Testing. You either love it or you hate it. Or maybe it’s a little of both. Your opinion probably changes depending on how well you did during the test. Either way, we all know it’s important. So, what kind of testing will help you improve your performance? Funny you should ask. I’ve got some thoughts on this topic…
Maybe the most well known physiological test is the VO2max test. This test determines your ability to consume oxygen, with higher values considered better. When you go from couch potato to athlete, your VO2max will increase. However, at a certain point, your VO2max will plateau – thanks largely in part to genetics.
This means that no matter how hard you train, your absolute VO2max won’t get higher (side note: your relative VO2max (VO2max divided by body weight) can change with weight loss which may explain significant performance improvements (1 – although there are now questions about the athlete in this study…)). Thus, for beginners, it’s one way to establish training zones but for most well trained athletes, a VO2max test isn’t always the most useful test.
A lactate threshold test is another common test conducted in a lab. The lactate threshold indicates the point at which the body begins accumulating lactate in the blood. This threshold can change with training (occurring at greater and greater power outputs). Therefore, a lactate threshold test can be very helpful for training. It is one way to create training zones. The shape of the curve can also indicate where more training should be focused. In addition, a lactate threshold test is a common way to verify that a training plan is working.
To measure anaerobic power (think “high-intensity power for short efforts”) there’s the Wingate test. This test is essentially a 30sec all out, seated sprint. This test can be beneficial for tracking high intensity performance (anaerobic power and capacity). However, a true Wingate test must be performed in a lab on a specific cycling ergometer. Not many labs have the required ergometer, so this somewhat limits the usefulness of the test.
Now what about testing outside of the lab? There are waaaaaaay too many testing variations to describe here. Probably the most common test is the 20min max test. All you’ve got to do is hop on your bike and time trial for 20min. This test is best done on an uninterrupted and slightly uphill road. It’s one way to get an estimate of the lactate threshold without going to a lab. So, much like the lactate threshold test, this is a great test for tracking fitness.
There are also ways to incorporate testing into everyday training. For example, if you’re doing an interval set and it feels really easy, pace the last 1-2 off of heart rate and RPE (“rating of perceived exertion”). You can then use this data to make some changes to your power zones without doing a true fitness test. Power is a great tool for training but if you don’t increase your power zones as you get stronger, you’re no longer training as well as you could.
Whatever testing you choose, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, treat a test like race day. Eat right beforehand so that you’re able to perform your best. You’ll also want to pick a test that you can repeat. Perform your tests on the same stretch of road at roughly the same time of day. Or if you visit a lab, record the testing protocol so you can repeat it again. You also want to use the same equipment during a test that you’ll use in training. I had an embarrassing meltdown after I set my training zones based on a power meter that read 10-20W higher than the power meter I was training with. Be better than me.
Whatever test you (or your coach) choose, be sure to enjoy it. This isn’t school so you shouldn’t be stressing about it. Thanks for reading!