How to fix cold/dry weather erratic heart rate readings

It’s that time of year again.  No, not that time of year.  Nor that time of year.  But rather, the time of year when your heart rate readings start to resemble a seismic monitor more than a representation of your heart rate.  And that’s not just because you’re excited about Christmas either.

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If you’ve been out for a run or ride recently and live in a place other than Florida, you’ve probably noticed that your heart rate strap may show dropouts or spikes – basically situations where the heart rate value is inaccurate by a significant amount.  And this isn’t limited to just Garmin/ANT+ products, but also Polar ones as well – it’s an equal opportunity problem.

Here’s an example of a spike, note the likelihood of me having a 220+bpm heart rate is pretty minimal:

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And here’s an example of a dropout.  Dropouts are sometimes tougher to spot – but a good indication is a sustained higher period of effort coupled with an abnormally low heart rate drop:

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Now, there are actually a number of different reasons for this, and a ton of different fixes.  You may remember my previous post on the matter, where I covered umpteen million issues and fixes for erratic heart rate reading. All of those still apply year round – and here’s the quick skinny of some of the causes:

1) No moisture, dry air
2) Synthetic shirts (quick dry/tech shirts)
3) Wind on the bike
4) Electrical Interference (powerlines, train lines, etc…)

And here was the high level overview of fixes:

1) Sweat
2) Licking it
3) Heart Rate Gel
4) Changing the strap position
5) Replacing the batteries

But this time of year, it tends to be one thing that causes heart rate spikes: cold and dry weather.  The reason for this is the lack of moisture reduces the connectivity between you and the strap.  Because the weather is cool but not super-cold, most folks are wearing t-shirts and shorts.  As a result, many times you may go out for a run/ride and barely break a sweat due to the cooler temperatures (that’s not to say that’s always the case, as I’ve been pouring buckets on some recent runs).

In those scenarios – there’s one easy and simple solution: Apply some lube!

Ok, not technically lube I suppose.  But close enough.

Apply some HR gel!  (See, doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.)

My little bottle of HR gel had died a slow death over the summer.  The way you can tell it’s no longer doing its job is it becomes super-liquid like and simply runs when you put it on (the gel, not you).  Thus, there was only one thing to do – go buy a new bottle.

Unfortunately, Amazon discontinued the exact brand I had used previously, so I picked up a different brand.  Remember, a little goes a long way.  A small bottle of HR gel the size of a few fingers will last you a season or two.  So I picked what appeared to be a small bottle for $6 and called it Macaroni.

Thus, imagine my surprise when this beast arrived on my doorstep a few days later:

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Holy tube of lube – this thing could cause personal injury it’s so big.  Look at your hand, now look at the picture.  Back to your hand, and back to the picture.  Yes, the gel is that big.  If you have a little hand, then it’s bigger.  If you have a monster hand…it’s probably still bigger than your hand.

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But fear not, the gel itself is quite harmless (though I don’t recommend putting it on your French Fries instead of Ketchup, or Mayo for you weirdo’s that do that):

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I usually just put a bit on each of the two sensor pads:

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And then I simply go out and run, no worries or concerns about whacky heart rate readings at all.  For example, here is last night’s run (just a t-shirt/shorts with temperatures in the 40’s):

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See…complex problem, simple solution.  Enjoy!

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14 Comments

  1. Anonymous

    Hi Ray, great advice. I was plagued with this problem which appeared to occur 2 months after purchase. I swapped my Garmin HR strap for a polar one and use gel (I too ended up with a massive tube unexpectedly). I have not had a single erratic reading since (honestly).

    Reply
  2. SSB

    Hmm.. I was confused about this, because it’s never happened to me. But the winter is our rainy season.

    Reply
  3. “Holy Tube of Lube.”

    I haven’t used that phrase since my last visit to the Adult Book…… Oh nevermind!

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    For a long time, I was looking for a solution to this very problem. Hair gel works great. Standard hair gel that you can buy at a drug store for a few dollars. It’s an excellent conductor.

    Reply
  5. Awesome blog. I almost went out and bought a whole new HR monitor for my Garmin, but then I did some research and found some information (including your previous blog on the topic) and I started wetting it. Works great!

    Reply
  6. Does this also help with the spikes caused by billowing shirts? On my bike rides this is my main problem. Early in a ride I will get sustained HR readings well of 200 bpm.

    Reply
  7. Wes

    so that’s what you use your lube for ;-) I bought some of that buh-bump HR gel and its been sitting in my bag for years…

    Reply
  8. MCooper

    I’ve tried everything BUT the HR gel… so I finally decided I should splurge. Thanks for the tip on the Holy Tube of Lube – I should have enough to last till at least next season!

    Reply
  9. LMAO you’re set for life

    Shame you can’t use it as bike lube!

    Reply
  10. Interesting that dry weather is part of the issue; I was just reading that someone’s theory is that the dropouts are caused by static. One recommended fix is to spray the inside front of your shirt with an anti-static spray. If you have a pump spray bottle and a bottle of liquid clothes softener you could make your own; a teaspoon or tablespoon in a cup or so of water. Another is greasing the front of the HRM; use a *minute* bit of petroleum jelly and rub it all over the front with some toilet paper.

    Reply
  11. Awesome Post!! I just bought the HR gel. My Garmin has been driving me nuts in the last few weeks, it keeps telling me my HR is super high (which it isn’t) and forces me to either slow down to a walk or ignore it. I really hope this works, but thanks in advance for the post!

    Reply
  12. Gary

    You got some great articles here DC! I just thought I’d add something to this one – I found pure aloe as a cheap solution with my Garmin strap.

    Reply
  13. A.J. Mesalic

    Very helpful, Ray! I think you showed somewhere else that you can use SportTracks to somewhat fix these problems. For example in a race last weekend where this happened I clipped all the HR data over what looked like my real SS heart rate of 157, then exported the TCX file for a more accurate TSS computation.

    Funny I was also surprised by the huge tube. You can use a little snack size ziplock bag to keep just a bit of lube handy (like in the back of your SUV). Just squirt some in the baggie and seal that up. Could even tuck that into an underseat bike utility bag for when you’re reminded of this problem by seeing a wild HR reading.

    Reply
  14. A Lettrsite

    Hello!

    I have used 1 Polar and 2 Garmin generations of HR bands. All of them failed, sooner or later. All of them have had build quality issues. After reading the recommendations by Garmin, it was pretty obvious that the source of nosie in HR readings was static electricity. Dry air, tecnical garment, vs. moist, cotton, etc. all indicates that building static electricity between the external surface of the band and the body (and then releasing it suddenly), may create the spikes. I work with data acquisition from electronic sensors (not related to health!), and static is always an issue.

    In October I bought my 3rd generation Garmin HR band (010-10997-07). I cannot comment on aging since I lost it a week ago at the gym, but readings seemed to be quite correct and stable (I am using a 910xt). The most noticeable aspect of this band is what looks like a static shielding, on the OUTSIDE of the band, that somehow is connected toa similar patch in the inside. In the instructions, you can read that you have to apply moist on both sensor pads AND the patch. It seems that you “ground” the outside of the band, with your body. I used it for a month without any problem. Does anybody has used this new band for a longer span? It is stable with time? In addition, It may suggest some fixes to old bands…

    Cheers!

    Reply

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