I use my Polar Heart Rate monitor more than any other piece of exercise equipment. Ever.
My obsession with this watch-turned-monitoring device started innocently enough two Christmases ago, when, after pouring over reviews online, I decided to order an FT4 (see Meagan’s review here) to help me better track my workouts. After one joyous run together, my watch and I were a unified team. No longer did I have to guess how hard I was working out, instead my heart rate served as a steady barometer of my efforts. I knew how many calories I was burning, how much to refuel, and when to dig deep and push myself harder.
This love affair between me and my watch was pretty spectacular. I took my FT4 everywhere, from long runs and triathlons to trips to different states and countries. I wore that watch every single day, and when I wasn’t working out, my exercise-conscience fashion statement told the world how awesome I was. In fact, my Mom had to remind me to take it off before I walked down the aisle to get married. Apparently it “clashed” with my vintage pearl bracelets.
It was only due to a life changing decision that I decided to upgrade to a more feature-laden Polar RCX5 a few months ago. I’ll skip ahead and ruin the ending of this fairy tale: I thought I loved my FT4, but now, after using my RCX5 for three months, I now know what true heart-rate-monitor love is.
If it sounds like I’m being pretty overdramatic, I am. I know this is only a watch, but it’s so much more than that, too. I’m normally not a techie–I only recently got an iPhone, I don’t own a laptop or tablet, and as a grad student, I’m pretty frugal with my money. However, for the serious athlete, this is the most amazing piece of equipment you will invest in (yes, the steep price tag makes it an investment).
The real reason behind initially purchasing this tool stemmed from a bribe I made to myself on my 26th birthday. I decided that to celebrate my last year (knock on wood) of graduate school in Madison, I would cross an item off my life’s to do list and compete in the Ironman triathlon next fall. Plus, I’m 26 this year–the atomic number for iron is not just a coincidence.
If the next year was going to be dedicated to getting myself ready for this formidable feat, a bribe couldn’t hurt. So, with my new shiny red training device strapped securely to my wrist, I signed my life away for the Ironman and have a new date to focus on: September 8, 2013, when I will complete a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run.
Right out of the box, I liked the RCX5. The watch is sturdy and user friendly, and it syncs beautifully with the heart rate monitor. To get started, you wet the HRM strap and put it on, turn on the GPS pod if you’re running, and scroll through the screens on the watch to select the activity you’re going to be enjoying. You can choose from running, swimming, cycling, or more. Little checkmarks appear when the units are synced, and then you just push a button and you’re off! Want to switch from running to lifting weights? With three clicks of the watch buttons you can switch from one sport to another: perfect for multisport training.
The watch and chest strap are also completely waterproof and designed to be used during swimming. No longer can you slack off when swimming laps. If you’re heart rate isn’t where you want it, you are now aware and can push harder. This objective body-consciousness is the best part of training using your heart rate: knowledge is power.
For running, the GPS signal took a little while to find (still slightly faster than a stand-alone GPS watch, though), but was extremely accurate. The GPS unit isn’t built into the watch itself, but it comes as a little pod you carry easily in the included arm strap, or stash in your shorts pocket (or sports bra, if you’re a lady). It charges with a micro-USB port, and it about the size of a large pack of gum.
One of the best features of this unit is the wireless syncing and uploading to Polar’s training website. A little black USB hub (included) connects to your computer, and anytime you’re within a fairly close range of your computer, your most recent workout data automatically syncs and uploads to polarpersonaltrainer.com. With this amazing detail-oriented website you can track your workouts minute by minute, and mile by mile if you were running. How high was your heartrate during intervals in that spin class? How adequately did you recover during your cooldown on your swim? All of this information is at your fingertips. Also, you can track your training load, which is particularly useful during heavy training to prevent overtraining. A colorful chart will tell you when to tone down the intensity and reward yourself with some recovery. See the gallery included below for screenshots.
You can track how much time you spend in each of your five heart rate zones during, and after working out. Not only can you visually see where your heartrate is as you exercise (shown by a little heart that moves across a bar representing your intensity zones), but the web interface will break down your weekly time spent in each heart rate zone. For the serious athlete training for something with intensity, this is priceless.
You’re also encouraged to listen to your body and adjust your workouts as a function of how you’re doing that day. For example, the watch will monitor how your heartrate responds in the beginning of a workout to determine if your target zones need to be changed based on your body’s current recovery state.
At $349.95-$469.95, he price is pretty steep, especially for the GPS unit. There are even additional add ons for cycling that I haven’t purchased. That being said, this multi-tasking watch serves as a running GPS, bike computer, heart rate monitor, and a great day-to-day piece (but again, I’m into the chunky “look-at-me-I’m-an-athlete” aesthetic). I’ve found that with one gadget, plus included heart rate monitor, I workout smarter because I’m able to track my progress online, and really push myself. Something I previously would have had to pay a coach or personal trainer to do.
There are so many features on the RCX5 that I could easily fill up another thousand words going into excruciating detail on them. Since you probably have better things to do than listen to me gush about my favorite toy, I’ll keep it pretty brief: This heart rate monitor is awesome.
- No longer will you be ignorant as to how you’re body is feeling or performing. You can use ongoing feedback to tweak your training to maximize your efforts
- The watch is pretty snazzy looking if the athletic-look is what you’re into. I have pretty large hands so it doesn’t look too bulky, and the Wisconsin red color makes me brim with school pride (although I am sure that all similarities between this watch and my school colors are purely coincidental)
- Viewing your data online at polarpersonaltrainer.com is life changing. Seriously.
- Multisport training can be done in one file, allowing you to seamlessly transition from swim to bike to run (or from weight lifting to any other activity of your choice). Now if only real life transitions were as easy as they are on the RCX5.
- Buy this watch, use this watch, and your desire to slack off will shrink. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, but there is something so beautiful about viewing weekly training summaries online to make you think twice about sitting idle.
The not so good:
- The price is steep. It’s an investment. As a grad student I justified the price by thinking of it as if I was buying a new watch, bike computer, running GPS, and heart rate monitor at the same time.
- If you have small, delicate wrists and hands, the large display might seem bulky. Personally, however, I like the giant time displayed on the watch when you’re not actively using it during training, and wear mine all the time.
- The FT4 has a picture of a birthday cake when its your birthday. The RCX5 doesn’t. I don’t know if this is because the RCX5 is geared more towards “serious” athletes who eschew cake in favor of protein bars, but as a cake lover, I was a little disappointed that my watch didn’t celebrate my birthday the way my FT4 had the previous two years.
How does the FT4 compare with the RCX5?
If heart rate monitors were cameras, the FT4 would be the point-and-click model, and my new beauty, the RCX5 would be the full digital SLR camera, complete with buttons that did things I didn’t even know needed doing. The FT4 is fantastic, but it’s also sort of a gateway drug into being a more aware, focused, better athlete. The RCX5 is more for the already-serious, already-focused athlete looking to rise to the next level.
Liz is a grad student who loves science, triathlons, dinosaurs, geomicrobiology and cake. She can frequently be found teaching spin classes or doing science outreach. Over the past five years, she has run almost a dozen half marathons (PR 1:54), and is now breaking into the triathlon scene with her University’s Tri team.