A heart rate monitor is a near essential piece of kit for any rider who wants to track their cycling fitness.
A heart rate monitor can be used to ensure that structured intervals are ridden at the correct intensity, to chart training volume and intensity over time, and the data can also indicate when it’s time to take a break.
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When choosing a heart rate monitor, the key things to consider are where you want to wear it and what system you need to use to transmit information to your recording hardware (cycling computer or phone).
What is a heart rate monitor?
Your heart is your body’s blood delivery agent; it pumps oxygenated blood full of nutrients to your limbs – and when you exercise it has to work harder and faster to meet the needs of the body.
A heart rate monitor measures how fast your heart is beating in BPM: beats per minute, and provides a reading which shows how hard your body is working.
How can cyclists use heart rate monitors?
The most common use for a heart rate monitor is to record intervals. Interval training means riding short efforts at high intensity, interspersed with rest intervals of easy pedalling. In time, this forces the body to adapt so that the intensity can be held for longer, or can be increased.
Intervals can be ridden based on RPE (rate of perceived exertion), power (which measures the actual output of the body in watts) or heart rate (which measures the effect that the effort has on the body).
In an ideal world, power and heart rate are combined to show how much stress is required for the body to produce a given output – but power meters are expensive and heart rate monitors allow a rider to know that they’re riding the efforts hard enough and the recoveries easy enough.
The intensity required during each interval will vary depending upon its length, but will usually be expressed in a ‘zone’ which is based on a calculation of the rider’s max or threshold heart rate. So when training with a heart rate monitor, the rider just needs to know what BPM they need to hold for each interval to have the best chance at completing the training correctly.
Heart rate ‘zones’ are very individual. The baseline starting point for one rider might be a threshold heart rate of 180bpm whilst it could be 160bpm for another.
However, training forces the heart muscle to become stronger. A well trained athlete will see their resting heart rate (which is usually measured in the morning on waking up) drop, so tracking this can show your fitness improvements during the year.
Not only that, your resting heart rate often increases during periods of overtraining, or when you’re ill. An increased resting heart rate is therefore a red flag which can indicate it’s time to take a few days off training.
What types of heart rate monitor are there?
Most cyclists opt for a chest strap heart rate monitor.
A chest strap heart rate monitor measures small electrical signals given when your heart constricts. By contrast, wrist and headphone heart rate monitors usually use Optical technology which sends light into the skin and reads the return rate, then uses an algorithm to determine pulse rate.
As techy and scientific as the latter might sound, electrical technology is generally considered more accurate – sample rates are higher and the chest doesn’t move around as much as the wrist, resulting in fluctuations in info.
A wrist based heart rate monitor, however, can be handy if you want to keep an eye on your activity levels off the bike, and track your resting heart rate.
The other thing to check when buying a heart rate monitor is the type of connection it uses. Most can transmit data to a cycling computer or phone app via ANT+ and Bluetooth. However, some will only use one or the other, so it’s important to check the unit you’re looking at is compatible with what you’ve already got.
Some of the best heart rate monitors…
There’s a lot of choice out there – we highlight some key options.
Wahoo Tickr heart rate monitor
Wahoo specialises in fitness tech, and they’ve got two key heart rate monitors: the Tickr and Tickrx – the former with an RRP of £39.99 as opposed to £64.99 for the more advanced option. The Tickrx measures some extra metrics, like cadence, as well as providing running analytics, even when you’re on a treadmill. That’s all very nice, but if you just want to know what your heart’s been doing on the bike then the Tickr will do that.
Unlike most heart rate monitors, it’ll also estimate your calorie burn and has a connectivity indicator light on the front. It’s Bluetooth Smart & ANT+ compatible to link up to third part apps, as well as Wahoo’s own and takes replaceable CR2032 batteries.
Garmin Premium Heart Rate Transmitter
Garmin Edge cycling computers are some of the most widely used, and many come with the option of adding a heart rate monitor. The offering from Garmin doesn’t promise to produce any fancy algorithms, but it does provide reliable data via ANT+ (and not Bluetooth – worth being aware).
The transmitter comes attached to a comfortable strap (which is where ‘premium’ comes in) which is adjustable, though poppers are fitted so it can be attached to clothing designed for this purpose. There is a basic strap option, but the RRP differs by just £5 (£44.99 as opposed to £49.99) and the rigid shape with non-removable transmitter isn’t as comfortable.
The unit takes CR2032 batteries and Garmin claims their heart rate monitors offer longer battery life of up to 4.5 years based on one wear a day – long term uses do attest to this.
Polar H7 heart rate sensor
Polar’s H7 uses Bluetooth to transmit data to a phone or app. It uses an encrypted GymLink transmission (5 kHz), to send your heart rate data to compatible Polar training computers, as well as compatible gym equipment which might be handy for gym users.
It comes with a comfortable chest strap, available in a selection of colours and takes CR2032 batteries.
MIO Link Velo Heart Rate Monitor
If chest straps aren’t your thing then you might want to look at a wristband like the MIO Link Velo. This uses Bluetooth and ANT+ transmission so will connect to your devices and tracks continual heart rate data.
You can also opt to link up to the mioGo fitness app, and there are colour LED lights that will indicate which of five training zone you’re in at any given time. Unlike most chest strap options, the battery is also rechargeable via a USB and it’s water resistant to 30 metres.
There is a slightly cheaper (£74.99 rpp instead of £84.99) non-velo version – but the added benefit is that the unit can collate ANT+ data from speed and cadence sensors, and covert it to Bluetooth Smart 4.0 data which will upload to your phone. If you just want the heart rate info, it might be cheaper to go for the non-velo option.
Garmin Vivosmart HR Wrist Watch
The Garmin Vivosmart is a really handy option for two types of people (well, obviously there’s cross over, but bear with us). Firstly, people who just want to keep fit and track their overall activities. The watch tracks distance walked, steps and calories all from your wrist, and data can be uploaded to Garmin Connect for fitness tracking.
Secondly: people who already have a Garmin Edge computer, who don’t want to wear a heart rate strap. The data collected by the in-built heart rate monitor will be displayed on screen.
Kuai Fit headphones with cadence sensor
Cycling with headphones is a pretty controversial topic – and it’s safe to say that these are probably best saved for indoor workouts. But if you need something to motivate you through a tough turbo session, these could certainly help.
Launched via a Kickstarter campaign, the Kuai headphones ($159) could well replace your cycling computer – and do more. An in-ear heart rate monitor, the unit adapts to your body and can communicate training targets to you (as well as playing music) thanks to your handy in-ear smart coach. There’s 8GB of storage space which can be used for songs, workouts and training plans.
The Kuai Fit uses ANT+ and Bluetooth so can hook up to cycling computers, phones and more – but if you buy the cycling pack ($209) with cadence sensor, you’ve got distance and speed sorted too.
There’s a Kuai Fit app, too – but the .FIT files can be uploaded to other trackers, like Strava.