The best heart rate monitors are comfortable enough that you forget you’re wearing it, but will aid your training by providing consistent and accurate heart rate data. Until power meters became widespread in cycling, heart rate was the gold standard for measuring training effort and recovery. It’s still an important metric used by athletes – professional or amateur – worldwide. The humble heart rate monitor can provide insight into training effort, exertion, fatigue and more.
They have been around for decades, with Finnish outfit Polar releasing the first wireless model back in the late 1970s, but technology is improving all the time.
Now we have lightweight chest straps, optical forearm-based monitors, and small optical wristbands that track your pulse, the latter is now being integrated into fitness trackers and smartwatches at all price points. All of the best smartwatches for cycling utilise optical heart rate sensors.
Ranging from simple straps that will communicate with your cycling computer to advanced dual-band sensors with onboard memory and even music control, each option can map other metrics like heart rate viability, remember workout data, and even determine cadence.
Read on for Cyclingnews‘ pick of the best heart rate monitors available today, or if you’re unsure what separates a good heart rate monitor from a bad one, skip down to our guide on what to look out for.
Best heart rate monitors
Wahoo’s Tickr is a basic dual-band Bluetooth and ANT+ heart rate chest strap that has recently received a refresh. Wahoo has reduced the size of the unit for a better fit and increased the battery life by nearly 50 per cent, which gives a claimed 500 hours of use on a single battery. For ease of use, the Tickr range can simultaneously connect to three devices, which is handy if you want to control your headwind fan whilst riding on Zwift via your laptop.
Powered by a standard CR2032 battery that should last about a year, the sensor has a IPX7 water- and dust-resistance rating, and Wahoo says it will survive at a depth of 5ft.
- Wahoo Fitness: range overview, details, pricing and specifications
Even though Garmin owns the ANT+ protocol, it has finally – perhaps begrudgingly -opened its products up to transmitting via Bluetooth. The HRM dual is a stripped-down heart rate monitor, it measures your heart rate, and that’s it, no device memory, and no run or swim dynamics.
However, without all of these extra sensors and things to keep track of, it keeps the price down nicely, and Garmin says the CR2032 battery will last about three years.
Polar invented the wireless heart rate monitor and, when it launched the H10 strap a few years ago, it claimed it to be the most accurate on the market. By using a third electrode on the strap, silicone grippers to prevent it from sliding around and a new algorithm, the brand says the new strap is accurate to +/- one millisecond.
The H10 is entirely waterproof, an be worn while swimming and also record your heart rate variability — though you’ll need to use it in combination with one of the brand’s smartwatches to take advantage. It broadcasts in both ANT+ and Bluetooth, and, unlike the Garmin and Wahoo straps, can connect to two concurrent devices with Bluetooth.
Taking the standard Tickr and raising the game, the Wahoo Tickr X can also manage three Bluetooth connections simultaneously, but it adds in a host of extras that make the Tickr X a great choice for cyclists and non-cyclists alike.
With an onboard memory that can store up to 50 hours of heart rate and calorie data, the Tickr X allows you to train device-free, should you wish to head out for a run/ride without your phone or cycling computer. As well as heart rate and calories, the Wahoo Tickr X can also provide running analytics and even track your cycling cadence thanks to inbuilt accelerometers.
The music control adds a level of interactivity for exercise in warm weather (or indoor cycling), but it’s not too useful when layered underneath three layers of winter-proof clothing.
It’s built to be a little slimmer than its forebear, which improves upon the already-excellent comfort, yet this doesn’t take away from the durability – this writer’s model has even stood up to the test of a teething puppy.
The HRM Pro is the top tier of Garmin’s latest range of heart rate monitors with both ANT+ and (unlike the HRM Tri or HRM Swim) Bluetooth compatibility.
The HRM Pro features onboard memory, meaning it can store swim data and then push it immediately to your device when back in the locker room afterwards. It can also track running metrics such as ground contact time, stride length and more. For cyclists, it’ll easily pair with Zwift or your Garmin cycling computer.
Like many others here, the battery is a coin cell and Garmin claims it will last around 365 hours of training time.
Heart rate monitors can get surprisingly expensive, and if you’re trying to train on a budget, the Lifeline Heart Rate transmitter is worth a look.
It’s a basic chest strap now supports both Bluetooth and ANT+ connection; the transmitter is removable with metal snaps, and the strap is machine washable. The antenna pod itself looks suspiciously similar to a few other heart rate monitors on the market, and we wouldn’t be surprised to find the exact same unit with a different logo printed on the front and a higher price tag.
The Tickr Fit is an optical heart rate sensor designed to be worn on your arm utilising green LEDs to read the blood flow beneath your skin. It’s designed to be worn on the forearm and comes with two straps to fit all arm types.
The reason we like the Tickr Fit is the status light on the backside; flashing blue when all is well, or red when something isn’t — like the sensor not being fit properly. Like the Tickr chest strap, it’s dual-band and pairs seamlessly to a range of devices and has a built-in USB rechargeable battery. The downside comes when you add sleeves, as it’s not slim enough to comfortably fit underneath arm warmers and the like.
The Scosche Rhythm is an ANT+ and Bluetooth enabled optical heart rate monitor that is almost universally compatible with apps and devices. The sensor has built-in memory and can record up to 16 hours of data and the battery will last 33 hours before it needs a top-up.
Scosche also offers a heap of different band options so the sensor can be customised to match your kit.
What to look for in a heart rate monitor?
1. ECG or LED
The classic heart rate chest strap uses sensors pressed up against your skin to measure the electrical impulses that control the contraction and expansion of the muscles in your heart (ECG). In contrast, optical sensors shine light through your skin (LED) and measure the variance in blood flow.
Even with significant advances in technology, the classic ECG based chest strap still reigns supreme in terms of accuracy.
Optical sensors need to maintain consistent contact with your skin for an accurate reading, but bumps, jumps, and even muscle tension from gripping your handlebars can stymie the sensor. With the contact required, optical sensors come with precise fit instructions; constant shaking on your arm from road imperfections and sweaty sunscreen-covered skin can cause them to slide around enough to impede accuracy.
In our experience, a chest strap offers far superior point-to-point accuracy, however, the optical sensors are still pretty good at determining trends in heart rate.
Most of today’s smartwatches have a built-in optical sensor, and some can even connect to your head unit to serve as a sensor. Head over to our round-up of the best smartwatches for cycling.
As with speed/cadence sensors and power meters, heart rate sensors can connect to devices with ANT+ or Bluetooth, with most options now doing both. Which is right for you largely depends on the devices you’ll be connecting.
Most GPS head units will support, at the very least, ANT+ or Bluetooth with the majority speaking both languages — if you’re looking to save a few bucks pick a heart rate strap that only does one (just make sure it’s the right one).
If you’re looking to use a cycling computer while riding outdoors and also take advantage of training apps such as Zwift, TrainerRoad or The Sufferfest on the turbo trainer, consider a dual-band sensor. With a dual-band heart rate monitor, you can connect seamlessly to your ANT+ enabled computer and laptop, phone or tablet without needing an ANT+ dongle or a second sensor.
Another consideration to make is that some Bluetooth devices can only communicate with one other device at a time, some do offer multiple simultaneous Bluetooth connections, but ANT+ can broadcast to an unlimited amount. If you’re one to ride on Zwift but record the ride on your head unit or watch, it’s something to keep in mind.
3. Other considerations
Are you a triathlete or do you incorporate running or swimming into your training? Some heart rate sensors offer running metrics such as vertical oscillation and cadence, while others are waterproof and can be worn in the pool and only record some data.
If you’re looking for a strap, it may also require a tiny bit of maintenance. Usually, the sensor clips onto the strap with a pair of metal straps which will be exposed to quite a lot of sweat over their lifecycle and, these do occasionally succumb to corrosion. You can prolong the life of your HR strap with regular washing (some are machine washable while others aren’t, refer to the tag for instructions) and a small dab of dielectric grease can help if you’re an extremely salty person.
Also, some straps hold your chosen length indefinitely, while others have a tendency to come loose over time. For us, Garmin’s straps are the best in this regard and offer easy adjustment when necessary. Wahoo straps hold securely too, but the initial adjustment can take a little more finesse.