Why Do Performance Testing?
There are three primary reasons to have an objective measurement of your fitness:
- To be able to develop the correct training zones (heart rate, wattage) that are personalized to your body (versus a formula).
- To have a benchmark of your own fitness at a particular point in time (for example, peak season).
- 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 Armstrong in his prime "pushed 6.4 watts per kilo (w/kg)" 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 percent 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?