Do you feel fit? Do you have the data to back it up and know it for sure? A fitness test provides you with solid evidence to quantify your form — and a benchmark for your training. The most important tests for cyclists are the FTP and VO2 Max tests.
The days gradually shorten and the season draws to an end, so now it’s a great time to get your fitness tested. There may be several days for good cycling sessions left but the chances are that, with a good season in the legs and all your most important events done, you’re now at or close to your fittest and strongest.
Benchmarking yourself now is a useful exercise. If you can get one single number evaluating your overall fitness, you can use it to adjust your exercise over winter and to start planning next year’s training. This is also a number you can use to beat when you do the test again next year — and there’s nothing quite like an objective target to stay motivated.
TESTING YOUR FITNESS
There are several fitness tests available, ranging from the cheap and cheerful to those used by professionals; fortunately, all types are also accessible to amateurs.
Getting tested using a power-meter-based system is more precise and offers a better guide for training. That said, heart-rate-based testing is almost as good. Here’s what you should know about the three testing methods.
STRAVA’S FITNESS TESTING
You have to be a Premium member of Strava to access this guide to your fitness. It evaluates your fitness with one simple number, using either heart rate or power or a combination of the two. This is a very useful way of tracking your fitness over time, provided you’re diligent about entering all your cycling trials on the platform. It records how hard and how long you cycle and uses a version of a metric called Training Impulse to map how this transforms into fitness. Cycling hard and long gives you a high score; easy and short, a low score. The higher score you get, the fitter you are. It’s nice and simple but not very sophisticated and not a particularly useful tool for planning a next year’s training program. This is more a fitness snapshot and tracker.
TESTING FUNCTIONAL THRESHOLD POWER
A functional threshold power (FTP) test returns two highly useful results. One is an accurate measure of where you are with regard to your fitness and the other is a metric that gives you useful data to help you plan how to improve. It’s best used together with a power meter but it’s perfectly acceptable to use heart rate as an alternative, and testing can be carried out outside or inside on a turbo.
There are numerous protocols available and search online for these, but basically an FTP test involves pedalling as hard as you can sustain for 20 minutes. It’s important this is done after a decent warm-up, and the number it returns, either in watts or heart rate, is your estimated maximum sustainable pace over an hour. FTP is very trainable, meaning it can be improved with structured program using training zones. You can use FTP as a training guide without a personal trainer as long as you read up and understand the basics of sports science. A personal trainer takes away some of the theory — but you still have to do the practice.
TESTING VO2 MAX
Of all the figures and test available to riders, VO2 max test is the most useful. It’s widely accepted as being the best single number to measure the type of fitness that’s important to going fast on a bike — cardiovascular condition and maximal aerobic power. In general, VO2 max is expressed as either litres of oxygen per minute or, more often, millilitres of oxygen per kilogram of body mass per minute. The ml/kg/min is much more widely used.
Some factors of VO2 max are genetic, leading to the well-known quote: To be an elite athlete, choose your parents carefully. However, VO2 max is trainable to a certain degree, and it can be improved significantly even as you age. To improve your VO2 max, the training has to be structured and time has to be spent working at the top end; that is, short bursts repeated as often as you can tolerate at the upper limit of your power outputs. Hello, hill repeats; hello, short, fast bursts of one minute on, one minute off.
A VO2 max test, beside a training program made by somebody who’s able to interpret and implement the results, is a great way of discovering and tracking fitness as well as deciding how to design and schedule training programs.
VO2 MAX TEST – TESTING YOUR LIMITS
Nobody has ever woken up and thought, “I’m really looking forward to my VO2 max test today.” Of course, you are interested in the result, but the process is, as anyone who has ever done it knows, painful.
Basically, it involves pedalling as hard as possible until you’re on the point of collapse, gasping for breath, sweating abnormally with your quads burning like the fires of hell. Apart from that, it’s great. The fact it’s mercifully short is perhaps the only upside, apart from the data, which is liquid gold if you’re serious about finding the shortest way to big gains from targeted training. Remember, it’s crucial to go into your VO2 max test in a well-rested state, this means at least 48 hours off the bike and an easy week before the test will do the trick.
After a good 10-minute warm-up with some easy pedalling, the test starts. The physiologist there should explain you what is going to happen to prepare you psychologically for the effort you’re going to need to make and to know where it’s going to kick in and what you should be doing. You have to keep a cadence in the range of 80-90rpm and every minute the resistance is increased by 30W. The early stages are okay and the resistance increase as you go through 180-230W is hardly noticeable. Afterwards it starts to get tougher.
The increases are ramps, rather than steps, so the load does rather creep up on you. It feel like a long hill that just gradually gets steeper and steeper. Beyond about 300W, it’s hurting. The cadence becomes tougher to maintain and breathing quickens. But, so far, it’s no tougher than a fast chaingang. Towards the end, the mask feels as though it’s getting in the way of breathing. It’s not — but breathing is a fight. The legs may still feel strong but the lungs are burning. Maintaining cadence takes every ounce of concentration and focus you can muster. The last minute is pretty much unmitigated agony. When the test is over, you’ll probably collapse on the bars, lift the mask and heave enormous breaths of profound relief that the pain has stopped.