We continue our look at ten of 2014's best heart rate monitors for triathletes...
Raleigh RSP Elite
Price: £54 from www.raleigh.co.uk
The Elite matches Sigma’s RC1209 in the aesthetics stakes, its slightly bulky and elongated design ‘complemented’ by four hefty buttons. It’s a similar price point and is also brimming with features, but that’s where the comparisons end. Speed data is based on pedometer readings – in other words, a digital motion sensor within the watch – but results are inconsistent, especially when running at pace off-road.
We expected the exertions to confuse this tiring user, not the watch! Heart data seems reliable though, and the interface is clear to read at speed. It also offers feedback on your current fitness level and calculates body mass index, though again the latter fed back inconsistencies. You suspect the Elite’s fallen into the trap of cramming in features to seduce the consumer but, in this case, less is definitely more.
Verdict: Solid enough but feels like it’s been sent from the 1980s, 69%
Suunto Ambit3 Sport Blue
Price: £325 from www.suunto.com
First impressions, beyond the Smurf blue, are that it’s a bulky beast, up there with Garmin’s Fenix 2. Thankfully, on the fly, it’s less noticeable than you’d predict, each function flicked through via one of the reassuringly positive buttons. Its feature list is immense, including GPS, navigation, compass, altitude, triathlon option (by manual button press) and bike power support via Bluetooth Smart, which replaces the ANT+ connectivity of the previous model.
The screen is highly readable on land and at sea, which is one of the major sells of the Ambit3 – with the Suunto Smart Sensor chest strap it measures heart rate under water. Though it displays swim stats after rather than during the session, it’s a worthwhile feature for total multisport analysis. Just be careful not to push too hard off the pool wall as it’s susceptible to slipping off. Finally, a whole world of analysis awaits on the excellent Suunto Movescount app.
Verdict: Not the slimmest, but brilliant functionality and ease of use, 86%
TomTom Multisport Cardio
Price: £249 from www.tomtom.com
This is one of a number of HRMs dispensing with chest straps and replacing them with optical pulse sensors. They’ve licensed the technology from Mio, whereby sensors measure the colour of your skin (which changes slightly depending on bloodflow) via two green LEDs shining onto your wrist. It’s certainly refreshing to free your sternum from that sweaty band and it’s a reliable guide at moderate pace. Feedback can be erratic, however, when intensity rises.
GPS has improved since we tested the Runner Cardio in issue 303 and the addition of swim metrics such as laps completed will appeal. Just make sure you unleash a powerful push-off at the end of each lap, because it’s the accelerometers that gauge how fast and far you’re swimming. The package comes with a bike mount that flips on and off seamlessly. However, the jury’s out on the clunky button and rather uncomfortable strap.
Verdict: Better than the Runner Cardio, but still too flawed for £250, 74%
Price: £74 from www.polar.com
Dainty: a rarely used word in the rather masculine world of data collection, but one that definitely applies to the FT4. Alpha males need not apply, but it’s perfect for slimmer wrists. It measures heart rate and offers zone training, though you need to input this manually, which is a touch cumbersome and redundant, as there’s only limits for one zone. The FT4 stores up to 10 training files, which is relatively useful for post-run analysis and comparison.
Mind you, detail is limited by its inability to download data to Polar’s online personal trainer. To be fair, that’s expected at this price point. Where the FT4 really falls down is ease of use. The buttons are sharp, rigid affairs that require substantial pressure. When on the fly and fatiguing, simplicity is what you want – especially as you’ll be switching multiple times because the HR and duration data fields aren’t shown on the same screen.
Verdict: Basic functions and looks good, but too impractical, 74%
Price: £399 from www.polar.com
Finnish giant Polar has been refining athletes’ training since 1977, but only in the past couple of years did it create its first all-in-one GPS/HRM, the RCX5. That still lagged behind the then multisport industry-standard, Garmin’s 910XT, but that gap is closing with the V800. Its slick design sits comfortably on your wrist. Satellite pick-up and retention is impressively fast. A triathlon function monitors your efforts from start to finish, and is soon to receive updates that include ‘extensive swim metrics’.
By early 2015, indoor and outdoor swim functions, including pace, stroke count and swim stroke identification will elevate the V800 to a new level. It measures readiness to train as well – though it consistently told us we were good to go, when we felt battered post-intervals. Battery life’s a touch short too, at 14hrs, but that’s compensated by the usable and analytical Flow web and mobile service.
Verdict: Will impress even more with impending swim upgrades, 82%
The past few years might have seen the rise of the power meter, with HRM detractors citing inaccuracies because of outside influences like ambient temperature and internal ones like race-stimulated adrenaline skewing results. But as Chris Boardman told us recently, “The ideal is to train by the three Ps: perception of effort, power and pulse. If I was training today, I’d choose an HRM over power meter any day. It tells you more about yourself and the conditions you’re training in.”
And that insight applies at all prices. Take the impressive Sigma RC1209. For under £60 you’re given speed, distance and heart-rate data, all within a neat package that, if other Sigma tools we’ve tested is anything to go by, will last until you decide you’re after more metrics and want an upgrade.
That upgrade will take you right past the Garmin FR15. Nearly £150 is a pretty hefty outlay for a relatively basic model, justified by Garmin because of the activity tracker, which many triathletes simply won’t use. Their £120 FR70 will serve you much better.
Or you could spend a little extra and enter the world of optics. Epson’s Pulsense PS-500B, at a smidge under £170, joins the growing band of monitors measuring heart rate via optical sensors. The jury remains out on accuracy, especially at high intensities, though for the most part the results were positive. Also, for a brand better known for manufacturing stationery goods, we were impressed with the ergonomic design that wrapped round the wrist and was very comfortable on the move.
Whether Epson enters the elite end of the HRM spectrum remains to be seen. What is clear though is that when you move up to the levels of spending over £300 you expect a lot. And that’s what you get with the Polar V800, Garmin Fenix 2 and Suunto Ambit3. They’re all usable, packed with useful triathlon features and will improve your performance.
The Polar V800 could well prove the best of the lot thanks to the imminent swim-metrics upgrade. But that’s to come. The Fenix 2 is a feat of micro-engineering and only loses marks for too many features being superfluous to the triathlete. That leaves the winner as the Ambit3. It’s not the most refined looking, but it works brilliantly on the fly or when analysing post-workout. It’s also the easiest to use, which helps you to maximise every single feature – and is exactly what you want at this price.
Don't forget to check out our other 2014 round-ups: best aerobars, best run jackets, best turbo trainers, best tri bikes, best tri bike shoes, best wetsuits, best lightweight run shoes, best trail shoes, best energy bars, best bike jackets, best bike helmets, best TT helmets, best recovery drinks and best tri-suits.
Did Santa bring you a new heart rate monitor? Let us know in the comments!