March 28, 2009

Polar RS800CX Run -- Five Things to Know Before You Buy


Several weeks ago I purchased the Polar RS800CX with Stride Sensor technology. I’ve been an owner of polar heart rate monitors for nearly fifteen years so it was kind of like putting on an old sweater.

Polar is the world’s pioneer of heart rate monitor technology and they have dominated this market for decades. But their market share has ebbed in the last five years as athletes turned to GPS technology from Garmin and other companies. I’ve been using both the Polar RS800CX and a Garmin 405 in training and have learned a lot about the strengths, and weaknesses, of both. Here is what I found:

You’re Not Having a Heart Attack! Even though I’ve been using Polar monitors since 1992 I haven’t always been a happy customer. In the early days it seemed like false heart rate readings were the norm. I can’t remember how many times I’d be running along at a leisurely pace only to see my heart rate fluttering around 240. Oh my god, am I having a heart attack?! Fortunately after so many false readings my worry was eroded by buyers remorse. Thankfully those days are over. The most recent Polar monitors I’ve owned, including the RS800CX, have given me consistent and accurate heart rate readings.

Batteries Optimal - As an ultra runner, battery life is a huge issue for me. If you're training for over eight hours at a time, it will be for you too. The battery life on my Garmin 405 is less than eight hours. This is not an issue for a 5k runner, even a marathoner. But what if you train or race for eight, twelve, even sixteen hours or more? This is where GPS technology starts to falter. Its all too common for me to look down at my Garmin 405 GPS to see a blank screen from a dead battery on runs over six hours. Sure, other Garmin models (201 and 301) might last a little longer. But until technology improves, consider GPS devises a luxury with a short leash, that leash being a limited battery life.

Battery life is not a concern with the Polar RS800CX. Not only do you get accurate heart rate readings, but your distance traveled can be measured using Polar's Stride Sensor without the timing limitations inherent with GPS units. This is a water resistant foot pod that measures your speed/pace, distance and cadence. Based on my own experience, I found the Stride Sensor to be quite accurate. On a recent long run the Polar Stride Sensor was within 3/10s of a mile of my Garmin around mile 30 before the Garmin ran out of batteries. Better yet, you don’t have to charge the Stride Sensor every time you use it! For an additional cost, the Polar RS800CX comes with an optional GPS unit that can be used in lieu of the Stride Sensor. I chose not to purchase this.

Cadence, Dear Friends, Cadence - When Lance Armstrong assumed the throne in the cycling kingdom, “cadence” was knighted his silver bullet. Fast, efficient peddling at 90 RPM, it was said, launched Lance from zero to hero. So happens, 90 SPM (strides per minute) is the magic number for runners -- that is if you want to run as efficiently as the elites in the sport. Anything slower than this, regardless of pace, is not as efficient. Once I realized the RS800CX measured cadence, I measured mine right away. I was pleased to find it was between 86 and 88 SPM. I was less pleased with the concentration it took to maintain 90 strides per minute. What’s cool about the Polar RS is that it monitors your cadence real time—up hills, over trails, on the street—then gives you an average cadence for each run.

Beam me up, Scotty – one of the things I found with the RS800CX is how easy it is to transfer data from the device to my computer. Polar utilizes infrared technology to send data from the device to a pod that plugs easily into any USB port. My experience with this system, despite very little patience with software in general, has been very good. I hold the Polar up to the pod, push go, and within 30 seconds my workout information is loaded on the computer. Polar uses a proprietary software – Pro Trainer 5 – which provides extensive analysis using charts and graphs. Distance, heart rate, pace, and cadence are all tracked real time and graphed out automatically for you to see visually on your screen. Averages for all of these data points and outdoor temperature are also recorded.

Running Index, Flatlanders Only? The RS800CX contains a unique fitness measurement program called Running Index. This is designed to measure your training progress and fitness changes. This is simply a measurement of your running economy. The faster you run at a give heart rate, the better your score. This is a great method to track your condition, but it's not without its flaws. When testing myself, I've scored a 62 on certain runs ("very good"), and under 50 ("average") on other runs. What I've learned is that this system is only good for running on flat courses, because it doesn't recognize when you're climbing hills. For example, if you happen to be running up a long mountain hill, all it knows is you're running slow and at a high heart rate. Result? A low rating. You might as well be fat and out of shape. Nonetheless, you can still use the index to measure your fitness progress by comparing your score from week to week on the same course.

Do I recommend the Polar RS800CX? I'm not one to make hearty recommendations for products. What I've learned is that people have their own biases for and against products. What one man says is great another man despises. Yet, if I were to compare the Polar RS800CX to the Garmin 405 which I also own and have used extensively, I must say I prefer the Polar. The Polar doesn't have limited battery life, it provides good distance and heart rate measurement, it measures cadence, transfers data easily to my computer and, yes, it looks cooler!

Replacing the battery on the wrist watch is not without its challanges. It would appear to be an easy turn of the seal on the bottom of the device. This I did. Getting the gadget to come loose of the watch once turned is the challenge. I broke one my best steak knifes trying to pry this succer out! Polar, help!

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23 comments:

Jakuko said...

Cadence seems like a cool feature. My Suunto doesn't have that. 85-90 SPM is very good for an ultra runner (for one foot).

Peter Lubbers said...

Great review.
Cadence and Battery life definitely sound like a huge plus!. I am trying to increase that slow cadence of mine, so that might be a handy feature (that, or a cattle prod)!
How much did you buy the Polar watch for?

Will said...

Peter, you should be able to purchase the polar rs800cx Run for around $400. There are all kinds of deals on the web. Let me know what you find.

Melanie said...

great review! I battled with the polar vs. garmin a few months ago myself, and bought the multi with GPS. I think I will also get the stride sensor though, as I really changed my gait by focusing on cadence, which I really believe has helped keep me less injury prone!

ian said...

This http://garmin.blogs.com/pr/2009/04/garmin-gives-fitness-a-facelift-with-forerunner-310xt-the-waterproof-multi-sport-watch-with-longer-battery-life.html may be of interest...
20 hours of battery life with the successor to the garmin 305!

Will said...

I read the press release on the 310, sounds like Garmin has recognized the battery life problems. I can't wait to give it a whirl...

Rusty said...

Great post... very valuable info, thanks! I have also been struggling with garmin 405 versus polar rs800cx multi... I have been looking for something for training in the gym, on the trail, and also to take with me on my expedition... I think the AA battery solution to the GPS and the long battery life on the watch has me leaning towards the Polar. Thanks again!
--Rusty

Anonymous said...

What have you found regarding the calorie consumption information on the Garmin 405 CX (if you have that version)? I find it to be overstated as compared to what my polar hr monitor usually calculates, which is quite bothersome to me.

Jordi said...

Great Review. YES! I also consider this watch the perfect partner. I'm a triathlete and I love my Polar.
I also have the G3 GPS which I recommend you. With him you can analyze much better your training or performance.
I made a web page about Running GPS and I put Polar RS800CX at the TOP 1 on my particular Running GPS Watches Top 10 List

Anonymous said...

Will thanks for the great review. I'd really need an advice for this: I've got in my hands the RS800CX with S3 since this morning. I'm frying if I've done the right thing or it'd has been better the Garmin 310XT, which I could get for almost the same price.
My runs:
During week almost on flat paved roads, but always different
_so S3 it'd be perfect, and with the cadence!_
But for the long runs, back to back on the weekend, I do need barometric altimeter, extra long battery _so RS would win here too_.
But For that long runs that won't be on very hard trails, but on paved roads (10%,15% max), so even if pace and distance with the S3 would not be as accurate as a GPS of the 310XT, if the data do are comparable with same course in other moments, that wuold be very usable for me.
Thanks for any ultrarunners experience.
al

al_fartlek said...

Hi Will, again great work your review, but, in comparison with 310XT, about the reliability of data from S3 on hill terrain, do you still think RS800CX is worthwile due to the barom. altim., the more complete HR monitoring, and the longer battery life? Any problems with the fastening sys of the S3 to its fork, isn't too delicate?
Any esperiences would be very very appreciated.
Thanks.
al

Will said...

Al, I haven't used the garmin 310xt, so I couldn't comment on it. Certainly there are things a GPS unit can do that a foot pod will never do, so you just have to go with what your priorities are. Good luck!

al_fartlek said...

Will, you're right. I've figured out that for my way of running Polar is the tool.
Good runs with no junks!

al

Gamnacke said...

Great review. I am about to replace my Polar RS200sd (S1 foot pod) with a RS800cx and S3 foot pod. My old Polar has been working great until just recently when a couple of LED segments have gone missing. Don't know why it has happened, perhaps the display was damaged when the watch was in my bag.

To Anonymous who was concerned about the accuracy in the foot pod I can tell you that the S1 is very accurate (97% out of the box). I don't even bother about calibrating mine.

Endurance Rider OZ said...

An absolutely fantastic review. I am an Endurance Horse Rider and compete in events that take 24 hours. It is absolutely frustrating to run out of Battery Life whilst out competing on the trail, especially late at night in the final legs of competition. I had been considering on buying the 405 because of its supposed long battery life. However a big big thanks to your review I will be buying the Polar. Thanks Again for your honest informative appraisal.

Gweipo said...

thanks for the review, my old polar is slowly dying on me, I have a garmin 305 and I'm not a fan. It takes ages to find the satellite, doesn't work when I'm cross training (i.e. not running) or indoors and calorie meter is useless, software is mediocre ...

But Polar S625X the uploads have been painful and slow and prone to crashes and I hate having to be without my watch for a week at a time while the service centre changes the battery for me.
May I ask why you didn't go with the GPS, and if you do use the GPS where do you put it physically?

Will said...

I use a Garmin if I'm going with a GPS...check out my post on that...I'm still not happy with battery life though.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review.
I too have been using a Polar RS200 with an S1 for 5 or 6 years. After numerous strap/case replacements it was time to replace and upgrade. The S1 had suffered from occasional interference but was generally accurate for running. However, I lusted after a device which would also record my cycling routes. Comparing the Garmin and Polar units, as a triathlete, the waterproof requirement was essential. The Garmin 310XT looked promising but was physically large compared to the Polar. I've just purchased a Polar RS800CX with the S3 and G3.

Richard Bray said...

Great review. I have the Garmin 405 and am frustrated by the battery life. I'm choosing between the Suunto T6d and the Polar 800 and this blog has made me go Polar. Thanks.

www.natalia.biz said...
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Lennard said...

Hi Will,

Thanks for your review. About replacing the battery: I found out that the cradle which holds the foot pod is designed in such a way that it can aid to open the battery section. on either side of the cradle there are two 'wings' that fit the slot for the battery holder of both the pod and the watch.

Polar Heart Rate Monitor Strap said...

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Garmin Forerunner 15 said...

I've been using both the Polar RS800CX and a Garmin 405 in ... qforerunner.blogspot.com