Although there are better ways of tracking your training effort and making sure that you are training at the right intensity (see my previous post on lactate training), training using a heart rate sensor can be a useful and relatively cheap way of tracking your training intensity live as you row with there being a large amount of information available for working out and setting the heart rates you should be at for the correct training effect
All belts are not created equal, and several use completely different ways to broadcast your Heart rate to the receiving device (e.g. watch or smartphone) so to clarify, the main ways that HR monitors broadcast their information are:
- Propitiatory Analogue (e.g. Polar) – This is an older protocol which will only broadcast to the specific hardware that is set up to receive it (like Polar Watches, the NK XL range, Gym equipment etc), this is pretty prevalent amongst older product. The Analogue broadcast can be picked up and displayed by several devices at the same time
- Bluetooth smart – This is a newer broadcast and is how smartphone apps can sync with the HR monitors, also more and more new devices are coming out that accept bluetooth smart devices (like the new NK GPS 2.0). A downside to Bluetooth smart is that it is only able to sync with one device at a time, i.e. if you sync with a smartphone app then no other device can see the data at the same time
- ANT+ – A propitiatory protocol but one which is quite prevalent, especially in running/cycling and Garmin products. ANT+ can be picked up and displayed by several devices at the same time
The cheapest belts/watch combinations are the easiest to get an use, but as they tend to broadcast via the analogue range, but this means that they will not be able to communicate with your smartphone or any of the newer devices that are coming out that are picking up the newer ways to broadcast (like the NK GPS 2.0, the Coxmate GPS), so it is recommended to look for a better belt that has more options for connecting to other devices. With that in mind, below are a range of HR products that I would recommend checking out to see which is the best for your specific needs
The Wahoo range is currently my favorite for a number of reasons,
- Although there are a lot of Bluetooth smart belts out there, and a lot of ANT+ belts as well, the Wahoo range stands out as it can broadcast both at the same time, so it is able to work with almost any product (except those that require the Polar analogue of course)
- The Belts are comfortable and the battery life is extremely long (mine currently has passed a year on its initial battery and is still going strong!)
- The range has some interesting and useful features, the top of the line Wahoo X has internal memory which means you can use it without a “head unit”, I like this as it means if you don’t want to take a smartphone/watch in the boat with you then you don’t have to, just wear the belt and after the outing you can sync the data with your smartphone for review. There are also sensors in the Wahoo X which means it can analyse your cycling and running technique and even run a 7 mins body weights circuit for you for additional cross training.
- The dual broadcast into ANT+ means that, unlike Bluetooth smart belts that can only be picked up by one device, the Wahoo belts can simultaneously broadcast to ANT+ supporting devices, so if you own a Garmin watch you can still record your HR data as well as being synced with a smartphone or the new NK GPS 2.0 via bluetooth smart
Essentially although there are other belts out there (some of them cheaper), the quality of the Tickr is very high, and the additional features of the Wahoo X are certainly worth the extra amount
The polar M7 belt is also worth a mention as, although I didn’t find it as good as the Wahoo, it is quite useful as it is both a Bluetooth smart broadcasting belt and it also Polar analogue frequency at the same time, meaning that it still works with any device that can pick up the Polar analogue frequency, like most of the Polar smart watches, most of the gym equipment you find in standard gyms and also some of the “previous generation” of rowing devices like the older Concept 2 PM monitors with a heart rate adapter, the NK XL 2 and 4. This means its probably more useful for people who have access to a lot of gym equipment for cross training or if you already have your erg set up with the Polar Sensor. The dual broadcast is quite useful as well as it means that your HR can be shown on the PM monitor but also show up on an app on your smartphone for recording and reviewing later.
One point I would note is that I found the battery life of the Polar M7 to be relatively short, in comparison to the Wahoo I was only getting a couple of months per battery for some reason, so if the Polar analogue feature is not that useful to you then I would recommend getting the Tickr
Easily the winner for the weirdest name, the 4iiii is also one of the smartest belts around currently (although less so for rowing), smart not only because it broadcasts in both Bluetooth smart and ANT+ but also because it is a “bluetooth bridge” for ANT+ products, meaning that it can receive data from an ANT+ device and then convert and rebroadcast this via Bluetooth smart. This is useful in cycling as there are a number of devices out that broadcast in ANT+, but if you are using a cycling computer or smartphone that doesnt have ANT+ then it won’t work. With this belt you can route the device through the Viiiiva and then to the cycling computer and it will now work! In rowing however there aren’t really any products currently on the market that you would want to use that broadcast only ANT+ (unless you wanted to use an ANT+ cycling cadence meter to measure strokes per minuite) so its usefulness for rowing is a lot less than cycling
Wait, what about wrist based optical Heart Rate monitors (i.e. Apple watch, Mio alpha)?
In short, they don’t work for rowing, as shown in this review and inline with my own testing with a couple of different models, it appears that the flexing and relaxing of the muscles/tendons in the wrist as you control the blade blocks the optical HR sensor from picking up the correct HR so they should be avoided at the time of writing this, however that being said there is one optical HR monitor that might be useful for rowing and allow more comfort than a belt:
An interesting product that I haven’t picked up yet but from reviews looks to be a good option for people who don’t like the chest belt. The Lifebeam works by having an optical sensor built into a cap which measures your HR from your head, meaning no tight chest strap! Like the Wahoo Tickr it also broadcasts in both Bluetooth smart and ANT+ so has the same benefits there, the downsides are a much shorter battery (17 hours) and also cleaning looks to be a little bit tricky as you remove the sensor from the hat, but its definitely a good option if you really dislike the chest belts!
How about you? Any belts that you like and would recommend?