Testing Times

Testing how an athletes body responded to exercise used to be the preserve of university laboratories and elite Olympians. But with the advent of lighter and more affordable equipment fitness testing is becoming common. Many amateurs now look to establish markers such as their threshold heart rate or peak power output. However, many athletes assume that to establish useful and accurate markers, they need to undergo expensive laboratory testing. This is not so. There are many useful and highly accurate field tests that can be used.

Whilst it is far from vital for an amateur athlete to know where their threshold heart rate occurs or what pace will equate to v V02 max, for example, it is useful. Knowing the heart rate at which you are working ‘easily’ and when you are starting to accumulate pace crippling fatigue is very helpful when designing and carrying out training sessions. Riding on an indoor trainer or running on a treadmill always feels horrendous, so an indicator that tells you whether you really are working flat out or just ‘a bit hard’ is very useful. If you want to know your going to make it to rep 10 of 10 it’s good to have an idea of what pace is going to see you finishing destroyed but still running as oppose to, well, just destroyed!

What follows is a list of testing protocols that Racesnake coaches used as athletes and encourage their athletes to use in developing their training. They are all simple, require minimum equipment and just a little suffering!


What is it?

Velocity V02 max (vV02) is the slowest possible pace at which you will reach V02 max. 

Why is it great?

Running at V02 max is strongly linked to improved race performance. As vV02 is not a maximal pace it can be sustained for fairly long distances (around 4-5km) of interval training. Research shows that athletes that trained using vV02 pace spent longer at V02max, saw bigger gains in Run Economy and improvements in lacate threshold pace than those who trained at threshold or other intensities.  Because it is pace based training you don’t need anything more complicated than a stop watch and a short, measured course. People who improve their vV02 pace can be confident that they will see improvement in race times all the way up to marathon distance!

What is it for?

It is  very good pace to use in your high intensity running interval sessions. With a 1:1 ratio of work to active rest you can ensure that you get the most out of your interval sets with out blowing before the end or finishing feeling like there’s something left in the tank. 

How do I test it?

Testing vV02 is as simple as it is painful. Run as far as you can for 6 minutes and measure the distance you have covered. At the end of the 6 minutes divide the distance run by the time taken to establish your vV02 pace. For example if your run 2km, then your vV02 pace is 1km/3min, 500m/90s or 250m/45s. 

Because the timescale is so small, you need to be accurate about measuring the distance.The difference in vV02 between a runner with a 31min. 10km split and one who holds 36min. could well be as small as 200m, so trying to keep the margin of error in your measurements small will pay dividends when using this pace in training. Using a running track and a cone would be useful for marking the distance. 

How often?

vV02 may change quite quickly if you are new to running or have recently increased your training load. For these people retesting every 4 weeks could be useful. Otherwise once every 8-10 weeks would be adequate.

Heart Rate Max

What is it?

Well, what it says on the tin. It’s your maximal heart rate as measured in beats per minute (BPM).

Why is it great?

Firstly, people love comparing it, especially if their’s is high! But actually HRM is not really linked to your athletic ability, it’s mostly just a feature of you, much like your hair colour or foot size. Ironically, it has been observed that many elite endurance athletes see a decrease in HRM as they get fitter.  On a serious note, knowing your HRM is only really useful if your intend to train using heart rate zones. Then it gives a fixed point from which to calculate all your other intensity zones. 

What is it for?

Setting heart rate zones.

How do I test it?

The answer to this is myriad. The most common way to establish HRM is to use a ramp test, this increases effort, and often, gradient gradually,until the athlete can no longer sustain the pace required.  However, most V02max type interval sessions will illicit HRM before the end. One of my favourites is 40s/20s, where you work flat out for 40s then take 20s recovery continuously for 10-15 minutes. You could even do this as 3 sets of 5 minutes and you’ll still get very close to HRM. This could be done both on an indoor bike trainer and on a hill as a running session. 

It is certainly advisable to conduct a test specifically for the bike and another run specific test, you will probably find your HRM is significantly lower on the bike.

Remember that it really doesn’t matter that much if you don’t quite reach HRM. Many athletes complete a HRM protocol only to surpass their established HRM in their next interval session. This is not a huge concern, as long as your within spitting distance of your HRM, 3 or so BPM will make very little difference when calculating training zones.

How often?

For this one there is no need to repeat the test with any great frequency. Remember, as you age HRM tends to decrease, so maybe a test every 5 years would be helpful.

Lactate Threshold-Pace/HR/ Power

What is it?

Well this is defined differently everywhere you look. However, it is the point at which Lactate acid increases exponentially in the blood. This tends to happen at about 75% V02 max or 85% HRM. Note that lactate values are simply a proxy for your levels of fatigue, lactate is not directly responsible for the fatigue being experienced. 

Why is it great?

Lactate threshold tends to occur at an intensity or pace you can sustain for about 45-60 minutes, making it a great indicator of race pace effort.  

What is it for?

It is often touted as a magic training zone. But most current science indicates that your much better off training above or significantly below this number. That said it is extremely useful for measuring increases in fitness as well as helping an athelete establish their probable race day pace (most sprint races will be run at this pace and olympic or 70.3 at very high percentages of it).

How do I test it?

The ideal way to test this is with an evenly pace 60 minute all out time trial. It is common for athletes to use a 30min TT effort, however this wilL often give a slightly high threshold HR or power. After a good warm up start your time trial, only start the HR monitor 10 minutes of effort (so initial low or erratic HR does not skew the result).  The average HR or power output from this TT effort will likely correlate very closely to your lactic threshold. 

How often?

This variable can change quickly and dramatically with training , so testing every 6-8 weeks is a good idea. 

Critical Swim Speed

What is it?

Critical swim speed is similar to vV02 pace when running or cycling. It is a pace at which the swim speed is high enough for optimal nuero-musclar and strength adaptations to occur whilst also allowing enough volume to be completed to improve aerobic capacity. It could be seen as the optimal aerobic training pace. 

Why is it great?

It is a simple to use metric that require nothing more than a pace clock, that will give a clear focus to your swim intervals.

What is it for?

To develop aerobic capacity and improve swim economy requires a balance between speed and volume. Swimming at CSS will provide that balance. It is ideal for setting the training pace for intervals from 50m-200m and will improve race times in any distance over 400m. 

How do I test it?

CSS is tested by completing two time trial efforts in one session. The first is an evenly paced 400m all out effort. Follow that with some easy recovery swimming, then complete a second, 200m time trail. For both efforts measure the times accurately and then  enter them into one of the many CSS calculators available online (http://www.swimsmooth.com/css-calculator.html). It is worth noting that the original researchers found that CSS correlates closely with 85-90% of your 400m P.B and 80-85% of your 100m P.B. So if the idea of a double TT is a bit daunting establishing CSS from these paces may be a good alternative. 

How Often?

If your an inexperience swimmer then every 4-6 weeks is a good idea. More highly trained athletes will probably find 8-10 weeks adequate.

There is a pervasive idea at the moment (particularly with Ironman athletes) that sports science testing must be conducted like a N.A.S.A moon shot or it will simply be too inaccurate. The truth, as I hope we’ve shown, is that the important information provided by sport science testing , the stuff you’ll use in training, can be garnered with quite low tech, highly accurate methods all by yourself!  Hopefully, you’ll find something you can apply to your training in the simple methods we’ve outlined here but remember the main thing is that you enjoy your training and racing. 

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