Testing - the most feared word in the English language!

Testing is a scary word to all of us, bringing up flashbacks of sitting in exam halls, sweaty hands on the steering wheel and numerous other occasions when we have had to prove that we can do what we need to do.
It is a word that literally strikes fear into the athlete, sure to bring out a cold sweat and a trembling hand. Anyone who does not have this reaction to this word has never been through a CP20 on the bike, a test lasting 20 minutes where you put out your absolute maximum effort for that time. Trust me, when you don't have much to look at 20 minutes is a ridiculously long time. Start to fast and you may not finish, start to slow and the last 5 minutes will be pain like you have never felt.

However testing in some form is essential. Why? Because without testing you may just be wasting your time, you may be going backwards or you may be creeping into over-training.

However, too many people put too much pressure on testing, conducting formal testing protocol at a set interval and then a complete overhaul of training as a result.

This post is about how to simplify testing, how to use it appropriately to guide your training.

First things first, fitness is not a straight line. It happens in peaks and troughs, it hits plateaus and sometimes there is a mighty crash before the biggest peak of all. This is the issue with formal testing. If it does not come at the correct time you can often get misleading values, be it too low or too high. Too high and you will risk sending yourself into over-training, too low and you will not be pushing yourself.

Too many people rely on rigid tests such as the CP20 to guide all power values, without looking at the bigger picture. As I mentioned above pacing can have a big impact on the outcome.

Example - You have a powermeter and want to do a CP20 on the bike. You start of at a conservative level, but by 15 minutes you still have a fair amount to give, the last 5 minutes is an all out effort, with the last 2 having a big anaerobic component. You get a value of 300 as an average, but you were at 280 for most of it and only when you were hitting 400 at the end did it start to rise.

Is 300 your real CP20? Possibly, but probably not, it could have been too low, by you being conservative for too long. Or it could have been dragged up too far if you are one of those athletes with a big anaerobic capacity.

Next time you do the CP20 you pace it much better, as you know you can hit 300, this time you start at 295 and gradually ramp up over the last 10 minutes, you end up with 320. Are you really 20 watts faster or did you just pace it better?

This is the key issue with this kind of testing.  

A different kind of testing

What if I told you that everyday was a test? It wasn't a formal test it was just an addition to the big picture. This was a scheme that was tried out in a school in the states, they still did the exams at the end of the year but their ACTUAL grade came from their day to day work, where there was no pressure on them to perform. Some students were miles ahead of what their exams suggested, they just had stage fright, they deserved to get a better grade and they did.

The same goes for your sport, everyday is a test of sorts, but each day does not have to be better than the last, it's just part of a gradual progression. As long as things are generally moving in the right direction then stick at it, as long as you are feeling good.

How to apply this to the 3 sports -

Swimming -

There are many options for this but here are my favourite 2 -
1. Swim 100m all out at the end of EVERY swim session
write all of the times down, sometimes they will be up and sometimes down, depending on how hard the session was, but a weekly trend SHOULD be on the way up. If it is not then you need to address your training.

2. Have 1 session per week that you do a tester set, something with a bit of length. Mine is 1000m, alternating 50m band and 50m normal freestyle. I record the time at halfway and the time at the end. Again, this should show a weekly reduction in time.

Biking -

Have one session per week where you push as hard as you can in one segment, be it for 5 minutes or 10 or even 20. Don't look at the session on its own, add it to the other 3 sessions (or however many) in the month and get the average. Then compare month to month.

Another great way of testing on the bike is to use power AND heart rate to produce what is called efficiency factor, this is power/heart rate = EF.

EF can give a great long term metric of how you fitness is progressing. As you become more efficient which should happen with better training, your EF will go up. This can also get you out of the habit of power chasing in sessions, sometimes you can't put your max power out in a session for whatever reason, but if your EF is still improving then you are on to a winner.

Running -

There are so many elements to running how do you test?

Again, there are 2 options.

1. Parkrun - or similar a weekly 5k against the clock on the same course, how much better can a test get? Again, try not to get stuck on one result to the next as conditions will dictate this sometimes, instead look over the monthly average.

2. Aerobic threshold testing - Find your aerobic threshold heart rate, see Phil Maffetone test for this. But as along as the heart rate is the same each time you are probably ok. Go to a track or a similar looped course, flat and sheltered is best.
Run 20-30 minutes to warm up then conduct a test over 3 miles or similar. Note down you pace and heart rate. If you do not have a GPS then use the same loop course and use time.
The beauty of this test is the way that all elements of running play into it. So if you biomechanics have weakened or you have gained weight your time will worsen, however if you have lost a little fat or you have become stronger you time might improve.
Using this methods helps stop you getting bogged down in each session and helps you see the bigger picture.
If you aerobic speed is improving you will be getting faster across all distances.

Until next time!