What's Cool In Road Cycling

The Science of Testing 1: Testing the Tests

Over the past month or more on Toolbox and elsewhere on Pez, we’ve talked a lot about training camps and also the importance of testing. There are a thousand and one tests available out there and everybody seems to advocate something different, so let’s start a series on the science behind testing.

As a university professor, I play the role of the big bad exam-giver to the students, and I’m sometimes looked upon like some evil torturer come midterm time. But do the top students in terms of exam-taking and high grades always become the best kinesiologists? Based on my career to date, my response would be “often but not always.”

It’s a Crapshoot
Predicting success after university, like picking winners of Paris-Roubaix, is usually a matter of needing to meet minimum standards, then the rest relying on luck, individual initiative, and intangibles. For example, if you want to get into a top post-graduate school, you need a minimum GPA. But beyond that, it’s mainly up to your references, your interview, and that certain” je ne sais quoi.” So the super-genius doesn’t always become the most successful.

In a similar vein, even if you have a VO2max value as high as Lance’s (nearly 90 mL/kg/min) or a resting heart rate as low as low as Indurain’s (39 bpm), that doesn’t mean you should start fitting yourself out for maillot jaunes. It doesn’t hurt, but there’s a lot more than simple test scores to getting pro contract. In one of my first Toolbox articles, I talked about Dr. Alejandro’s research demonstrating a huge range in VO2max’s in top Spanish pros, beginning with an almost amateurish 69 mL!

Why Bother?
So then just what good is testing then? Let’s explore some specific uses and dangers from testing:

• Last week, Bruce Hendler mentioned in his article about the OTC San Diego camp how “testing is mostly used as a tool and not a performance predictor.” This is an absolutely critical concept to drill into our heads. On the one hand, if you have a VO2max below a certain value, I can probably confidently predict that you’re not going to break the hour for a 40 k TT. However, the main value of testing is to use as benchmarks to mark your progression towards a goal, and specifically to see whether you’re on track. Moral: The value of testing is to use it as a long-term record of your progress.

• Related to the above, the critical factor in testing is CONSISTENCY If you’re changing things every test (diet, testing course/protocol, wind direction/speed, equipment), then it becomes very, very difficult to compare the results from different tests. That’s one of the values of indoor or lab-based tests done by professionals, because it eliminates as many variables as possible. I often get asked whether one power meter or body composition test (e.g., skinfolds, underwater weighing, electrical impedance) is more “accurate” (i.e., better) than another, and my response is that I would rather have a “consistent” or “reliable” test that is consistently inaccurate than a test that gives me really inconsistent readings each time I use it.

• Avoid the urge to compare your test results to somebody else! As I mentioned above, everybody’s individual. For example, who has the higher maximal heart rate means absolutely nothing. Even comparing heart rate response to a particular workload between two cyclists is also meaningless. I clearly remember being on the provincial developmental team and climbing with another rider in the exact same gear at the same speed and relative effort, and my heart rate being 20 bpm lower throughout. It did not mean I was the better cyclist! What would be more important is whether, during peak season, if I again went at the same gear and speed, my heart rate dropped or was higher.

• You have to pick the right test! You have to understand the strengths and limitations of the test you are performing so that you can in turn understand what it tells you about your performance. For example, how much you can squat in the weight room tells you one thing, whereas your body fatness and your lactate threshold tells you something else. The trick is in picking the most relevant test based on the specifics of cycling and also your strengths and limitations.

A Look Ahead
In the coming months on Toolbox, I’ll write an irregular series on various major tests often used in cycling testing, and the strengths and limitations of each. I’ll also provide some thoughts on “other” tests that might prove useful depending on your needs.

Oh yeah, one other thing. Next time I write I will likely be writing from way down under in summery New Zealand, as I’ll be spending February through March at the University of Otago way down in Dunedin on the South Island. My colleagues Jim Cotter, Nancy Rehrer and I will be conducting a study measuring gut blood flow during exercise in the heat. Have a great rest of the winter all of you in the Northern Hemisphere, because I’m outta this popsicle stand!

Feel the Burn: Just What is Lactate Threshold?

Smoother than Butta: You versus Olano

About Stephen:
Stephen Cheung is an Associate Professor of Kinesiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and can’t wait to trade his snow shovel for sunscreen again! Stephen’s company, Podium Performance, also provides elite sport science and training support to provincial and national-level athletes in a number of sports. He can be reached for comments or coaching inquiries at [email protected].

Like PEZ? Why not subscribe to our weekly newsletter to receive updates and reminders on what's cool in road cycling?

Comments are closed.