Dear Coach: Which Off-Season Tests Make Sense For Triathletes?

I’ve thought about doing some off-season testing. Which test makes the most sense for triathletes?

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I’ve thought about doing some off-season testing. Which test makes the most sense for triathletes?

Before you spend your hard-earned cash on a test, you should know what you are hoping to gain from the test, how you’ll use the information and what the test limitations are. When testing is done periodically throughout your season, each test can be compared to the previous one to help you and your coach determine whether your training approach is improving your fitness.

In an ideal world, every athlete could obtain VO2max, lactate and field testing results three to four times throughout the year, but they are simply too expensive. So which test is right for you?

Lactate testing

The goal is to estimate your lactate threshold to help establish training zones and measure your response to training when performed throughout the year. Athletes get on a treadmill or stationary bike, and as the intensity increases every few minutes, a tiny prick of blood is taken with each step.


Since VO2max is not a predictor of performance, it’s less functional than a lactate test. Nevertheless, many people are simply curious to learn their VO2max number. Additional data such as your ventilatory and anaerobic thresholds can be calculated in order to set training zones. Test protocol is the same as a lactate test, except instead of a blood drop, athletes wear a tight-fitting mask to measure expired gases from the lungs. This test is most beneficial when done along with a lactate test.

DIY testing

The major drawbacks to lab tests are cost (typically $100+ each) and inconvenience. As an alternative, home field tests are free and sometimes just as beneficial. Twenty, 30- or 60-minute time-trial efforts on the bike and a 5K or 10K running race can be done frequently and serve as a functional assessment of your current fitness level.

Choose a testing method that is within your budget, keeping in mind that repeated tests throughout your training cycles are more helpful than a single test in the off-season. If VO2max or lactate testing appeals to you, then find a local lab or coach who can perform them and gather as much data from it as you can. If you just want to chart progress, field testing will give you practical training and performance data for free.

Atkinson is the founder of Pittsburgh’s Steel City Endurance, LTD ( and is a board-certified emergency medicine physician.

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