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The 10 Best Heart Rate Monitors for Running: Chest straps vs. Fitness watches

The 10 Best Heart Rate Monitors for Running: Chest straps vs. Fitness watches

Heart rate monitors are a critical tool used by runners everywhere. They tell runners when they need to speed up or slow down in order to achieve their desired results. They track steps, distance, heart rate activity, pace and some can even monitor your sleep. There are a wide variety of heart rate monitors and fitness trackers. Some are specialized for runners, bicyclists, and swimmers, and sometimes it can be overwhelming to choose the one that is right for you. I know because I experienced the same thing when I began to shop for my first heart rate monitor (the Fitbit Charge 2).

Here I strive to bring you what I believe to be the best, most accurate heart rate monitors, based on the opinions of some of the most reputable running tech websites, my research and runners themselves. I considered functionality, price, accuracy, ease of use and versatility in providing my selections. Some of these devices are pure chest strap heart rate monitors and some are wrist-worn fitness watches.

Chest Strap Monitors vs. Wrist-worn Fitness Trackers

Many serious runners and marathoners prefer to use chest strap monitors, as they are definitely the most accurate way to monitor heart rate. Although fitness tracker technology has made strides in the accuracy department, it is a known fact that chest strap monitors are the more accurate of the two technologies. With that being said, some runners still to prefer the ease of use of fitness watches. With great options such as the Apple Watch 4 and Garmin Forerunner, fitness watches with built-in GPS and heart rate monitoring have taken the running world by storm.

Sometimes chest strap monitors can be uncomfortable and must be used in conjunction with a compatible app or fitness watch anyway. The differences in accuracy between chest strap monitors and wrist-worn devices is the fact that chest strap monitors can read the heart beat directly since the sensor is directly on the chest. Wrist-worn fitness trackers attempt to measure the pulse on the wrist, and that is primarily where the variance in accuracy comes in.

For triathletes, marathon runners, or those doing HIIT, we would have to recommend going the route of a chest strap monitor, and more specifically, the Polar H10.

Polar H10

polar h10 heart rate monitor

Well, it’s pretty much unanimous across the board. The Polar H10 is the cream of the crop. It is a heart rate monitor in its purest form. The Polar H10 is worn around the torso and more commonly referred to as a chest strap monitor. Chest strap monitors are typically preferred by more serious runners due to their reputation for being more accurate than wrist-worn monitors. The H10 features beat-to-beat monitoring and great battery life. It also pairs with a wide variety of training devices. It has onboard memory so that it can be used and store workout data without having to carry your smartphone.

This monitor has a whopping 400-hours of battery life and enough memory to hold approximately 65 hours of training results. It uses a coin cell battery, so it never has to be charged. The Polar H10 is as precise as heart rate monitors come, and focuses on doing one thing and doing it well. It is compatible with most of the top fitness apps, gym equipment and many other Bluetooth devices. It is also waterproof and can accurately track your heart rate under water.

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Garmin Forerunner 235

garmin forerunner 235

Garmins are typically held in higher regard than Fitbits and Apple watches in the running world. They are known for having a very accurate GPS and for their ease of use. The Garmin Forerunner 235 is a wrist-worn monitor and has many of the same features as the other popular wrist heart rate monitors, with the addition of being able to view your text messages, emails, and other notifications directly on the display. It is thin, lightweight and comfortable and does not feature a touchscreen. I personally consider this a plus, as touchscreens can be very difficult to use when your hands are sweaty.

The Forerunner 235 can be used as both a running watch and an activity tracker. Rated for up to 50 meters, the Forerunner 235 is also perfectly capable to be used while swimming, although it doesn’t specifically track swimming activity. One downside for the Garmin is that it doesn’t have any built-in storage for music. Some big positives for the Forerunner are its GPS speed and display. It is also very easy to read in low light situations, as well as outside.

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Apple Watch 4

apple watch series 4

Although it is priced at the higher-end of the spectrum of most of the fitness/heart rate monitors we’ve reviewed, the Apple Watch remains an extremely popular option. For many Apple users, it is simply having a device that is specifically designed to be compatible with your iPhone. The Apple Watch 4 supports Apple Pay, works with Siri, can make phone calls, displays all notifications, and much, much more.

The Apple Watch Series 4 also features a second-gen optical heart rate sensor, calorie metrics, an electrical heart rate sensor for taking electrocardiograms (ECGs), as well as calorie burning information. It can also monitor for a heart rate that is too low or too high, as well as an abnormal heart rate. If one of these irregular heart rates are detected, Apple Watch will generate and send a notification to warn the user.

The Apple Watch 4 also features 16 gigs of storage for apps and music, built-in GPS chip on both the LTE and non-LTE models and a myriad of bands and face finishes to choose from. There is even an Apple Watch Nike+ model created specifically for runners.

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Polar Vantage M

polar vantage m

The Polar Vantage M is a great fitness tracking option for the running purist who wants an accurate GPS and heart rate monitoring, but does not need all of the added frills of a smart watch. Many of the top-tier trackers with built-in GPS and all of the smart capabilities begin to get very expensive. That makes the Vantage M the perfect choice for the price-conscious runner whose primary concern is accurate run tracking and heart rate data.

The Polar Vantage M has a very intuitive interface and no touch screen, which is a big plus to many runners. Touch screens can become very difficult to operate when you begin sweating. This can be an extremely frustrating experience in the middle of your workout. The Polar Vantage M looks great, is very accurate, and provides approximately 30 hours of battery in training mode. It is also the only wrist-worn tracker that currently features a combo optical sensor/electrode technology to greatly reduce inaccurate readings. In addition, the Polar Vantage M can also  provide V02 max estimates.

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Wahoo Tickr X

wahoo tickr heart rate monitor

The Tickr X is another great chest-strap monitor option. It contains sensors for RPM data for cyclists, works with a host of smartphones for compatibility, and received a 5 out of 5 star review from pcmag.com. It does feature onboard memory so that you are able to store your workouts independent of a smartphone. However, with only enough memory to hold about 16 hours of data, you can see why the Polar H10 is the slightly more popular choice when it comes to chest strap monitors.

The Tickr X is mounted on a standard heart rate monitor chest strap and tracks heart rate, as well as how many calories you’ve burned while exercising. Like the Polar H10, it uses a coin cell battery that can last for up to 12 months. It is ANT+ and BLE capable so it can connect to all of your favorite fitness apps and devices. The Tickr X is compatible with iPhone 4s and newer and works with over 50 different apps. For Android users it is compatible with Android 4.3 and newer OSs.

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Fitbit Charge 3

fitbit charge 3

The Fitbit Charge 3 is an extremely popular wrist-worn fitness tracking option. Why? It does just about everything! From heart rate monitor to calorie tracker to sleep monitor, the Charge 3 is remarkably diverse. Protected with Gorilla Glass 3, it is scratch resistant to keep your screen safe. You can choose from 19 different fitness activities to track and it even allows you to add 6 of your favorite shortcuts on the exercise screen. You can also change out the strap to customize it to your liking.

The Fitbit Charge 3 also features nearly an entire week of battery life. One downside of the Fitbit is that it does not have built-in GPS. Therefore, it must rely on you having your smartphone in order to track your run. However, once synced with your phone, you can get all of your notifications directly on your Fitbit. It is also compatible with Android and iOS.

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Fitbit Versa

fitbit versa heart rate monitor and fitness tracker

Slightly more versatile than the Charge 3, the Fitbit Versa features a color LCD screen and is thin, light, and built for comfort. You can easily log your workouts with over 15 exercise modes, and it also features automatic exercise recognition. The Fitbit Versa has approximately 4 days of battery life and a Gorilla Glass 3 screen. It also has an extra brightness setting so that it can be viewed easily, even in direct sunlight.

The Fitbit Versa is also able to store nearly 300 songs directly on it. It is also compatible with Deezer and Pandora so you can stream music as well. Please note though, that you must have a subscription to either of the apps premium accounts to use them. The Fitbit Versa is also compatible with many third-party fitness apps and also comes with the Coach app. The Coach app is like a built-in personal trainer and provides you with training sessions by displaying a sequence of moves and visual aides that are displayed right on the screen.

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Garmin Heart Rate Monitor

garmin chest strap heart rate monitor

Comfortable, simple, easy. If low price is your primary goal when purchasing a heart rate monitor, then look no further. The Garmin Heart Rate Monitor (Model #: 010-10997-07) is the no-frills monitor you’ve been looking for. This heart rate monitor has a soft, fabric strap designed for comfort and transmits to most ANT+ devices, such as the Vivofit, Garmin Edge, and many others. This strap offers runners and cyclists with reliable heart rate monitoring at a great price.

The Garmin Heart Rate Monitor straps to your chest while running and transmits your heart rate data to your device wirelessly. The strap is soft, adjustable and the fabric portion of the strap can be removed easily and washed by hand. Once the monitor is paired with your device, it will recognize it automatically for ease of use for your next workout.

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Suunto Spartan Trainer Wrist HR

suunto spartan trainer wrist hr

Suunto may not yet be a household name like Fitbit and Garmin, but they are becoming more and more well known in the running world. And, for good reason! It leverages a very accurate optical sensor monitor, and provides a wide variety of real-time heart rate data. This includes info on heart rate zones, heart rate average, and even valuable data on performance and recovery. The Suunto Spartan Trainer Wrist HR is very reasonably priced, sleek, and accurate. 

The Suunto Spartan Trainer is also able to do everything that the Suunto Spartan Sport does, at nearly half the price! Built upon the same firmware, the Spartan Trainer has gotten ridden of the touch screen and still has built-in GPS. If you are considering the Garmin Forerunner 235 or Polar M430, you should definitely take a look at the Suunto Spartan Trainer Wrist HR!

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Garmin HRM Tri

Garmin HRM Tri

Designed for triathletes, the Garmin HRM Tri provides extremely accurate tracking on land and in water. At a more than reasonable price, the HRM Tri can store your workout data and then transfer it to your Garmin watch or compatible ANT+ app for analysis. The Garmin HRM Tri has a compact design, and nice comfortable strap. It has a replaceable battery that is good for around 10 months and can store approximately 20 hours of heart rate data.

The Garmin HRM Tri is not the most cost-effective heart rate monitor, but for serious athlete and triathletes, this device is well worth it. When you are training for a serious competition and need to monitor your heart rate for swims, cycling and running, the Garmin HRM Tri is definitely a favorite. In conjunction with providing accurate heart rate data, it also assists with data to improve running form and dynamics. It accomplishes this via an accelerometer which measures your torso movement while running. When paired with a compatible Garmin watch like the Garmin Forerunner 920XT, it can also measure your cadence and vertical oscillation.

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