Heart Rate Monitors – The Strapped Versus Strapless Debate


At the Heart Rate Watch Company we have been testing numerous heart rate monitors for several years now, yet on almost a daily basis a customer will ask us, “Should I get a strapless heart rate monitor?”

A growing number of people in the fitness community like to use heart rate data but they don’t like the chest strap. As serious athletes know, especially in endurance sports, that continual feedback is important for zone training, especially if you plan on using audible, or vibratory, alarms to alert you to zone compliance.

Staying in a relatively narrow range of beats per minute that is below anaerobic threshold, where lactic acids build up fast in the muscles, and yet somewhere north of a walk in the park, is what we refer to as zone training. Zone training, or prolonged activity at a sustained heart rate, is what conditions the heart to sustain prolonged efforts and is at the core of every endurance athletes training regime.

Strapless heart rate monitors, while certainly more comfortable, will not allow you to properly zone train. They will give you periodic heart rate and allow you to time recovery rate, both important measures of fitness in and of themselves, but it is the inability to provide accurate zone compliance that is their downfall.

If you have what we call “strap-a-phobia”, a condition where anything strapped around your body drives you completely nuts, then we have a few suggestions. First, it is important to understand how to properly adjust and wear a strap. Most manufacturers recommend a slight wetting of the ECG device which is placed below the sternum. These devices pick up electrical impulses from the heart and wirelessly transmit the data to your watch.

heart-rate-monitors-debateThe straps don’t have to be strapped on terribly tight to do their job effectively. Experiment with loose strapping and you may find that the monitor strap bothers you less than you thought, especially after several sessions of use.

You should also consider trying out several heart rate monitor straps. Manufacturers like Polar and Garmin have in recent years devised much smaller and more comfortable straps. Garmin makes a strap called the Sofstrap and Polar makes a strap called the Wearlink plus strap. Both of these straps are very comfortable compared to previous generations.

The point is to try some of the new generation straps our before you give up entirely. This is one of the reasons that our company provides consumers with a 30-day money back guarantee because it gives you the opportunity to try something without the financial burden of immediate ownership.

The decision to go strapped or strapless has to be a personal choice and usually it is one based upon comfort, or the perception of comfort. While there are trade-offs to having that comfort, like losing the ability to accurately zone train, many people are willing to make that trade-off.

Your strapless heart rate monitor can still give you a resting pulse and a recovery rate, two important measurements, so for the more casual athlete who just does not want to wear the strap it is a tradeoff that is often worth it.

Our tests of several varieties of strapless monitors, like Mio and Bowflex, showed that the heart rate provided was relatively accurate when we tested them side-by-side against strapped monitors.

For serious athletes that want to zone train and download your heart rate information in to training based software, you will have to use a more sophisticated strapped monitor.

At the end of the day, having some type of heart rate feedback to monitor your exercise and recovery is much better than having no feedback. Exercising without a heart rate monitor is like racing a car without a tachometer because you need to know where your redline is and where your sustainable pacing is.

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About Author

Rusty Squire

Rusty is a former member of the US Ski Team, a three-time NCAA All-American, and a former national caliber cyclist and triathlete. Rusty has also worked with and coached hundreds of aspiring athletes over the years, many who went on to successful careers in international competition. See my profile page for more information!

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