What is a performance test?
Performance testing can provide valuable information on the physiological characteristics that are associated with cycling performance. Testing can take place in a laboratory under controlled conditions, or in the field where the cyclist may be exposed to factors that could affect the outcome of the test (environmental temperature, road surface etc.). The testing procedure should provide the cyclist and/or their coach with useful feedback that can be used to plan subsequent training.
It is critical that the testing protocol is both valid and reliable. A test is valid if it correctly measures what it claims to. In other words, a performance test for a cyclist should produce data that can accurately predict cycling performance. For example, a one repetition maximum bench press will have little value for predicting cycling performance.
Reliability refers to how repeatable the results are. In other words, if we repeated the same testing protocol, on the same athlete, with the same equipment, under the same conditions, we would expect the same results. If a test is not valid or reliable, it will have little value for the cyclist. Laboratory-based testing is more reliable than field testing, simply because of the standardised protocol, equipment (accurate and calibrated), and constant environmental conditions.
However, this does not mean that field testing should be abandoned. Standardised training sessions, such as an 8 x 4 minute high-intensity session, can be considered to be field tests. An increase in average power during these intervals could be valid measures of improvements in cycling performance. These field tests can track changes in performance and supplement the laboratory data which is collected less often.
We use performance tests for the following:
- Profiling – Testing provides us with an objective measure of an athlete’s physiological profile.
- Monitoring – Testing at regular intervals allows us to assess the effectiveness of our training prescription.
- Training prescription – The training zones identified during the performance test are used to prescribe target intensities for training sessions.
Determinants of endurance performance
A laboratory based performance test will usually measure the variables below, due to the association of these variables and cycling performance.
VO2max: The maximal oxygen uptake represents the highest amount of oxygen that an individual can consume during exercise. There is a strong association between VO2max and endurance performance.
Lactate or functional threshold: The maximal intensity (power output or heart rate) that can be maintained for a prolonged period of time (~60 minutes).
Peak Power Output: The peak power output is the average power output during the final minute of a VO2max test.
Every amateur cyclist wants to know how they compare to the professionals and their local club mates. Performance testing allows us to provide each athlete with an objective measure of performance, which allows for accurate comparison between individuals.
Unfortunately, not everyone can win the Tour de France, but performance testing can provide you with an accurate measure of your current performance level. This allows for objective ranking of cyclists, and can also indicate the gap to the next performance level.
Data from a performance test also allows you to set realistic targets for yourself. As coaches, we know what is required of athletes to complete specific events. Once you have an objective measure of your current training status you and your coach can then sit down and determine what is needed to achieve the goal.
Lastly, profiling can reveal the unique characteristics of an individual and may give insight into their relative strengths and weaknesses. This may help them target training to reduce their weaknesses or provide insight into which racing disciplines will suit that athlete.
Tracking performance improvements over a specific time period is another use of performance testing. The laboratory setting allows the sports scientist or coach administering the test to control the majority of the variables (temperature, external cooling with a fan etc.) that could have an influence on the results of the test. Regular performance testing allows coaches to monitor performance improvements made over the course of a single season or several seasons. This is one of the most valuable uses of testing and one of the many reasons testing needs to be done in a controlled manner under similar conditions.
Regular testing should be completed using the same testing protocol, the same equipment, under the same conditions, so you can accurately track performance improvements brought about by training. This is always a good way to determine if the training is working or if you need to make a change in your training to introduce a new stimulus.
This is often cited as the most important reason for anyone to undergo any form of performance testing. We know that each individual cyclist is unique and therefore training intensity prescription should also be unique. For example, Chris Froome has a maximum heart rate of around 174 beats per minute while Simon Yates has a maximum of around 199 beats per minute. The age-old formula of 220 – age to determine maximum heart rate, is not relevant to either of these individuals. A revised equation of 206.9 – (0.7 x age) improved the accuracy of the maximal heart rate prediction, but the most accurate determinant of maximal heart rate is still performance testing.
These days many devices provide you with a predicted maximum heart rate, and training zones based on this predicted maximum. Once again, these training zones may provide you with a guideline for training intensity, but they can be greatly improved upon via performance testing.
Researchers at Western State Colorado University recently investigated whether training according to percentages of heart rate reserve (HRR) was as effective as training according to the individualised training zones determined from performance test data. The group who trained according to individualised training zones showed greater and more uniform improvements in VO2max compared to the group which trained based on percentages of HRR. If you are interested in reading more, the full article can be found here.
Performance testing, and specifically VO2max or lactate testing will allow you to determine individualised training zones based on the results of your test. You will then be able to train with more specificity according to your individualized zones. While other forms of testing can also provide training zones, VO2max testing is considered the gold standard when it comes to determining training zones.
So now that you know why you should do performance testing, which test should you do?
The most common types of performance tests done by cyclists include:
- Max test/ PPO test/ VO2max test
- Time Trial (20km or 40km) or FTP testing
- Lactate Threshold testing
VO2max or PPO test
As stated earlier, the VO2max or PPO test is considered the gold standard when it comes to performance testing. Data from this test provides you with individualised training zones which will improve your training through more accurate monitoring of your intensity.
The VO2max test is conducted in a laboratory, which means that it is highly repeatable, giving it a major advantage over field tests performed outside of the lab. VO2max testing is often accompanied with body fat percentage measurements which allow you to track your body composition at regular intervals. These tests can be repeated at set time-intervals allowing one to accurately track performance improvements and the effectiveness of your training.
A VO2max test should provide you with your peak power output, which is the average power output for the final stage of the test. If you train with a power meter this will give you and/or your coach a good indication of what sort of power output you should be aiming for during your high-intensity interval training.
The VO2max test will also determine your lactate threshold. Your LT as a percentage of your PPO is an important determinant of endurance performance, and cyclists should aim to have an LT at ~80% of their PPO.
Time trials or FTP testing
Another common form of performance testing is fixed duration (20 minute) or distance (20 or 40 km) time trials. The data from these efforts can be used to derive training zones, especially for those cyclists who train with power meters. The 20 minute all-out effort is a common method used to determine functional threshold power (FTP). Simply multiplying the average power output from the 20 minute effort by 0.95 will provide you with your FTP.
While evidence suggests that the 40km time trial may be a better indicator of training programme effectiveness than VO2max itself, the test is physically taxing and requires a high-level of motivation to maintain a high effort for the duration of the test.
As with the 40km time trial, a FTP test is a good indicator of performance and is a relatively easy test to administer. However, there are some important factors to consider before going this route. Most importantly the setting in which the FTP test is performed. The FTP test is often performed on the road where it is extremely hard to replicate similar conditions from test to test. Differences in heat and humidity between tests reduces the repeatability of protocol. These variables need to be considered when comparing test results.
Completing the test indoors, in a controlled environment will help improve the repeatability of the test. Pacing in a FTP test is critical too. Starting too conservatively or too aggressively will not be a true reflection of your ability. A few familiarisation efforts could help with refining a more even pacing strategy.
Lactate threshold testing
Lactate threshold testing involves taking blood samples from the ear lobe or a finger during a test that has several stages of increasing intensity. VO2 data if often collected simultaneously during the test.
While lactate threshold testing can provide you with accurate training zones and a good indication of your training status, it also has several draw backs. One of the issues with lactate testing is the invasive nature of the test which requires blood samples at regular intervals. The analysis of the blood samples increases the cost of the assessment. There is also the argument of how long it takes for the blood to flow from the working muscles to the point at which it is being drawn.
However, research has shown that ventilatory data (VO2 and VCO2) collected during VO2max testing, are able to identify the same metabolic thresholds as lactate testing without additional blood analysis. This provides another argument for using a VO2max instead of lactate threshold testing to avoid the invasive nature of the testing.
The majority of South African universities and sports science institutes will offer a variety of performance testing options. If you are interested, contact them for more information.
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