By Matt Larson
Have you been performance tested? If you’ve yet to take this step, off-season is a perfect time to start – or to compare your current fitness to a prior baseline. Every test tells us something important about each athlete, their strengths and flat spots, and, most importantly, about their objective fitness status. It gives the athlete and the coach a clear picture of what to work on next – and when compared to a previous test, it shows how well the training program is working to help them achieve their specific goals.
After hundreds of performance tests (usually Lactate Threshold) on the various athletes I have worked with over the years, the value of this information to improve performance is clear.
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 new valuable insights they can act on. Unfortunately, I find the general cycling community, and even the bike racing community; do not really understand what performance testing is, and, more importantly, what it can do to help improve their cycling. Let’s explore, in the most straightforward terms, those two questions.
What is performance testing?
While there are performance tests for most every sport, I will only cover cycling performance testing. For cycling, the names of the most common and useful tests are: Conconi, Lactate Threshold, and VO2 Max. Although there are many ways to perform these tests, in general, the tester sets up the cyclist’s own bike on a special trainer (Computrainer), and the intensity the cyclist exerts (wattage) is controlled by the tester.
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 is simple: they each measure a different response of the body. In 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 and utilization are measured.
Once measured, each of these metrics – Heart Rate, Lactate, Oxygen – can be compared to a reference sample. For example, to the general population, or to Cat 3s – or, best of all, compared to your previous performance on that same test. And now, we can start to discuss the most important question: what is in it for you?
Why do performance testing?
There are three primary reasons to have an objective measurement of your fitness: 1) to be able to develop the correct training zones (heart rate, wattage) that are personalized to your body (versus a formula), 2) to have a benchmark of your own fitness at a particular point in time (for example, peak season), and 3) to have an objective means to compare yourself to your peers (for example Masters, Women, Cat 4s, etc).
The most important benefit is 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 and how all of the hard work you’re doing in training is paying off, and to make adjustments to optimize your progress. Otherwise, over time as you progress and your body changes, you are likely to miss important insights on what to best focus on in your training.
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. When people say, for example, that Lance in his prime “pushed 6.4 watts per kilo” they are referring to this metric from this test. With most amateur cyclists, I typically see a range between 2.5 and 5 w/kg at threshold. For any individual cyclist, what is most important is how those testing numbers change over time.
In one notable case, a recreational cyclist I worked with first tested at 2.2 w/kg. Less than a year later, with hard work on his part, and a 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. How did we use this information to improve his performance? By knowing his objective performance testing numbers, we were able to quantify and validate how his training was paying off, and further customize his training programs. 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 improve 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 solid improvement. More 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 of how his training was improving his fitness.
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, measurements allow objectively derived training zones that are specific to your current fitness. We can thus tailor training in a way that’s not possible without this information. Because your results are unique to you, and change over time as you train and improve, periodic re-testing allows these zones to be recalibrated to keep your training as targeted as possible. Test results also give clear-cut proof of the amount of performance improvement you have made since the last test.
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 – and it will help you conquer the many tough workouts that coaches 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 (which is why Lance did not win every race he ever entered), 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 in the middle 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.
Performance testing is key to cycling, and training, smart. Get curious about what it can do for you: seek out a local coach, and get yourself tested. It is straightforward to do, and it can give you extremely valuable information that will almost certainly help you become a better cyclist. I know that many people unconsciously avoid “tests”; these tests, though, are the worthwhile kinds that give us important insights. The athletes who test regularly show greater improvement over time than athletes who test infrequently. According to the couple hundred athletes I’ve tested, they’ve all been glad they did, and found it gave them a valuable edge.
Matt Larson is a USA Cycling Level 2 coach who works for AthletiCamps. Check Matt out here,