Can a heart rate monitor make you a better athlete?

fitness events
(Image credit: Unknown)

I stopped timing myself during races a couple of years ago after I developed a nasty habit of setting unrealistic minute per kilometre goals. Looking down at my watch at every 1,000m interval of a race to see that I was minutes behind where I wanted to be left me feeling so disheartened I found it hard to keep going. So I decided to run without a watch. Initially I loved being free to enjoy the sensation of racing on perceived exertion alone but in my last few events I’ve tired of not really known how well or badly I’m doing until I get to the end. Especially since in each one I seem to be getting further and further away from setting new PBs.

So when I got an invite to use the long distance at Cannes Triathlon to test the beta version of Polar’s tricked out new heart rate monitor, the V800, I saw it as a good opportunity to reacquaint myself with lots of lovely data. But rather than set targets I couldn’t stick to, I decided I'd monitor how I performed and see what lessons I could take away from it.

As well as the ability to track what your heart is doing during exercise, the V800 contains GPS to feedback on distance covered, and has a triathlon profile that can measure transition durations. It can even tell you how long you need to recover from a session and track non-training activity through use of an accelerometer.

Distance and time are pretty self-explanatory but heart rate training foxes most people, so here’s a simple guide to what it means in terms of exertion. Zone 1 is 50%-60% of your maximum heart rate (MHR), and would be the exercise equivalent of walking. Zone 2 is 60-70% of your MHR, and is the exercise equivalent of jogging. Zone 3 is when you’re working out at 70%-80% of your MHR, the equivalent of running at a moderate pace. Zone 4 is when you’re at 80%-90% of your MHR and is the equivalent of when you're running hard. Zone 5 is 90%+ of your MHR and is the equivalent of sprinting. You can only stay in this zone for a very short amount of time before needing to recover. My resting heart rate (RHR) is 55, and my MHR is 190.

Drink it in

The long distance event starts on Palm Beach, some 2km from the centre of Cannes, and I start recording my sessions as soon as the klaxon sounds. The 2km Mediterranean swim leg is broken down into two laps, with a short beach run between each 1K loop. After a claustrophobic start in churning waters where I’m pinned in between two rather punchy fellows, I find a bit of space, get my rhythm and really begin to enjoy the leg. The water is a balmy 14˚ and so clear I can see the bottom even when 500m out. This means I can check how I’m doing on the V800 by slowing down the stroke of the arm it’s on. 

I run out of the water in 49mins 30sec, with my heart rate having hit 134BPM – so Zone 3 – during the most aggressive parts of the swim, and fumble my way through a transition so long – 7min 26sec – a dictatorship could have been toppled before I finally pedal away from the bike park.

Since arriving in Cannes everyone I'd asked about the bike leg had stories of vicious climbs and hairpins so sharp it sounded as if there was as much chance of you flying off the side of them and gatecrashing some poor French family's BBQ as actually making it round. Oh, and kamikaze drivers who'd make cycling the course feel as if you ridden into a scene from Death Race.

They weren't wrong. After a 5km burn along a wonderfully glassy stretch of motorway, we hit a brutal 7km climb, which pushes my heart rate up to 162BPM and into Zone 4. And there’s little let up after that ­– when I’m not sufffering my way up hills I’m white knuckling it down snaking switchbacks at up to speeds of 50km, dodging oncoming traffic as I go.

My stress levels are further increased when my V800 flashes up a message that I only have one hour of memory left. My fault because I'd recorded a bunch of training rides at home prior to the race and had forgotten to delete them off my watch. At this point I still have at least a couple of hours left of racing, and the thought of doing them without real-time information about heart rate, distance and pace is pretty soul destroying – it’s only taken me half a race to become a born-again data junkie. But the brainboxes who made the device had obviously thought of this because as soon as I clear the message, another one pops up telling me that an old session is about to be deleted to ensure it keeps running during the race.

70km in to the race a man on the French equivalent of a Boris bike overtakes me. I’m on a £5,000 Look road bike that’s been leant to me by the organisers – if I wasn’t beetroot red from exertion, the watching crowds would see shame written in scarlet across my face. I recall a previous scalping at the London Marathon at the hoofs of a man in a horse costume and realise that there must be quite a few failed comedians who are excellent athletes. I really need to get better at endurance events to ensure that a gorilla-suited man on a scooter doesn’t one day beat me.

Step it up

I finish the bike some 3hours 22mins later, and start the run – 16km broken down into 4km laps. It runs along La Croisette – Cannes’s seafront catwalk, famous for the opulent hotels the world’s biggest film stars stay at during the city’s annual film festival. I hammer through the first two laps, spurred on by the supportive crowds yelling, 'bon courage' at me. Such is the energising power of the heartfelt French that I feel completely divorced from the reality of the Nick Hutchings stumbling along at a 5min 40sec kilometre pace.

During the final lap I see a couple of other English-speaking journalists I'd befriended prior to the race. Having people to run with helps me to find another gear and I power over the finish line in 5hours 45mins with my heart rate again in the low 160s. I run straight past the woman handing out medals and don’t stop until I hit the food tent where I shovel down mouthfuls of tepid beef casserole to drown the protein-mad monster threatening to tear up my stomach.

Once I’ve finished my food I find a scenic spot by on the beach to reflect on the race – it’s been eventful and, for the most part, excellent. If you want to do a tri abroad, the short transfer from the UK to Cannes, cinematic charm of the city and hugely varied course make it a great choice. For me, however, the best thing about taking part is how much I’ve learned from the V800 about my in-race performance. For the first time in a long time I now have a load of manageable training targets I can use to make me a faster, more efficient triathlete – the holy grail for racers of all levels.

For more on Polar's V800, go to For more on the Cannes Triathlon, go to

Nick Hutchings worked for Men’s Fitness UK, which predated, and then shared a website with, Coach. Nick worked as digital editor from 2008 to 2011, head of content until 2014, and finally editor-in-chief until 2015.