I have never been terribly interested in heart-rate based training. Chest straps and I just don’t get along well. I know there’s a lot of benefit to heart rate training, so I was very curious to check out the LifeBEAM Smart hat as a way to make it easier to track my heart rate while I’m active!
The LifeBEAM system is a bit different from what you might picture for heart rate monitoring. Instead of a bulky strap around your chest, it’s a hat with an optical heart rate monitor that sits against your forehead. It then connects via Bluetooth or ANT+ to transmit your heart rate to an app (or, if you’re using ANT+, a compatible running watch or similar device). Since I never run without a hat, it makes it much easier to remember to track my heart rate as I go. From a convenience and ease of use standpoint, it’s excellent. But is it useful? Well, that’s a more complicated answer.
There’s some really good parts to the LifeBEAM hat. It’s very well made, and I have no doubts it would stand up to a lot of sweat and training. The adjustable strap in the back is easy to use and strong, so once you have the fit dialed in you shouldn’t need to fiddle too much. It seems to absorb sweat nicely, even with the heart rate monitor smack in the middle of your forehead. It holds a decent charge, and you can recharge the battery via micro-USB, which is far handier than yet another proprietary cable. LifeBEAM says there are a number of fitness apps that can connect to the hat, and there’s a test app from the company that lets you confirm everything is connected and working properly even before you try to tie to to your favorite workout app.
Unfortunately, apps are one of two areas where the LifeBEAM had a major downside for me. MapMyFitness and Strava are both supposed to work with the LifeBEAM hat, yet I could not get it to work at all with Strava and the connection was very buggy with MapMyFitness. According to the company, there was an issue with early versions of the hat and the MapMyFitness service that shouldn’t be a problem with the currently shipping generation; I would assume the same goes for Strava as well. Happily, Endomondo works great with the LifeBEAM hat, and I even found that Endomondo’s Pebble integration lets you set one of the data points on your watch to your heart rate, so I can wear the hat and track my heart rate on the go without fumbling for my phone. So it did work out well for me, and I have no particular allegiance to MapMyFitness or Strava. However, if you’re a die-hard user of one of these services, you want to watch for potentially buggy issues with the connection on Android. I was not able to test this on iOS, so you may not run into this issue if you’re pairing a LifeBEAM with an iPhone.
The other general complaint I had about the LifeBEAM was a minor one. The battery pack has a power button on it, and when it’s installed in the pouch at the back of the hat, it lines up with a button on the pouch so you can easily turn it on and off. I found that this didn’t quite line up reliably, especially because the power button doesn’t have much depth or travel. This made it really hard to figure out if I was pressing down on the right spot, and it was easier to just reach into the pouch to turn it on instead. It seems there’s a touch too much wiggle room in the pouch, so the button on the material doesn’t quite line up reliably with the actual power button on the battery pack. It’s hardly a dealbreaker, but if you’re trying to transition from, say, biking to running, and you’re trying to get the hat on, it’s something that takes extra fumbling time.
Then we get to two complaints I had that fall heavily under the “your mileage may vary” category. One, I felt the actual hat portion wasn’t that great. I like a hat that’s a little deeper and can sit a little lower around my head, so I can tuck my hair under it while I run. The LifeBEAM can’t quite hold all my hair in, so I end up with wild bits of hair flying all over the place. Basically, it’s not a hat I would wear if it didn’t have the heart rate gimmick. Second, having the heart rate monitor against my forehead bothered me a little bit. To be fair, I did have surgery on my sinuses about a month ago, so my head is probably still more sensitive to pressure points, but even when I had it comfortably adjusted I was always aware of it being there.
So LifeBEAM is a well made hat and a cool way to integrate heart rate training without messing around with chest straps, but it has a few bugs and minor downsides to consider. Is it worth it? If you plan to regularly use a heart rate monitor, and you have a Garmin or a smartwatch that can pair with the hat (or companion software) to give you your heart rate on the fly, it’s a great product. It eliminates the need for still more equipment, and it has little touches like reflective edging to make it a functional and useful hat to rock on a run or a hike. The key part here is whether you plan on doing heart rate based training, though. If you are, having a hat you need to charge is hardly a dealbreaker, and if you’re already wearing a running cap it means you’re more likely to actually use and benefit from the heart rate monitor. If you are on the fence about heart rate training, or you don’t plan to use it regularly, it’s a lot of money at $99 for an OK hat, and you can get a chest strap for far cheaper instead.
Personally, one thing I learned from using the LifeBEAM is that heart rate training isn’t for me, at least not right now. I found myself having to work to remember to reach for the LifeBEAM over my regular hat, and I didn’t feel like monitoring my heart rate made my runs any better or worse. It just meant I had external validation of how hard I was working. But that’s a function of my own training, not the hat itself; it faithfully tracked my heart rate with no issues once I had it set with Endomondo, and worked perfectly every time.
Overall, while the LifeBEAM Smart hat isn’t going to be a go-to for me, it’s a pretty brilliant idea, and one that anyone looking to use heart rate training should seriously consider!
Source: Manufacturer provided review sample
What I Like: Heart rate measurements were consistent; hat holds a long charge; well made cap; reflective stitching around brim adds safety features; comfortable for most to wear for long periods
What Needs Improvement: Hat wasn’t terribly deep; heart rate sensor location may bother people with sinus sensitivity; expensive if you don’t plan to use heart rate training regularly; bugs in Android app integration.