Can Performance Testing give you an edge?

When you are training, goal setting is usually the best way to set up a plan to achieve improvements.

Increasing miles, training periods, bricks, and overall exercise time is the key to stretch your current fitness and go to the next level. That means, also, being able to baseline and quantify your current level of fitness so you can measure the improvements you achieve over time. Record your initial abilities and then compare them to your current set. The gap is your improvement.

However, improvements can be difficult to quantify. Subjectively we can feel if we are going faster - we hang with the group; we lead a breakaway; we achieve a personal best.  But rather than one day saying "I averaged 3 mph faster" and the next day blame it on the wind for a slower pace, you can set up performance indicators to normalize and quantify your progress.

How do you quantify performance? How are performance indicators set up?

 

Performance Indicators ARE determined with periodic performance testing.

Testing allows you to collect a chronological set of parameters of your abilities that you can use to compare to each other.

How do you perform today as compared to last month? Last quarter; 6 months ago; a year ago?

Periodic performance testing allows you to quantify this progress by measuring a standard set of performance indicators that are normalized and repeatable. 

By selecting a number of key human-performance parameters and tracking them over time, you have a baseline of progress that's objective.

If you work with a trainer or a coach, you are likely on a program called interval training.

Probably, you are familiar with it. And, probably, you already do interval training. It's a well-known, common practice to do sets of a specific activity: an interval. Obscure words like Lactate Threshold, Lactic Acid Threshold, Anaerobic Threshold and Functional Power Threshold, along with even more technical terms like VO2MAX have made it into the everyday vocabulary of most cyclists and athletes in general.

LT/FTP is considered on of the most important parameter for training. Training at LT/FTP literately changes the bio-chemistry of an athlete's body, making it more efficient, able to sustain more power, for longer periods of time. And it's great for weight loss.

The knowledge of this proper training methodology has trickled down to the everyday cyclist. And so, you are out there working hard on your LT/FTP intervals and VO2MAX - blind!

Why do we say blind? Because most of us "guestimate" how to perform those intervals.

For as long as we are working hard, we are confident that we are making improvements.

But... Are we really?

Doing an interval using the feelings in your legs as the standard for the level of exertion -or to near exhaustion- is not exactly very scientific. And, for sure, not normalized and repeatable. One day you feel good and can go hard, the next you don't sleep quite well and your performance suffers.

Ups and downs are normal.  But training this way - going hard, without a specific target - is a blind effort, hoping it would work. And it doesn't.

Now imagine... Your coach tells you to do a set of LT intervals at a specific heart rate for 20 min; or a FTP interval at a specific power (AKA Wattage) for 25 minutes. No matter how you feel, you know what you have to do. You turn on your heart rate monitor or power meter and off you go training with a specific goal. Now... this is normalized and repeatable...

 

NORMALIZING YOUR TRAINING:

Normalizing your training with a specific set of workout routines and at specified intensity is the secret to achieving performance without over (or under) training. The level of intensity and the duration of an interval are very specific and highly individual. They also vary over time - as you get better.

How does your coach know what specific intensity levels to choose for you?

 

Performance Testing.

How do you do performance testing?

There are a few methodologies, but the most commonly agreed upon and used by most athletes and coaches is LT/FTP testing as follows:

 

  • Find an open stretch of road that you can ride without interruptions for 30 mins. 2% uphill grade and no wind is advisable to get normalized results.

  • Warm up. Do a couple of short and high intensity intervals 2-3 mins to get the legs going and jump start the lactic acid process.

  • Do a 30 min Time Trial as hard as you can. Record Heart Rate and Power (if possible).

  • Your LT/FTP will be the stable HR or Wattage.

 

Sounds reasonable, right? Other than... Where do we find such a road with a steady 2% grade, no stop signs, no traffic and no wind -once a month?

If you live in Florida, you know, that's impossible. Or even safe.

Enter:

IN-STUDIO PERFORMANCE TESTING.

 

With properly set up equipment/software and a professional-grade power meter like the CompuTrainer Ergometer, this process can be made simple, safe and -most importantly-  normalized and repeatable.

 

Using the Computrainer software and a function called the Conconi test, a cyclist is set up for a Time Trial interval where the computer progressively imposes higher loads on the rider, while tracking his/her heart rate and power output. The built-in software logs data and the response to each new load every second during the test. At the end of the test, algorithms within the software use all the logged data to compute your LT/FTP.

 

It's 30 minutes of pure bliss. Unadulterated, pure, all-out effort that tells the story of you: your past training; your current fitness level and your future goals.

For endurance athletes, LT/FTP testing is the holy grail of performance.

Another key performance parameter for training is VO2MAX. It measures your ability to bring vital oxygen into your system -and by association, the delivery to the muscles.

VO2MAX is a key parameter of your aerobic ability: it's the max amount of oxygen that you can use at max level of effort. It's a great companion test to LT/FTP and it gives an indication of the cardiovascular fitness of an athlete. LT/FTP is usually 60-85% or VO2MAX. But while FTP/LT is more easily improved, VO2MAX has a genetic component that limits the max an individual can ever achieve. For this reason, it's an important parameter, as most athletes want to reach their max genetic VO2 and maintain it, while further stressing the LT/FTP.

VO2MAX is strictly lab environment testing. It requires equipment to read the amount of oxygen in the blood. It's measured in milliliters of oxygen used in one minute per kilogram of body weight (ml/kg/min). Sounds more complex than it really is.

In essence, the equipment measures the amount of oxygen intake over a period of time while exercising at max effort. It's a hard, short and all-out effort. You push to the max of your abilities.

Accurately measuring the oxygen intake is they key to the success of this testing and can be a little tricky.

Sometimes an oxygen flow measuring mask is used - but that can taint results as it can constrict the flow of oxygen.  We most certainly felt as if it restricted our natural ability to get oxygen into our lungs, like breathing through a big straw.

Sometimes blood samples are taken at intervals during an all out effort. The samples are tested in an equipment similar to glucometers for diabetes testing. A small blood droplet is sampled on a lancet that is inserted in the reader.

It's rather accurate in measuring the blood oxygen levels, but it can be difficult to administer in a timely fashion. Cyclists tent to move a lot during hard efforts. If you slow down to take the measurement, the blood-oxygen saturation changes immediately and the measurement is inaccurate.

It also requires several samples so that an average can be computed. Some athletes may not like being poked so much. And the FDA prefers that medical professionals draw blood, as there could be some implications with disease as per CDC guidelines of blood sampling.

In other words, it can be messy, painful and unsafe.

More recently, less invasive finger cuffs can be used to read blood oxygen levels accurately (similar to what hospitals use). These units use infrared spectrometry refraction to bounce a signal off the cells in your blood.

Several measurements can be taken at any time under any load without interruption. Like other measurements, several are required to compute an average. The results can also be mapped against power and heart rate, giving you a complete picture.

Easy to wear, easy to administer, accurate. This is the way of the future.

PUTTING THE PIECES TOGETHER:

Combining LT/FTP and VO2MAX periodic testing, allows you to set up the baseline from which to train. With this information, your coach will set up your training zones and break down your regimen in training blocks, alternating periods of building with resting. At the end of each training block, performance testing becomes the all-important quantification of the progress and the starting point from which to build on the next block.

For example, you tested your FTP at 245W with an average HR of 175 bpm at the beginning of your training block. Your coach has given you intervals ranging from 60% to 120% of the FTP for your first building block of 4 weeks.

At the end of the training block, you test again. Now your FTP is 310W at 175 bpm. This becomes the base for your next interval training block. New training zones are computed and a new set of interval training is prescribed in these zones.

This process is repeated until you reach your max potential given the time you can invest in your training and the effort you are capable of producing.  At this point, you go into lifetime best maintenance mode and performance testing takes on a different meaning: overtraining prevention.

We can't always maintain the same level of fitness. And if we push too hard for too long, we just reach a point of exhaustion. Also, life has a habit of getting in the way: winter, work, children, injuries, illness, etc.

When you have a well-established lifetime best LT/FTP, performance testing helps you do just what you need to do to maintain it and no more. Saves you time and energy for the other things in life you have to attend to. And, more importantly, it helps you in recognizing if and when you are trying too hard - driving yourself into the ground with no gain. Or if it's time to get back on the horse, after a period of recovery.

Training is a cat and mouse game with your own fitness. Consider the addition of performance testing to your training regimen as the edge for staying always at your best, given your current situation.

 

OUR BELIEF:
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- Steffi Bici

A Perfect Bike Fit Pro Studio owner, founder, senior fitter

About the author: Steffi is a senior fitter with a long history in cycling. She has worked for Colnago as US Director of Sales and Marketing, wrote for sports magazines such as "The Racing Post", "Miami Sports Magazine" and Activate Outdoor Sports Magazine". Steffi has raced with much success with an International UCI Pro license in road and mountain biking. Cross and Triathlon racing followed, not a Pro level, but with more success.

Considered an advanced fitter with a propensity for troubleshooting, she has built her reputation as the go-to person for bike fitting. Retül certification and a degree in Aerospace Engineering seem to be the right combination for her to understand the complex relationship between cycling biomechanics and aerodynamics and injury prevention/recovery.

A deep understanding of people's behavior and coaching add a layer of inter-personal connectivity skills that makes her fun to be around and completely understood in your cycling life hurdles. Never afraid of blazing her own trail, she has had several breakthroughs in bike fitting coming from her active mind and constant research.

Steffi established her own business, A Perfect Bike Fit Pro Studio in June 2010 after over a decade of bike fitting research, experimentations and success with customers winning local races and state championships as far back as 2001.

 
 

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