What's Cool In Road Cycling

Measuring Performance: The Field Test

Time and time again, the number one question I ask is if the athlete is responding to the training I have prescribed. And my favorite “experiment” to answer this question is a good old fashioned field test, which is free and can be conducted just about anywhere.

“Reality” Cycling
In a former life and career, I conducted hundreds of experiments in a biotechnology laboratory designed to answer specific questions about the research projects I was working on. But now that I have fully transitioned from a DNA pipetting wiz into a full time professional cycling coach, I still perform “experiments” designed to evaluate athlete’s current physiology, and the most practical and often most relevant one of all is an old-fashioned field test.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a time and a place for getting down and dirty in an exercise physiology lab. However, the reality of the situation is that cyclists need to test more often than they can afford to, thus my penchant for field tests. And to make training as specific as possible, oftentimes the only way to achieve that is to replicate the “pressure points” of a race or event. All the cyclist needs is a stopwatch and a whole lot of motivation. A properly conducted field test cuts to the core of cycling performance and gives a great physiological assessment of the athlete (1), making it an indispensable tool for the coach or the self coached athlete.

How Do I Conduct a Field Test?
In essence, a field test is riding as fast as you can from point A to point B, kinda like a time trial. Similarly you can start at point A and go as hard as you can for exactly 20 minutes. Mark how far you traveled and remember that point when you fly by it with time to spare on your next test. Choose your points A and B between a piece of road that is stimulating and accurately reflects the event(s) you will be competing in. Maybe you want to conquer a particular climb or perhaps there’s a ripping section of road that’s similar to the State time trial course. Whichever you choose, it is absolutely imperative that you ensure your test is repeatable, accurate and reliable. Here’s how:

First and foremost your test should be sport specific and the specificity lies in length of the test. For the road cyclist and mountain biker an all out effort similar to your time trial pace of 20 to 30 minutes elicits a physiological response that has been found to be “the single greatest determinant of cycling performance in mass start cycling events” (1).

When choosing the length of your field test you may want to let the terrain dictate the specifics of your test (working within the 20 – 30 min range). After all, going for it from the bottom of a climb all the way to the top is more stimulating than working off your stopwatch. It may even be specific to your target event(s). For instance, a climber targeting a race with a decisive climb will want to specifically perform their test on a climb similar to the one found in the race. Heck, if you live nearby the race course, test on the race course! Conversely you may not even see a climb longer than one or two minutes where you live. That’s cool; then find a stretch of road to measure how far you can ride in 20 or 30 minutes. If this is the case, pay special attention to the wind and humidity which will affect your aerodynamics and thus time. As long as you come back to the very same piece of road and start from the very same spot, under the same test conditions, your test will be repeatable.

Whatever you have nearby, I suggest finding a stretch of road free of stops signs, intersections and corners — anything that would slow you down. In essence: go as hard as you can! Don’t hold back one bit, go for it! Now here’s the catch: remember everything about this test and duplicate it for your next test.

Items to keep the same include:

• Your bike: weight (including water bottles), body position, tires & tire pressure.
• Your kit: jersey, shorts, helmet – – essentially you want to have the same aerodynamic characteristics from test to test.
• Wind & weather conditions: test on a windless day under the same humidity – air density affects aerodynamics too!
• Temperature: avoid testing between extreme temperature differences.
• Come into the test rested, properly fueled, well hydrated with tons of motivation.
• Perform the exact same warm up before each field test.
• In a nutshell keep everything the same except for your fitness.

Being able to compare tests and controlling for all other variables except your physiology or fitness allows you and your coach to interpret the efficacy of your training. These details may seem picky but are necessary to draw accurate comparisons.

Conversely, if your goal is to test the effects of changing components, position, technique (e.g., standing more/less on a climb, cadence, gearing), then you can also do that by using field tests spaced fairly close together (e.g., a couple of times over the course of a week). These “technical” field tests might be better if they’re shorter in duration. For example, you can do shorter 3-5 km time trials and record time to completion.

Test not once, but twice, or more
Now that daylight savings is upon us if you haven’t done so already get out there and perform a “baseline” field test (first one of the year). Approach the day with a minimum of 24 hours rest and scorch your test. Record the results and continue with your next training cycle. Come back to the very same field test in 6-8 weeks under the same rested conditions and go for it again. By comparing the two results you will be able to draw useful conclusions about your training. i.e. is it working? Test periodically throughout the year and carefully record your results in your training log. This will paint a big picture that is extremely useful when plotting out your next move and planning your next winning season.

If you want to get fancy, Tom Compton over at AnalyticCycling.com has constructed an online tool for ensuring your field tests are accurate and reliable by allowing you to account for any changes in test conditions. You can even calculate your improvement in power (watts) by entering your improved field test time.

You also may want to use a powermeter for your field test. By taking the normalized power and comparing tests in watts per kilogram of body weight it is possible to drawn precise conclusions about your training and preparation for upcoming races. Personally this is my favorite tool to use with a field test because it breaks down everything into one easily comparable number test after test.

Finally, testing yourself is a great start, but the ultimate measure of performance is performance itself. So get out there in a race, go hard, and duke it out!

E.F. Coyle, A.R. Coggan, M.K. Hopper and T.J. Walters, “Determinants of endurance in well-trained cyclists.” J Appl. Physiol 64:2622-2630, 1988

Frank Overton
Frank is a full time professional USA cycling certified Expert coach, and category 1 road racer. He prescribes field tests all over North America and personally chooses the Flagstaff hillclimb in Boulder, CO for his own testing. Check out FasCat Coaching @ FasCatCoaching.com.

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