The TomTom Runner Cardio is probably the most important development in personal heart rate monitoring since Polar started the ball rolling in 1982. Since then pretty much every sports watch has relied on a wireless sensor attached to a chest strap for heart rate measurement, but TomTom has taken that conventional rulebook and torn it to shreds.
You see the TomTom Runner Cardio is a landmark product; a device that raises the bar, changes the game, and ignores the confines of conventional wisdom. Like all great innovators, TomTom looked at how things were being done and decided that there was a better way.
So what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that TomTom has shunned the traditional electrocardiographic method of measuring heart rate and followed a different path. And that means that there’s no need to wrap a chest strap around your torso and clip a heart rate sensor to it – getting ready for your runs just got simpler and quicker.
TomTom has achieved what many runners consider to be the Holy Grail of heart rate monitoring – it has built the heart rate monitor right into the watch. No need for straps or wireless sensors, if you’ve got the watch on your wrist, you’ve got an active heart rate monitor.
Getting ready for your run will be quicker with the Runner Cardio, since you won’t need to find your chest strap, wet the contacts, strap it around you and clip the sensor to it. It also means that anyone who generally finds chest straps uncomfortable can avoid that discomfort while still tracking their heart rate.
Another advantage is that there are none of the spikes and dropouts that sometimes plague wireless heart rate monitors. We’ve all experienced this – you’re running along and your heart rate jumps to 240bpm, or drops down to 25bmp for no discernable reason. That simply doesn’t happen with this device.
So how has TomTom achieved this feat? By taking a completely different look at the problem. Regular chest strap heart rate monitors use electrocardiographic technology to monitor your heart beating through the electrodes on the chest strap, but the Runner Cardio uses an optical sensor.
The optical sensor is mounted in the rear of the watch along with two, very bright green LEDs. Those LEDs shine light through the surface of your skin and the optical sensor measures changes in skin tone. Because your skin tone changes (very slightly) when blood pumps through it, the sensor can calculate your heart rate by counting those changes in tone.
This method of heart rate monitoring isn’t new, though. The Withings Pulse uses exactly the same method, as do some of the latest smartphones. However, the Pulse and phones can only take a spot measurement of your heart rate, whereas TomTom has refined the technology to give a constant measurement.
Design and usability
The TomTom Runner Cardio is slightly larger than the standard Runner watch, but that’s not a huge surprise – that extra technology for the heart rate monitor has to go somewhere after all. It’s not too large though – I have pretty slim wrists and didn’t find the watch too bulky.
The new strap is also excellent, with a three pronged buckle and teeth at the end of the tongue to keep everything in place. Of course you need to wear the Runner Cardio reasonably tight in order for the heart rate monitor to get a good reading, but not so tight that it’s uncomfortable.
There’s a four-way rocker control that sits below the screen, which makes for very easy navigation of the menus. Tapping the right side of the screen will trigger the backlight if you’re running at night.
The Runner Cardio will measure both outdoor and treadmill runs. Obviously outdoor runs are measured using the GPS, while indoor runs are tracked using a built-in accelerometer. Running on my NordicTrack T14.2 treadmill showed that the Runner Cardio does tend to over-report on distance, but if you calibrate after each run the reporting does start to improve.
As with the previous watches, you get a large, main display area and two supplementary info fields above it. All these fields are customisable, and it’s easy to cycle through different info readings on the main screen while running, with a quick tap of the four-way button.
The same docking cradle cable seen with the older watches is employed – it’s a great design that keeps the watch neatly angled on your desk during charging, but the proprietary nature does mean that you won’t be able to charge the device without the specific, bundled cable.
You’ll need to download the TomTom app to your computer (both Mac and PC versions are available) in order update and sync the Runner Cardio, but this is a quick and painless procedure that worked without incident for me.
Up and running
The TomTom Runner Cardio is an absolute joy to train with. You may be thinking that it’s not much hassle to wrap a chest strap around your torso before every run, but once you set yourself free from it, you won’t want to go back.
And if you’re wondering about the accuracy of the heart rate monitor in the Runner Cardio, I can assure you that it’s every bit as accurate as a chest strap sensor. To test this I ran with the Runner Cardio and a Wahoo Fitness BlueHR sensor strapped to my chest and paired with the Strava app on my phone. The overall results were close to identical over 10k.
It’s also worth mentioning that TomTom’s QuickGPSFix means that the Runner Cardio locks onto satellites in seconds, saving you from that annoying wait that accompanies many other GPS watches.
TomTom has also been smart enough to equip the Runner Cardio with vibrating alerts, which I think every GPS watch should have. If you run in a noisy environment or with headphones, you’re never going to hear audible alerts, so having the watch vibrate when you hit set distances or times throughout your run is great.
Another fine addition is the interval-training feature. Interval training essentially consists of mixing your run up with periods of high intensity and low intensity. So you’ll run for a set time at a steady pace, then get as close to maximum effort as you can for another set period, then revert back to a steady recovery pace.
Interval training is something that’s fairly simple on a treadmill, since you can configure the treadmill itself to change the intensity of your run at set times, but when you’re out on the street or the trails it’s a bit more tricky to keep track of those switches.
TomTom has made interval training easy though. You can configure the Runner Cardio to create set periods based on time or distance, and it will automatically alert you when it’s time to switch. So, you can kick off with a warm up period, them move into your steady pace, then switch up to your high intensity period. You can configure as many high/low intensity periods as you like, allowing you to create a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) session out on the road or trails, as easily as you can in the gym.
You can also choose to train using heart rate zones. The TomTom Runner Cardio has five different heart rate zones – Easy, Fat Burn, Endure, Speed and Sprint. You can configure each zone to suit you, then decide which zone you need to train in to get the results you’re looking for.
If you’re looking to improve your pace and overall fitness, you’ll probably try to stay in the Speed zone, but if you want to increase the distance that you can run, you might want to stick to the Endure zone. And if you’re running intervals, you’ll probably be switching between Sprint and Endure/Fat Burn.
As far as battery life goes, TomTom estimates around eight hours if you’re using both the GPS and heart rate monitor functionality. I tend to leave the Runner Cardio docked in its sync/charging cradle when I’m not using it, so it’s always fully charged when I head out for a run. If you’re away from home for a while, though, it’s probably worth taking the charge cable with you, just in case.
Syncing & sharing
When I reviewed the TomTom Runner and Multi-Sport watches, the TomTom MySports online portal was something of a work in progress, and although it has improved over time, it still doesn’t offer the best experience. However, that doesn’t really matter, because TomTom has made it really easy for you to export your data to third party platforms.
The TomTom MySports portal is based on the MapMyFitness platform, so when you register for MySports, you’re automatically registered for MapMyFitness. MapMyFitness provides a much better experience, and lets you dig far deeper into your runs, but you’ll have to pay for a premium subscription to get all the features.
My favourite fitness logging portal is Strava, and TomTom allows you to export your data directly to Strava. So, whenever I sync the Runner Cardio, it uploads my runs to Strava and automatically opens a browser window displaying that run, so I can edit and save it to my dashboard.
You don’t need to plug the Runner Cardio into the USB dock hooked up to your computer either – you can sync wirelessly using the TomTom MySports smartphone app. Once you’ve paired the watch with your phone, you select Phone from the Options menu, then tap sync and your latest run will upload to all your chosen portals – including Strava if you’ve set that up.
It’s worth noting that the wireless syncing is incredibly slow, and I’m not entirely sure why that is. However, you don’t have to sit there watching it – you can just initiate the sync, and then get on with something else, like having a shower!
The TomTom Runner Cardio is my favourite running watch, and the one I grab every time I put my running shoes on. It may not have the breadth of features that the Garmin Forerunner 620 has, but it has enough to suit the majority of runners out there, myself included.
The integrated heart rate monitor is simply brilliant, and that alone is reason enough to recommend this watch. The interval training is also easy to setup and very useful out on the street/trail, while the vibrating alerts make it easy to keep track of where you are in your run without looking at the watch.
Price wise, the TomTom Runner Cardio carries a £219.99 MSRP, which is pretty reasonable considering the unique HRM feature and general quality and usability of the watch. However, you can find the Runner Cardio online for as little as £190.99 (from Amazon), which makes it an absolute bargain.
Make no mistake, if I had to spend my own money on a GPS running watch right now, I’d buy the TomTom Runner Cardio. And when it comes down to it, that’s all you really need to know.
- Integrated HRM is simply brilliant
- HRM just as accurate as a chest strap
- Comfortable to wear
- Great interval training feature
- Customisable heart rate zones
- Easy to export data to your preferred portal
- Wireless syncing with the smartphone app
- Easy to navigate
- Extremely fast satellite lock
- Proprietary charging cable
- Slow wireless syncing