Best heart rate monitor 2020: the most accurate chest straps and armbands for running, exercise and workouts

For many, tracking heart rate on the wrist with a fitness tracker or running watch might seem sufficient enough. If you want to make sure your ticker is being monitored properly, however, you might want to get the best heart rate monitor on the market, and we have those listed below. 

Heart rate monitors – which come in many shapes and sizes – provide more accurate readings than wrist based optical heart rate sensors. Even the best optical heart rate sensors, like the Garmin Elevate or the Polar Precision Prime sensor, can only be so accurate when you wriggle your wrist around, getting sweaty, things you do often when you exercise. Once the fitness watch loses contact with your skin, your readings will be less accurate or just plain wrong altogether.

Heart rate monitors, especially the chest strap variety, provide more accurate heart rate tracking for two reasons: they don’t have to ‘see’ your skin like optical sensors and the elastic bands fit better too around the torso.

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How to choose the best heart rate tracker chest strap or arm band?

Which heart rate monitor is best for you depends on the type of sport you do most often and on convenience factors, too. For example, there is no need to get a waterproof Garmin HRM-Swim when you hardly ever swim in a pool. At the same time, don’t pick the Polar OH1 arm band if you don’t want to charge/replace the battery in your heart rate monitor more than once a year.

If you are after maximum accuracy, our top pick, the Polar H10, is your best bet. It is very accurate as well as being water proof and able to track heart rate under water. The Polar H10 has a 400-hour battery life, a single-activity memory and it also just comfortable to wear.

For runners, the best option is still the Garmin HRM-Run. Apart from tracking heart rate precisely, it also provides 6 extra running dynamics for the wearer – if it’s paired with the correct device/app.

If you are after comfort, the Polar OH1 or the mioPOD arm bands are your best bet. They use optical sensors to track heart rate and have a much shorter battery life than their chest-strap counterparts; they can be worn on the upper/lower arm, making them less awkward to put on and remove.

If you are after ultimate precision, instead of just using good-old tap water, you can apply contact gel on the back of non-optical heart rate monitors, although it is a little bit of an overkill for most athletes apart from pros who need to track every minute change in their heart rate during workout sessions.

Best heart rate monitors, in order

If you don’t want to buy more than one heart rate monitor to track more than one type of sport, your best bet is on the Polar H10. It is the “most accurate heart rate sensor in Polar’s history” and in fact, the Polar H10 can monitor your ticker very accurately.

The best thing is, the Polar H10 has built in memory for one exercise, so you can wrap the heart rate monitor around your chest, start the exercise in the Polar Beat app and then leave the phone behind. The strap will sync with the phone once you are back home. More on this here.

Polar H10 can connect to fitness apps, sports and smart watches, gym equipment using Bluetooth and ANT+ connection. Polar H10 can be connected to Bluetooth and ANT+ devices simultaneously, so you can hook it up with your watch and your turbo trainer as well in the same time.

The Polar H10 is also suitable for swimming, although it’s not a per-se swimming heart rate monitor and for the best results, you want to wear a tri-suit or wetsuit over it so it is pressed closer to your skin as you swim.

As for comfort, the Polar H10 is equipped with the Polar Pro strap that sports a range of little non-slip dots along the inside of the belt. These help the belt stay in position without making it feel to synthetic.

The Polar H10 heart rate monitor also supports Polar’s Orthostatic test that records your heart rate variability and “equips you with knowledge about your recovery as well as tools to optimise your training.” You will need a Polar Vantage V or Vantage M to do this test, mind. 

It seems that majority of runners wear a Garmin running watch nowadays, so getting the Garmin HRM-Run is probably the best option for them. As the name suggests, the Garmin HRM-Run works best for runners and will provide advanced running metrics and precise heart rate readings on land. It is waterproof as well.

There are six different metrics being measured by the Garmin HRM-Run: cadence, vertical oscillation, ground contact time, ground contact time balance, stride length and vertical ratio. If none of these make much sense to you, you’d probably want to hold off before you get the Garmin HRM-Run.

As you’d expect, the Garmin HRM-Run can make you a more efficient runner, but only if you are keen on learning and adjusting your technique. It won’t run better for you but will provide you with ample amount of data so you can analyse your running form in minute details.

Battery life is up to a year – there is no screen or optical sensors involved after all – and the Garmin HRM-Run supports both Bluetooth and ANT+ connections too. The strap supplied with the product is comfortable enough and won’t chafe your skin.

Most importantly, the Garmin HRM-Run can be used – with a compatible Garmin watch – to perform a lactate threshold test. From Garmin’s website:

“Lactate threshold is the point where your muscles start to rapidly fatigue. Your device measures your lactate threshold level using heart rate and pace.

When a runner exceeds their threshold, fatigue starts to increase at an accelerating rate. For experienced runners, the threshold occurs at approximately 90% of max heart rate corresponding to a pace somewhere between 10K and half-marathon race pace. For the average runner it occurs well below 90% of their maximum heart rate. Knowing your lactate threshold can help you determine how hard to train or when to push yourself during a race.”

Wahoo went the extra mile in 2020 to update the already popular Wahoo Tickr X heart rate monitor. The second generation Tickr X has an integrated strap design, making it easier to put the sensor on and the fit feels more secure too. As soon as the monitor is on and picked up the heart rate (you might want to apply some water to the back of the strap for better connection), the LED lights on the top of the device start flashing, signalling it’s ready to connect.

And the Wahoo Tickr X (Gen 2) connects fast: I tested it with my trusty Garmin Fenix 6 Pro and it never failed to recognise the heart rate monitor within the matter of seconds (after the initial paring). The Tickr X can be paired to multiple devices simultaneously so if you happen to use a smart trainer and a running watch at the same time, the Tickr X will feed heart rate stats into both.

Runners will enjoy the new advanced running metrics: when paired with a GPS multi-sport or running watch, the ANT+ Running Dynamics will be broadcast on the Tickr X and recorded on the watch for real-time feedback. Should you decide not to use any other fitness wearables for your workouts, you’ll be happy to hear that the Tickr X has built-in memory for up to 50 hours-worth of exercising which can later be synced with the Wahoo App.

And although you can track any type of exercising, the Wahoo App only has four profiles to choose from, should you decide to record an activity straight into the app: cycling, running, indoor cycling and treadmill. It would be great if the app supported other types of exercises too, including maybe a HIIT profile.

The Wahoo Tickr X is premium heart rate monitor that provides a heap-load of useful features for runners and cyclists but also for other types of sportspeople too. Maybe not for triathletes – it’s only moderately water resistant – but others who prefer to work out on dry land.

We can safely say that fitness wearables are only as good as the app they come with. For many causal users who aren’t too keen on overanalysing their stats and can’t be bothered – or have the patience – to learn the ins-and-outs of yet another app, nailing the first time experience is essential.

So when the Myzone app asked for a ‘facility code’ and gave me the hint that it was supposed to be given to me by my gym or workout provider, I was a bit puzzled. Later I found out the Regional Country Facility Codes exist so you don’t necessarily have to be affiliated with any gyms in order to use the Myzone MZ-3 heart rate monitor. A bullet dodged there!

Like many other heart rate monitors, the Myzone MZ-3 hasn’t got a screen, this function is delegated to your phone and what you would otherwise see on your wrist – should you be wearing a running watch – is now displayed in the app on your ’tile’, things like calories burned and heart rate. The Myzone app does a good job in visualising different heart rate zones so it’s easy to see which zone you’re in, even if you just glance over to the phone quickly.

There are different workouts in the app too, but these are not actual workouts: a Myzone workout is sequence of heart rate zones and it’s up to you to decide what sort of exercise will get you there. By working out in the app, you can also collect MEPs – these virtual points act as a reward system to keep you coming back for more workouts.

The Myzone app has a community aspect too so if you have friends or gym buddies using the app you can see their activities which in turn can further motivate you to get off the sofa and hit the road to do a full body HIIT workout.

The Garmin HRM-Swim was designed for water based workouts. But unlike the Garmin HRM-Tri, the HRM-Swim can be used in pools as it is pool chemical resistant and comes with a non-slip strap that stay in place even as you kick yourself off the wall of the pool as you turn.

The Garmin HRM-Swim truly is a poll-swimmer’s wet dream: it stores and forwards heart rate, measures swim interval heart rate statistics, so you can have a much better understanding of how well you perform under water.

Of course, many other heart rate sensors are also water resistant, but there is a huge difference between a heart rate monitor unit being watertight and it being capable of accurately monitoring heart rate under water. As you may know, water is highly conductive and this property can skew heart rate readings significantly.

Using the Garmin HRM-Swim, you can make sure your heart rate is actually what it says in the app/watch, not just an approximate calculation.

The downside of the Garmin HRM-Swim is that it really is for swimming; it can be used on land, but for that purpose, you have devices that are cheaper and provide more land based metrics. If you swim in a pool often, however, you should definitely get the Garmin HRM-Swim.

One thing that often doesn’t come up in the conversation is just how unpleasant it is to put on a cold chest strap during the winter months. When you are cold as it is, wrapping a cold and wet strap around your torso is not a sensation many will yearn after.

The Polar OH1 armband is an ideal compromise between precision and comfort: the optical heart rate sensor will provide accurate readings than a running watch. Why, you ask? Although the Polar OH1 and a running watch may both use the same type of sensors, but since the armband sits better on your skin, it will be able to pick up signal more easily and accurately. Your wrist twists and turns all the time and it is not hard for a watch to lose connection to your skin there.

On the downside, the Polar OH1’s optical sensor does eat up battery life way more than its traditional counterparts and will ‘only’ last for 12 hours between charges. This is 12 hours of exercising, mind, so you still won’t need to use the charger more than once every other week, but compared to the 1-year battery life of chest straps, it’s still much shorter.

The Polar OH1 has a swimming goggle strap clip so you can thread the clip to the strap of your swimming goggles. The Polar OH1 will stay snug against your temple and give you good heart rate readings, even under water.

The mioPOD heart rate monitor – paired up with the accompanying mioApp – is trying to bridge the gap between a passive heart rate sensor and a running watch. It still is a heart rate sensor, not a chest strap but an arm band, much like the Polar OH1, but with some added perks: it has haptic feedback and also visual feedback on heart rate zones.

The latter feature is called Cardio Pilot and it alerts you if you go from one heart rate zone to the other. The haptic feedback helps you notice these changes, even if you are not staring at the mioPOD as you workout. The mioPOD is mainly a good weather/indoor heart rate monitor: it would be hard to work out what the haptic feedback is about if you are wearing a base layer, a jumper and a jacket over the sensor.

The Valencell optical sensor used in the mioPOD is precise and you can also check your heart rate in real-time using the mioApp. The app is okay to use although not the most intuitive compared to the Fitbit App or Garmin Connect. It does have a workout memory, so does the mioPOD which can store 30 hours-worth of workouts.

The mioApp also has a couple of decent fitness features, like measuring training load  (just like Garmin) and recovery status (much like Polar). In the app, you can also see how many calories you burned and even advanced running metrics like cadence. The mioPOD is also swimproof.

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