Healthy Tech: Heart rate monitors, running and you

When I go running outside, I always have some sort of music playing device with me — either my iPod Nano worn on my wrist or my iPhone worn on my arm. I also usually have an app running that tracks how far I've gone, how fast I've been going and with the iPhone, where I've run, thanks to a GPS app like Runkeeper.

But lately, I started looking at wearing heart rate monitors when I run as well; a friend swears by them. I even tested out two different models recently — the Sportiiiis and PEAR Square One (pictured above). While you can use free and paid apps on your iPhone or Android to monitor your heart rate, the best way to do it is with a dedicated device. They're a little more involved: many consist of a band that wraps around your chest just under your heart with a sensor that connects wirelessly to a monitoring device worn elsewhere on your body via Bluetooth.

But before I get into what I thought about those two particular devices, it's important to find out why you might want to think about wearing a heart rate monitor when running.

Is A Heart Rate Monitor For You?

To find out the fitness-related advantages of wearing a heart rate monitor when running, I consulted a number of experts as well as a friend who wears one when training for Iron Man races — a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a full marathon of 26.2 miles (for the uninitiated).

The benefit boils down to knowing your body better — how it's performing and how you can make sure it's performing at its peak.

According to Matt Tuthill, C.S.C.S. (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist), and Senior Editor at Muscle&Fitness, "you can't trust the 'zones' provided on most machines in the gym because they can't tell you how hard you — personally — are working. And while the heart rate sensors on most treadmills are fairly reliable, they require a break in your natural stride if you want to get a measure in the middle of your run."

But what about for running outside with one as I've tried doing? According to Tuthill, it's a good idea because "too many people think it's good enough to just go for a jog or hop on a treadmill for time. But if you're not elevating your heart rate beyond your comfort zone, you're not being as efficient with your time as you could be."

In other words, just as wearing a pedometer has been proven to increase people's steps a day (according to a piece in the Harvard Health Letter ) — especially when you're competing with friends online like with a Fitbit — wearing a heart rate monitor constantly reminds you when you're not making your body work the hardest.

Monitors are especially important for long-distance runners. My friend Andrew C., an Iron Man runner, wears one because "it provides me the real-time insight I need to know how hard I'm working. When I first started to wear one, I quickly realized that I was not running as hard/fast as I could be while maintaining a safe heart rate level." When running an Iron Man, that's key because the distances are so great and you want to make sure you maintain a safe and balanced level of activity the entire time.

Tuthill and Andrew are both joined by plenty of supporting voices.

For instance, RJ Boergers, PhD, ATC and a Master of Science in Athletic Training at the School of Health and Medical Sciences at Seton Hall University said that wearing a heart rate monitor serves as a "physiologic measure to help guide the intensity of the runner." In addition, he said it's "helpful for determining your fitness level by seeing how quickly you recover after intense bouts of exercise."

Matt Fitzgerald, a training intelligence specialist for PEAR Sports (the company behind the PEAR Square One), would agree. He says, "with a heart rate monitor it's no longer possible to kid oneself about one's running intensity and it's much easier to vary the intensity of one's workouts appropriately."

Jeff Viacrio, a USA Triathlon and USA Cycling Certified coach with 4iiiis echoed everyone else saying, "The best way to improve fitness and see results quickly is to train at the correct intensity."

Tuthill also recommend pregnant women who "want to (and should) keep exercising because there are very strict heart rate guidelines once you're expecting" and a heart rate monitor can help them monitor properly.

There can be a downside, however, according to Boergers. "Some people become dependent on them to guide their intensity level and never really get to 'know their body.'" In other words, "they are always looking for a number to guide them rather than developing a 'feel.'" That's why Boergers usually recommends them for training "but wouldn't recommend it for racing personally."

The same can be said about running with music. I have a lot of friends who run and never listen to music, which for me is just unheard of. They found it allows them to instead pay more attention to cues such as their breathing and heart beat, and perform better since they're more tuned with their body.

Cost can, however, also be another major downside. The majority of heart rate monitors I've tested can cost upwards of $200. So unless you're serious about your running and serious about wanting to improve your strides and performance, you'll want to really weigh the pros and cons before you shell out the cash.

How To Do It Properly

Both of the devices I've tested, the Sportiiiis and PEARS Square One, couldn't be easier to set up. If you buy the devices as a package with the heart rate monitors, they're already pre-configured and when you turn them on, they'll automatically be synced through Bluetooth with the sensors.

Both included elastic bands to wear on your chest under your heart. I was surprised at how snug yet comfortable they were — I barely noticed they were there. The two devices also have widely different approaches to how they provide you with the data those sensors collect.

The Sportiiis is definitely a "unique" kind of device. It consists of a small boom device that fits onto any pair of standard glasses/sunglasses, and has seven LEDs that light up, corresponding to whether or not your heart rate is in your targeted zone, which you personally set up in the included PC software. You can also receive audio cues every so often, but the boom allows you to see at any moment whether or not you're performing where you should be.

The PEAR Square One, meanwhile, is a more standard device. It consists of a tiny device that an iPod Shuffle can actually plug directly into. It will periodically speak your heart rate (and anything else you want mentioned such as calories burned, distance traveled and so on, which you can set up on the website) or you can press a button at any time to hear how you're doing.

According to Fitzgerald, since most runners don't wear heart rate monitors that "require a good deal of coaching knowledge to be used effectively," he recommends the Pear Square One because "training with a Square One is the nearest thing to having a world-class running coach as your personal training guide and mentor."

Vicario recommends the Sportiiiis from 4iiiis because, "Sportiiiis provides real-time feedback to the runner so he can nail each and every interval in training enabling him to focus on technique. Refining your running skills is probably the easiest way to lower your running times and with Sportiiiis you can focus on just that."

So how do you make sense of all the numbers if you don't want to shell out for a monitor in the first place? Tuthill suggests using an easy-to-remember theoretical maximum heart rate (MHR) calculator, which is 220-Age=MHR. He said the closest you'll ever want to get to your MHR is 90%. So for instance, if you're 30 years old, the calculation would be 220-30 = 190x.9 = 171 beats per minute.

Boergers also suggested runners can use a "simple stop watch to monitor your pace, which will help control your intensity (faster pace = higher intensity)." (And it will require a lot less math for Writing majors such as myself.)

Knowing What Data Is Useful To You

I ran a few times with each of my heart rate monitors and I found they weren't for me. I didn't find I cared that much about that data, as I did about calories burned and distance traveled.

Then again, while I've been running steadily for over a year and a half now, I'm still not what I would consider a "serious" runner. I do it just to keep in general shape. (And because the shirts they give you when you sign up for 5K runs are really comfy.)

But the more I did it, and the more I talked with experts such as Tuthill, Boergers and Andrew, the more I started to believe that wearing one would force me to run faster and harder.

If you want to make sure you're performing at your peak during long distance runs like Andrew, you should consider a heart rate monitor. But if you're like me, start with just running regularly before you start strapping things to yourself.

You're in luck. At least in the Northeast. Because as of right now — the weather couldn't be more perfect.

About Healthy Tech

This is the Healthy Tech Weekly, where guest columnist Alan Danzis reports on choice healthy technology news stories. Each week you'll discover new fitness gadgets, apps and going-ons, as well as what's around the corner, with medical innovations that will one day change the way you monitor and impact your overall health and well-being.

By day, Alan Danzis works at Atomic Public Relations. His opinions here are his own and do not reflect the opinions of Atomic, nor the clients Atomic works with.

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