Polar RCX3 (with GPS) Review

So remember how Crabby already apologized for doing a string of product reviews that aren't giveaways? Keep that in mind, and please cut her a little slack...

Because seriously, how could she turn down the chance to review (and keep!) a Polar RCX3 heart rate monitor with GPS and a data-link thingamabob?  This fancy-pants gizmo has the ability to track your location, distance, speed, heart rate, calorie burn, and even heart rate variability... and then wirelessly send all this stuff to the web so you can look at your data.  But beware, the online software has so many charts and maps and graphs to pore over that you may have to be forcibly tranquilized and hauled away from your computer find yourself spending quite a bit of time analyzing your results!

But of course, any time you pair an aging stubborn fitness blogger with advanced technology there are going to be some... complications.

But first, the basics!

Here's what my package came with:

Cool, huh? But, what are all those thingies and what do they do?

Key RCX3 Highlights As Cribbed from the PR Email because Crabby is Lazy Like That:

WearLink®+ transmitter W.I.N.D.: Polar's propriety heart rate sensing technology in a little black snap-on unit that you wear strapped to your chest.

G5 GPS sensor (optional):  A small clip-on unit that measures speed and distance and lets you see your route on a map online. It's rechargeable for up to 20 hours of training.

The "training computer" which sounds like a big-ass piece of desktop equipment but is actually just the watch thing.

And the RCX3 has these data-analysis features:

A "Training Benefit" Function: This gives instant feedback on the watch after each workout based on intensity and duration. ("You kicked ass six ways to Sunday," is, alas, not among the feedback options. But it will tell you if it thinks you were doing recovery, tempo work, etc, and how that might be of benefit to you).

ZoneOptimizer: Tells you how hard to train each time by adjusting personal heart rate zones based on your current physiological condition.

Training Load:  An online graph of cumulative training load, letting you know if you've recovered enough for your next workout or whether you could be overtraining, or if you're coddling yourself like a spoiled baby and should think about kicking it up a notch.

Running Index: A score based on speed and distance to monitor progress. Improvement means better pace relative to exertion levels.

Polarpersonaltrainer.com online training diary: More in-depth data analysis, which you can share with your friends. (Because God Forbid your friends might be in the dark about the nature and extent of daily exertions and your current Heart Rate Variability and VO2 Max).  Perhaps more pragmatically, you could share your data with a coach or personal trainer to help them plan your next workout to kick your butt most effectively. You can also create and synch training programs.

What's Great About the Polar RCX3:

Lots of Data:   This monitor manages to crank out a lot more interesting info about your workouts than the standard sort of heart rate monitor. Speed, distance, heart rate zone, calories, laps, you name it.  It's got a stopwatch view too.  And then you get to upload and obsess over all that data if you don't have a day job.

And this is just one tab of many on a single workout. Wowza.

Two of my favorite upgrades over the model I reviewed before, the Polar FT4:

Speed and Distance Measurements: The GPS (or, if you'd prefer, different optional accessories that measure running strides or bike cadence) can track your movements geographically, whether you're on foot or on a bike. Does this notion creep you out? Do you fret about who might have access to this information?  Relax! I'm sure they'll be adding a Tinfoil Hat accessory for future models, you can wait and buy one then.

HRV:  I thought the most interesting feature, though, is the use of heart rate variability to measure your current physiological state. Apparently, this can give you a reasonably good estimate of your V02Max, and also lets you know if you've recovered enough from your previous training to be ready for a tough workout, a regular workout, or a wimpy workout.

Is heart rate variability really this powerful and accurate a measurement?  And can a chest strap gather this "state of the body" information as well as an EEG or an expensive VO2Max test?

Well, hell if I know, I'm not an exercise physiologist. If there are any helpful sportsgeek types out there who've done the research, please let us know what you've discovered. The Polar site itself has some research on heart rate variability, and it looks like there's at least some data to support its usefulness.

In my personal experience, when I could get hrv readings (see below), the information and predictions seemed to correlate pretty well with my own subjective experience.  When the watch predicted I'd have a tougher time working out and lowered my zone targets: it was right, suckiness ensued!  And when it predicted I was rested and ready by setting the rates higher, I was way more likely to have a rockin' workout.   But I didn't test all that many times and don't know if this will hold up.

Lazy-Ass Fitness Test: This estimates V02Max, and the best part is you take it lying down!  I actually ignored the fitness test for a few days because I thought involved having to gear up to some sort of maximal effort, but you take it while resting for 3-5 minutes.  Suh-weeeet!

Flexible Washable Strap: Way more comfortable than the inflexible type, plus seems to be more accurate because you don't have to get sweaty for the numbers to stabilize.

Narscissistic Gratification:  Maybe it's just me, but there is something addictive about seeing my routes and measurements and exertions done up with all the formality of a presentation to the Joint Chiefs of Staff deciding whether or not to invade something.

Affirmative, Crabby, on that reconnaissance mission to the ice cream parlor.

A few annoying Things About the RCX3:

Website:  refused to remember my email for several hours after I registered so I had to reset my password twice.

Set-Up:  You definitely need to download the online manual, and here's a tip: read the damn thing.  I started with the little guide in the box and missed a lot of stuff.  Some of my initial gripes turned out to be about options I could change.

Unfriendliness to Old People:

Display: The face is nice and big, and you have the option to have 2 or 3 rows in it. But there is no option for 1 row of big fat numbers if you are an old fart who can't see without reading glasses! I would be happy to see just 1 set of numbers at a time and click through when I want an alternate view. The 2 row display is still pretty visible for biking, but if you've got crappy vision and are trying to use the stopwatch for interval training you may find yourself distracted from your exertions by trying to read the damn thing.

Tiny serial number: Similarly, in order to get registered you need the serial number, which could only be found on the back of the watch--and it consisted of a microscopic mix of letters and numbers that I couldn't see even with my reading glasses. (Had to borrow the Lobsters which are stronger). Did the Polar people helpfully leave off numeric 0's and alphabetic O's to minimize confusion? No, they did NOT. They look identical.

Heart Rate Recording: The coolest part about the RCX3 for me, the HRV measurement, was also the most frustrating. Taking these measurements is a bit of a hassle and you have to spend a few minutes doing it. However, I have very frequent PVC's--it's a benign heart condition, but it confuses the poor Polar. I often can't get a fitness test reading or get my heart rate zones personalized during the pre-workout recording period. Plus, I'm not sure how accurate they are for me and I couldn't find any literature on it. But I suspect this wouldn't be nearly as much of an issue if you have a normal boring steady heart rather than an excentric one that beats to a different drummer.

Compatibility and Multiple Sports: This model is mainly designed for those who run and bike, preferably in separate workouts. I couldn't find a way to shift from one mode to another without starting a whole new workout recording. There is an option to set 1 running profile, 2 bike profiles and one other miscellaneous sport.

But the most annoying thing of all for me is that the Polar RCX3 is not compatible with gym equipment like the elliptical machine. According to the poor Polar customer service rep who had to answer my cranky email, "The RCX3 uses WIND technology and this is not compatible with the exercise machines. The WIND technology is a different frequency, 2.4 ghz and the machines are using 5 khz frequency."

I am used to wearing my heart rate monitor on the elliptical and seeing my heart rate in big fat letters right on the machine's console. Having to look down at my wrist all the time at numbers that are too damn small to see in our dimly lit basement is definitely annoying.

Accuracy Questions: As with any exercise monitoring equipment, the technology can only make guesses. As it happened, I went on the exact same bike ride 3 different days, and burned 628, 454, and 543 calories respectively.

The weather was different each time, and the first time I didn't have the gps unit on so it was just using an estimate based on heart rate. But still, that's a fair amount of variance for the same ride.

Also, see that map up there higher in the post? That was a round-trip ride from home, yet the gps didn't track me the entire way and thinks I got lost somewhere in the cemetery. Which, given my crappy sense of direction would certainly be possible, but as it happened I made it home and it was the GPS that stopped to smell the flowers.

Overall: A very handy high-tech gizmo that I am very happy to use, even if there are a few bugs and annoyances.

Anyone have any thoughts on heart rate monitors or other fancy electronic gizmos?

Photo credits: Joint Chiefs from Wikipedia; Elderly woman all over the web, anyone got an original source?; GPS woman from RW Daily

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