For many cyclists, the word ‘test’ brings immediate stress after years of school, but in cycling, testing need not cause the same anxiety. Cycling tests are really workouts we use to help us see how our performance changes over time. You could get information from any workout, especially if you use a power meter or ride up the same hill often.
Cycling tests offer information about your fitness that you can use to adjust your training and stay on track. Here are five tests to help you assess your cycling fitness and, most important, guide future training choices:
FUNCTIONAL THRESHOLD POWER
Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is something many cyclists and athletes have heard of, but there is a misunderstanding around threshold testing and how to choose and train based on an FTP value. Coach Chris Mayhew of JBV Coaching has athletes complete a couple of time trials with their power meter (e.g., 5- and 20-minutes) depending on their goals, local training area and preferences for the duration. He then uses these data points to set the threshold. You can do the same by warming up well and then completing a time trial or two and plugging the values into an online calculator to get a threshold value and your training zones. Retest this every few weeks (not weekly).
INDOOR STEP TESTS
VO2 max and lactate tests are popular step tests done in labs or with coaches. The idea is to gradually increase the workload in ‘steps’ while monitoring different qualities of your fitness such as oxygen consumption, lactate and/or heart rate. But a step test can also be done as a warmup or as a standalone test on your indoor trainer, no coach required.
Use a power meter or rear-wheel speed-sensor to keep your output steady. Keep your cadence steady and gradually increase your output in 3-minute steps while assessing how your heart rate responds. Over time, you should see your heart rate and perceived exertion (RPE) are lower at a given output (so, after a few months, your power output of 200 watts may only require a heart rate of 160 versus the 170 BPM it was at back in August). You can stop the test when you get to a moderate output (~85% MHR) or if you are familiar with intense exercise you can see how far up the step test you can go until you cannot complete the 3 minutes. This gives you a heart rate at each workload you can look to decrease as well as a maximal step you can try to eclipse after several weeks of training.
TESTING FOR ENDURANCE
For those who want to go easier or have a long-distance event, it might be worth assessing your sub-maximal fitness. There are a variety of tests, including the MAF test and aerobic threshold (30 beats under your threshold heart rate). The idea is to ride at a sub-maximal heart rate and assess what your power output is at that level of exertion and how it changes over an extended period of steady riding (30+ minutes). Return to this test to see how your training affects this submaximal power every few weeks.
Cyclists overlook the importance of their movement ability. I like to see a cyclist squat, lunge and do a pushup and pullup. Usually, we find a deficit somewhere in those movements in their strength, mobility and/or breathing/stability strategy that we can work on to improve results on the bike. Something like an FMS screen checks these movements and gives you some off-bike homework.
THE LOCAL HILL TEST
For athletes who don’t have a power meter or aren’t as tied into numbers, there’s the local ‘hill test.’ Choose a course with hills that you usually ride. From there, pick a short one and a longer one and then test yourself on those sections. If your time keeps improving, there’s a good chance your fitness is improving. Watch for variables around wind, surface (e.g., mud, gravel, sand) and bike setup/type, since outdoor riding speed can be impacted by those factors.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Training consistently over time is the critical element in your success. Test day is not what determines your success, it’s a checkup on how your fitness is evolving. If numbers go up, that means your training has improved the elements that are tested. But remember, the test is not the race. The perfect test does not make you fitter or mean you’ll win that race, it is just a single data point.
Being able to find out if your training is working, or if you need to address something, is the gift frequent testing can provide, but it’s not a magic bullet to making you faster.