Long regarded by many as one of the best HRM’s on the market for runners and bikers I have found that for me the Suunto t-6 lives up to it’s lofty reputation. Admittedly I’m somewhat of a gear head when it comes to “running technologies”… however almost daily use of the t-6 for the past year has had definite and measureable benefit.

If nothing else all HRM’s are good motivational tools. There is nothing (much) more satisfying than seeing graphically that all the hard runs, crappy weather and miscellaneous aches and pains were worth it in the form of improved performance. Use of the t-6 along with it’s bundled training software has shown that I am able to run farther and/or faster while doing less “work” than I was a year ago this time. I am doing the same runs faster and with a definite 4 to 5 bpm reduction in average heart rate as well Decent enough motivation on those days when it would be easier to stay in bed at 5:00AM than get up and go for a ten miler in the drizzle.

Another big benefit of the t-6 and the Suunto Training Manager software is its ability to rate the intensity of your workouts. Suunto uses a concept called EPOC (Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption) to rate your workouts on a scale of 1 to 5. (If you want, you can read up on this at: www.suunto.com). Once you enter your personal information into the software (IE: age, weight, HRmax, HRrest, vital capacity and max MET performance if you know it)… it can be used to create workouts with specifically targeted EPOC values. This has been especially valuable for me on recovery days, when prior to use of this system, I just couldn’t back off enough to allow for true recovery. Now with the software and the t-6, the watch will let me know when I’ve hit my targeted workout value and a recovery day stays a recovery day.

The t-6 is also somewhat unique in that it can also record the time interval between each individual heart beats. This is referred to the R-R interval. Logically enough if you are running along at 160 bpm, the time interval between each individual heart beat does vary a bit. The t-6 records this difference and downloads it to the training software. Using this information and some models developed by Firstbeat Technologies in Finland (www.firstbeat.com) you can calculate fairly accurately values for things such as ventilation (measured in L/minute), respiration rate (breaths/minute) and oxygen consumption (ml/kg/minute). (There is a white paper at the Firstbeat website (www.firstbeat.com) that details their methods and accuracy by the way). Over the long haul it’s nice to see the numbers in these areas improve as well. Further vindication that all the hard work is worth it.

Now if all this was not enough, the t-6 also has a system of POD’s behind it that can measure distance traveled. There are 2 “POD’s” that transmit distance information to the watch. One is a reasonably lightweight and low-bulk foot-pod which measures the distance and motions of your foot traveling through space. This unit is small enough and light enough that I usually wear it even for races. The other is a somewhat bulky and much less “talented” GPS pod. The foot-pod would seem a no-brainer for most runners.

With the foot-pod mounted correctly on your shoe the watch will measure distance traveled, display pace and can be set to auto-lap at any distance you pick. Out of the package I found the foot-pod was accurate to within 4 to 5 meters… which was good enough for me when doing 800m reps or other workouts on the trails. If you’re working out in a more structured environment such as the track, there is also a calibration capability built into the watch that allows for calibration when using specific shoes and on specific surfaces. Once this is done the results can be 1 to 2 meter accurate. Overall I would rate the performance of the foot-pod as excellent.

The GPS pod seems of less value as it does not actually display location and can not be used for navigation in any way. The burn time on the batteries is also not that great. If you need these capabilities for trail running or riding, the Garmin Forerunner’s are a better bet. Suunto’s thought behind the GPS pod is that it is for Nordic skiing and biking activities where the foot-pod would not work. However it is accurate and if you have a t-6 already, it’s a cheaper alternative then buying a Forerunner for obtaining distance and pace information. There are also bike pods available for riders that measure cadence and distance… but I have not used those so I can’t speak to their effectiveness. Being part of the same system, I would expect them to work as advertised and work well.

For trail runners and others interested in how much elevation they have gained and lost (Rothrock and MountainBack)… the t-6 also has a pressure-based altimeter built in. When recording a workout the watch also captures elevation data and displays that information in the training software as well. Having a Garmin and the t-6, I find the elevation data that comes from the t-6 much more accurate and dependable than the (often) far off GPS based data coming from the Garmin. When I really want to know the vertical component of my runs… I go for the Suunto.

Finally, from a design perspective, the t-6 is solid, meaning it is well built and logical to use. I’ve used it and the foot-pod in the rain, snow and mud with no adverse effect on either the watch or the pod. The HR belt and pod use ANT digital transmission which provides a solid and stable communications link between the devices. It is also interference free which is important if you run with others using the same device. A guy I run with occasionally has a t-6 as well. We gear up and run side by side with no cross talk or interference between devices.

Ultimately if you are looking for a HRM… the t-6 is a great way to go and has tremendous capabilities. It has prove to be tank tough and if you run in different environments (track, trail, snowshoe) or run and ride (Tri’s) it will tell you a lot about what’s going on the inside and the outside.

Suunto Training Manager 2.2.x. Example of composite graph showing HR, Ventilation and VO2 from 2007 Moxie-Thon 10K. Each variable can be graphed independently for better detail.