The Wall Street Journal

 

October 31, 2003 3:01 a.m. EST

 

 

 

CATALOG CRITIC

 

 

 

We've Got the Beat

By PAULA SZUCHMAN
Special to THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

On your marks... get set... pace yourself!

November is marathon season from New York to Seattle, and that means more runners are paying attention to their pulse, with heart-rate monitor watches. These may not be the most graceful-looking gadgets -- they generally involve a chest strap, which sends pulse data wirelessly to a matching wristwatch -- but they're catching on with more exercisers who want to track seemingly obscure stuff like average heart rate and peak exertion. And it isn't just the gym crowd: Some schools are buying them to help fight obesity, and manufacturers are even pitching them to stressed-out office workers. (You can set it to beep when your pulse rises.)

As the technology gets better, the field of competitors has grown. Nike, Timex and FitSense have all come out with their own versions in the past three or four years, while Polar, which pretty much pioneered the sector, has more than a dozen models now, with niche versions coming out for bikers, triathletes, even dieters. In all, Polar says, its sales are up 24% so far this year.

Basic Training

The thing is, it can be a workout just figuring some of these out -- with calorie counters, "maximal oxygen uptake" values, even infrared systems for uploading your workout to PC. So with a year left to figure these things out before next year's marathons, we wanted something with basic features that wouldn't make us stop mid-jog to consult our owner's manual. We ordered five versions and, to help us test them, chased down a few members of the Central Park Track Club in New York.

The Mio Shape monitor, $114 from Sark Products, was our only pick without a chest band. But it did come with encouraging words from Deepak Chopra, part of the company's push for a stress-free lifestyle. But for tester Roland, running with it wasn't tranquil: To get his rate, he had to hold two fingers on the watch and keep both arms at waist level. Fine for meditation, he says, but "not practical" for training.


For runners, the most basic point of these gizmos is to make sure you're not overworking your heart. But our testers told us that if we were interested in running longer and faster, we'd want a watch that would let us record "splits" -- the time it takes to cover a fixed distance, say, a lap around the track -- and would give us our average heart rate for each split. We'd also want to set a "target" heart rate and learn how much time we'd spent in our zone.


Taking pulse: 1) Polar s210 heart-rate monitor from Sports Authority; 2) Timex's Bodylink; 3) FS-1 by FitSense, 4) Mio Shape from Sark Products and 5) Triax from Niketown.com.

 

 

On that count, the Nike Triax c8, $119 from Niketown.com, did well. It gave time in zone, and stored times for up to 50 splits, plus average heart rates. Its chest strap was comfortable -- and we could see using it more often because it "talks" to the workout machines at many gyms. Another plus: "It's a lot less clunky" than other monitors, said tester Arabella.

On looks alone, we also liked the $186 FitSense FS-1, a heart rate, speed and distance monitor with a sci-fi design (the watch face was on the side of the wrist, the buttons on top). From a company known for medical monitoring equipment, it scored points for accuracy and an easy-to-read screen. But it didn't record split times or time in our "target" zone, making it OK for long endurance runs -- but not for more serious speed training.

Mastering the Features

Our last two models scored on both counts. The $180 Polar s210 from Sports Authority tracks splits, average and maximum heart rates, and stores target heart zones for up to five exercise routines. Its chest band has a coded signal to reduce interference from other monitors. The instruction manual was a bigger challenge than our workout, though (we still haven't mastered "maximal oxygen uptake"). Still, it was our most thorough watch, and gave lots of information on one screen. For that, it's our Best Overall.

But the Timex Ironman Triathlon Bodylink System was not only more affordable ($125 from Timex.com), it also had nearly as many features, and we could figure it out without the manual. It was also versatile: For an extra $175, you can add a piece that lets you monitor your speed and distance, and $75 gets you software for logging your results onto a PC. We're naming it our Best Value, and might just spend our "savings" on another watch on the site -- the Speedpass-enabled Timex watch that can be used for electronic purchases at hundreds of McDonald's, for burgers on the run.

Write to Paula Szuchman at paula.szuchman@wsj.com1

STORE/PRICE/PHONE: Sports Authority; Polar s210; $179.99; 888-801-9164; Thesportsauthority.com
QUALITY: Best Overall. Tracks average and maximum heart rate, split times, maximal oxygen uptake and more. Compatible with equipment at many gyms.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: Standard ground shipping, $5.98. Our overnight order, $18.68, came on time.
RETURN POLICY: Full refund within 30 days; customer pays shipping.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: Site choked and didn't confirm our order, so we ordered again and got two. Handy comparison of some 40 monitors the site sells.
COMMENT: Site sells monitors by Cardiosport, Freestyle and others. Polar monitors are on sale at many sites and retail stores.

STORE/PRICE/PHONE: Timex; Bodylink performance monitor; $125 800-448-4639; Timex.com
QUALITY: Best Value. Everything we needed -- stopwatch, lap and split times, average heart rate. Buy it with a unit that measures speed and distance for an extra $175.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: Free 10-day shipping. Our $7.50 overnight order was two days late because we didn't include our company name.
RETURN POLICY: Full refund within 30 days for any reason; customer pays shipping unless company erred.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: Site was a bit confusing and gave error messages, so we called instead. Operator was friendly and the ordering was quick.
COMMENT: Also for sale: Speedpass-enabled watch that works at Mobil and Exxon stations around the country.

STORE/PRICE/PHONE: FitSense; FS-1 speedometer; $187.46; 800-419-3667; Fitsense.com
QUALITY: Sci-fi looks, easiest-to-read face and pretty versatile: Includes chest band for heart rate plus "foot pod" to measure speed, distance. No splits, though.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: Regular ground shipping, three to seven days, $9.95. We paid $26.95 for on-time overnight shipping.
RETURN POLICY: Full refund, not including ground shipping, within 30 days; call first for a return-authorization number.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: For a site that sells one product, figuring out what to order was tough. But phone operator knew his stuff and walked us through it.
COMMENT: FitSense makes medical equipment for hospitals so this is the company's only mass-produced monitor and the only thing for sale on its site.

STORE/PRICE/PHONE: Sark Products; Mio Shape; $114; 888-647-9777; Sarkproducts.com
QUALITY: Accurate but inconvenient: There's no chest band, so you have to hold two fingers to the watch for a reading. Testers deemed it better for walking or meditating.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: We paid $16 for UPS overnight. Arrived in two business days.
RETURN POLICY: Return within 30 days for refund. Customer pays shipping unless watch is defective.
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: Site took only Visa and MasterCard, but ordering was easy. Site's marathoning owner called twice to confirm our mailing address.
COMMENT: Site also sells monitors from Reebok and Acumen, with comparison charts for different monitors. Plus "fitness facts" from Mio (sample: one-third of Americans are overweight).

STORE/PRICE/PHONE: Niketown.com; Nike Triax c8; $119; 800-806-6453
QUALITY: Easy-to-use watch is close second for Best Value, with comfy chest strap, cool-looking face. Doesn't store maximum and minimum heart rates per split, though.
SHIPPING COST/TIME: Three-to-five day shipping is $7; free for order over $200. We paid $20 for on-time, next-day air, plus $10.12 tax.
RETURN POLICY: Return any time for any reason; shipping is free for registered users. (It's free to sign up, but site may send you e-mails.)
PHONE/WEB EXPERIENCE: Ordering was easy. Operator knew each monitor inside and out.
COMMENT: Watch shows only two metrics at once (company says it's confusing to show more). Chest band uses same frequency as Polar bands, so it works with many gym machines.

 

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Updated October 31, 2003 3:01 a.m.



 

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