Strapping on a good heart rate monitor is an easy way to supercharge your running or training. It not only makes your stats more accurate, but it also enables you to start heart rate training in specific zones, which can make your regime more efficient.
Increasingly, companies are starting to add heart rate monitors into running watches, fitness trackers and even running headphones. They all rely on light-based optical sensors to detect the blood racing through your veins. But as we've found out at Wareable, while these new optical sensors are a great way to ditch the chest strap and get beginners thinking about their heart rate, if you're serious about accuracy, the chest strap still reigns in most cases.
Essential reading: Optical heart rate accuracy, the experts speak
The bottom line is this: if you want pinpoint accuracy, get a chest strap. If you're just after more colour in your workout, and aren't interested in spending your sessions at specific bpms, a wrist-based monitor will do.
Read on for our recommendations.
Best heart rate training chest straps
The MyZone MZ-3 offers a whole lot more than 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 handicaps your levels.
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 exercising.
We've used Polar's heart rate monitor chest strap for a lot of our fitness tracker and smartwatch testing, including the Apple Watch Series 2 and the Garmin Vivoactive HR, because it's one of the most reliable sensors out there.
Like the MyZone and the rest of the chest straps we've featured, it uses an ECG style sensor that detects the electrical activity of the heart to deliver your BPM readings. The light and surprisingly comfortable chest strap works with Polar's line of wearables as well, plus a whole host of Android and iOS devices, letting you feed data into fitness apps including Runkeeper and Endomondo.
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.
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.
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 an built-in accelerometer that'll deliver cadence, vertical oscillation and ground contact time data (like Garmin's HRM Run) while on two legs, and 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.
Suunto Smart Sensor
Suunto claims the Smart Sensor is the world's smallest Bluetooth Smart heart rate monitor, and it's probably right: it's unfeasibly tiny. The size of a quarter, this little marvel has tiny studs that clip into Suunto's colour-coded belts, as well as compatible Movesense clothing. It'll store heart rate data underwater, but won't send updates in real time, while on land it'll track your heart rate and calories burned.
It's Bluetooth Smart, so it'll pair direct with Suunto's Movescount app on your Android or iOS phone, as well as with Ambit devices including the Suunto Spartan Sport. At 40g, it's no heavyweight, and it's waterproof to 30m.
Best running watches with built-in HRM
TomTom Spark 3
With the newer Spark, you now 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.
The built-in heart rate monitor means there's no need for a traditional HR strap, and combines with GPS and activity tracking tools to make this an all-in-one fitness device par-excellence. The Spark 3 is available in a series of bundles including Bluetooth headphones.
Wareable verdict: TomTom Spark 3 review
After disappointing with the heart rate monitor packed into the Polar A360, Polar's first Android Wear running watch proved more reliable in the HR department. Our testing against the Wahoo and MyZone chest straps showed that it is up to the task, even for interval training.
The M600 is a running watch and smartwatch in one but it puts the focus firmly on running, giving you GPS tracking and all the stats you'll need to track performance. It also gets all the Android Wear goodness, including smartphone notifications and Google voice so you can even interact with it hands-free.
Read our in-depth Polar M600 review now.
Garmin Forerunner 235
The 235 is the Garmin watch with its own bespoke optical HR tech built in. It features full GPS tracking tech, a water resistant build and, more importantly, the brilliantly detailed and useful Garmin Connect software. While the HR feedback from running isn't exactly bang on the money, the data is usable for steady run sessions.
What's more, the Forerunner 235 will keep track of your resting heart rate and steps when worn all day, making it a great companion for hardcore fitness types.
Check out our full Garmin Forerunner 225 review.
Mio Alpha 2
The Mio Alpha 2 takes an EKG-accurate heart rate reading right from your wrist. Heart rate zones can be configurable, with an LED flashing light alerting you to your current zone, and it works with lots of different fitness apps. The onboard memory can hold 25 hours of workout data, with all the distance, pace, speed and calories data coming from the accelerometer.
One big caveat – the Mio does heart rate tracking well, but in our Alpha 2 review we found that it isn't enough of an all-rounder for the price.
Fitbit's Surge boasts an optical heart rate sensor and PurePulse tech that'll automatically monitor your stats every few seconds, using the data to maximise your training and accurately track calorie burn.
You can set a target heart rate zone, ensuring you're pushing yourself enough but not overtraining, and then beam all the data back to the fantastic companion apps. These apps have a nifty trick up their sleeve too – the ability to plot all of your heart rate readings on a graph and review all the data from many weeks in one go. In our Fitbit Surge review, though, what we didn't like was the price, the uninspiring design and display and the very basic smartphone notifications.
Best fitness trackers with HRM
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.
There's also GPS built in, which makes it appealing to runners, and data is pulled into the ever improving Garmin Connect companion app. Take a look out our full Garmin Vivosmart HR+ review. And, if you just care about HR tracking, consider the Garmin Vivosmart HR.
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.
Wareable verdict: Fitbit Charge 2 review
Jawbone UP3 and UP4
The UP3 and UP4 are almost identical apart from the NFC payment feature available on the UP4. Advanced bioimpedance sensors on both bands automatically keep an eye on your resting heart rate, using the data to let you know how to take better care of yourself. It now also supports passive heart rate monitoring too.
The band can determine what activity you're doing and automatically adjust, while the Smart Coach is like a personal trainer on your wrist, giving you encouragement when you need it most. Take a look at our Jawbone UP3 review.
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.
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 it'll show you that 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.
Have a read of our Bragi Dash review.
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