How to Troubleshoot High or Inaccurate Heart Rate Monitor Readings in Cold Weather

Unless you’re okay with letting your fitness tank for months, you probably want to keep training even in the winter when it’s cold. The trouble is, the cold can wreak havoc on both your heart rate and your heart rate monitor. If you know how to troubleshoot, though, you can keep tracking your heart rate, stay safe and get good results even if it’s “hot cocoa weather” outside.

winter_workout

What Goes On in the Winter

In the winter, the lower temperature causes the molecules in the air to condense and move closer together, which means that the air can’t hold as much moisture and becomes very dry. Moisture moves out of your body and evaporates off your skin very easily in this environment. It’s easy to get dehydrated before you even start your workout, and if you sweat while you exercise, it will evaporate relatively fast. Exercising indoors doesn’t protect you, either—units such as furnaces evaporate water in your space as they heat the air, so the relative humidity in gyms, fitness centers or your living room drops.

What the Dryness Means for Your Heart Rate Monitor and Training

Your heart beats due to electrical signals that cause the heart tissue to contract. Heart rate monitors that use a chest strap, such as the HeartQ HRM, depend on these electrical signals to work. When the transmitter for the monitor is in good contact with your skin, it can pick up the electrical signals, send data about them to your monitor and give you your heart rate reading. The catch is that the transmitter needs a conductor—such as water—to work properly. If you are dehydrated or the air around you is super dry, as so often is the case in winter, the monitor might show an inaccurate reading or not pick up a heart rate at all.

 

Another issue you might have with your HeartQ or other monitor is static electricity. Dry air allows static electricity charges to build up much more easily. These charges can build up in your clothes, particularly if you’re wearing something synthetic. If this happens, the charges might interfere with your transmitter.

Lastly, your heart has to work a little harder in order to keep blood circulating in the cold. The result is an increase in your blood pressure, as well as your heart rate. This is a potentially dangerous situation—doctors believe that the added stress on the heart due to the cold is one reason why heart attack risk is higher in winter months.

I-dont-know-what-to-do

Easy Fixes

In most cases, adding moisture to your transmitter when it’s cold can keep your monitor readings more accurate. In a pinch, one way to do this is just to lick the sensors on the strap. Your spit will conduct the electrical signals until there’s more sweat to do the conducting for you. If this is inconvenient or makes you a bit squeamish, or if your spit or perspiration is evaporating too fast to conduct well through the workout, the next best bet is to use a gel designed for use with heart rate monitors. Simply apply a small amount of the gel to the sensors and you should be good to go. If you’re exercising indoors, using a humidifier also can help.

To address static electricity buildup, you have two options. The first is to change your clothing approach. Materials you might normally shirk during exercise, such as cotton, can be good because they will trap your sweat and keep it close to your skin. The tradeoff is that you might feel more weighed down. If this tactic doesn’t work, some people say they’ve had success rubbing an anti-static agent on the sensors. A dryer sheet will work just fine.

To deal with the elevated heart rate your monitor might show in the cold, you might find that dressing in thin layers helps. Doing this works because air, which insulates you, gets trapped between each garment. You stay warmer, so your ticker doesn’t have to go into overdrive to keep your blood moving. The alternative is to adjust the workout itself, lowering your intensity a bit, but this isn’t always easy, such as on a downhill ski run.

Conclusion

Cold weather can bump up your heart rate and make a normally great monitor act screwy. Simple modifications to your workout clothes, program, room or the sensors on your strap can address these issues.

References:

Beattie, L. (n.d.). 6 Things to Look for When Buying Exercise Apparel

Healthcommunities.com (n.d.). Protect Your Heart During the Winter

Maker, R. (2010). Troubleshooting Your Heart Rate Monitor/Strap HR Spikes

Pearson Education, Inc. (2007). Winter Indoor Comfort and Relative Humidity

Topendsports.com (2014). Heart Rate Monitors – How Do They Work?

University of New Hampshire (2005). Cold Weather Increases Risk of Dehydration

About Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Wanda Thibodeaux is a prolific fitness writer based in Eagan, MN.

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