How to choose a heart-rate monitor

Watches, cycling computers, plus the pros and cons of ANT+ and Bluetooth straps

If you want to train with heart rate, or just keep digital tabs on what your ticker is doing, there are many good options for heart-rate monitors.

First you need to determine if you want a cycling computer, a watch or a smartphone app. From there, you can get into the specifics of each type. If you already have a relatively new computer or a smartphone, you may only need the heart-rate strap.

Video: Heart rate monitors buyer's guide

While there are a few technologies emerging that allow you to monitor heart rate without a strap — such as a Lazer helmet that reads via laser at the forehead and a Mio Alpha watch that reads the same way at the wrist — the vast majority of systems require an elastic strap with sensors that lay on your chest and a transmitter that sends signals via either ANT+ (to most fitness watches and cycling computers) or Bluetooth Smart (to newer smartphones and progressive cycling computers).

Look for the ANT+ symbol (above) and Bluetooth Smart symbol (below) on both the heart-rate strap and your watch, cycling computer or smartphone

Both ANT+ and BT Smart straps are not brand-specific, and will pair with any watch, cycling computer or smartphone that uses the same signal. Cheaper straps usually have a plastic front strap that runs the width of your chest, while nicer options have a soft fabric band with a small, snap-on transmitter.

There is one notable exception here: Polar uses it own wireless protocol, so any Polar cycling computer or fitness watch can only be used with a Polar heart-rate strap.

Two primary types of heart-rate monitor strap: ANT+ and Bluetooth

ANT+

For those who have a cycling computer with heart-rate fields, all you need is an ANT+ strap. These can be purchased from about US$30 / £18. Double-check the back of the cycling computer for the ANT+ symbol first to make sure that it is compatible. (Again, note that Polar computers are not ANT+ compatible.) From there, once you have a battery in the strap and the strap is around your chest, set your computer to search for a heart-rate monitor.

Once paired, you will have data on the computer that can most likely be downloaded to a variety of sites for analysis after your ride. While many cycling computer companies have their own sites for this, such as Garmin Connect or Polar Personal Trainer, you can also use TrainingPeaks or another third-party site if you want to dig into the data.

One benefit to an ANT+ strap is that is can be easily used with multiple computers; should you decide to upgrade your computer later you won't have to get a new strap.

The Bluetooth strap at upper left from Wahoo works with smartphones and progressive cycling computers like Garmin's newer Edge models. The ANT+ strap at right works with a much broader set of cycling computers and fitness watches

Bluetooth

If you want to use your smartphone — and it is Bluetooth Smart compatible — then you need a Bluetooth Smart strap. These can be purchased for about US$50 / £30 and up.

A third, somewhat obscure choice is the Viiiiva, which blends the two, and can connect ANT+ devices like power meters and speed sensors with Bluetooth-compatible smartphones.

Three types of heart-rate monitors: Watch, cycling computer and smartphone

Watches

As runners were early adopters of heart-rate-based training, many fitness watches feature heart-rate data. These can be had for as little as US$40 / £25. The upsides here are the convenience of a watch, plus the obvious cross-training potential should you want to run with it. The primary downside is that, beyond speed and perhaps distance, you really won't get any cycling-specific metrics. 

The more inexpensive fitness watches are not downloadable, so your analysis is quite limited, but an increasing number of the mid-range watches are downloadable. Check before you buy. And of course you can go all the way up to a multi-sport GPS watch like the Garmin Forerunner 910 that does have cycling metrics (plus run and swim metrics).

Heart-rate straps have two types of fasteners: hook and loop (above), or snap-on (below)

Cycling computers

Cycling computers that come with heart-rate straps start at about US$100 / £60. With these, you can have a dedicated device on your handlebars that also gives you a good range of bike-specific data like distance, speed, time and more. As with the watches, the cheaper options aren't downloadable, but most of the mid-range and up models are.

Cycling computers that come with heart-rate straps usually have a range of heart-rate features, such as adjustable heart-rate zones, alarms for going out of target zone, a cumulative tracker for time in various zones and more. Some of the more advanced units will allow you to program or download heart-rate-based workouts or even training plans into the computer.

Smartphones

Finally, there is your smartphone. Besides the Bluetooth Smart strap, you will also need an app to record your ride and corresponding heart-rate data. Check out our pick of the Best iPhone and Android Apps for Cycling. Strava, Wahoo Fitness and Cyclemeter are a few good options.

Heart-rate straps come in all shapes and sizes — and they work with more devices than ever

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