More than just a test session

Over and over again within my coaching, the situation arises where an athlete has questions about test sessions. How do I pace it? How did I do? Did I do it correctly? What does which bit of data mean? At this time of year it may be the case that you are considering where you are at right now.

Often this can lead to some very negative situations and feelings of uselessness or even abject failure. The crucial thing to understand is that any testing session isn't about a pass / fail assessment. It is about much more, it is done to inform the coach and the athlete about a factual assessment of where you are at, right then and there in that moment, not 3 months earlier and not 3 months after. Often it is easy to think of fitness lost at this time of year or to be hugely intimidated by the progress required to reach your goals. (Note to self - write a blog on appropriate goal-setting)

How should I pace it, should I try as hard as I can even if it isn't very good?

The first lesson is pacing and in terms of 'feel' I always rely on the quarters approach to how an even effort should feel. This approach should result in a relatively correct power output, but you will need to learn your own personal cues and relative levels for this so dial in to what you are doing. I have written an expression for each quarter below, this is similar to an RPE approach. For a swim CSS, VDOT and bike CP20 test these are very easily divided by 100's, 50's, per two laps on the run and by 5min chunks on the bike. 

1. Feels ok relatively easy

2. Working now

3. Hard Work, oof

4. OMG Get the paramedic ready

Even if numbers are lower than expected yes, full gas, however, you are trying to get your best effort out over the duration. Even pacing is the way to do this, but the data you try to be 'even' with is important. It is also absolutely crucial to remember that a test session is NOT just about numbers and data.

What kind of data should I look at?

All data is a guideline the important thing is to understand the context it sits in, below I have covered a few explanations on different variables and how useful they can or can't be. They are all relative to each other and all interact so understanding the bigger picture and not getting bogged down in data is really important. If you stop trying your hardest because computer says no without understanding perhaps why that is a really important difference between stopping because you know you should. The important bit is you are mindlessly following the instructions of the watch rather than using the watch to help you it has started to become a hinderance.

Firstly speed is the wrong variable to go on with regards to cycling. Speed is the one that is most highly influenced by factors outside of your control, hills, wind, tyres, drafting, air temperature, road surface quality, body position, handlebar position, type of bike..... etc etc It is not reliable or repeatable in any way and has to be seen in a very large picture of context. It is a huge 'IT DEPENDS'.... If you have nothing else it can be useful but you need to in tune with as many of the other influencing variable as you can.

You can measure direct input and outputs when it comes to testing.

Input - Heart Rate / RPE (Rating of Perceived Exertion 1 Asleep - 10 Max Effort)  (Dial - Up)

Output - Power (Fibre Optic)

Power is an absolute expression of the work being done. This is due to how and what is measured and the fact it is instantaneous and not held back by the physiology of your body. 

Dial up above refers to the lag time of your body, it takes a while for oxygen intake/uptake, heart rate and other physiological processes to get up to speed whilst exercising (this is one of the reasons for warm ups). This is therefore reflected in the data from these variables over the course of a test, training session or race. It has a delay and can also be influenced by external factors such as hot/cold/sleep/stress and a long list of others.

Power on the other hand is an on/off switch, you push hard on the pedals and your power instantaneously goes up. If you stop pedalling it goes immediately to zero without passing 'go'. Hopefully when you stop pedalling your heart rate doesn't go to zero!! 

When it comes to pacing your heart rate will see a gradual rise over the first five min whereas power should be a pretty much horizontal line with an ever so slight increase and pick up over the last quarter. At this stage you can afford to start to go anaerobic and into the 'emotional zone' as the end of the test is nearing and you will be able to rest and recoup the oxygen debt you are going to accumulate with the push to the finish when you have stopped. 

The trick with endurance sport is to push up the pace you can achieve for the first three quarters of the race by making efficiency and economy gains so that your aerobic (race pace) thresholds are higher. There will always be that final quarter where you go emotional and go anaerobic in true superhero fashion but the trick is to be the first person in the race to hit this pace appropriately. And not to be the numpty that hits this pace inappropriately before the last quarter. In a triathlon the appropriate place is normally the last quarter of the run. 

What will I get out of the test?

Remember these tests are also about learning as well, they are a training session in themselves and have several outcomes;

1. Training stimulus from completion of the test

2. Learning from reflection on how the session went. Personal physiological cues and sensations as well as coach/data feedback.

3. The useful data that can be taken from the test. This is true whether the test is 'perfect' or not it is all learning! 

4. Year on Year evaluation and comparison.

Remember it is also perfectly reasonable to use training races as test sessions this works especially well with a Park Run or local 10mile TT when they start around Easter time. They are also fun!

So get out there bravely put a line in the sand, learn from it, make a plan from it and then work towards your 2017 goals. 


If you are interested in using the tests that we commonly use with athletes you can

download a free plan from here

. To use this plan you will need to do a very simple setup of a free basic Training Peaks account and then apply the plan to your calendar/training diary in Training Peaks. If you are interested from here you can then use this test data to purchase an appropriate ability banding of our TRIplans. This could just simply be the swim sessions or bike and run sessions only or any other combination or all three disciplines!