Best heart rate monitor 2020: Garmin chest straps and Polar armbands for maximum accuracy during exercising

All the best heart rate monitors for amateur and pro runners, cyclists, triathletes and more

Best heart rate monitor: woman running on treadmill
(Image credit: Polar)

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.

Best heart rate monitor: women wearing Polar H10

(Image credit: Polar)

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

best heart rate monitor: Polar H10

(Image credit: Polar)

1. Polar H10 Heart Rate Sensor

Best heart rate monitor overall

Specifications
Sensor type: electrode pad/transmitter
Battery life: 400 hours
Battery type: CR 2025
Reasons to buy
+Precise+Versatile+Value-for-money+Long battery life

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. 

best heart rate monitor: Garmin HRM-Run

(Image credit: Garmin)

2. Garmin HRM-Run Heart Rate Monitor

The best option for runners

Specifications
Sensor type: electrode pad/transmitter
Battery life: up to one year
Battery type: CR 2032
Reasons to buy
+Advanced running metrics+Supports lactate threshold tests

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."

best heart rate monitor: Wahoo Tickr X

(Image credit: Wahoo)

3. Wahoo Tickr X

One for treadmill joggers and Wattbike pedal-pushers

Specifications
Sensor type: electrode pad/transmitter
Battery life: up to one year
Battery type: CR 2032
Reasons to buy
+Visible LED indicators+Internal memory+Treadmill mode
Reasons to avoid
-Some compatibility issues with certain Android phones-Strap is not the most comfortable on the long run

The Wahoo Tickr X tracks heart rate, calories burned, running analytics and more! It even has built-in memory for heart rate and calorie data, giving you the freedom to train without a phone. Equipped with Bluetooth and ANT+ dual-band technology, it connects to most smartphones, GPS watches and bike computers.

Just like the Polar H10, the Wahoo Ticks X has internal memory holds up to 16 hours of workouts. It can also capture indoor cycling cadence when paired with the Wahoo Fitness App. Apart from its own app, the Wahoo Ticks X is compatible with third-party apps like Zwift, Sufferfest, Peloton for cycling and Runkeeper and MapMyRun for running.

For runners, the Wahoo Tickr X offers vertical oscillation, ground contact time and cadence measurement as well as running smoothness index estimation which "measures running form across three dimensions to help you improve your individual form and become a stronger runner".

The Wahoo Tickr X is sweatproof and has a water rating of IPX7, although we wouldn't recommend it for swimming. Good news is, it only weights 8.5 grams (without the strap), so it being heavy won't be an issue when you run/cycle.

best heart rate monitor: Garmin HRM-Swim

(Image credit: Garmin)

4. Garmin HRM-Swim

The only accurate pool heart rate monitor

Specifications
Sensor type: electrode pad/transmitter
Battery life: up to 18 months (swimming 3 hours per week)
Battery type: CR 2032
Reasons to buy
+Non-slip strap+Pool chemical resistant+Swim interval heart rate statistics
Reasons to avoid
-Mainly for pool swims

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.

best heart rate monitor: Polar OH1

(Image credit: Polar)

5. Polar OH1

The more convenient armband option

Specifications
Sensor type: optical heart rate sensor
Battery life: 12 hours of training
Battery type: Rechargeable 45 mAh lithium polymer battery
Reasons to buy
+More convenient than a chest HRM+Built-in memory+Can be worn as a headband
Reasons to avoid
-Short battery life

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.

best heart rate monitor: mioPOD

(Image credit: Mio Labs)

6. Mio Labs mioPOD

Clever light feedback makes this the ultimate summer heart rate monitor

Specifications
Sensor type: optical heart rate sensor
Battery life: 24 hour
Swimproof: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Precise optical sensor+Measures running cadence+Haptic alert
Reasons to avoid
-mioApp has some usability issues

• Buy the mioPOD directly from Mio Labs

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.