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How to Fix Garmin HR Spikes

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This is another post that has been sitting in the Trello backlog for a while. With the start of the ‘cold-and-dry-air’ season a.k.a. winter I thought I had it all figured out … how to avoid those dreaded spikes from your heart-rate readings with the Garmin HR strap. And then two things happened.

The Problem

But first, let’s back up a little, in case you don’t know what I’m talking about. In winter times, when there is very little humidity in the air and the outside temperatures are such that you are not easily sweating, then you might end up getting crazy high or low or both (fluctuating) readings from your heart-rate monitor until there is enough moisture built up so that the problem goes away. The result often looks something like this:

Three different runsThree different runs

Mind you, I definitely don’t start my runs with 180+ BPM. And as you can see, the situation takes about 5-15 minutes to settle, and usually all is well thereafter.

Others have written about the problem as well, and I thought I could confirm the proposed solution (ultrasound gel. Yep, sounds as messy as it is). Turns out I can’t. But I have found something that works for me. More on that later. So, what happened that made my glorious ‘Heureka!’ posting obsolete?

First of all, the proposed solution with the ultrasound gel didn’t work reliable. All screenshots above are actually from runs where I applied ultrasound gel, but apparently either too little, or at the wrong spot, or too early because I had yet to do my warm-up (which I usually do inside). I just couldn’t get consistent results, let alone figure out what made the difference between a run without spikes and dropouts (and I have those as well during this winter) and one with problems. I strongly suspect either clothing and/or phase of the moon plays a part in this.

Second of all, Garmin released the Forerunner 620, which, according to the excellent review from Ray Maker, has a HR strap that doesn’t produce spikes. So, if you suffer from the problem, you might want to upgrade to the FR620 (or get the newest version of Garmin’s HR strap, if that’s sold separately). Of course you can also still experiment with ultrasound gel.

The Solution

Or you might want to re-read Ray’s Annual Public Service announcement and get a hint from there. Water1. For me the coin dropped when I saw a colleague at work prepare for his lunch run – he sort of washed the whole strap under flowing water. So I tried that. And it worked, each and every time since I first saw it. The key for getting rid of the spike/dropout issue is to get the HR strap wet, really wet. Obviously, getting it soaked under water leaves more moisture on it than ultrasound gel (or I guess you’d need a lot of gel to get the same effect, making quite a mess).

As an added bonus, if you start from home/work, you can use warm water to make the whole experience bearable. Using ultrasound gel bearable it is not.

If all else fails, take the HR strap off and forget about the metrics for one run. Go for a ‘naked’ run and enjoy running by feel. Your HR strap will feel punished and then behave for the next run again. Thanks for reading!

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