Sunday 9 December 2018

Testing and its importance

Testing, why should we do it?

Over the years that I've been competing in triathlon and more recently as a coach, I've come to realise just how obsessed many athletes are by numbers and data. So much so that some athletes are more intent on how their Strava uploads look, compared to what the objectives of their training plans are. 

I've seen people stopping their watches during the recovery periods on an intervals run, so that when it's uploaded to Strava, it only shows how fast they've done the individual intervals. I've seen athletes deliberately push too hard in low intensity aerobic endurance sessions, just so that their min/mile numbers look better, the examples go on and on. This isn't something that I'm the only coach to notice though, I read an interesting article from an extremely highly regarded coach a few weeks ago, whereby he was stating that he thinks that many athletes are training so that their Strava uploads look good, or their training figures are the most important thing to them, rather than actually training to race. And in this era of social media, where everyone seems to scrutinise everyone else's figures etc, and there's a lot of peer pressure, it's easy to see how people can get sucked into this mindset.

All that said, however, I think there is a time and a place where numbers and data are important and that's during testing.

Why do testing?

In my opinion I think that regular testing can help yield a lot of information about a particular athlete and how their training is going. There may be areas that require some remedial attention, or it may highlight other issues, ie, anxiety, stress, fatigue, injury, illness etc. etc. as well as showing any progress that an athlete is making. At the club where I coach, I deliberately add a "test week" at the end of each training block and it's been through these regular tests that we've helped to shape an athlete's training and also it's highlighted some athletes who have needed to rest / recover better and even a couple who I have advised to take a complete break from training in order to prevent too much fatigue and a risk of developing overtraining syndrome. The tests that we do are exactly the same each time and are carried out at the same locations, with the only variables being the weather and the state of the athletes current fitness / health. 

There are many different forms of testing, each with their own aim and to a novice athlete it's understandable that it may seem like information overload, with a battery of tests and acronyms like VO2 Max test, FTP test, Lactate Threshold test, CSS Test, etc. However, with correct coaching and with someone to guide the athlete through these tests they can be extremely helpful in allowing an athlete to better gauge their intensity during sessions and, more importantly, their race pace or strategy. 

Using test data to help race strategy

When we carry out testing regularly it helps us to better "dial in" how hard we can push ourselves, how we can pace the swim, bike and run better and to help prevent us from flying off at the start and then blowing up later in the race. Personally, as an athlete and coach who is striving to gain a better knowledge and understanding of how training and racing at different intensities will affect me, I often "experiment" with things in training to help me race better. I'll often carry out a Functional Threshold Power, or FTP test, which will establish the theoretical power that I should be able to hold for 1 hour. During the last time trial bike test that I did, where we do a Time Trial on a 2.1 mile loop I was relatively new to training with power so I tried to ride the whole test at 100% of what my FTP was at the time. I managed to hold it for about 6 or 7 laps and then struggled for the last 6 miles or so. The next time I did the same test, at the end of the next training block I decided that I'd try to ride at about 75% to 85% of my FTP, which is more in line with the power output that I'd try to hold for the bike leg on an olympic distance triathlon. What I found was that I felt much stronger later into the ride and I was actually just over a minute faster than the previous test. Obviously, some of the time difference may be down to weather differences, or my improved fitness, but what it showed me is that by reducing my power output slightly, I was able to pace the test better.

Cycling isn't the only area that testing can be beneficial though. By doing regular testing for CSS, or Critical Swim Speed in the pool, or by doing regular Lactate Threshold Heart Rate testing for running we can learn from the data collected in those tests and, over time, we can learn a great deal about our pacing strategy and how hard we can push ourselves. 

Explaining Swim Smooth CSS theory
For example, when we do CSS testing, this can help to establish the theoretical pace that we can swim at for a 1500m swim. How many of you have set off in a race, especially if it's a pool based swim, and thought that you were feeling great, only to end up gasping for air after 4 or 5 lengths? We all know why this is and if you go all out at the beginning, you're going to pay for it later in the race. By doing CSS swim sessions that have been gauged following a CSS pace established through testing, we can become more accustomed to what it feels like to swim at a particular pace. It may feel really easy for the first few lengths or first half of the swim, but as you tire you'll be glad that you haven't gone off too fast and you'll often find that your overall swim time is a lot faster than you expected.

One of the tests that I think has seen more of our club members benefit from, than any other, is the lactate threshold heart rate test. I mentioned in an earlier article that heart rate training shouldn't be the be all and end all for training, because it can be affected by many variables. If you're suffering from fatigue, tiredness, stress, anxiety, injury or illness, these are all factors that will have an affect on your heart rate. However, when using heart rate in conjunction with RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) it can be a great tool for helping your training and racing. By doing regular testing we can establish heart rate training zones for athletes and the more we do these tests the more we can "iron out" any discrepancies. We'll see where an athlete is suffering from one of the ailments mentioned above and we can learn what the optimal heart rate is for a particular type of training. ie, if you're doing an aerobic run you want to be doing it at a very low intensity, alternatively, if you're doing an intervals session you want to be pushing yourself hard. In my opinion, I think that by training to heart rate it can also help to develop an athletes psychology too. By that I mean that if you regularly train to heart rate you'll know how long you can hold a particular intensity for, so when you're nearing the end of a race and your heart rate is climbing you can tell yourself that you know you can hold that intensity for a certain length of time and will be able to keep pushing. It may feel like you're on your chinstrap and can't push any harder, but a little glance at your hr and you might think "oh, I know I can push harder than this".  

Using test results to establish training zones.

Joe Friel's training zones used in triathlon

However you look at it and whatever distance you're racing, triathlon is an endurance sport so we have to train as such.There are a few different ways of doing this, but one of the most widely used is the polarised training method where you'll split your sessions between being extremely easy, low intensity sessions and then other sessions at an almost max effort. The most widely recognised split of these intensities is to do 80% of the training in zone 1 and zone 2, with the remaining 20% or so done in zone 4 upwards. The vast majority of athletes who I have coached and trained with have all said that they've noticed huge improvements when they've adopted this training method and their results have been spectacular in some cases. 
When I'm trying to explain the importance of using the polarised training method, I'll often use the following analogy; Imagine your body is like a diesel engine and when you do your training at a low intensity, ie zone 1 and 2, you're developing an incredibly efficient engine, that will go for miles and miles on very little fuel and with very little risk of damage or injury. Then, when we combine this with the shorter, really high intensity sessions, this is like bolting a big turbo charger on the side of the engine. All of a sudden you've got this incredibly efficient, powerful engine that can deliver some fantastic top end speed, but also hold it there for a period of time as well. 

I hope the above has helped and, as always feel free to contact me with any questions or queries and I'll do my best to answer them.

If you'd like to speak more about your goals and ambitions and how I can help you on your triathlon journey, click on the link below which will take you to my coaching Facebook page, where I can be contacted through

Certa Cito Tri Coaching

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