Performance Testing at the start of your New Season

December typically represents a time of starting up training for the upcoming year. A solid 3 months of winter conditioning and base building allows the triathlete & cyclist to prepare for a 6-12 week block in the early spring that readies them for racing. But many people are not sure where to start or what they should be doing. Using performance testing at the start of your training year allows you to see exactly where you are, helps you set short and long term targets for the next few months and gives you a baseline for future testing. Two basic types of performance testing or benchmarking exist, Field testing and Laboratory Testing.

Field Testing

Field testing as you’d expect requires only your training equipment and a suitable testing location. Several different field testing protocols exist, but most of them involve some method of estimating your “Functional Threshold”. Functional threshold represents the intensity (how fast) you can sustain for a long period of time, typically an hour. Testing protocols usually use shorter time blocks of testing and some sort of factor to estimate the hour-long intensity.

Equipment needed for field testing includes a heart rate monitor, an accurate way of measuring distance such as a GPS watch or cycling computer, a PowerTap for power measurement, and a measured, safe location for testing. A course that can be easily repeated is ideal such as a track for running, or a low traffic stretch of road with few traffic stops for cycling. Several field testing protocols are described here.

Laboratory testing

Laboratory testing uses specialized equipment that can be invasive or non-invasive.  “Invasive” testing most commonly involves a small lancet that draws a tiny drop of blood for lactate testing, similar to how a diabetic tests their blood sugar. Non-invasive laboratory testing includes VO2 Max and ventilatory threshold testing.  These tests measure inhaled and expired air from your lungs using a tightly fitting mask and sophisticated gas analysis that calculates the percentage of oxygen & carbon dioxide used or created during incremental exercise.

Both lactate testing and Vo2 testing usually use in incremental step test that follows a standard protocol (but be aware that many protocols exist!).  As with field testing, lactate and VO2 testing are used to estimate an athlete’s “threshold” exercise intensity.  Threshold refers again to that intensity that can be sustained for up to an hour or more.   With an incremental step test, a treadmill or cycling ergometer (such as a computrainer) gradually increases the speed or effort required from the athlete while measurements are taken.  For lactate testing, one drop of blood is tested every 3-4 minutes, while heart rate, perceived exertion & exercise intensity are monitored.  For Vo2 testing, the gasses are measured almost constantly, and many variables measured such as oxygen uptake, carbon dioxide produced, and the volume of air exchanged with each breath.

Both tests can then plot these variables against the exercise intensity.  An exercise physiologist interprets these graphs and is able to identify estimates of the athlete’s lactate threshold, anaerobic threshold, ventilatory threshold, and VO2 max.

What do the results mean?

Estimating your threshold whether through field or laboratory testing allows the athlete  (or their coach) to create training levels.  These training levels then give the athlete a guideline during exercise as to how hard (or easy) to perform their workouts.   The coach carefully plans workouts of different intensities to help improve fitness and performance throughout the year.   Without some way to plan and create intensities, the athlete doesn’t have any guidelines to follow, wasting time with either inefficient training or time lost in trial & error.

What test is best for you?

Field testing is both free and easy to repeat as needed (recommended every 4-8 weeks). It doesn’t require extra equipment other than what the athlete already has, or trained interpreters of the data.   Even if you have laboratory testing done, you should always perform a field test to help calibrate your results, as each type of testing will have its own bias.   If you get a lactate/Vo2 test in December but don’t compare it with a field test, unless you repeat the lab tests every 4-8 weeks (which gets expensive), you won’t really know how much you’ve progressed without the baseline field test.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that from a practical standpoint, there is nothing you get from a lab test that you can’t get from field testing.  That doesn’t mean that the lab tests are useless or non-needed.   A lactate curve gives you a unique look into your own physiology and when repeated after a block of training, visual progress along all levels of intensity can be identified.   If you’ve done a number of lactate tests and just want to do a ‘check-up’, steady-state, rather than incremental testing can be done to find out if your lactate production has decreased at a fixed intensity level…or an abbreviated incremental test above & below your known threshold can tell you if you’ve made improvements on a bigger scale.

Lactate testing gives you the most accurate data on your own body’s metabolism…how it converts carbohydrates into lactate during incremental exercise.   As lactate builds in your bloodstream, the date is plotted on a curve against your pace/power and heart rate.  The actual shifts in how your body metabolizes lactate with improved training can be seen by plotting 2 tests several months apart on the same graph. It’s considered by many to be the gold standard of determining your true lactate threshold.

VO2 testing helps an athlete determine their VO2 Max, which is the maximum amount of oxygen that your body can use.  VO2 Max represents your potential as an endurance athlete but is not predictive of your actual performance. It represents oxygen used by the body but doesn’t tell us how that energy use converts to speed. If your technique is poor, you have energy leaks due to weak supporting muscles or are not a seasoned endurance athlete, your oxygen uptake will be high, but your actual endurance capacity far lower than VO2 Max might suggest.

What to watch out for…

When comparing different testing options, it helps to know a little bit about the equipment used.  Portable lactate meters are an FDA waived device, which makes them able to be used by coaches without special approval as a medical device.  Prices range from $300-500 for the tester.  Many hospitals using a “point of care” testing system use the exact same lactate meters that coaches use.

Vo2 Testing equipment, on the other hand, ranges from around $5000 for a portable “cart” to $20,000 or more for university-level testing equipment.  It’s true that you get what you pay for, and if you are interested in VO2 testing I would strongly suggest contacting a university-based physiology lab that uses gas exchange equipment such as that made by ParvoMedic.    Less expensive metabolic ‘carts’ give less accurate data on automated protocols with no independent calibration procedure.

Keep in mind that all of these tests are simply approximations of your current fitness & threshold.   Field testing is the most accessible, least expensive method and should be performed even if you pursue laboratory testing so that you have a baseline of measurement for your next test.

Where can I get testing done?

Steel City Endurance offers portable lactate testing using the Lactate Scout portable measuring device and a LAB model (highest calibration) Computrainer with ergometer controlled power settings.  Bring your own bicycle and HR monitor and go home with a copy of your test results and suggested zones emailed to your account before you walk out of the door.   Consultation on using and correlating the resulting zones is included in the testing.   Coach Suzanne is a physician with additional master’s level exercise physiology training & lab experience in interpreting incremental lactate tests and personally evaluates each test result.

If you are interested in Vo2 Testing, I recommend contacting the University of Pittsburgh Sports Performance center or the Exercise Physiology Department at Pitt where calibrated university level gas analysis can be performed for the best accuracy.