A few weeks ago, I noticed my indoor cycling instructor’s Garmin watch said his heart rate was 56. That’s a pretty good resting heart rate for a fit person, but we had been doing sprint intervals, pedalling flat out. I asked him about it after class and he laughed, “My chest strap slipped!”
Until recently, tracking heart rate meant wearing a watch and an uncomfortable chest strap, which for me, was a deal-breaker. For the last several weeks, I have been testing the Mio ALPHA heart rate monitor, the first continuous tracker that is a watch with no chest strap. Here are my thoughts about the device.
The watch is large, yet comfortable to wear with a soft, silicone strap and a sleek profile that doesn’t feel clunky. The buttons for setting time and heart rate are intuitive to use. So how does it work without a chest strap? An optical sensor on the underside of the watch uses green light to monitor blood volume under your skin. An algorithm calculates pulse on a continuous basis and tracks well in motion, whether you are running or cycling. The device charges up quickly and a charge lasts for days and days.
Serious, competitive athletes know that tracking heart rate ensures they are getting a good workout without under or over-training. I’m a recreational fitness buff, but I wanted to learn how incorporating heart rate monitoring could help me kick my cardiovascular fitness level up a notch. First, though, I needed to find out about my current fitness level so I could calibrate the device.
Joe Natale, my indoor cycling instructor, helped me determine my maximum heart rate so that I could figure out the right heart rate zones for effective workouts. Joe is a C.O.R.E. Cycling certified instructor and an avid outdoor biker. He coached me through a lactic acid threshold test, which involved spinning as fast as possible for two 8-minute intervals, and recorded my heart rate after each minute. Thankfully, this test was done before class, not after.
Whew! In a class, it’s hard enough to do sprint intervals for 90 seconds-2 minutes at a time with rest breaks in between, but for this test, doing two 8-minute sprints with no rest breaks, in the zone that Joe calls “the redline on your dashboard,” was really hard work. I knew I was at my lactic acid threshold after the first 8-minute set because when it was over, I felt like I was going to lose breakfast. Bingo.
My magic maximum heart rate number was 168 beats per minute, the average of all data over both intervals. Your number will be different and that’s the point. I needed to learn what my personal maximum is, not rely on the old rule of thumb calculation (220-your age for men or 226-your age for women), which wouldn’t accurately account for my current level of fitness nor my quirky irregular heartbeat. Besides, that old equation was apparently a rough estimate developed by researchers in the 1970s, based on studies that included smokers and heart-disease patients. Not exactly a representative sample!
The Mio ALPHA lets you set up to three zones for a minimum and maximum heart rate, depending on your training objectives. Using my max heart rate of 168, my zones break down like this:
- Zone 1: Active Recovery – less than 81% of my max (under 136)
- Zone 2: Endurance – 82-88% (138-148)
- Zone 3: Muscular Endurance – 89-93% (149-156)
- Zone 4: Threshold – 94-100% (158-168)
- Zone 5: Anaerobic – 100%+ (too high, would rather keep breakfast)
Once set, Mio ALPHA doesn’t miss a beat and I found it worked well whether I was running or spinning. A light flashes to let you know if you are working at the right level of exertion, without needing to twist your wrist to see the number display on the watch face. Blue means you need to work harder, green means you are in the zone and red means you are working too hard. The watch beeps whenever you work outside the zone, although there’s no way to hear that if you run listening to music or in a loud spinning class.
The Mio ALPHA has lots going for it if you want to make sure you are getting the most from your workout. The best part for me has been learning the actual connection between perceived exertion and my heart rate so that I stay in a muscular endurance zone during longer runs or in a threshold zone during sprints. Before, I relied on self-monitoring proxies, like how many words I could say or running a quick mental check for rate of perceived exertion on a scale of 1-10. Over time, max heart rate goes down as cardiovascular performance improves, so I plan to retest my max in a few months.
There were a few things I think could be improved with the Mio ALPHA heart rate monitor. First of all, the price is a bit hefty for a fit tracking gizmo at $199 (Canadian).* Second, while it’s great to use for a workout, I’m not inclined to wear it as a regular watch for the time feature, so I could do without that feature altogether. The optical reader leaves an impression in your skin, which is fine for a workout, but I prefer a little more breathability in something worn all day. Finally, while ALPHA can sync to many mobile apps, I would prefer to keep track on a native app and see track my data and progress. I have been tracking daily steps and sleep patterns with my Fitbit Flex since last July and I find the goal setting and daily tracking motivating.
The Mio ALPHA was launched January 2013. A new generation device, the Mio LINK was announced this January at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show and is available for pre-order now. It looks like it keeps all of the ALPHA advantages while addressing the drawbacks. For starters, it’s half the price at $99. The unit has been trimmed up too—the band is somewhat slimmer, there is no time display and the flashing light is smaller.
Mio Global just launched a new mobile app, Mio GO, which promises to keep track of heart rate zones, calories burned and pace so you can see progress over time. Even better, the app will have different virtual workout scenes to take the drudgery out of using an indoor treadmill or bike.I’m glad I had the opportunity to review the ALPHA and learn how about heart rate monitoring, but I’m planning to purchase a Mio LINK as I think it will fit my needs better.
Other Mio ALPHA reviews:
- Mio ALPHA Heart Rate Monitor – Runner’s World
- Introducing ALPHA – The Treadmill Factory
Additional information about heart rate monitoring:
* I blog about health topics that I am personally interested in, with the objective of sharing perspectives. I do not accept free products, advertising nor compensation for blog posts on my site. The Mio ALPHA unit tested here was a media sample provided by Mio Global at my request and has been returned to the company.