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How calorie measurement works on Garmin fitness devices

There are few topics that cause more confusion, intrigue and general ‘Huh?’ in the sports world than calorie burn.  While many runners or cyclists often estimate calorie burn (and thus cookie allocation metrics) using borderline sketchy back of the napkin calculations, there’s also a significant portion of the population that looks to use their Garmin device to determine calorie burn.

The challenge that many folks have found out is that different Garmin devices produce different results, and sometimes – even different results for the same person.  Further, a specific device can even product different results for the same person dependent on how it’s configured.

So, I set out to put together a bit of the definitive guide to calorie calculations on Garmin fitness devices.  Back when I was at the ANT+ Symposium in Calgary I sat down to start the conversation with the Garmin team there.  Then more recently last week I met up again with the Garmin fitness team to talk through all the painstaking details.

The Main Methods

As you might have guessed, there are actually a number of ways in which your Garmin device will calculate how many calories you’ve burned.  And not unexpectedly, the accuracy level varies based on which method you use.  Some methods offer a rudimentary guesstimate, while others are based on scientific testing that’s then imported into your device to get far more accurate results.

So, let’s walk through each of the six major methods, starting with the most accurate, and working our way down the list to the less accurate (the last option, Kilojoules, isn’t really ‘less accurate’ per se, but different…more in a moment).

1) New Leaf VO2 Test Profile: This method requires testing at one of a number of New Leaf testing centers around the country.  New Leaf is actually a 3rd party company that’s developed a pretty comprehensive way to determine calorie burn based on VO2 tests that are done.  The tests are not terribly unlike your common VO2 max test, and involve you being hooked up to tubes and wires.  The tests though are sport-specific, meaning you complete a running test to allow the Forerunner to determine running activity calories.  The tests don’t cross over, but there are tests available for running, cycling and elliptical.  Once a test is complete you can download your ‘profile’ into your Garmin device to get the most accurate calorie burn metrics when combined with a heart rate monitor.  I’m looking to get a New Leaf test done and put together a post or series of posts on the experience and accuracy I see.  Here’s the list of current devices, and levels of compatibility.

2) Firstbeat Algorithm (Current – 2nd Generation): The Firstbeat algorithm is the most accurate Garmin device calorie measurement that can be done without external testing.  But it’s actually not developed natively by Garmin.  It’s developed by a Finish company (Firstbeat Technologies) that has its roots in calculations around Olympic athletes, specifically Nordic skiing.  Their calculation uses  user inputted variables including gender, height, weight and fitness class.  It then combines this data with heart rate information from the ANT+ heart rate strap.  Specifically, it evaluates the time between heart beats (beat to beat) to determine estimated MET (Metabolic Equivalent), which in turn is used determine actual work expenditure.

This makes the system one of the more accurate non-invasive options (read: doesn’t require a laboratory), within about 10% accuracy.  Firstbeat has published a fascinating white paper detailing the technology and accuracy rates.  This little snippet below though helps to show where the technology lies accuracy-wise – with it being right in the upper-middle compared to full-board lab operations on one end, and ‘distance/time’ calculations on the other end (click below to expand picture).

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Finally, this metric also ‘learns’ you as an athlete on a given device.  Meaning, over time it has a weighted algorithm to note changes in your fitness level and adjust calorie burn accordingly.  I asked how ‘friends and family’ using a device might impact this.  They noted that a single one-time use wasn’t weighted heavily enough to make a difference, but that obviously a couple sharing a single device would see less accurate results (both due to the profile information being incorrect 50% of the time, as well as the ‘learning’ aspect being off).  It also should be noted that the second-generation of the Firstbeat algorithm is only applicable to running currently, and isn’t used in the cycling products yet.

3) Firstbeat Algorithm (1st Generation): This is essentially the same as the above noted algorithm…except just slightly less accurate.  This first generation algorithm is used on devices prior to this year, which are detailed in the below tables.  Like any product, technology or concept – the calculations have evolved and are made available in its most recent incarnation on Garmin’s most recent devices.  One interesting tidbit is that they found that while this 1st generation algorithm worked really well for newer runners, it was less accurate in more advanced runners – hence some of the updates seen in the 2nd generation.

4) FR60 Heart Rate Algorithm: The FR60 non-GPS running watches have a proprietary heart rate based algorithm that’s used when a heart rate strap is enabled.  The primary driver of this was to remove the dependency on speed/distance that’s typically associated with a GPS unit (since the FR60 is not GPS-based).  The Garmin engineers describe this algorithm as a classic heart rate based calorie burn calculation, with virtually no extra ‘fancies’ tossed in to make it significantly more accurate.  There are no plans to evolve this one-off algorithm to other devices (including the next version of the FR60), nor to port either Firstbeat to the FR60.

5) Speed/Distance Algorithm: This is the most basic method of determining calories, as it is only used when a heart rate strap is not enabled/used (default). Given the lack of heart rate data, the unit will simply use speed/distance, as well as the weight you entered in the device setup.  The reason this is less accurate (65-80% accurate) is that it can’t differentiate how much effort you’re expending to travel a given distance – which while less important for running, is quite important for cycling.  For example, if you’re coasting down a 7 mile descent, you’ll burn virtually no calories compared to ascending the same mountain.  This speed/distance algorithm does not consider or evaluate the impact of elevation change – primarily due to concerns the team had about relying on GPS-based elevation to determine calories.  They also reasoned that while the Edge units had barometric altimeters, it was better to focus on heart-rate based calorie burn, as opposed to simply expanding the ‘guesstimate’ that the speed/distance algorithm is.  Finally, note that if you wear a heart-rate monitor/strap – speed/distance are ignored, and instead one of the other above (more accurate) methods are used.

5) Power Meter to get Kilojoules: While not technically calories, the kilojoules is a unit of work, and thus is a method that some folks may use to judge how much effort was expended on a given workout.  This method is only available on units that support power meters (Forerunner 310XT, Edge 500/705/800), and requires a compatible 3rd party ANT+ power meter (such as a Power Tap hub, Quarq Cinqo, SRM, etc…).  This isn’t less accurate, but rather a different metric than straight calories.  You can convert from kilojoules to calories.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the overall philosophy of the team is/was to get folks using heart rate straps if they want accurate calorie metrics.

Device Breakdown – Running/Multisport

So now that we’ve gone through and covered the main methods for calorie calculations, let’s break it down on a per-device basis.  We’ll start off with the running and multisport related devices.  You can click to expand the chart and get a full view that makes it a bit more visible.

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As you can see, the most recent devices (FR210/FR410) have the most up to date calorie metrics – primarily being the 2nd generation Firstbeat Algorithm.  However, many devices support the New Leaf test, almost everything except the FR205, which is simply because it doesn’t support a heart rate strap.

Device Breakdown – Cycling

Next up is the cycling side of things.  You’ll see that again like the running devices, the newest devices – such as the Edge 500 and Edge 800, have the most recent calorie calculations available.

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As you’ll notice, the Edge devices also add the kilojoules power meter option, for those with compatible ANT+ power meters.

 

Device Master Sheet

And finally, one master sheet of all devices in a single table:

image

Heart Rate Straps

Given so much of the the calorie calculations is dependent on a heart rate strap, I should point out that any ANT+ heart rate strap will work when it comes to gathering heart rate data that the Garmin devices can use.  However, there are a few different Garmin-made ANT+ straps out there to select from.  The three that are available today are:

IMG_9568AIMG_9570A

1) Classic Garmin Heart Rate Strap: This is the most common version, and also been around the longest.  It features a plastic portion of the strap that reads your heart rate, while the remainder of the strap is fabric.

2) Pre-2010 Premium Heart Rate Strap: This strap version came out in Spring 2009, along with the Forerunner 310XT.  It features a fully fabric band all the way around, with snap-on connectors holding the transmitter portion to the fabric.

3) 2010 New Premium Heart Rate Strap: This version came out in August 2010 alongside the Edge 800, and is now shipping with all premium heart rate strap units (i.e. FR310XT, Edge 800, etc…).  This one aims to resolve some of the spiking/dropout issues noted in the pre-2010 version.  In my testing over the past few months, this seems to resolve about 95% of the spiking issues that I’ve seen.  This version will be available for individual purchase, but an exact timeline hasn’t been fully finalized.  Note that I asked if there was a better name for the newest strap besides “New-new Premium Heart Rate Strap”, and the team hadn’t really come up with a good name to use externally.  So, for now, I’m going with 2010 New Premium Heart Rate Strap.

In general, remember, if you’re having problems with heart rate strap readings, be sure to check out both of my posts on the subject – first part here and part two here.

Summary

There’s no doubt that the Garmin fitness devices offer a plethora of calorie calculation options.  Before I started looking into this I would have said that there were too many options, however, after understanding the different options better – and the differing levels of accuracy each one offers, I have a better grasp on why there are so many different ways to calculate calories.

As you can see, in many ways – it ends up being a matter of how much effort (or perhaps time/money) one wants to invest in the solution to get the most accurate results.

(Final note – Thanks to the Garmin Fitness team for their time in answering all the questions and detailed specifications of each device and calorie metric type)

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110 Comments

  1. Given that I don’t live in the US, and also don’t know much about the supposed accuracy of New leaf setups at gyms as opposed to anything produced at a normal sports science lab, do you know if there is any way of putting in or editing any metabolic profile data manually?

    Cheers,

    Alistair

    Reply
  2. Anonymous

    Do you know if Garmin has any plans to allow devices such as the FR310XT that use the Firstbeat 1st gen algorithm to be upgraded to 2nd gen algorithm?

    Reply
  3. tms

    Great article – just picked up an Edge 800 and from what I’ve seen the kcal estimates are a massive improvement over the 705. The almost laughable readings the old Garmins produced was the main thing keeping me using my Polar for running, but from the looks of it they’ve made some big steps forward on that front!

    You mention that the Firstbeat algorithm uses beat-to-beat measurements, so I was wondering if Garmin’s HR strap actually delivers this data (and discards it) or if it’s just reconstructing it from the second-by-second readings? I always figured that the reason Garmin didn’t provide R-R data like Polar/Suunto was that the ANT+ profile didn’t support it – but if that data is being delivered to the head unit it’s a bit of a shame if they’re just throwing it away.

    Also, do you have any thoughts about the accuracy of these algorithms compared to that of their competitors? Polar and Suunto have been using their own R-R heart-rate based caloric calculations for a while – so I’d be interested to hear how these compare?

    Reply
  4. interesting and great post. i’ve always wondered how those pesky calorie calculators work. i’d also want to know how garmin compares to the competitors as well as how these calculations compare to machines at a gym

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

    Do you know if they calculate net calories by subtracting out a base metabolism rate?

    Reply
  6. @TMS: Suunto have been using firstbeat with the R-R data on their high end watches for a while. One thing I really miss from my T6 in my rowing days is the wealth of info I could pull out from workouts relating to oxygen debt, calorie usage etc. The TE scores were pretty useful once you got things well enough calibrated too. Certainly good enough to help guide things when I was doing less structured training in the off season.

    On the other hand with the 310xt I get decent gps and the facility for power going forward, so that was the trade off for triathlon type training. The 310 certainly doesn’t store all the R-R info which is a shame as it has the space. I would have thought the ant+ protocol can cope as the suunto watches use plain ant to receive their data. Kind of interested as to whether the 310xt actually does handle r-r data internally as then in theory it should be possible to save it and use it for detailed analysis based on variability in intervals…

    Reply
  7. Great post, as always!
    Do you know what kind of calorie measurement SportTracks 2.0 uses? When I download workouts on the program, it changes the value of the calories determined by my FR305.

    Thanks for your work! Ciao from Italy!!

    Reply
  8. I had no idea there were two version of the premium soft strap heart rate monitor. Any idea if the new strap with less bugs can now be purchased online through Amazon? Feel free to toss out a link we can use so that you can collect on the affiliate referrals =)

    Reply
  9. Bruce

    What calorie count method does the 305 use? The article says New Leaf, but I couldn’t find much information on what it is and how accurate it is when doing normal exercising. Thank you. Bruce

    Reply
  10. Anonymous

    Great article – I had emailed Garmin with a question about the calorie computation for the 405CX versus the 305 and they referred me here!

    Unfortunately, I’m getting really lousy calorie results (405CX says calorie burn is about 1/2 what it was on the 305 and even less than what tables based on time/distance/weight say, so that with the bezel issues have made me decide to return it…

    Reply
  11. Anonymous

    The cycling chart in the article looks to say the Edge 305 only uses speed/distance/weight to calculate calories, and not the HR strap. Can someone confirm if that is really true?!?!

    Reply
  12. Ash

    Hi Ray

    The calculation table shows that the 800 can use both First Beat and Power meter for calorie calculation. But which takes precedent?

    If I use both HR and Quarq, which will it be using for the calculation?

    Reply
  13. Hi Anon-

    RE: Upgrade 310XT to 2nd gen algorithm.

    No, I asked, no plans.

    Hi Anon-

    RE: Removal of base metabolism rate

    I don’t believe they do, based on my understanding. I’ll save it for the next time I chat with them.

    Hi Andrea-

    RE: ST Calorie calcs

    It uses a simple distance algorithm based on ‘standards’ for different activity type

    Hi djpfine-

    RE: New premium soft strap version buy standalone

    It’s not yet on Amazon, but is available on Garmin.com

    Hi Anon-

    RE: Edge 305 calorie not using HR strap

    That’s correct, and the Garmin engineering team validated all these charts pre-publishing.

    Hi Ash-

    RE: Edge 800 power meter calcs

    The power meter calculation method I’m referring to is kilojoules, not straight calories – and is seperate from calories in the traditional sense. The detailed description is above. Thanks!

    Reply
  14. Anonymous

    Thanks for the interesting article.
    The table you posted indicates the FR-305 uses new leaf, which requires only heart-rate data. However, I don’t get a caloric statistic when I train indoors (spinning). Any ideas?

    Reply
  15. Anonymous

    I was referred to this site by Garmin Support. OK. Still – I rode for 2 hours, covered 37 miles and my brand new Garmin 800 says I burned 350 calories. This was a normal ride, 1100 ft of elevation gain and relatively fast. 350 calories! NOT! I estimate (via the old 705) that I burn just under 1000 calories per hour on my usual rides. That said – the 800, in my opinion, is about 10% accurate – 90% off. I like the 800 – but am not a fan of Garmin Support. My 705 lasted 19 months before it bought the farm – the 800 better last longer. Any ideas from anyone on what is going on here? ken@bikerfive.net

    Reply
  16. my 410 seems pretty wacky compared to the FR60 that it replaced (which is being used by my wife now), wondering if it’s best to try another..

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  17. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  19. Do you have any information how the Garmin products compare to Polar products for calorie calculations?

    There’s an interesting debate about calories burned on the Garmin 405CX forums: link to forums.garmin.com

    Reply
  20. Anonymous

    I’m not clear on the calorie calculation method for the FR305. Are you indicating you have to get a New Leaf VO2 test performed to get the FR305 device to calorie count based on HR, otherwise the unit defaults to time/distance even if you are using the HR strap?

    Doc.J

    Reply
  21. From the charts, looks like the EDGE705 calculates calories using only speed/distance, regardless if you have an HR strap or not… That explains the bad readings I get when I’m using it.
    I also have a powertap, so I usually get the calories count from the powertap software instead of the garmin software. Would that be the best way to do it, or do you have a different recommendation ?
    For my indoor workout, I use the Suunto memory belt, and that seems to be very accurate (and also calculates Traing effect)

    Reply
  22. Kel

    I also am wondering about the FR305. I haven’t had a test done so I’m guessing it just uses the speed/distance thing… So what’s the point of the heart rate strap then? I have an old, plain jane HR monitor and it calculates calories based on the heart rate over time.

    However when I use my 305 indoors with the GPS off, I can see it’s counting my HR but I just get a 0 for calories. However if I then plug in the data from the bike for distance, SportTracks comes up with a calorie numbers. Of course it’s way off from what the actual bike told me but at least it’s something.

    Maybe I’m just missing something?

    Reply
  23. Apparently the new premium HR strap can make a huge difference.

    I first bought a new 410 and used it on 9 mile run with my old style monitor strap. It said I burned 805 calories. Didn’t like the touch bezel on the 410; the 210 went on sale; so I exchanged at REI. Same 9 mile run (actually run at a faster pace, but nearly same recorded heart rate) with 210 and new premium strap that came with it, yielded only 498 calories.

    I assume the 410 and 210 use same calorie count technology. Again, the new model strap I used with the 210 showed an average HR of 126 while the old style strap coupled with the 410 had my average HR at 127 (despite my running 30 seconds per mile faster the day I used the 210). I should also state that my user profile settings were the same with my height, weight, age, and “lifetime athlete.”

    So, same user profile, same route and distance, similar weather conditions, nearly the same measured average HR; yet huge calorie count discrepancy between 410 with old style strap vs. 410 with new premium strap. Does this make any sense at all? I must say less than 500 calories for a 9 mile run at a pretty good pace (for me) is damn disappointing.

    Reply
  24. Correction: at end of my post, I meant to say “huge calorie count discrepancy between 410 with old style strap vs. 210 with new premium strap.”

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  25. FYI, I just installed the Update to 2.90 on my Garmine 310XT. According to their release notes, it has been upgraded to 2nd Generation Firstbeat since 2.70

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  26. I have the same doubt of the Anonymous in post 20.

    I simply don’t believe in the calories results in my FR305, especially on the bike.

    Reply
  27. Hi All-

    RE: FR305

    Indeed, the FR305 really does NOT do HR based calorie metrics unless you have a New Leaf test done. I’ve confirmed this again with Garmin, and this can be confirmed in multiple places on the Garmin Forums:

    link to forums.garmin.com

    With a New Leaf test you can then use the HR starp to get accurate calorie burn on the FR305, but otherwise it’s just speed/dist/weight calcs.

    RE: New Strap vs Old Strap

    There’s no difference between the two straps from a calorie basis – unless the straps were giving incorrect readings altogether. ANT+ straps don’t do calorie calculations, nor can a Garmin unit tell the difference between a soft strap and a classic strap (or even two generations of soft straps). The ANT+ Device Profile doesn’t contain the ability to transfer calories (or store weight information). That said, looking at the two devices, there could be something else at play here – including perhaps just a bug.

    Reply
  28. Tim

    Just wanted to note that the 310xt seems to have been updated to 2nd generation firstbeat as of software 3.7.

    Reply
  29. Josh

    I noticed that you mention that the edge 500 works with the new leaf test and your charts show this to be the case. However, the linked chart on new leaf’s site shows that it isn’t compatible with the test. Do you know which chart is correct?

    Reply
  30. Anonymous

    Is there a web site or application that can recalculate calories burned from TCX file?

    Reply
  31. Yes, Sport Tracks can.

    Reply
  32. Can you say how the Timex (Timex Run Trainer ans Timex Global Trainer) and Polar (RCX5) watches that you reviewed do the calories calculations?

    Reply
  33. rgabba

    Hi Ray, greeting from Italy, thanks for your reviews, very useful.
    I have a FR60 for my indoor training (treadmill and spinning mainly) and a brand new EDGE 500 with speed/cadence sensor for cycling.
    I have tried FR60 and EDGE together in a short cycling training and they have gave me a different result about calories; edge 728kcal/h, FR60 1091kcal/h !!! Both were paired with the same heart rate monitor strap and speed/cadence sensor.
    What do you think about it? Which is most accurate? Both use HR for calories calculation, I know with different algorithm but I can’t understand so different results.
    Thanks.
    Bye
    Roberto

    Reply
  34. Oliver

    Hi;

    I have a Garmin Forerunner 405 and use the Classic Garmin HR Strap.

    According to the Device Breakdown chart the calorie calculation method for this device is either #1″New Leaf VO2 Test Profile” or #5″Speed/Distance Algorithm”. I do not use #1. The last sentence under #5 states “Finally, note that if you wear a heart-rate monitor/strap – speed/distance are ignored, and instead one of the other above (more accurate) methods are used.”

    So for a 405 w/ Classic Garmin HR Strap, which method is actually used for the calorie calculations?

    Thanks in advance.
    Oliver

    PS Great info in the article…..thanks.

    Reply
  35. In your experience then, is the Garmin FR 210 more accurate than a Polar one? I used Polar for years with similar workouts. The Garmin tells me I burn maybe 60-70% of what the Polar said I burned….a little depressing but really interested in which is right.

    Reply
  36. I think it depends.

    Polar pretty much pioneered heart rate algorithms, so they’ve got some really accurate stuff there. But by the same token, the Firstbeat piece is pretty solid too – for watches that have it. And if you can get a New Leaf test, that’s even better.

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  37. This is so hard to figure out! Polar is good, Garmin is good. Yet the two amounts they give me are so far apart!

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  38. Ok more info to see if you can give me any thoughts. I am 5’6.5, 142 lbs, 39 year old female. i have a new garmin 210 with new strap. i generally work out 4 times a week, sometimes running, sometimes at gym (elliptical, bike, weights). Today I ran 3.51 miles in 38 minutes, avg heart rate 158. Garmin says 322 calories. Seems low to me.

    yesterday I worked out at the gym on a new machine, precor cross between elliptical and stairmaster. 40 minutes, avg heart rate 130. I wore both heart straps. The garmin watch reported 308 calories. The polar strap was picked up by the machine, which reported 450 calories (I input my age and weight).

    So, with the experience on this forum, can anyone give me an idea

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  39. DH61

    I have a 410, which has stopped counting calories all of a sudden.
    I have GPS off, but from your article/posts it would seem that it shouldn’t need GPS given that it has my demographic data + HR data. Admittedly, I’m not using a Garmin HRM as I was too annoyed by the quality to buy another Garmin when my old one died, but as the watch gets the HR data I wouldn’t have thought that this would matter.
    I am also running Wahoo app on my iPhone, and, as other users have posted, I think the cal estimate is higher with this than with the 410.
    Cheers
    DH61

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  40. Sarah

    I’m curious about iPhone apps. Which ones use heart rate for calorie computation when only using ANT + receiver and strap? For instance, I think Endomondo does not while Digifit does? Do you know the status of the others? Hard to find this answer on app websites. Thanks for all your hard work!

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  41. I was shipped a “2010 New Premium Heart Rate Strap” from Amazon.co.uk

    Found it marginally better than the old one but still not as good as a polar strap.

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  42. I would love to see calorie calculations for the Timex Run Trainer / Global Run Trainer.
    After spending some time with my TRT, I believe something is awry, either with my user settings, or with the calculations themselves, causing the watch to over-calculate calories burned by a large margin.
    If you have any insight, I would love to hear it. Thanks for all of the work you do – I love reading your site.

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  43. I am getting calorie readings on my new Edge 500 that are so wildly different from those on my old Edge 705 that they make me wonder whether the calorie readings are of any use at all. As an example, today I completed a 12.13 mile bike ride in 1:23:08, and my Edge 500 said I used 465 calories. A week ago, I did substantially the same ride, in substantially the same amount of time, without either my weight or the bicycle’s differing much, and my Edge 705 said I used 1544 calories. Obviously, a calorie reading of somewhere between 465 calories and 1544 calories is of absolutely no use to me.

    And this is characteristic of the difference in results I’m getting with other rides. Initially, I thought perhaps I had my HRM adjusted badly so that it was picking up only some of my heartbeats. (This hypothesis was suggested by the fact that on my very first ride, the Garmin claimed my average heart rate was 67, which seemed improbable.) However, I now have the Garmin adjusted so that it constantly shows me current heart rate, and the rates shown seem reasonable.

    There is reference to the monitor “learning” as I go along. Will this occur even if the majority of my cardio exercise is not recorded with the Garmin? I typically bike about three days a week, which I record with the Garmin. However, the remaining days, I use cardio equipment (stationary bicycle or elliptical) at the gym, and do not use the Garmin for that. I’m just wondering whether the learning requires that the Garmin know the frequency with which I exercise, or whether it could do the learning just by monitoring my exercise several times a week.

    And is there anything else I could do to reconcile the two devices? I have a cadence meter, which I have never used; I’m not sure whether using it would help. I have set my fitness class at 9, which reflects my current level of activity. Any other ideas?

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  44. Sarah

    Do you know how the Timex Run Trainer calculates calorie expenditure?

    Thanks -

    Reply
  45. Anonymous

    Ray – thanks a lot for great reviews. I had a very simple question: is the Firstbeat Algorithm already installed on my 910XT and will it start collecting data automatically or do I need to buy a test from Firstbeat to then install on my 910XT?

    Thank you!

    FC

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  46. FC

    Ray – thanks a lot for great reviews. I had a very simple question: is the Firstbeat Algorithm already installed on my 910XT and will it start collecting data automatically or do I need to buy a test from Firstbeat to then install on my 910XT?

    Thank you!

    FC

    Reply
  47. any updates on what the newer watches use?

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  48. Peter

    Hi Ray,

    Are you saying that the Firstbeat algorithms are specific to a given sport, so if I wear my FR210 running the calorie burn measurement will be more accurate than I’ll get if I wear it cycling or cross country skiing? If so, any idea how less accurate it is when using it for a sport other than that for which it was designed?

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  49. Peter,

    Good question as I have just read this page and was thinking the same thing.

    However, no, I don’t think Ray is saying that the FirstBeat algorithms are specific to a sport in terms of calories, because of this:

    “Their calculation uses user inputted variables including gender, height, weight and fitness class. It then combines this data with heart rate information from the ANT+ heart rate strap. Specifically, it evaluates the time between heart beats (beat to beat) to determine estimated MET (Metabolic Equivalent), which in turn is used determine actual work expenditure.”

    If you look on the more detailed link from when when Ray quizzed Garmin, you will see that there is more detail but not much to add – i.e. when calculating calories in this very accurate way, the relative fitness of the person (stroke volume, maximum heart rate, recovery, fitness, height, weight, and whatever else they used from user inputted date, etc), can only be guessed and refined, but the heart rate that goes with it is the only other variable – not the exercise that produces the heart rate. All other research I’ve done on the internet just now, seems to suggest that this is the case. e.g. If you weight train or sprint and reach 160 bpm reducing to 130 and back up again etc for an hour, that’s the same calories as running or cycling with the same HRs – although of course that would be very hard to sustain for the hour with muscular weight training, if not impossible.

    However the reason for my post is that I hope that Ray can just confirm and answer your point, just to be 100% sure.

    Ray, thanks for excellent article and detail.

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  50. JJ

    I purchased the 310XT last week but exchanged it today for the 610. Much better fit for my needs. I have a question for Mr. DCR regarding the calorie calculation. I’m a walker, not a runner. Today I took a medium walk of 3.87 miles in 58:32 with an average heart rate of 105, using the Garmin HRM (newest one). The dog slows me down. Too many things to sniff. I digress. Using the formula on livestrong.com for calculating calories burned with a known VO2max, I estimate that I should have burned 413 calories or net of 331 assuming a 2000 calorie per day need (54 year old male weighing 138 pounds). My 610 computed my calories burn to be 324, which almost exactly what my calculated net consumption is but about 20 percent lower than the gross consumption. My question is whether the Firstbeat algorithm is calculating gross or net calorie consumption. Would be interested in any feedback anyone can provide. Thanks.

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  51. Bob

    Does the 610 use the 2nd generation Firstbeat Algorithm? Since the 210/410 do, I assume it does, but your article does not mention it, so I thought I’d ask.

    Reply
    • JJ replied

      It uses the second generation algorithm.

      Reply
  52. Bob

    Thanks, I am also trying to find a New Leaf test facility, but even using a 500 mile radius in the enewleaf.com locator I found nothing based on my zip code.

    Reply
  53. EternalFury

    Ray, could you help in getting the attention of Garmin on the following problem, which has been lingering about for almost a year:

    link to forums.garmin.com

    Trying to contact them via Support for an update essentially sends you back to square one and you have to repeat all the evidence that has been sent to them over the past few months.

    Reply
  54. Prolly

    Geat topic. Thanks!

    Tonite I ran a test between my spiffy new Garmin 500 and my older Polar 200. I actually rode my trainer with the two computers running and two HR straps on. I did a quick 38 min ride with warmup, 2 sets of intervals and a cool down. I used laps on both to delineate the HR during each period. Results: HR was pretty much spot-on identical between the two. There was only a 1 bpm difference in one of the intervals. So quite satisfied with that and was expecting as much. Calorie count however was way off even though rider data entered (age, weight, height) was the same. With an average 145 bpm over the entire work out I burnt 360 cal on the Garmin and 475 on the Polar. Quite a difference and I remain dissatisfied as to which one is best. I note here that generally the 500 reads lower during comparisons in the above comments.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
    • Eduardo replied

      I have the same problem, but i used a RC3GPS and a Vivofit….

      Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Ultimately you’re going to get differences based on different devices and the technology they use. Ensuring they are setup properly (height/weight/gender/etc…) will go a long ways, but there’s no single international standard on how calorie burn should be measured.

      Reply
    • Eduardo replied

      Tks Ray :)

      Reply
  55. Damian Howard

    Hi Rainmaker,

    Could you please update the table for the latest offers from Garmin.

    Thanks Damian

    Reply
  56. Thomas

    Hi ray,

    would be great if you could update this calorie device measurement table with the new Garmin devices
    Thanks
    Thomas

    Reply
  57. Rajasekhar

    Hi,

    I am in the market to pick up a basic HRM based watch. My requirment is simple, to get estimate calorie measurement when engaged in sports like badminton, tennis and soccer( non cycling/running). I am keen on the FR70 since the calorie meaurement done on that is based on the FR60 heart rate based algorithum( right??).

    Would this serve the purpose and show me more or less a near accurate or at least dependable calorie measurement data when using it while playing badminton or soccer??

    Any help would be of great essence in selecting the right model. Thanks in Advance, looking forward to your reply sson.

    Cheers
    Raj

    Reply
  58. Tisztul_A_Visztula

    It is really a fascinating doc: link to firstbeat.fi

    But it says almost nothing about fat expenditure while there is a second by second fat expenditure % graph in Firstbeat Athlete. Having checked the manual, too, I dare say FB does not show any evidence or just hint about their estimation on fat mobilization.

    Any disagreement by anybody being more familiar with FB stuff?

    Reply
  59. Joan

    Curious. I got a 305 yesterday. Has anyone compared results from New Leaf testing to those at this online site? link to shapesense.com

    I doubt I’ll ever have access to a testing center. Thought estimates were better than none at all in that field. Range of 37-41 ml/kg/min for two of the tests so far (the walking test I guessed based on experience just to see what it would throw up. Close range to the first age and weight score. I picked a number in the middle to go with for now until I can test. Cool alternative, if it’s anywhere close. Can anyone confirm? Thanks!

    Reply
  60. Tisztul_A_Visztula
    Reply
  61. mjervis

    Have Garmin ever updated the firmware on the Edge 705 since this post? Or is it still doing the poor man’s calorie calculations?

    Reply
  62. Josh

    Absurd that the power meter is listed as the “least accurate” when it is the most accurate, since it is the only device actually measuring energy output in real time rather than estimating it.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Nice effort on the bolding. Unfortunately, you’re wrong.

      It’s only measuring the output, not YOUR effort into it – thus not the actual caloric burn (after all, this post is about calories). It’s due to this that it doesn’t account for your inefficiencies as a cyclist. There’s a good post on this here: link to bikeradar.com

      As a further example, if you took two equal weight riders/bikes – one a TdF cycling pro, and then an overweight 5’2″ woman that does no fitness activities, and had them both ride at 175w, the girl would burn significantly more calories than the guy, who wouldn’t burn much of anything. This being the result of efficiency.

      Reply
    • Josh replied

      Sorry, DC, but linking to a forum is not a “good post”. It’s about as far from credible information as you can get.

      The fact is, only the power meter is directly measuring work done. All those other methods are faking it via estimation algorithms. Algorithms that are skewed horrendously by everything from weather to fatigue status. They’re as reliable as a Garmin Vector release schedule.

      Whereas measurements for mechanical efficiency are extremely well known and consistent – in essence, gross mechanical efficiency is almost always 20.5% ±1.5%. I went looking for papers that support that figure. Heck, I quickly found so many I went looking for a counterexample instead. There is one: the top handful of gifted and hardworking cyclists improve on that gross efficiency range, getting up to 24% (we don’t count Lance’s 25%) [1]; for all intents and purposes, they are outliers and not a useful data point; moreover, this efficiency level is not retained[2].

      So, if a club cyclist rides at 175W for an hour, they should consider themselves to have burned 735 kcal, ±1.5%. For the world’s top-10 professionals, a little over 600kcal.

      And, ahem, far from being “not much of anything”, that’s at least 25% of your myological glycogen storage and failure to account for it could be the difference between hitting the wall or not.

      Similarly, I don’t see why bringing an untrained athlete into the discussion adds anything useful. “Let’s go find someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing and therefore wastes lots of energy”. Uh-huh.

      In summary, if you really want to measure kcal, don’t use HR. Use a power meter, a device that is actually measuring physical energies and just use avg power (W) * time (h) * 4.2 kcal/W/hr.

      [1] Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2012 Sep;7(3):200-9. The Tour de France: an updated physiological review. Santalla A, Earnest CP, Marroyo JA, Lucia A.
      [2] IJSPP. 2012, 7, 397-400. The Cycling Physiology of Miguel Indurain 14 Years After Retirement. Mujika, I.

      Reply
  63. Simon

    Many thanks for this research and publication – I was trying to find out why my Garmin 405 gave me 2,700 calories for a two hour ride. I’ve now found I can switch it between Running Mode and Cycling Mode, and also now know why the calorie count was twice what it should have been.

    Very interesting stuff – well done!

    Reply
  64. Jae

    Good stuff here, I was just directed here by Garmin support and this thoroughly answered my question. I did a 13.5 hour hike up and over Mt. Madison, Adams and Jefferson and my Garmin 405 said i only burned 630 calories. No, the heck I didn’t!! haha So I wrote in wondering what was the technical reason this occurred. Especially since I run at least twice a week and produce caloric stats that make more sense. After some explanation they sent me here. This is exactly the nitty gritty details I was looking for. I think I’ll be investing in new Garmin that will measure my heart rate not based on my distance, weight, speed, etc but of my actual heart rate data. Thanks again!

    Reply
  65. Jae

    I have a question. Is the Garmin Forerunner 610 also good for non-running activities, like a workout in the gym to track time, max HR, avg HR and calories?

    Reply
    • Ray Maker replied

      Yup, it tracks calories without any issues there. It supports the Firstbeat 2nd gen.

      Reply
  66. Jae

    perfect, thank you for the quick response!

    Reply
  67. Richard

    Hi Okay For the last 2 years I’ve been using a the Motoactv to log my runs, but I’ve just got a Garmin Forerunner 310xt, and there is a huge difference in the amount of calories burnt. Just some background:
    I’m 50 years old exercise 5 or 6 times a week on average (mainly running), I’m 175cm tall and weigh 69kg. On the Garmin device I set my activity level to 7 on Garmin Connect, and I also enabled the “life time athlete option as my resting heart rate is below 60 (49 actually). My max heart rate is 187 recorded on a recent race. According to the Garmin after a 10km run at a pace of 5:34 per km I only used 185 calories, which seems ridiculous. A similar run on the Motoactv says 678 calories. 185 seems impossible I’m sure I’ve used more than that typing this comment. Any ideas what’s going on?

    Reply
  68. Duncan

    Does the 810 factor in air temperature at all when calculating calorie burn using speed / distance only? Reason i ask is i did the same ride 2 days apart and got the following results:-

    Ride 1 – 30.76km / 59m 25s / avg temp 28.1c / Calories 1157

    Ride 2 – 30.76km / 58m 14s / avg temp 32.7c / Calories 1893

    Seems like a massive difference, considering there was only a 0.6kph difference in average speed, although average temperature was 4.6c higher on the second ride…

    Reply
  69. brianh

    Great article, as always! I do have the same question as mjervis though: “Have Garmin ever updated the firmware on the Edge 705 since this post? Or is it still doing the poor man’s calorie calculations?”

    Reply
  70. Mike M

    Thanks to all for great information, but now a question:
    I’m using the Wahoo WFHR3 Heart Rate strap with a Garmin Edge 500. Anyone know if this device is OK for the calorie calculation? It seems to work fine insofar as reporting heart rate, but the Garmin reports about half the calories compared to other formulas(straight distance: Distance*Weight*.28 or Power: Avg power*4*time) Example today: 4 hours ride time, 69 miles, 5000 ft of climbing, Garmin reports 1272 calories. My profile is Male, 58 years old, 125 lbs, activity level 8.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Hmm, the only thing I can think of is if the Wahoo strap isn’t sending over HR RR information, perhaps Garmin is using that in part in the calorie calculations – which could be causing some missing information.

      Reply
  71. Mike M

    Thanks Ray

    That was a consideration of mine after reading your info and all the posts.

    I might just try a Garmin HR Strap.

    Thanks so much for all the info that can’t be found anywhere else!

    Reply
  72. Richard

    If you ask me Garmin are using pure “Guessology” in their calorie calculations. Here are two examples using the 310xt :
    Distance: 25.01 km Time: 2:24:09 Avg Pace 5:46 min/km Elevation Gain: 277 m Calories: 555
    link to connect.garmin.com

    Distance: 7.01 km Time: 38:37 Avg Pace: 5:30 min/km Elevation Gain: 67 m Calories: 508 C
    link to connect.garmin.com

    According to which I ran for about 1hour 45mins longer and 18km further in the first run, which was up a mountain while the second was on the flat , but I only used an extra 47 calories! I just as well pick the calorie count out of a hat.

    Reply
  73. Charles

    I have a similar experiences to Duncan. Same ride, distance, time, etc and do wear a HR monitor. Calorie calculation on 810 is not only inconsistent but much lower than the 910. Love the products for the most part but very disappointed in this regard. I wish they were accurate and consistent.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      In theory those two products should be using the same v2 variant of Firstbeat for their calorie calculations. Have you double-checked that the following settings are identical: Age, Athlete Level, Weight?

      I don’t think weight is used in it, but just in case.

      Reply
  74. Charles

    All settings are the same

    Reply
  75. Don

    How can I find the actual algorithms, even if only the speed/distance one? My googling has so far not found a hit.

    Reply
  76. Christopher Rupert

    I never knew about this great device, thanks for the information. But, which one will provide the actual result, this tool or the online tools… that most runners would use, I really wonder! Presently, I trust the link to calorie calculator provided on the Runnersworld.com website. I found it quite accurate and helpful.

    Reply
  77. Steve Knapp

    Do you know how “fitness class” influences the algorithms?

    Reply
  78. Thomas Moiln

    Hi interesting reading!
    The new Garmin FR620 (FR220) how accurate do you think it will measure?
    There is some VO2 measurement in the FR620, how accurate is that?
    BTW i have ordered a FR620…

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      It’ll largely mirror the above, as it uses the same underlying Firstbeat technology. But I’ll cover it a bit more in my review as well, comparing it to past units worn at the same time.

      Reply
    • Eli replied

      Firstbeat Athlete (i.e. the same algorithms) isn’t used to test for VO2max, you have to actually set that as one of the properties of your profile if you want to improve its accuracy along with setting your vital capacity. (I believe without setting your vital capacity is guesses based on your height)

      Does the 620 let you set those two values to make the algorithm more accurate?

      Reply
  79. I’ve been using my 620 to determine calorie counts for other activities, like tennis. I calculated that I burn an average of 350 calories per hour playing tennis, which is decent considering I usually play for 2-3 hours. But what I’m unclear on is whether or not it includes calories I would’ve “burned” watching TV on the couch. If so, it doesn’t seem fair to track them against the calories I consume.

    Have any idea?

    Reply
    • Andrew replied

      Your garmin unit will account for your standard metabolic burn rate, as well as your burn attributed to the activity you are doing. so you would be double counting the burn if you have a base rate of say 2000 calories a day and then add your 350cal/hr on top of that.
      Best way to do it would be calculate your hourly BMR of calorie burn and subtract that from your activity total.
      ex. 2000 daily BMR calorie burn = ~84cal/hr
      If you play tennis for an hour = 350cal
      Total calorie burn attributed to the activity = 350-84 = 266cal of incremental calories burned.

      Reply
  80. Lisa

    How can I use VO2max info I already have? I’ve done a max GXT test in the labs in my department so I already know my info. Is there any way to just input that information to my profile and have it use that?

    Reply
    • Lisa replied

      Is this already answered somewhere, since I have not had a response?

      Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      See this post here: link to dcrainmaker.com

      In particular though, the comments section where people have created little tools to take manual/paper test data and make the files for the Garmin units.

      Reply
  81. Liv-Berit

    I’ve read your post, but I’ve still a question about how accurate the calorie calculation on my Forerunner 210 is. Yesterday I went for a 50 min walk, had an average HR of 140, walked 4,39 km at an average 5 km/h. The Forerunner says I burnt 264 calories. However several other calculators (f.ex Endomondo) says about 600 calories.
    Reviewing my outdoor walking sessions the last month the Forerunner 210 shows an average of 219 calories less then the Endomondo. Why?
    I have the same problem indoors at the gym. The crosstrainer or treadmill shows 300-400 calories (depending on the time and intensity), but the Forerunner 210 shows about 130-140 calories. What can I do to improve the accuracy? It is not possible to choose an activity level on the device, other than yes or no to athlete. I’ve read that activitylevel and VO2 Max are important variables in the Firstbeat algorithm. But those variables Are not possible to register in the device.

    The inaccuracy is a major problem to me, and I’m very dissatisfied about it. Considering to buy another watch. Do you know of other watches (budget-mid range) that have a greater level of accuracy? With or without GPS included.

    Grateful for any help! This is really frustrating!

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      There’s a lot of factors that drive calorie burn. However, I think the other devices are actually liking overestimating calories. The general ‘golden rule’ of walking/running is 100 calories per mile. Thus, at roughly at about 2.7 miles it burned 264 calories is quite reasonable. Endomondo saying 600 calories is simply crazy.

      There are cases where calorie burn is higher (for example, if you weighed significantly more – for those that are significantly overweight), or, in cases where you’re at/near VO2Max intensities.

      But honestly, looking at the examples you’ve given, the Garmin numbers are reasonable, and the other one isn’t (without knowing the treadmill distances, it’s hard to say there).

      Reply
  82. Liv-Berit

    Thanks for quick response! The point is that the calorie calculation of the Forerunner doesn’t seems to tale my weight into account. I am 120 kg, thus the caloroes burnt should be higher than for a normal weighing person at the same distance.
    Another strange ting is that the Forerunner calculates that I burn approximately the same amount of calories walking half the distance at half the pace and double the time. Is that likely correct?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Ahh, gotchya.

      Strange. I don’t know enough about the scientific side to know whether (for example a 60kg person burns half as much as a 120kg person). In general, I’d believe data from Garmin, Polar, etc… over data from Endomondo – only because I know where that data comes from (FirstBeat and a few other Finland firms focused 100% on HR calorie burn). Of course, whether or not the unit has a bug that doesn’t account for weight is potentially valid.

      If you’re wearing a HR strap, it would be using those tables to determine it, but again, it does seem odd it’s not being biased a little bit on weight.

      Reply
  83. Tim

    Hello Rainmaker,

    I have a FR 305. I have been attempting to work out my calories burnt in a standard weights session.

    I disable the GPS in the gym, and the result is that 0 calories are burnt, despite an average HR of 120 across a 45 minute session.

    Do I need to change settings to calculate calories off the HR?

    Cheers,

    Tim

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      That’s odd. Are you on the latest firmware? And have you set up your user profile (age/weight/etc…)?

      Reply
    • Silvio Glöckner replied

      Hi, I too have the FR 305. In my experience it only calculates calories if it has speed data. So if you train indoors you either have to use a footpod for running or a speed sensor for your bike.

      Reply
  84. Ryan Cohlhepp

    Any updates since you wrote this?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Generally speaking, everything is actually pretty correct still. All the new devices utilize the Firstbeat v2 algorithm, but beyond that, basically the same.

      That said, it’s on my list to work with them this spring on getting it fully refreshed.

      Reply
  85. Eduardo

    Hi Ray,
    I have a RC3GPS Polar and Garmin Edge 810 + Vivofit.
    In the gym I use the session and the RC3GPS vivofit both with HRM Straps.
    In both sites (garminconnect and Polarpersonaltrainer) have the same value for average HR and HR MAX, but calories are more in the Polar vs. 311 Kcal 445kcal (vivofit)
    Do you know why this happen?
    Both devices should not have the same value?
    Which device is more acurate?

    Cheers

    Reply
    • Eduardo replied

      Sorry bad english in my previous post

      Hi Ray,
      I have a RC3GPS Polar and Garmin Edge 810 + Vivofit.
      In the same gym session I use the and the RC3GPS vivofit both with HRM Straps.
      In both sites (garminconnect and Polarpersonaltrainer) have the same value for average HR and HR MAX, but calories are more in the Polar vs. 311 Kcal 445kcal (vivofit)
      Do you know why this happen?
      Both devices should not have the same value?
      Which device is more acurate?

      Cheers

      Reply
  86. Esther

    I have a Forerunner 610 and the soft strap Garmin HRM. When I wear the HRM, my average calorie burn per mile while running is at least 10 BPM lower than when I don’t wear the HRM (as per Garmin Connect’s data when I upload). Both the watch and the website have my correct age and weight in the profile data. And yes, I’m comparing runs of similar length and intensity, similar terrain too. So which is the “correct” data? Thanks.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Honestly, you’ll never really know.

      Calorie data is a very imperfect thing. Everyone (device/algorithm/etc…) claims they are right, but it’s very difficult to apply an algorithm to the entire world’s population for any activity you do. It just doesn’t work out.

      I wish I had a better answer there. From a pure math standpoint, the one with the HR monitor is likely more accurate, since it’s evaluating your work effort, versus the other is just doing simple math of weight & distance.

      Reply

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