re sticking to the same zone, that’s enough. The recall tells you how much time you’ve spent in the zone, above and below, as well as average, minimum and maximum heart rate. If we’re honest, you really don’t need much more than that. There’s no doubt you can buy cheaper monitors with more features, but with the Polar brand comes a pedigree and guarantee of quality that’s hard to beat.
Verdict: You’re paying for the name but it’s a reliable and simple joy. 89%
SIGMA PC 15.11
This monitor from German-based Sigma performs impeccably and delivers its admittedly simple but adequate range of features in an efficient and intuitive way. It isn’t bad looking but for those with small wrists it’s a fairly big unit. The chest strap is made of fairly uncomfortable plastic, but with some pricier monitors delivering the same we’ll let that slide. For under $100, though, you receive a monitor that’s great for simple workouts and has the key feature of being able to manually program in a training zone. You also get two automatically programmed zones that are calculated using the standard age and gender formula. With its big face and large buttons, viewing data and toggling between screens on the go is easy and, once home, you can review your workout including time spent in training zone. But you’ve got to remember to manually re-set your training values or it’ll continue recording from where you last left it.
Verdict: Could do with slimming down and a better strap but still good value. 85%
A monitor from a big-hitting brand for $120 has to be worth a look, but the M2 is aimed more at the recreational exerciser than more serious triathletes. It’s simple in appearance and operation, and is unobtrusive on your wrist; the chest band is comfortable but the central unit remains bulky. Getting going is very intuitive and accessing the basic post-workout data is easy. The three target training zones seem initially tempting and great value for a monitor at this price point but, unfortunately, they’re the M2’s main failing. There’s no option to manually program in the zones so they’re simply based on the gender, age and activity level info you entered during set-up. This means the zones come out woefully low, which isn’t surprising considering the highest ‘Excellent’ level equates to three hours of activity per week. With no scope to override this, the zones and training data they give are effectively useless.
Verdict: Designed for – and best left to – the occasional recreational exerciser. 70%
CICLOSPORT CP 16IS
With its original Star Trek styling, you probably wouldn’t choose to wear the Ciclosport outside of an exercising scenario. It’s a reasonable size on your wrist but the clasp-style closure is unnecessary and occasionally painfully pinches your skin. The chest strap is a clunky plastic affair, but on a sub-$100 monitor you can’t really complain. Out running, occasionally it loses signal and gives double readings, but only at the beginning of sessions and soon settles down. Set-up is easy and you can either set a training zone manually or go for the CicloInZone. This uses a five-minute resting test and came up with a 134-165 training zone for us. This fully straddles our lab-tested zones two to four and is definitely on the broad side! With a manual zone, though, the visual zone bar is a nice touch and you’re able to recall time in training zone. You also get a bike mount thrown into the deal.
Verdict: Minor performance and fit glitches, but all in all not a bad deal. 80%
At the top end of the test, things are a bit of a disappointment. The Timex is pricey compared to other monitors with a similar spec and we think the ‘sideways-on-your-wrist’ USP is gimmicky. The Polar RS300X, despite being a decent monitor, with the additional spend on the GPS arm unit just doesn’t stack up and the monitor alone comes up against stiff competition at its price point. If you want a GPS/HRM combo we’d save up a bit longer and go for one of the Garmin Forerunner series. The Suunto Quest is certainly worth a look, though, and has plenty of scope for upgrade.
Drop down in price a fair chunk to the Garmin FR70 and you’ve got a trusted name, great features and upgrade options. It’s a hard one to beat. Ducking under the $100 mark, the Polar RS100 is a long-term, tried-and-tested product that, if you’re looking for a no-nonsense monitor, you should definitely go for. Of the two cheapest monitors – the Ciclosport and the Sigma – both are okay but neither are without faults. If we had to pick, though, we’d go for the Sigma.
With the Polar RS100 and Garmin FR70 coming out as the two highest scorers, they’re each going to appeal to different people. If you just want to get out and train with reliable information on intensity but limited analysis, go for the Polar. But if you want a complete heart rate training package at a great price, opt for the Garmin, which takes the Best on Test crown.