This article first appeared during the 2004 holiday season, but it’s never too early to start hinting to Santa to avoid a lump of coal in your stockings.
Who Needs a Heart Rate Monitor Anyway?
Anyone who has followed my Toolbox articles over the past year knows that I’m pretty no-nonsense when it comes to the brass tacks of smart training and also that I have very little tolerance for marketing hype, whether that involves supplements or sports drinks. With that in mind, the first questions you need to ask yourself are whether you need a heart rate monitor at all and just what you want to get out of it. If all you want is a techno-toy that you can impress your friends with and to flaunt your disposable income, the decision is very simple. Get the most expensive and frills-laden HRM that you can find and head straight to the local coffee shop!
The Mr. Popeil Dubious Features Hall of Fame
Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible now to buy a HRM that doesn’t have some needless frill built into it because the manufacturers are in competition to outdo each other in the gadgetry department. Here are some of the more senseless techno-geek features to consider:
• One company has come out with a “Dehydration” monitor that will supposedly tell you not just your heart rate but just how dehydrated you’re getting from the triple espresso you’re gulping. As an athlete training or competing, you’re either going to be smart and follow a sound hydration plan or you’re going to suffer something catastrophic like Lance in Le Tour’s TT, so there’s not much you can do with the information in either situation. Weight yourself regularly in the morning with a bathroom scale instead.
• Body Mass Index calculator. The equation is weight (in kilograms) divided by height (in metres) squared, and your BMI does not change significantly day to day unless you suddenly lose weight by cutting off an arm. Use a $5 calculator instead.
• A variety of “fitness” tests built into the HRM. These all promise to calculate your aerobic fitness by taking your heart rate, usually at rest, and then comparing it against equations built into the HRM memory. The problem is that these tables are completely generalized estimates based on other people. Garbage in, garbage out.
• Calorie counters. These are typically based on your heart rate along with other inputs such as gender and estimated maximum heart rate. It will give you ballpark values and is probably useful as an estimate if weight control is a concern.
The “Heart” of the Matter
If you want to actually use your HRM to improve your performance, you still need to understand your actual situation and needs in order to assess what monitor might work the best for you. Here are some factors to consider:
• Depending on whether you intend to download HR values into your computer or training diary software for monitoring by yourself or your coach, the ease of downloading or compatibility with your software may be of primary importance. I personally use and love the Crosstrak training software (Read the review here), so I would make sure my own HRM is compatible.
• The greater the number of HR zone settings the better. These allow you to set targets and to give visual and/or audio alarms. Make sure they allow you to MANUALLY set the targets rather than basing it on percentages of maximum heart rate. Ideally, the HRM will recall the amount of time spent in each zone. This information is crucial in quantifying the intensity of workouts.
• The ability to record heart rate at preset intervals is an excellent feature, because it gives you a profile of your actual heart rate over the course of the workout. For example, you or your coach can use this profile to track just how quickly you recover from an interval effort. The greater the sampling frequency and the larger the memory capacity the better. Another good feature is the ability to hit a button and record the heart rate at that instant.
There you have it; my short and simple list of demands in a HRM! These three things are the absolute essential criteria when selecting a HRM, and I would target these features above all others.
Smart HRM Training
Ever since Francesco Moser pioneered the use of heart rate monitors (HRMs) to closely track his preparations for the Hour Record in 1984, HRMs have become almost ubiquitous on the handlebars of both elite and everyday cyclists alike. Unfortunately, it’s become so commonplace that to most riders it’s just another meaningless number because they either don’t track it or else don’t know how to use the information. Until power-meters become much more affordable, HRM will be the way to go for most of us. Therefore, look for future Toolbox articles on how to use your HRM properly!
Dr. Lucia discussing his perspective on heart rate zones.
An explanation of lactate threshold versus VO2max.
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University, with a research specialty in the effects of thermal stress on human physiology and performance. Stephen’s company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at email@example.com.