Which heart rate monitor is the best for running? Which monitor is the most accurate? We get asked those questions and more all the time here at Wareable.
Now more than ever, there are dozens of options to supercharge your run, cycle or HIIT training sessions with an extra layer of biometric data, telling you just how hard you've been working in your gym sessions and giving you a better idea of that calorie burn.
It doesn't only makes your post-workout 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 all adding heart rate monitors into running watches, fitness trackers and even running headphones, but in our opinion, dedicated chest straps still offer the best way to get tip-top accuracy.
Whether you're looking for something that's great for the gym, or plays nice with Strava or your iPhone, read on for our recommendations.
Any questions? Let us know in the comments section below.
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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 is only compatible with specialist running watches that use that same connectivity – i.e. Garmin, Polar and Suunto watches.
So ANT+ is limited to specialist devices, and the rise of the smartphone is a big factor here; 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 versus 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, Fitbit and Suunto.
Essential reading: Best heart rate monitors for Strava
Debate rages about accuracy, so we will put it here plainly: chest straps are more accurate, and wrist devices will struggle when you're really pushing hard. However, optical wrist wearables are far more comfortable and convenient, and, if you're running steadily, should do the job just fine.
We should mention that there is a new breed of optical heart rate sensors that moves the tracking to the forearm and the upper arm, too. Both Polar and Wahoo have heart rate monitoring armbands available that claim to offer the same level of accuracy you'd get from a chest strap.
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.
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 zeroed onto a chest strap, and is one of the best on-wrist performers we've tested.
There was an issue in our initial testing and that was the fact that Polar's heart rate tech struggled with dark skin. Polar issued a firmware update and having re-tested, it's working and working well.
Check out our full Polar M430 review to see how it shaped up.
Suunto Spartan Trainer Wrist HR
Suunto's Spartan watches are steadily becoming better rivals to Garmin and Polar's top end watches, and one of the ways the company is doing that is through its improving heart rate monitoring skills.
We could be talking about the Spartan Sport Wrist HR, but with the slimmer body and pretty much the same features, the Trainer Wrist HR is the one we'd like keeping an eye on our BPMs.
Like its more expensive sibling, the triathlon-friendly watch performed very well in our own heart rate monitor tests and is up there with Polar for one of the wrist based sensors we've tried.
Have a read of our Suunto Spartan Trainer Wrist HR review to see what we liked and disliked about the heart rate monitoring sports watch.
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 Forerunner 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 really need that hit of accurate data.
Check out our full Garmin Forerunner 935 review.
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. That's why it makes it all the more disappointing that the company has taken the decision to back away from wearables, making this likely the last running watch we'll see from TomTom.
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 than rival watches, with superb accuracy at medium intensity when directly compared with a chest strap. There are also dedicated modes that display your current heart rate zones.
With the latest 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.
Wareable verdict: TomTom Spark 3 review
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 has a modified design, adding silicon friction dots to help keep the strap in place, plus 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 a 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.
Wahoo Tickr X
The Tickr X, along with the MyZone MZ-3, is one of the highest scoring heart rate monitoring devices on Wareable, 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 for running while it can be combined with additional sensors to add cadence and RPM data 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.
Best heart rate monitor for HIIT training
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 (above), the MZ-3 has storage for 16 hours of data, so you don't always have to carry your smartphone while working out.
Wahoo Tickr Fit
So you don't like wearing a chest strap and you don't trust your wrist-based monitor to do the business. There is another option – and based on our experience, it's one that does deliver the goods.
The Wahoo Tickr Fit is an optical based heart rate monitor that sits on the forearm to track your BPMs. Why the forearm? It may have something to do with another company (Scosche) that managed to create a HRM armband that delivered results on par with a chest strap.
We've tried the Tickr Fit and the sweat-proof and water resistant wearable passed the high intensity interval test. Plus, it was also very comfortable to wear during our workouts.
Check out our Wahoo Tickr Fit review to find out more about the heart rate monitoring armband.
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. When we put it to the test we found that its heart rate monitoring skills were a good match for the chest strap we pitted it against. Maybe there's something in this head based monitoring after all.
Read our full Moov HR Sweat review to find out how the HIIT-friendly wearable shaped up.
Successor to the Vivosmart HR+, the Vivosport brings all of the same features including an optical heart rate sensor inside a slimmer design.
It 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 and gym lovers than your average Fitbit, and data is pulled into the ever improving Garmin Connect companion app.
Take a look at our full Garmin Vivosport review.
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 Fitbit Alta HR.
Wareable verdict: Fitbit Charge 2 review
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.
Wareable verdict: Nokia Steel HR review
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.
Best headphones with a heart rate monitor
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, instead 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.
Bragi Dash Pro
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 Pro 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 Pro review.
Best heart rate monitors for iPhone
The first in the business to move the strap from the chest to the arm, the design of the Scosche Rhythm+ has now been replicated by both Polar and Wahoo. This is ideal for anybody who doesn't want the burden of another monitoring method, with the device using the same optical, light-based sensors that you'll find on wrist-based wearables.
Users pairing the device with an iPhone (though it also offers ANT+ support for fitness equipment and watches) will be free to export their data to various fitness apps, as well as Apple's own Health app, and we've found accuracy to be as strong as a chest strap – even at high intensity. It's worth mentioning that the Scosche Rhythm24 has also been announced and builds on the Rhythm+ with the promise of offering accurate heart rate monitoring in the pool as well as in the gym.
Free to be worn on the upper or lower arm, Polar's OH1 packs in optical heart rate smarts but delivers the same accuracy you can expect from one of its chest straps, which are also compatible with the iPhone.
Like the H10 strap we've mentioned above, the OH1 has an internal memory that will let you store up to 200 hours of workout data, while battery life sits at 12 hours. The device is also compatible to 30m underwater, though users won't be able to access these readings in real-time.