Polar are synonymous with heart rate monitors and it is difficult to go anywhere in the world of sports and fitness without encountering Polar products. With heart rate training forming a core aspect of many professional training programmes, it is not only the pros who can benefit. Polar’s products are becoming more user friendly than ever and that FT60 examined here typifies that move. But who should be interested in this type of device?
The FT60 sits in the middle of the FT range, flanked by the FT40 and FT80, which respectively offer more or less features. The sports training device consists of two component parts: the WearLink+ heart rate monitoring chest strap and the watch, which acts as the brains of the outfit.
Often heart rate chest straps are formed from plastic, with an elastic element that stretches around your back. Polar’s WearLink+ uses soft material in place of the plastic, so it is much more comfortable when worn for long periods of time and will probably be less daunting to those new to heart rate training. The strap only contains the sensors that pick up the signals through your skin, and you’ll need to run it under a tap to wet these sensors before you start. This ensures the best signal, and we found that it never failed to pick up our heart rate.
The transmitter then connects to this strap with press studs. The transmitter talks to the watch, which at first glance looks like any other sports watch, being not overly large, unlike some of the GPS-enabled sports devices out there (an additional GPS module is available, but we didn’t test one with this review).
The FT60 version we tested features a red display (more on which later) which does look cool when worn as a normal watch and supports lines of text or graphics to feedback all the information. Five buttons allow control, with left-hand mode and light buttons, matched on the right with controls that select your menu option or scroll up and down the menus.
The system works by monitoring your heart rate as you exercise and from that and other details about you, it can determine your work rate, calories used and so on. So after setting basic information, you are good to use your watch to track your training. All you have to do is start the stop watch and off you go - the watch doesn’t care what your activity is, only that your heart rate is elevated whilst you do it.
But if that is all you are after, then the lower spec FT40 would fit the bill. Where the FT60 adds to the package is giving you the Polar Star Training Programme.
The Star Training Programme will set out weekly training targets for you, based on your selected type of programme. There are three options: lose weight, improve fitness and maximise fitness. To put together these training programmes the FT60 first has to determine your fitness level. A simple 5-minute test that basically measures resting heart rate will determine your fitness level and then set your training zones and split up your training plan between these zones.
The Star Training Programme is based on sound training practises, the sort of thing that a personal trainer might do, so in the "improve fitness" programme we found that we had 2hrs 30mins of training to complete in that week, almost all in zone 2, with 30mins in zone 1 and 5mins in zone 3. It breaks down the intensity zones for you and whilst you exercise it tracks the zone you are in.
The programme will also factor in rest weeks, lowering the intensity of your schedule to allow proper recovery. This is a technique universally recommended by coaches and it is reassuring to find it incorporated here.
Heart rate monitoring is popular as a training aid because of the direct link to training intensity, providing instant feedback as you exercise. The FT60 gives you the same thing, combined with the Star programme, so that your time spent exercising achieves the results you are looking for. Just as a personal trainer would comment on your sessions and outline what to do next, the FT60 does the same thing.
So this is an appealing proposition for those who have particular goals in a general sense, but don’t know how to achieve them, or those who find that they can’t stay focused on their training. The FT60 is well suited to use in the gym too, because you can spend 30mins on a cross-trainer and 20mins on a bike and know that you are hitting the right intensity.
The programmes adapt over time as you achieve or fail to reach your weekly targets and to get the most from it, you should regularly take the fitness test again, to ensure your programme is based on current level of fitness, not that of when you first tested yourself.
The training programmes can also be used with OwnZone, which adapts the target zones based on your current level of fitness, taking into account variations, such as cumulative fatigue. OwnZone will basically prescribe your warm-up to you, whilst calculating the best zones for your session. If you are feeling tired then this in theory could help you avoid over-training, which could lead to injury or illness.
So it all sounds good assuming want to use the watch in this way. But there are some considerations. Unlike a personal trainer, the FT60 Star Training Programme needs you to be wearing the chest strap. If you decide to go swimming, and don’t wear it, it has no way of knowing and you can’t add that data into the system.
You’ll also find that getting data out isn’t an option unless you buy the Polar FlowLink (£50, but comes with the FT80), and then that data can be moved to polarpersonaltrainer.com. For those who want to download and analyse their own data then this might be a stumbling point.
Equally if you don’t want to take advantage of the Star Training Programme, preferring to devise your own programme, then other Polar models will be better suited to your needs and save you some cash. As said above, if you have general aims, then great, but if you are training specifically for, say, marathon running, you might find that the Star programme doesn't directly suit your needs, although there is nothing to stop you using the other features in that scenario.
In terms of the hardware we liked the FT60, except for one point. The red screen was difficult to read whilst running, especially in the evening with fading light. You do get other colour options, and if you train exclusively in the gym this won’t be a problem, but out on the streets it was.
Whilst training you can scroll through various screens of information, heart rate, calories, zone and actual time. On these pages the stopwatch displays at the bottom, but is very small and you can’t have it occupying the main area of the page, so if you want go for a 30min run, you’ll find yourself struggling to see how long you have been out on the track.
But overall, the FT60 is a comfortable and practical exercising tool, allowing you to keep your efforts focused at the right intensity to make progress. The soft chest strap particularly appeals.
The Star Training Programme too works on a good solid scientific foundation, so if you have no idea about what you should be doing, it will effortlessly set you on the right track, and keep you there.
It isn’t cheap, but if you are paying £70 a month for a gym subscription, you might as well ensure you are training effectively.