Gear Shed

Heart-Rate Monitors: To Use or Not to Use

Yes, the devices can be valuable training aids when properly employed, but they’re hardly the essential tools some athletes make them out to be.

Pro Nordic skier Annie Pokorny doesn't get out of bed before checking her heart-rate monitor.     Photo: Courtesy of Steve Fuller for Flyingpointroad Photography

Wearable tech is everywhere, but whether it deserves a spot on your body is another matter.

Take heart-rate monitors. While certainly not new, they have continued to improve over the last few years. These gadgets give athletes reliable metrics, and people who use them swear they’re essential training tools. Others prefer to listen to their bodies and eschew the data overload.   

Who should we believe? To answer that, we turned to two professional cross-country skiers—Annie Pokorny and Sylvan Ellefson.           

For the Heart-Rate Monitor

Pokorny, 21, is an NCAA All-American and World Championship competitor who wouldn’t head to the cross-country track without a ticker tracker. “I train a minimum of 650 hours a year and travel a lot,” she explains. “The nature of nordic is to go hard.”

She checks her monitor every morning before getting out of bed to see how well she’s recovered from training. “If it spikes or dips, that means I’m tired or beginning to get sick, which I counteract by adjusting my training until my heart rate returns to normal,” Pokorny says.

While working out, she uses the device to determine how hard she’s exerting herself. It’s an easy way to know exactly which of the five heart-rate zones she’s in so she can then adjust her training accordingly. Sometimes that means applying the brakes. “When you feel good and you’re in the middle of a blood-pumping, endorphin-filled, quick-paced interval, you need something to keep from going too hard,” advises Pokorny. “The natural drive you have to have for this sport helps me understand the value of assisted restraint. In a sport where victories are determined by fractions of seconds, the details are worth considering.”

Against the Heart-Rate Monitor

But not all pros subscribe to the heart-rate-monitor method, and the studies supporting this counterargument conclude that sleep, stress, dehydration, ambient temperature, and other factors affect heart rate enough to obscure a clear, and therefore useful, read.

Take Colorado native Sylvan Ellefson, a nordic skiing national champ. Ellefson trained with a heart-rate monitor for most of his career, then decided this year to ditch it in favor of just listening to his body.

“For me, listening to my body during interval sessions is more important than making sure my heart rate is in a certain zone. I know what I have to do in my sport to compete with the best,” Ellefson says. “This year, my focus was on observing how my body reacts to stressors. I listened to my breathing and how my body reacts to movement. Nordic skiing is so repetitive and habitual, I stopped thinking about the movement itself and started observing how my body reacts to being slowed down or sped up. It’s a heart-rate monitoring of sorts, just without the electronics.”

Turns out that this method has worked pretty well for Ellefson, who won his first national championship this season in the 30K skate, where he posted the best FIS-points profile of his life. 

Bottom Line

So what’s the takeaway? More data usually doesn’t hurt anything (except maybe your wallet), and a heart-rate monitor is a good way to judge how hard you’re exerting yourself—especially if you’re new to training. But it’s certainly not the essential tool some athletes make it out to be: if you want to avoid potential information overload, it’s possible to teach yourself to read your body without the help of one. 

If you do decide to go down the tech route, here are a few of our favorites.

Wahoo TICKR

Equipped with ANT+ and BLE capabilities, this device also comes with Wahoo’s Burn & Burst Program to help you get the most out of training. TICKR mates with both smartphones and GPS watches and tracks heart rate and calories burned while you work out. Plus, it works with more than 50 iPhone apps. Available now. $60, wahoofitness.com

Suunto Ambit2 GPS Watch

Athletes who train and play in the mountains will appreciate that Suunto’s Ambit2 GPS watch combines all the weather and vital metrics you could need in one spot: it displays your speed and heart rate, along with altitude and weather, and comes with sport-specific features for running, biking, swimming, and mountaineering. The Ambit2 is compatible with more than a hundred apps, and the battery lasts for 24 hours without a recharge. Available now. $500, suunto.com

Polar V800

For serious athletes, the V800 measures every training session and every minute of your daily activity so you can best understand your training load and recovery needs. This multisport unit–chest strap tracks speed, distance, and route with an integrated GPS so you can plan and analyze your training and racing with a free Polar Flow app. Compatible with Polar Bluetooth Smart running and cycling sensors, and waterproof down to 100 feet. Available May 2014. $450, polar.com

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