With all the attention given to power meters in recent years, you’d be forgiven for thinking that heart rate monitors have vanished. Not so, and they’re still a useful training aid.
A heart rate monitor, as the name suggests, measures your heart rate in beats per minute and displays it on a screen. As you’ve no doubt noticed, the harder you ride, the faster your heart beats, so heart rate is a useful proxy for your effort level.
You can therefore use a heart rate monitor as a training aid, setting target heart rate ranges for training sessions. Some monitors record your heart rate every second for later examination and may also estimate the Calories you’ve burned, useful if one of your cycling aims is to lose weight.
Heart rate’s not a perfect measure of riding effort though. It can be affected by the time of day, caffeinated beverages, the weather and how tired you are. But with that in mind, it’s still useful, and a heart rate monitor costs a lot less than even the cheapest of the new wave of power meters. The more sophisticated units will work with a power meter too, so you can upgrade to training with power later if you get more serious.
Types of heart rate monitors
Most sport-orientated heart rate monitors work the same way: a sensor band round your chest detects the heart's electrical activity and transmits pulses to a device with a screen that does the spade work of calculating and recording your heart rate. It's the same principle as a hospital electrocardiography (ECG) machine. In the last few years wrist-mounted fitness trackers have appeared that shine a bright LED into your skin and detect your pulse by the change in the reflected light as blood fills and drains from the capillaries, a process called photoplethysmography. This isn't as accurate as ECG.
The device providing the read-out could be a watch or a handlebar-mounted computer or GPS unit. It might also be your mobile phone; many heart rate monitor bands now use low-power Bluetooth Smart that will communicate directly with a phone, or you can add an ANT+ dongle to your phone to work with a compatible band.
At the cheaper end of the price range are standalone heart rate monitors, almost always built into a watch. They’re easy to use and if you do more than one sport they’re the most versatile way of measuring heart rate. The more you spend the more features you get and the more the device or its associated applications will do for you, including working out your heart rate zones and warning you if you’re going too hard or too easy on a given session.
Cycling-specific heart rate monitors roll the function into a computer or, if you’re spending a bit more, a GPS unit. More advanced (that is, expensive) units log your ride and heart rate data so you can see how much time you spent in each of your heart rate zones and compare segments from one ride to another to measure your progress. For example, if you’re faster up that hill for the same heart rate, then your fitness has improved.
All of this means you have a huge range of choice in devices that display and record your heart rate, to the point where the importance of this function has been over-shadowed by all the excitement about GPS-enabled exploring and bagging Strava segments. Nevertheless, if you’re aiming to get fitter, it's the core function you want whether you’re spending £30 or £300.
If you have an iPhone or Android 4.3 device, this Bluetooth Smart heart rate strap will pair with it, so you can add heart rate data to your Strava logs. It has ANT+ capability too, so you can add heart rate measurement if you have a compatible bike computer or GPS unit.
Polar is the daddy of heart rate monitor makers with a solid reputation for accuracy and reliability. This basic wrist-mounted unit tells you your heart rate as you ride (or run, if you’re so inclined) and can sound alarms if you go above or below your target range.
You can get custom-made widgets to mount a Polar or other watch monitor to your handlebar, or you can take the cheap option and strap on a bit of pipe lagging.
One of the cheapest computers with heart rate function and the necessary strap bundled, the CM4.21 can download ride data to your PC so you can keep a record of your rides.
It’s not the cheapest option, but Wahoo’s Bluetooth Smart heart rate strap comes with Wahoo’s own Fitness app that provides training zones for fat-burning and intense training and creates a eight-week training schedule for you. It works with iPhone 4S and up and devices running Android 4.3 or later.
The Mio Velo measures your heart rate from your wrist and sends it to other devices via both Bluetooth Smart 4.0 and ANT+. It can also take data from other ANT+ devices – a speed and cadence sensor, for example – and re-transmit it using Bluetooth Smart, allowing you to link ANT+ sensors to a non-ANT+ smartphone.
It takes your heart rate via LEDs and an 'electro-optical cell' that monitors the volume of blood under your skin. Mio boast a 0.99 correlation to electrocardiogram in laboratory testing. In other words, they claim that it is highly accurate.
If you don’t like wearing a heart rate chest strap — and let’s face it they’re not the comfiest thing especially if you’re less than svelte — then this is well worth a look.
If you want a wrist heart rate monitor with a more sophisticated set of features, this one from Garmin includes GPS, incorporates some cycling-orientated features — it'll work with ANT+ speed and cadence features — and can be customised with Garmin's Connect IQ apps and widgets.
The Edge 25 is Garmin's smallest ever GPS computer, and along with its diminutive size, Garmin has nailed the user interface, which is a dream to use.
If you don't need route mapping and navigation and just want to track all the important metrics like speed, distance, elevation — and heart rate, of course — the Edge 25 does everything you need.
You can currently pick up an Edge 25 on its own for £77 from Halfords, so you'd save money by doing that and adding the Geonaute sensor belt.
This big-screen Cateye computer can talk to your phone using Bluetooth Smart, and to compatible sensors. You can get it on its own and use it as a head unit for data from the GPS on your phone which is then safely tucked in a pocket, or you can buy it with Cateye’s own sensors (in theory; we can't find anyone who actually has the bundle in stock). The extra £80 for the sensors is a shade pricy, but at least you can be sure they’ll work together. If you wanted to save money, though, you could use a third-party heart rate belt for about £30 paired with your phone.
Cateye’s Cycling app transmits your ride data to CatEyeAtlas, Strava or TrainingPeaks.
Want heart rate, maps and GPS? Polar's V650 provides all that and more, and while it has limitations — it lacks ANT+ connectivity — it's excellent value for its feature set.
If you can live without a detailed map display, the latest offering from Garmin has line-on-the-screen navigation so you can follow planned routes, plus lots of phone connectivity and segment-racing features.
This version of Garmin’s benchmark GPS comes with sensors for speed/cadence and heart rate, and Garmin's Cycle Map of the UK.
The Edge 820 is highly customisable, and generally very reliable with enough battery life for all but the longest of epics and the ability to run from an external battery if you’re riding for more than 14-16 hours.
Garmin's latest unit features a bigger screen, longer battery life and a host of new connectivity features compared to the Edge 1000.
The Edge 1030 gets a 3.5in high-resolution capacitive touch screen that Garmin reckons works in the wet or with gloves, and ambient light sensors automatically adjust the screen brightness to suit the riding conditions. Battery life has been extended to a claimed 20 hours and there’s a new Garmin Charge integrated battery pack accessory to double the run time to 40 hours for longer rides.
Garmin has beefed up the navigation and course planning features. Trendline utilises the many activities uploaded to Garmin Connect to provide routes using the most popular roads and off-road trails, backed up by preloaded Cycle Maps for turn-by-turn directions on all terrain with alerts for sharp corners and elevation information. You can also choose from three round-trip suggestions by choosing a distance and starting direction if you want the Edge 1030 to recommended new routes.
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Our official grumpy Northerner, John has been riding bikes for over 30 years since discovering as an uncoordinated teen that a sport could be fun if it didn't require you to catch a ball or get in the way of a hulking prop forward.
Road touring was followed by mountain biking and a career racing in the mud that was as brief as it was unsuccessful.
Somewhere along the line came the discovery that he could string a few words together, followed by the even more remarkable discovery that people were mug enough to pay for this rather than expecting him to do an honest day's work. He's pretty certain he's worked for even more bike publications than Mat Brett.
The inevitable 30-something MAMIL transition saw him shift to skinny tyres and these days he lives in Cambridge where the lack of hills is more than made up for by the headwinds.