A couple of years ago I was reading a book called ‘Finding Ultra’ by a chap called Rich Roll, which is still one of my favourite autobiographies, charting the tale of Rich from a couch potato to one of the best endurance triathletes in the world at the age of 40.
One chapter caught my eye in that when he first started to train he noticed he could gradually run longer, albeit painfully, but wasn’t getting any faster or losing any weight. At this point he decided to seek the services of a personal trainer who promptly told him to get a heart rate monitor as item number one on his to do list.
The problem Rich had, which affects a lot of runners in the early days and can plague runners who are already fit, is that he was running too fast. He wasn’t burning fat and was running in an anaerobic zone- where your heart rate is high and you don’t burn fat, as to aerobic running which is where endurance stems from and burns fat instead of muscle. This was why Rich felt fitter, but wasn’t making any physical progress and had little stamina.
Using the heart rate monitor and keeping to a low level of output, he felt like he was running outrageously slowly and initially had to walk even the smallest of hills to keep in the correct zone, but over time as his fitness developed and his weight and blood pressure started to fall, he slowly built himself into the athletic animal he is today.
Whilst this chapter caught my eye, being a bit of a technophobe and a thinking it didn’t affect me, I disregarded it, but in the back of my mind I have always wondered about heart rate training, but I wasn’t prepared to pay hundreds of pounds to find out.
Then came the opportunity to test and review the new Tom Tom Multi Sport Cardio watch. This is a new watch priced at a much more competitive level than many watches of similar functionality, at £249.99. There is also a version just for running at just £219.99 called the Runner Cardio. The main difference being that the Multi Sport has a bike attachment and is also designed for swimming. Perfect for triathletes or those who cross train regularly, as well as running.
The watch is very light and has a thick rubber feeling strap that ensures it stays in place when secured to your wrist. The watch is functioned by the toggle below the screen and this allows you to move left, right, up and down to select what you are looking for. It is incredibly easy to use- even for someone like me who is utterly useless with most items of technology (or flat pack or painting…you get the idea).
On the under side of the watch is the heart rate sensor and this picks up your pulse from your wrist. Unlike many previous incarnations of these types of watches there are no straps to attach to your chest. Having spoken to a colleague in the office, the strap versions are particularly annoying and cumbersome for women with it needing to fit around a sports bra.
Out of the box, you connect the watch via its cradle and a USB to your computer and can start inputting your personal data. This includes your weight, height and resting heart rate so the watch knows where your zones are. The watch then calculates five zones for your exercise which are easy, fat-burn, endure, speed and sprint. The gist being ‘easy’ is pretty much walking, through to ‘sprint’ which is all out running. For endurance runners ‘fat-burn’ and ‘endure’ are the zones to be aimed for.
Initially on my first run I was petrified that my heart rate would be much higher than I thought and was worried that it might affect my approach to running. However, I was pleased to see on my first run that my heart rate fell between 130 and 150 BPM which is exactly where I wanted it to be based on my resting heart rate and square in the ‘endure’ zone (calculated my top heart rate is apparently 188 BPM). After a few runs I could pretty much tell based on my breathing where my heart rate would be and I used the watch to slow down when I was working too hard (notably on hills).
What I found really interesting was also the opposite of this. There were times when I felt I was working hard and would usually slow down a tad, but upon looking at the watch I realised I was actually running too easy (depending on the distance of the day) and this provided a boost to push myself a little harder. This is where speed and endurance are built.
As I build up to the North Downs Way 100 on the 9th August, I have found the watch really useful to keep me pushing on my shorter mid-week runs as well as keeping me in the fat-burn/ endure zones on my long runs. It has provided a lot of confidence in the fact I am already doing this right but can use this to keep myself in check.
Over the winter months I have serious plans to use the watch to really work on my endurance and speed and will be working closely to improve further by the time the ultra-season starts again for me next April.
Starting out on a run and using the toggle to start searching for satellites for the GPS function, this picks up a link usually in less than 20 seconds, which is remarkably quick. You can the track your distance on the screen as well as your overall pace, pace right now, heart rate, heart rate zone, distance travelled, stopwatch or real time clock all by simply moving the toggle up or down. I tend to set it with the heart rate on the screen right now, but over time may change this to pace as I get more used to heart rate workouts. At all times, however, your distance travelled remains in the top right hand corner and your stopwatch time in the top left, so at a glance you can see how far you have run and in what time.
What I really like about this watch, aside from the simplicity, is the ability to harness your competitive side if you run a regular route. The watch can detect where you are and you can race your previous personal best on that route. Again, as I use this more over the winter months I will work closely with this functionality to know I am improving.
Once your run is done, you connect it via the USB to the computer and it automatically drags all of the data from your run onto one clear and easy to analyse screen. This shows at a glance, your average pace, calories burned, average heart rate, miles or km covered (depending on which you prefer), elevation change and strides per minute. Then, below this is a map showing the route run, which you can zoom in on and below this the full range of heart rate at all time on the run next to a graph showing elevation change and a third chart showing your pace change. Typically running quite hilly training routes, it is great to see the correlation between heart rate and hills as well as pace. Usually, all the graphs generally mirror one another with my heart rate being highest and my pace being lowest when climbing a hill. You can even roll your cursor over each stage of the run and data pops up on all three graphs to show what was happening at that exact point. It is all very clever and most of all simple to use.
However, it wouldn’t be a full review if I didn’t mention a couple of the downsides:
If the strap is too loose, after a while as sweat gets into the sensor or it struggles to pick up your pulse from your wrist, the heart rate can either drop or spike significantly. To look down and see your pulse is at 193 BPM when you are working gently can be a bit frightening! However, with a quick adjustment it quickly pulls up the correct heartbeat.
As an ultrarunner, whilst fine in training, the only other downside is the battery life. Whilst better than most out there, I understand this tops out at around 12 hours. However, it is the GPS functionality that really drains the battery so if you do not need this during a race 50+ mile there is a solution. The watch has a ‘treadmill’ function typically for use indoors when GPS is not required. By selecting this I can still see my pace and stopwatch time as well as my heart rate, which is what I am quickly caring about most. As an example, for the NDW100 I will use this setting for the first 50 miles to make sure I am never working over 150 BMP up until half way, when I will meet Chris, my pacer, and I will then continue to use this as long as the battery allows (circa 20 hours) whilst monitoring my pace with him for the second half of the race. I know it is a 100 mile race, so I don’t need a watch to tell me where I have been during it once finished.
For the price, this is a cracking GPS cardio watch. It doesn’t have some of the functionality of a Garmin or Suunto, where you can upload and follow your route via a GPX file, but for me this does not matter. This is a training aid, which can really take you through and into a race. I have only had the watch for just over a week, but already I feel I am a better runner and it has really boosted my confidence.
You can see more on the watch here.