May 28, 2009

Which HRM to chose? Little help narrowing the list.

As you all know I have owned good share of the HRMs over the past 3 years. I do not even want to count them. I often ended-up using the top of the line HRM from Polar, Suunto or Garmin. Recently I was involved in discussions with other users that were planning to buy a new HRM and were struggling to decide between the Suunto T6c, Polar RS800cx or Garmin ForeRunner 405 or Forerunner 310xt (soon to be released). Following 10 questions while not giving single answer (because there is no single answer) they should be helpful to narrow down the list for you. It considers the above listed models for the three companies. I did not look at the fitness level models or cycling computers. When I refer to Suunto I mean Suunto T6c, for Polar I mean RS800cx and for Garmin I refer to Forerunner 405 and Forerunner 310xt (for the 310xt the info is based on available information on the web. I have not used the HRM in training and do not even plan to).


  1. Do you want mapping of your routes and review the routes later on PC? If yes look at Garmin and Polar.
  2. Do you want EPOC/TE capability? If yes look at Suunto or Polar. Suunto has the EPOC/TE built into the watch and software. With Polar the EPOC/TE is available post exercise in FirstBeat Athlete software.
  3. Do you want guided workouts - e.g. sessions that guide you through training routine? If yes do you expect more complex sessions than warm-up / interval 1 / interval 2 and cool down? If yes look at Polar and Garmin that offer more granular definition for each workout phase. Polar has an edge in this arena as it supports greatest detail in definition of the phases and respective limits (pace, HR, HR zone, cadence, etc.).
  4. Do you want to swim with your HRM? If yes look at Polar, Suunto. With Garmin only the new 310xt is rated for swimming.
  5. Do you want HR during the swim? Look at Suunto with Memory belt (you will get the HR post swim, but the output is pretty bad in the pool, better in open water swim with race suit or tri suit); or look at lower end Polar with 5kHZ technology that transmits under water (RS300x, S625X, S725X, RS400, etc.).
  6. Do you prefer GPS integrated in the HRM? Only Garmin offers this.
  7. Do you want to use the HRM as regular watch? Look at Suunto or Polar. Garmin only the 405, the 310xt will only win you price for the dorkiest guy in the office.
  8. Do you need separate HR zones per sport? Only Polar supports this in their software. No watch has more than one set of HR zones. Polar is the best choice at this time as you can use the HR to define your guided exercise to stay in specific zone and review the data in the software.
  9. Do you need watch with automatic switch between sensors? Look at Suunto T6c. Other units require user intervention to switch between for example bike and run.
  10. Do you need run cadence? Look at Polar or Garmin - both with foot pod. If you need stride length only Polar does that at this time.

The list above is not complete, but should help narrow the choices. There is no one ideal watch that does it all. It is about making the choice that satisfies your needs. All the watches will do good job in capturing basic information about your training like training time, lap splits, HR, pace, altitude, speed and cadence on bike, etc. Feel free to drop me a line if you have questions.

12 comments:

Mel-2nd Chances said...

i went through this debate a few months ago, and had enlisted the help of MadeUpName... he referred me to your blog. Great post about the different devices, currently I have a 305 and RS800CX, and you've pointed out the pros/cons that i've noticed as well :)

Paulie said...

While the Polar software does allow different HR zones they cannot be associated with different sports and only one set of zones can be load onto a polar device at a time. Also even though I have my set of zones for biking on my CS600 when I download the data to the software it seems always to display the data with my run zones (that I have loaded on my RS800). It's very frustrating.

I don't know about the Garmin 405, but my understanding is that the Garmin Forerunner 305 and 310xt do allow separate HR zones for each sport.

Benedict said...

Off topic, but do you have a book recommendation for best implementing a HRM with running?

kxux said...

Mel-2nd Changces - good to see that MUN is doing his part in spreading the word about my great site :-). Seriously it is amazing how the web makes it easy to connect with people with similar interests. I never met MUN, but if I ever head over across the pond I'll be sure to try to arrange for a run together.

Paulie - maybe I'll do a post about how I use the PPT5 to manage different HR zones per sport. I have separate zones for run, bike and swim and they all work quite well. I can review the workout info and the software considers the HR zones. You can define up to 4 different zones and then assign them to your defined sports. This definitely beats the one set both Suunto a Garmin offer.
You are right that Polar HRMs (and any other for that matter) can store only one set of zones so they are not very useful directly in the watch, but there is a way around this. When you plan your workout initially set the limits to Sports Zone and then flip the setting to HR and select bpm. The pre-defined top/bottom of the zone is correct and if you load this to the watch the phase will be showing the right HR limits. If you use CS600 and RS800cx you can just load your bike zones to your CS600 and run zones to RS800cx. I have it setup exactly like that - most of my bike rides are only with CS600. Only when I want to capture GPS location I use the RS800cx (never decided to upgrade to CS600x since the RS800cx does this anyways).
The FR405 supports only one zone and Garmin software supports just one sport zone as far as I remember. It would be pleasant surprise if the 310xt supported multiple HR zones. In this line up Suunto falls behind - their HR limits are basic - top and bottom of the HR for the entire session. Another reason I use the T6c mostly for racing or steady state sessions where the HR limits can be set the same for entire session.

Benedict I would recommend to look at Joe Friel's Total Heart Rate Training: Customize and Maximize Your Workout Using a Heart Rate Monitor. It worked very well for me and is fairly straightforward model using threshold HR for setting the HR zones.
After two years of training with HR only I also determined my pacing zones based on the threshold pace from 10k race (and corresponding HR). I used both Daniel's Running Formula and Brain Training For Runners from Matt Fitzgerals until I started training with coach. Since then my run training is mostly pace or pace/HR zone based. The HR and pacing zones correspond very well in the model Friel defines. I determined the pacing zones from race results on McMillan Running site. The pace and HR zones go very well together. I mean there may be few beats difference in hot weather or if I'm tired, but it is close enough to work for training.

Chris Weiss said...

You might want to mention a bit about web software and support. I've got an older Polar F11 and a Garmin Edge 305 (bike mounted HRM/GPS). Polar's fitness-tracking website seems to have far more detailed options, but is horrendously broken (many functions dont work) and has been since they rolled out the new version over a year ago (with plenty of complaints in the forums). I've also found Polar's tech support to be lacking (not a single reply to questions I've asked over the years). Garmin's support has been very helpful and their website, while not as powerful, is fully functional. That said, there are a number of external sites popping up that support Polar's data transfer capabilities (alas, not for the older audio-based F11) and are gaining on Polar's web site's feature set.
This is unfortunate, as I'm considering a new wrist-based HRM/GPS and while the Polar's on-device features are more attractive, I'd rather not give them any more $$.

kxux said...

Chris you are making very good points. The web applications from various vendors are also something to consider. I do not use Polar's website very much as I store all my workouts locally on my machine and utilize TrainingPeaks. But from the functionality perspective it looks more advanced that Garmin's while Garmin's is more sleek and provides the basics that 95% of people want (the 5% is for the geeks and numbers people like me and for us I think the local software is best option).

As for the service - I think that all companies have room for improvement and the service experience is fairly inconsistent. I had great experience with Polar Service in the US and not so good with Garmin support over e-mail. That is why I did not want to include this because other people had exactly the opposite experience. So the service is not really that consistent. With Suunto the experience is very similar - I had excellent responses from their tech support and also some lousy ones.

The HRM choice is highly personal and I see a shift from using the HRM only as a training device to using it as a daily watch. In that regard all three manufacturers deliver though in Garmin's case only one model can be really considered a watch - the 405 which unfortunately can not be used in water.

LukeNRG said...

Hi Jan,
at first, nice greetings from germany... Did you see the new heartrate belt an the new footpod from garmin? Looks like cool&useful gatgets...

If not, see http://www.pietschandfriends.de/?p=823&lang=en fot pics and Infos...

Kind regards
LukeNRG

James266 said...

Hi, Great blog. Its a very interesting read. I had a quick question for you.

Im looking at getting a new HRM. Ive currently got the Polar S725X and am looking at upgrading to the RS800CX Multi. The thing is that Polars damn IR system has alsways given me problems and it doesnt work on my new vista PC. The RS800CX still uses IR but some of their newer models use the new flowlink. Polar have updated to the Pro Team now but that seams just comsetic. I cant help but feel that they are going to bring out something new soon. Have you heard anything? I dont want to buy old tech...

Also on a side note, do you know how good the G3's signal reception is. I would want to use it for mountain biking in woods.

Hope you can help :)

James

kxux said...

LukeNRG: Yeah the Garmin 310xt is interesting option. I bet a lot of folks in the US will get it. I'm not really that inclined to get it as it does not do R-R and is not really a watch. But I'm sure it is a good option.

James: I agree that the IR interface can be a pain at times. I did not have many issues (maybe 2 in the past 3 years), but lately the IR is giving me a lot of problems with blue screen and I have hard time finding a solution. I guess it is time for my machine to get a new image from our IT group. It has been 3 years with no reinstall of the OS and XP tends to get messed-up after even shorter time.
As for new stuff from Polar - I have not heard about any new stuff coming out soon. But one magazine (Runner's World US edition) mentioned that one of the HRM manufacturers will come out with power measuring device for running. I wonder who that will be - obvious three are Polar, Suunto and Garmin. Hard to say who will be the first. As for RS800cx / PTE you will definitely not invest in old tech :-). These watches are top of the line on current market and with the discounts one can find on-line they are pretty affordable.
The G3 reception is pretty good for the routes where I used it, but it is hard to predict how well it will perform in forrest under heavy tree cover. Best is probably to buy one from vendor that lets you return stuff if you do not like it - I buy a lot from amazon and their return policy is just great. Absolutely no hassle. Buy one, test it out and then decide whether you want to keep it.

Paulie said...

I have a hard time believing that it would be anyone other than Garmin to come out with a power measuring foot pod, and that is just because Garmin owns Dynastream and also has been pushing ANT+ compatibility with various cycling powermeters, which neither Polar nor Suunto have been doing.

Depechie said...

Hey kxux...

First up, I've bought a Polar RS800cx after I've read the great detailed reviews you posted on your blog!! It helped me make my decision ;)

But currently I've something weird with the ProTrainer5 software ( ok maybe not weird, but I can't find any documentation about it ) and I was wondering if you had any ideas?

I've posted my question already on the Polar Forum: http://forum.polar.fi/showthread.php?t=8119

My own speculation is also on it ;)

mm said...

Nice disambiguition. Do you have an up-to-date comment about the currently available products?