Strapping on a top heart rate monitor is an easy way to supercharge your running or training. It not only makes your post-run stats more accurate, but it also enables you to start heart rate training in specific zones, which can make your regime more efficient.
Fitbit, Apple, Garmin and Polar are starting to add heart rate monitors into running watches, fitness trackers and even running headphones, but dedicated chest straps still offer the best way to get tip-top accuracy.
How to buy a heart rate monitor
When people ask us about buying a heart rate monitor, it always comes down to the type of device they’re using to work out. When it comes to chest straps, most use ANT+, which are only compatible with specialist running watches that use that same connectivity – i.e. Garmin, Polar and Suunto watches.
But ANT+ is limited to specialist devices. The rise of the smartphone is also a big factor; those who want to use their phone to work out will need to look for a Bluetooth enabled strap, which will connect to apps like Strava, Runkeeper and Endomondo.
Chest strap vs optical wrist sensors
The biggest battleground is now chest straps vs wrist devices, the latter of which use optical technology to “see” the blood pulsing through your veins. Optical sensors are integrated into most new running watches and fitness trackers from the likes of Garmin and Fitbit.
Debate rages about accuracy, so we will put it here plainly and brutally. Chest straps are more accurate, and wrist devices will struggle when you’re really pushing hard. However, optical wrist devices are far more comfortable and convenient, and if you’re running steadily, should do the job just fine.
The accuracy question – what’s good enough?
At Wareable we are serious runners, but are still happy with the imperfect data from our wrist devices, because of the convenience they offer. Not carrying two devices everywhere is much easier, and when it comes to training in HR zones, the likes of TomTom and Garmin do the job.
That said, when indoor cycling, we do tend to reach for the chest strap. Why? We find it more comfortable on a bike, and the high intensity of a spin class works better with a chest strap than a relatively even-paced run.
Best sports watches with heart rate
While not the most advanced running watch on the market, we’ve found the heart rate performance of the Polar M430 to be top notch. Even during short sharp HIIT intervals the Polar M430 stayed lasered onto a chest strap, and is one of the best on-wrist performers we’ve seen.
There is an issue. Our testing – and the reports of Wareable readers – have indicated that Polar’s heart rate tech struggles with dark skin, which is extremely problematic. It stopped the device getting a big score in our Polar M430 review, but if you have pale white skin, it does come highly recommended.
$229.95, polar.com | Amazon
Garmin Forerunner 935
The Forerunner 935 sits at the top table of Garmin’s sport watch line up, and is designed with hardcore triathletes in mind. It makes use of Garmin’s Elevate optical HR tech, and in our testing it’s mustered the best performance of a Garmin device to date.
While the Fenix 5 and Foreunner 35 have been sluggish in early parts of runs and during high intensity, the Forerunner 935 put in a solid performance, which makes it much easier to recommend. Of course, the Forerunner 935 is capable of being paired with a chest strap if you do need to get really accurate data.
Check out our full Garmin Forerunner 935 review.
$499.99, garmin.com | Amazon
TomTom Spark 3
Of all the running watches we’ve tested that pack heart rate monitors, the TomTom Spark 3 remains our go-to device for delivering accurate heart rate readings from the wrist.
The built-in heart rate monitor means there’s no need for a traditional HR strap, and it uses TomTom’s own optical sensor. Our testing has repeatedly found TomTom devices to be better at high intensity then rival watches, with superb accuracy at medium intensity when directly compared with a chest strap. There are dedicated modes that display your current heart rate zones.
With the newer Spark, you get the addition of route exploration to view your location on the watch screen, plus you still get an integrated music player with 3GB storage giving you more than 500 high-tempo running songs to help get you in the zone.
If you want the same heart rate accuracy with more outdoor-friendly features, you should check out the TomTom Adventurer as well.
$210.99, tomtom.com | Amazon
Best heart rate training chest straps
Like its predecessor, the Polar H7 (which is still available), the H10 is one of the most reliable sensors out there. The iOS and Android-friendly strap boasts Bluetooth and ANT+, and has a modified design, adding silicone friction dots to help keep the strap in place, and it’s noticeably more comfortable to wear.
It still uses an ECG-style sensor that detects the electrical activity of the heart to deliver your BPM readings, but a new measuring algorithm and extra interference-preventing electrodes help improve accuracy. It’s waterproof so you can go swimming with it and there’s onboard memory to store one training session, just in case your phone or wearable dies on you.
We’ve been using it to test against a lot of the new fitness trackers and smartwatches that have landed at Wareable HQ recently and we can comprehensively say it still delivers the goods.
$89.95, polar.com| Amazon
Wahoo Tickr X
The Tickr X, along with the MyZone MZ-3, is the highest scoring heart rate monitoring device on Wareable right now, with a very impressive four and a half stars out of five in our review.
It works with a host of devices, making it perfect for those who like to work out with a smartphone, and has dedicated modes for spinning and other types of activity. What’s more, accelerometers inside can glean extra stats including cadence and RPM for indoor cycling, making it a much better bet than most simple straps.
The Wahoo Tickr X has internal memory that will store 16 hours of your heart rate data and additional motion analytics that track your cycles, too. You can work out without your smartphone, and then transfer all the data back when you’re home and showered.
$99.99, wahoofitness.com | Amazon
Best heart rate coach
If you want more from your chest strap, the MyZone MZ-3 goes beyond churning out simple bpm (beats per minute) recordings. You get your heart going – whether that be by running, rowing, swimming, cycling or a session in the gym – and earn points based on your bpm.
Rather than simply scoring highly based on a high reading, the MyZone studies your effort over time and creates a golf-style handicap for your level. Your aim is to better your own performance, and like golf, MyZone adds a gameification element enabling you to compete against others, even at vastly different abilities.
Like the Tickr X (below), the MZ-3 has storage for 16 hours of data, so you don’t always have to carry your smartphone while working out.
$149.99, myzone.com | Amazon
Moov HR Sweat
Although there’s a chest strap version with the Moov HR Burn, Moov’s HR Sweat uses your head to track your bpm. According to the company, positioning the sensor to the high temples on the side of the head, where the skin is thinner and the blow flow is increased, reduces sensor movement and makes for more reliable readings.
Building on the real-time coaching capabilities of the original Moov and the Now, the HR Sweat is a small circular sensor that sits inside a small silicone case and slips into a sweatband or swimming cap.
As with its predecessor, you can then be coached through a range of sessions, including everything from HIIT running to all-over body weight workouts. It’s a brilliant system and a leader in the real-time coaching space. We’re still completing our review, but the results will be in soon.
$99.95, moov.cc | Amazon
Best fitness trackers with heart rate
Garmin Vivosmart HR+
With HR on the wrist, our Fitness Tracker of the Year, the Garmin Vivosmart HR+, is a little less intrusive than wearing one of the company’s GPS watches all day long – and with top 24/7 HR monitoring, all day wear is advised. HR accuracy does dwindle at high intensity and excessive wrist flex during weight sessions however, so that’s worth keeping in mind.
But the built-in GPS makes it more appealing to runners than your average Fitbit, and data is pulled into the ever improving Garmin Connect companion app.
Take a look at our full Garmin Vivosmart HR+ review.
$149.99, garmin.com | Amazon
Fitbit Charge 2
Like any wrist-based HR monitor, the Charge 2 suffers big problems at high intensity where it succumbs to a fairly hefty lag time and motion noise. However, it’s still good enough for workouts in the gym and on the road if you’re not too worried about pinpoint accuracy.
On the plus side, the resting heart rate tracking is up there with the best, and if you’re put off by the technical graphs of its competitors, Fitbit’s app is one of the most accessible ways to track your workouts. Looking for something with a slimmer design that still offers heart rate tracking? Take a look at the new Fitbit Alta HR.
$149.99, fitbit.com | Amazon
Nokia Steel HR
If you want a reliable heart rate monitor hidden beneath a stylish analogue-style watch, this is your one right now.
The Steel HR builds on previous Withings trackers, adding a heart rate monitor that works continuously or during workouts. We’ve tried it and it’s one of the best we’ve used, whether for casual runs or something more intense.
The hybrid also offers automatic run and swim detection plus 25-day battery life and throws your data into the award-winning Nokia Health Mate app.
$179.95, health.nokia.com | Amazon
Best heart rate monitor for swimmers
Garmin HRM Tri
A real pro tool for Triathletes, this ultra-small and light (a mere 49g) heart rate strap adds considerable bike and running smarts to some of the pool functions of the HRM Swim.
With a built-in accelerometer that’ll deliver cadence, vertical oscillation and ground contact time data (like Garmin’s HRM Run) while on two legs, plus HR stat storage while actually underwater, this is one of the most rounded tools for the three disciplines out there. Garmin has also ensured there are no exposed seams and all edges are soft and rounded, to prevent rubbing or any wetsuit-doffing difficulties.
$129.99, garmin.com | Amazon
Headphones with heart rate monitoring
Jabra Sport Pulse Special Edition
The new version of the Pulse adds continuous VO2 Max monitoring and still manages to deliver accurate heart rate readings from your ear. These wireless in-ear headphones banish the need for chest straps or watches, taking the reading from your lug holes and sending that data to your smartphone via Bluetooth, with spoken feedback as you go.
Another high scorer in its Wareable review, we gave the Sport Pulse Special Edition four stars for its great HR accuracy, solid sound quality and raft of sports tracking modes from the impressive Jabra Sport app.
$159.99, jabra.com | Amazon
These premium, do-it-all buds offer wireless music (with storage for up to 1,000 songs), fitness and heart rate tracking and an ear bone mic for calls.
Getting up and running with Dash is relatively straightforward. Once you’ve paired your hearable to the Bragi app, you’ll be able to select run tracking from the Activity hub. Here you can see heart rate, steps, distance, duration and calories. When you’re out, voice prompts will keep you updated on heart rate status, steps and duration. It’s up there with the Jabra Sport Pulse in terms of delivering reliable heart rate readings from the ear.
Have a read of our Bragi Dash review.
$249.99, bragi.com | Amazon
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