As the wearable market grows, so does the accessibility to heart rate data. Commercial heart rate monitors have been around for decades, but they are still viable options for coaches and athletes wanting to know how training challenges the cardiovascular system. While there have been major technology breakthroughs with hardware and software since the late 1970s, the science is still the same and there have been very few advancements outside of TRIMP and heart rate variability (HRV) measurement.
The interest in mechanical loading from other sensor technology has led to us seeing heart rate measurement take a back seat for now. Even with the rise in popularity of GPS-guided player tracking, the measures of the heart are timeless for supporting coaching decisions and athletic development.
Why Heart Rate Monitoring Is Still Relevant
Since the early 2000s, we have observed a slow and slight decline in the heart rate monitoring of practices. At the same time, there has been increased interest both in the autonomic nervous system from HRV data and in player tracking technology from GPS-powered systems. New is not always better, and the inclusion of both heart rate monitoring and player workloads is a perfect match.The inclusion of both heart rate monitoring and player workloads is a perfect match. Click To Tweet
External loading options like player tracking systems are an estimate of the total and type of work, while internal response options like heart rate monitoring measure the physiological reaction to the bout of work. Add in the fact that real-time HRV readings can be done now, so many coaches like adding that safety net to overtraining by scanning a team right after warming up for practice. Including a complete monitoring option to practices and training provides a robust checks and balances to the work and recovery of sport preparation.
Currently, there is declining interest in heart rate monitoring, but we expect a rebound for several reasons. The main reason the data is growing in interest is that smart fabrics and newer textiles are improving the user experience of wearing a chest band. There is surging interest in wrist-based products, but the research indicates that data is not as good as a chest strap option.
The second reason why data is coming back in vogue with heart rate monitoring is the improvement in data aggregation from athlete management system (AMS) software. In the past, juggling data alone—the common burden of smaller club and college coaches—was just too much. Now the burden of exporting or transferring data is lifted, and the coach is free to do the analysis instead of the monkey work.With the burden of exporting data lifted, coaches are free to do analysis instead of monkey work. Click To Tweet
Heart rate data is more important for endurance sports and open field continuous sports like soccer, but with team practices in power-oriented sports lasting hours, the data is just as relevant as in the past.
Understanding Heart Rate Monitor Signal Quality and Telemetry Demands
Before coaches or athletes look into features and other secondary benefits, the two key areas that make or break a heart rate system are the quality of data and how the data is pushed out either in real time or post session. The first step in getting an accurate heart rate is not a technology decision, but an anatomical choice with where to measure. Sensors near the heart, such as a shirt or strap, are common because of signal quality. Other options like finger and wrist measures are fine, but artifact problems increase and signal fidelity decreases as the measure becomes more distal to the midpoint of the body. Electrocardiograms (ECG or EKG) will sometimes use “limb leads,” but the primary zone of measurement is the chest.The first step in getting an accurate heart rate is an anatomical choice of where to measure. Click To Tweet
Unlike health monitoring options, body motion can really corrupt the data quality of sensors away from the heart. That’s why the Apple Watch and Mio bands are great for recreational athletes, but not for competitive athletes that push the limits and need solid data. The heart rate monitor market can be confusing because buyers must be informed whether the watch collects and displays data or whether sensors on the watch actually collect the data directly. EKG tests are the gold standard in collecting a comprehensive signal beyond changes in heart rate, and that type of information is beyond the scope of this article. Omegawave, a physiological monitoring system, does provide very high resolution data, but that enters the realm of medical data, not coaching information.
Transmitting the signal should be a non-issue today with the advancement of wireless transmissions, but things break down or fail with any technology. On paper, several options like ANT+ and LE Bluetooth sound robust, but the more moving parts, the more likely something will go wrong. Often the problem is not the transmission but a battery issue or something like a strap not placed properly. Also, conductance breaks down because sweat will literally corrode the materials used to collect the data, even if it helps improve a signal. Some products provide boosting components to help outdoor or indoor signal capture, and that is a necessity when looking at real-time data and wanting no transmission loss.
Software and Third-Party Applications
The common frustration with nearly all heart rate monitoring systems is the general pattern of less support for software engineers than for hardware engineers. In the past, some software platforms looked rushed or last minute compared to the hardware, but now web-based software is solving the problem. The other growth area is apps that are agnostic to consumer products and provide a way to visualize, analyze, and store the heart rate data.
The line between consumer products and team enterprise is becoming fuzzier, as a company like Polar provides a leaderboard app for tablets that exploits the ability to sync multiple Bluetooth chest straps, but only for short ranges. We see million-dollar athletes using the same technology anybody can access from a local sporting goods store, which is another example of the way technology is improving and becoming less expensive at the same time.
Next are the added-value services or proprietary analysis applications like iTrimp and the countless endurance market tools. Also included in this category are athlete management systems that either allow for customized dashboards and reporting or provide a suite of tools to apply smarter decisions. As the additional data streams increase, expect the heart rate monitor companies to minimize their software to the essentials, and focus on their ability to share data with platforms that can analyze the data as well as fuse multiple data sets.
Very little progress or innovation occurred in the last decade regarding heart rate monitoring due to the interest in GPS player tracking, but there is promising evolution in some circles. Many coaches who use heart rate monitoring in isolation are trying to calculate load instead of the response to load, which is a fair approach but far less valuable. The current trend is to use very high level statistical analysis of all of the data to detect patterns of fatigue in advance of injury. As early detection improves, so does the opportunity for better planning. This way you can avoid unnecessary resting due to poor sequencing when the weekly total load may be appropriate.
TRIMP, a measure of estimated physiological load, can be done with nearly every system. Besides that metric, there is very little other heart rate driven scoring of note. One clever way to maximize the usefulness of heart rate monitoring is to use HRV indices with standardized recovery runs and warm-ups. Linear running provides more precision than chaotic environments because you can compare it week to week. Other than regeneration and preparation sessions, combining workload responses of other sensors is the typical approach to modern training.
Essential Differences Between Team and Individual Systems
While stereotyped as dated, products used radio in the past to send heartbeat signals from chest bands to a unit that could then pass it to a digital option like a computer. Later, infrared transfer to a USB dongle was the standard, but now local area networks are using other wireless options. Team systems differ from individual systems because they relay connect every athlete to one device instead of one sensor to one smartphone or watch.
All of this may sound like minor or unnecessary details, but the vital challenge is making practices run smoothly with technology, not have coaching chores interfere with instruction or supervision. Some team systems have been known to work intermittently because teams are a small part of company profits and resources are usually spent on the consumer market. Even today, some systems fail from time to time because of firmware updates or interference, but in general there is higher stability.The challenge is having practices run smoothly with technology, and not interfere with coaching. Click To Tweet
Consumer products are fine for endurance athletes, because most distance runners, cyclists, and triathletes are disciplined to collect their own data and push it to the cloud, or similar. Team sports need team solutions not because of the differences between activities, but the differences in personalities. Many small groups with engaged athletes that work with their private coaches are willing participants in the data collection because they selected the coach in the first place, but teams are drafted and not voluntary, so the contribution of the athletes is minimal, for the most part. The more advanced the athlete, specifically in team sport, the less likely they are driven to do much of the leg work in getting data to central repositories like AMS options.
A very common and important question is about the difference between managing a group of individuals and guiding a team. The technology used, as well as the type of sport and environment, can be the difference between spending a small amount of money and having to fork over much more capital. When you buy an enterprise team product, you buy convenience with passive data aggregation instead of expecting an active or permission-based data process.
You should ponder, and answer, these four vital questions before spending a single dollar on a heart rate monitoring system. The answers will help determine what you should invest in.
- Am I trying to manage a sport team in real time or do I need the information later?
- Does the athlete train on their own and are they used to uploading their own data?
- Am I by myself managing this, or do I have help from other coaches and/or a sport scientist?
- Do I plan to use the company software or do I have an athlete management system?
Those four questions are imperative for deciding if you need to spend money on the more costly but powerful team options. Team pricing is not about bulk rates or getting a heart rate sensor for each athlete—it requires a lot of support expenses that are beyond the budgets of some colleges and most high schools. What is not included are policies and logistical areas such as cleaning shared straps or replacing batteries. Any data collection process must be a well-oiled machine to work sustainably.Any data collection process must be a well-oiled machine to work sustainably. Click To Tweet
The Top Options for Heart Rate Monitoring in Sport
For the purposes of clarity, we have divided the listed companies into two groups: enterprise and individualized consumer products. Individualized systems can be scaled with the right software, and this is why coaching products like TrainingPeaks are so popular in the endurance market. Health and fitness platforms are also banking on the BYOD or bring your own device environment, where an API allows for heart rate data to be sent and shared to the cloud.
Regardless of what you use, make sure you know that the true limit is not the technology but the participation attitude of the athlete. It’s possible to use consumer products and create a near enterprise environment, but the convenience of doing so is not ideal and some logistical juggling is necessary.
Team Enterprise Solutions
Polar Pro: Perhaps the leader in team heart rate products, Polar has had a lot to do with improving the market size of the heart rate products from their commercial systems with endurance in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Many research studies looking at HRV and other serious indices have used the Polar heart rate straps to collect data, and their products are considered research-grade for heart rate monitoring. Now the Polar company has entered the smart textile market with a shirt similar to Hexoskin. Polar is similar to Garmin, but instead of adding heart rate to GPS devices, they took their team heart rate products and added GPS data to them.
FirstBeat: Like Polar, FirstBeat is from Northern Europe and really understands the sports market. They provide both passive physiological monitoring with group HRV testing and active heart rate monitoring. The strength of FirstBeat has to be their software, as they have excellent reporting and data visualization.
FirstBeat gained a lot of momentum when they showed up on the Jumbotron player data with the Buffalo Sabers years ago, and this was a key example for literally understanding the big picture. FirstBeat is always cutting-edge with both science and technology, and they’re hugely popular in both Europe and North America. FirstBeat is expanding to wellness and fitness, as they specialize in stress management, not just conditioning.
Zephyr: Made famous from the Chilean mine disaster, Zephyr is a team product with an open form of data transmission. Zephyr is stronger on the hardware than the software side, as their products are really a hardware play. Omnisense is their software, and it’s solid, but it’s likely better for real-time management with a large sport science team than a fitness coach alone.
Developers embraced their product because they offered an SDK and API (software programming tools), but as a consumer product they didn’t have enough market share to gain traction. Zephyr worked with other companies as a white-label solution, but the heart rate and accelerometer data for team sport is very limited, especially for combines that are speed- and power-oriented.
Hexoskin: Hexoskin made their debut earlier with our apparel review, and they are the only true breathing rate data available. Other sensors are on the shirt—typical ones like accelerometers for activity—but the conductive fabric provides quality data appropriate for HRV measures. Many different sports teams and space, military, and research organizations use Hexoskin. Like many smart fabrics, the amount of washing is limited, but because of their comfort many coaches use them for pilot studies to deep-dive into more surveillance-type investigations like stress during a day, similar to the First Beat offerings.
Other systems like Activo are available, but due to the adoption pattern, they didn’t make the list. We can classify Hexoskin as an enterprise solution because of their experience with military and professional teams, but they are more of a scale-friendly system than a team system.
Individual Consumer Products
Here are three companies that provide high-quality products that you can find at the local sports department store or running shop. All of the products connect directly to a smartphone for live feedback or to upload data to the cloud.
Suunto Ambit Series: The Suunto Ambit3 delivers a very sophisticated and rich experience, and is one of the top sport watches for any athlete, regardless of sport. One of the key benefits, besides connecting to a comprehensive web portal, is the ability to program the watch using their online software. You can literally form apps that are custom to the needs of the athlete and the data now connects with TrainingPeaks.
The heart rate strap is soft and comfortable, and this greatly improves the user experience for the athletes. Additionally, the system now connects to a smartphone app for those wanting simple fitness requirements, and the company provides other peripheral devices that can enrich the data capture process, like foot pods similar to the Runscribe.
Wahoo Fitness TICKRx: Unlike the other two companies, the TICKRx is a smart heart rate strap, providing additional sensors to detect motions and other metrics like stride and cycling information. The strongest part of Wahoo is that it connects with many different apps and their own smartphone program is excellent. The app includes nearly any exercise routine for general fitness and work capacity, such as cycling and running, and all the data can be exported via .csv. The Wahoo user experience is perhaps the best in the business, because they understand the needs of the average Joe who just wants to get the nuts and bolts, not excessive features that only confuse the athlete or coach.
Garmin Sport: Garmin is more known for their GPS systems, but they smartly decided to enter the sports market. The company TomTom quickly followed suit a few years later with their own product that is also solid, but due to their short history, we do not include them in this review. Fitbit and other commercial products are more fitness-oriented and inappropriate for serious athletes, but Garmin’s history and ability to execute are the reasons we included them. Their heart rate component is a strong-enough feature to warrant their inclusion on this list, since most athletes just want to relay the measurements to a software platform or app, and the market fuels the value of the heart rate data.Most athletes just want to relay biometric measurements to a software platform or app. Click To Tweet
The classification of the product does not affect the quality of the data, meaning that difference isn’t there between a professional and off-the-shelf product. What is there is the ability to collect all of the data at once to one location rather than each athlete using a watch or connecting to a smartphone. Also consider having two systems if you have a large budget, as some athletes who are engaged in training may want to use something during the off-season.
Investing in the Future
Heart rate monitoring isn’t going anywhere soon, so don’t underestimate its value now and in the future. Heart rate is likely to be standardized as part of the wearable space, as the cost of sensor hardware and the ability to transmit the data is very inexpensive. It’s hard to predict the future of heart rate monitoring because the battle between smart textiles and second skin patches is going to grow, with nobody likely capturing the whole market. The current options are more than sufficient to deliver a good user experience as well as actionable data, so getting involved with heart rate monitoring is a wise venture.
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