How a heart rate monitor can help you train as hard as a Spice Girl

It's all about the MEPs, baby.

How hard do you train? Honestly? Is it as hard as a pro athlete?

Of course you'd say no - after all, you've got a job and that leg hurts and you've got to go and pick up the cat and you WILL get round to training more… promise.

But Dave Wright, creator of MyZone believes the MZ3, his company's new heart rate monitor, can help show how hard you're working compared with Mo Farah - with no Quorn in sight. Or Emma Bunton, the former Spice Girl who uses the system too (but hasn't responded to my friend request yet).

This means you can finally answer the question over whether it's harder to play football, squash or just work really, really hard at clearing the garage.

On the surface, this £79.99 / $149.99 (around AU$207) wearable is no different to a normal heart rate monitor, registering your BPM, showing it on its own app and connecting to gym equipment or running watches through ANT+.

But where MyZone thinks it has the upper hand is HOW it uses that data, with every minute spent exercising creating MyZone Effort Points (MEPs) to show how hard you truly worked out. As your heart rate starts increasing, you'll flip through four coloured zones depending on how hard you're working - the faster your heartbeat, the more MEPs you gain per minute.

This means the days where you can't fit in a long, steady jog don't have to be wasted - by pushing harder, but for a shorter time, you'll be putting in the same effort, just at a higher intensity.

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The gym equipment connection is interesting too: in fancy places, you can connect to to treadmills and cross trainers - and in the REALLY fancy ones, you'll see your effort show up on a screen at the front, meaning you can't just slink in and hide away at the back of a spin class, yawning through the session and pretending to turn up the resistance.

Right - so down to business. I'm a runner (as you'll have hopefully guessed) but I've been putting in a lot of time at the gym too for strength - so how well does this fit into my routine - especially for the higher price?

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The app is the key part of the equation here - as you exercise, coloured zones show how hard you're working, encouraging you to push harder. When running, you can use an Android Wear or Apple Watch (or use the bespoke MyZone version) to see the same info.

The fit is pretty good - the front module clips on with poppers, meaning you can remove it to charge and wash the strap. Battery life is long as well, with two weeks of daily use not yielding the need to charge (although I did top it up at the start just to see how the charger worked).

However, runners beware: I've got some rather nasty abrasions forming on my chest thanks to this - the edge under the module is slightly sharp, and regular up and down motion has caused me some pain. I've tried a large number of monitors over the years and while some have left slight marks, this is by far the worst, even trying to adjust it for fit.

I don't want to have to put on anti-chafe cream to check my heart rate, but I'd be forced to with the MZ3 over time.

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The results are accurate mostly, matching others I was testing against. That said, the readout did love to shoot up to an insane BPM in the warmup on occasion, even with 'moistened pads'.

This usually doesn't matter - a number of monitors can do the same thing - but MyZone keeps an eye on your max and resting heart rates achieved during your workout to calibrate your heart rate zones accurately to you..

This meant I was given a max heart rate of 203 (achieved in a warm up - nope, incorrect) and it had to be reset remotely to keep my zones in the right place. Not a massive deal, but annoying.

Some of the great things I found in the last two and a bit weeks of use: the MZ3's ability to track without a phone is great (just strap it on, and go), the social element (where you rack MEPs against your friends) is motivating, the connection to my Garmin was ace and I loved being able to see all my effort from any activity during the week.

I also liked that the app was, functionally, rather powerful, with loads of info on screen when you're exercising.


However, a number of things marred the experience: you can only upload while wearing the device (which I always forgot to do, which led to a couple of lost workouts with no chance of recovery. You could do it by holding your thumbs on the strap, but that's quite erratic), the app is rather crudely designed and not very intuitive to navigate (and easy to sign out of accidentally) and it doesn't have the sensors to send info like cadence or ground contact time to my watch.

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Dave Wright talking us all through the MyZone system

As a runner, I can't see myself wanting to use the MZ3 for much longer. It doesn't do much more than tell me my heart rate zones, and for most people, you'll just need to see if you're pushing hard or easing back at the right moments.

There are some subtleties that advanced runners will like about being in different zones, but they probably have more highly-tuned equipment to help them track that.

The only reason I kept using it was the social aspect, trying to force myself higher up that leaderboard every day and making sure I pushed hard enough to get more MEPs for each workout. However, like Nike Fuel Points, there's no end in sight here, no victory to the gamification - a few more missed uploads and I'll be too despondent to keep trying.

I'm always wary when a product has social connectivity as a reason to buy - unless you have everyone involved that you know, it's not going to be a draw. Strava, this is not.

There's a very, very good product in here somewhere though - it's crucially missing guided workouts, which I hear might be appearing soon. If you could not only see how hard your working out, but be told how hard to push (depending on your goal) that would be magical.

But the MZ3 is clearly better suited to the gym than pounding pavements. I like the idea of competing on a big screen, but I can't find a list of facilities that use the system, so that's out for me - but if your gym does use it, you'll get a much better idea of how hard you're working and that's only going to improve your fitness.

For me, I can't see this being a great tool for runners unless all their pals are using the same system. It's painful to wear with the motion, the results are largely meaningless unless you've got a training plan to follow and a compatible smartwatch, and there are better options out there right now (Wahoo Tickr X, with excellent compatibility with devices and in-built tracking, is a good example).

This a tool for gym warriors, and I much more enjoyed using it for strength straining when I could see my phone - but it needs more structured plans to keep it relevant and desirable as a training tool over a long period.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Phones and Tablets Editor

Gareth (Twitter, Google+) has been part of the mobile phone industry from the era of the brick to the tiny device in the pocket... and now watching them grow back up to behemothic proportions once more. He's spent five years dissecting all the top phones in the world as TechRadar's Phones and Tablets Editor, and still can't resist answering the dreaded question - "which new phone should I get?" - with 15 choices.