I haven’t counted, but I suspect I’ve performed nearly 1000 performance tests (usually Lactate Threshold) on the various athletes I have worked with over the years. Each time I test an athlete, I learn something important about them, their strengths/weaknesses, and, most importantly, about their objective fitness status at the time of the test. There are athletes I test only once, and athletes I test multiple times per year. Everyone I’ve ever tested comes away from the test feeling like they got something of value. Despite this, I find that the general biking community, even the bike racing community, does not really understand what performance testing is, and, more importantly, what it can do to help improve their cycling. This article is an attempt to answer, in the most straightforward terms, those two questions.
What is performance testing? Let me begin by saying that there are performance tests for most every sport I can imagine, but here I will only be talking about cycling. For cycling, the names of the most common (and useful) tests are called: Conconi, Lactate Threshold, VO2 Max. There are many ways to perform these tests, but in general, they are performed on your own bike which is placed on a special trainer (Computrainer) in which the amount of pedal pressure you exert (wattage) is controlled by the tester…me.
The tests are called “ramped step tests” which means that when you start the test, it’s easy to turn the pedals, and it gets progressively harder through the test. After warming up, most of these tests take less than 30 minutes to complete.
The difference between these tests can be explained simply; they each measure a different output of the body. In the case of the Conconi, Heart rate is measured; for the Lactate Threshold test, both HR and blood lactate are measured; for the VO2 max, heart rate and oxygen uptake are measured (that’s the test where you wear a mask during the test – looks impressive, and is uncomfortable).
Each of these measures - HR, Lactate, Oxygen – can be compared to a reference sample (e.g., general population, Cat 3’s, etc) or, best yet, compared to your previous performance on that same test. And now, we can start to discuss the most important question: why would anyone bother to do one of these tests?
Why do performance testing? There are three primary reasons to have an OBJECTIVE measurement of your fitness: 1) to be able to develop training zones (heart rate, wattage) that are personalized to your body, 2) to have a benchmark of your own fitness at a particular point in time (e.g., peak season), and 3) to have an objective means to compare yourself to your peers (e.g., Masters, Women, Cat 4’s, etc).
Each of these reasons is important, but all of them pale in comparison to the next reason…..being able to compare your own performance over time. This is really significant, because with multiple tests (as few as two, or as many as possible) it is possible to know whether all of the hard work you’re doing in training is paying off.
For example, the primary test I provide is the Lactate Threshold test. One of the main measures it generates is the famous (in the cycling world) “Watts/kilogram (of body weight) at Lactate Threshold.” This power/weight ratio is the one that is used at every level of the sport, and when people say that, for example, Lance in his prime “pushed 6.4 w/kg” they are referring to this very measurement from this test. But here in the “real world” my athletes are performing anywhere between 2.5 and 5 watts/kilo at threshold. These numbers represent the difference between a recreational cyclist and a very strong Cat 2, respectively. But what’s more important is how those cyclists testing numbers have changed over time.
In one extreme case, a recreational cyclist I started working with tested at 2.2 w/kg. Less than a year later, with hard work on his part, and a great training program tailored to his needs, his numbers improved by 50% to 3.3 w/kg. At 3.3 w/kg, he was racing, and having fun as a Cat 5 in a very competitive district. Was this useful information to he and I? YES. By knowing his objective performance testing numbers, we were able to quantify (and validate) that his training was paying off. As my mentor has said, “lactate doesn’t lie.” This means that, even in athletes who don’t show such significant improvements in their power/weight ratio, their lactate readings can change dramatically with proper training.
In another case, a Cat 3 cyclist who started the year at 3.6 w/kg, finished it at 4.2 w/kg…..by all standards a very solid improvement. What was most significant, however, was that at every given (wattage) step of the test, he was producing dramatically less lactate at the end of the season than at the beginning. At high levels, lactate in the blood is a significant limiting factor of our performance. The fact that this cyclist had measurably and dramatically lower lactate at ALL levels of his output (going easy and going hard) was another clear indication that his training was working.
It is easy to get lost in the technical details of each test (each test yields multiple measures that can be compared over time) and in the varieties of how each test may be administered and interpreted. Despite the fact that techno-geeks and scientists alike relish all these details, the big picture is: performance testing can help you to become a better cyclist. How does this happen?
How can testing help you? First, having training zones that are objectively derived and specific to your current fitness allows you to tailor your training in a way that’s not possible without this information. Testing over the course of time allows these zones to be recalibrated to keep your training as targeted as possible.
Second, testing allows you to have very objective goals that are separate from your race results. From a fitness perspective, it is quite useful to have as a goal, “I want to improve my w/kg 20% over the course of my first year of training.” For many people, this type of goal will serve as a significant motivator (to help you deal with the many hard intervals folks like me dish out).
Third, it is really helpful to know where you stand relative to your peers. While there is not a direct correlation between race results and test results, in general, the better your testing numbers, the more LIKELY it is that your race performance will be positive. If you are attempting to compete in a particular race category, it is useful to know if you are at the bottom of the range of performance numbers, or near the top of the heap. In other words, all other things being equal, it is better to have more w/kg to play with than less. But, regardless of where you fall in the range of your category, it is good to have realistic expectations; those expectations can be derived from your results on a performance test.
In conclusion: I hope that I have stimulated your curiosity enough so that you seek me out (or a local coach if you are not in the SF Bay Area), and get yourself tested. It is not scary, it is not particularly hard (well, generally not for more than a few minutes at the end), and it can give you extremely valuable information that will almost certainly help to make you a better cyclist. I know that many people freak out regarding tests, and I wish I were clever enough to come up with a replacement word. Despite this, I encourage you to objectively learn about your fitness through a performance test. According to the hundreds of athletes I’ve tested, not one of them has regretted the experience.
Matt Larson is a USA Cycling Level 2 coach who is the founder of Propel Bike Coaching & Fitting. Check him out at: http://www.propelcycling.com