Strapping on the best 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.
Fitbit, Apple, Garmin and Polar are among the many companies that 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 in our extensive testing 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 for the latest heart rate monitors.
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 other chest straps 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.
Polar recently announced its successor the H10, which is suitable for swimming, has storage for one workout and promises to offer more accurate data.
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.
Okay, so this isn't technically a chest strap, but it also isn't a watch, so we'll give it a home here. The Scosche Rhythm+ is a heart rate monitor that sits higher on your arm and uses optical sensors to read your heart rate through your skin, with two green and an additional yellow sensor used to help gauge measurements with all skin tones, the company claims.
You're given two straps so you can velcro it up around your forearm or your upper arm, so this is a nice alternative if you don't fancy something strapped around on your chest but also want to keep an eye on other stats through a smartwatch or fitness tracker.
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 inside a sweatband or swimming cap.
Like its predecessor you will 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.
Best running watches with built-in HRM
TomTom Spark 3
Of all the running watches we've tested that pack heart rate monitors, the TomTom Spark 3 and the original Spark remain our go-to devices for delivering accurate heart rate readings from the wrist.
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 35
The Forerunner 35 is the latest Garmin running watch to feature its Elevate 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.
It's the same sensor that appears across Garmin's range, and it performs just like its stablemates. Decent optical performance at a steady pace, but things fall down fast at high intensity.
But you won't find a Garmin watch with heart rate monitoring for less, and it's packed with decent features such as 24/7 activity tracking including resting heart rate.
Check out our full Garmin Forerunner 35 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.
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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.
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 out our full Garmin Vivosmart HR+ 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.
Wareable verdict: Fitbit Charge 2 review
Withings 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 tried whether it's for casual runs or something more intense.
The hybrid also offers automatic run and swim detection, 25-day battery life and throws your data into the award-winning Withings Health Mate app.
Wareable verdict: Withings Steel HR 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.
Heart rate monitors incoming in 2017
If none of the above take your fancy, there's plenty more to come on the wearable front. Most notably, the Moov HR Burn, which is the company's chest strap dropping in March, Suunto's Sport Wrist HR, the New Balance RunIQ Android Wear-running smartwatch, Polar Team Pro Shirt and Garmin's Fenix 5 series. If you're a Fitbit fan, you can also look forward to the Alta HR we recently uncovered, shown above.
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