For access to all of our training, gear, and race coverage, plus exclusive training plans, FinisherPix photos, event discounts, and GPS apps, sign up for Outside+.
This year, benchmark testing might serve even more purposes than usual. In the absence of races, not only will field assessments provide a snapshot of your current fitness, help you evaluate your training, and identify areas to work on, but they might also be your only reward for the past months of effort. If we’ve learned anything in 2020, it’s to take validation wherever you can get it!
Lindsay Golich, sport physiologist with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, ran down the latest testing protocols. In general, she recommended completing the bike, run, and swim tests within a week “to capture fitness across the board.” She said to take a few easy days, then the bike trial on Tuesday and the run on Wednesday or Thursday.
“Those are back-to-back hard days, but the duration of these high-intensity efforts is short compared to overall training volume, so they won’t require that much recovery on the back end,” Golich said.
She suggested undertaking benchmark testing every eight weeks, especially when there are few, if any, races that in pre-pandemic times provided additional feedback. “Field testing is an excellent substitute for racing,” Golich said.
Whether you conduct the assessments outdoors or in, consistency is key. For the sake of accurate comparison from one benchmark to the next, eliminate variables by biking on the same stretch of road, at the same time of day, using the same nutrition, same preparation and execution. If you did the 30-minute run on a treadmill in March, use the same treadmill in June, October, and December.
There are loads of metrics one can use to measure fitness but regardless of whether you use Functional Power Threshold or Heart Rate, improvement is being able to do more work in a given time with the same perceived effort, Golich said. So an increase in Lactate Threshold Heart Rate, for example, means you can bike further at a sustainable level: You’ll complete a 5K run in less time.
Testing can provide more granular feedback, too. “If your pace decreases over the course of the assessment, that shows fatigue. You may need to work on fitness,” Golich said. “Starting out slow and getting faster throughout may be a confidence issue. And if you start out fast, slow in the middle, and finish fast again, maybe you need to work on pacing.”
Finally, while December benchmarks would normally show the effects of a long racing season, this bout of tests are more a picture of steady state fitness. This year’s data might be a good “holding pattern”—a level of fitness you can sustain, that can be bumped up to racing form in a couple weeks should the opportunity arise next year. With race uncertainty leaking into 2021, “sustainably fit” might be a better goal for the spring than “personal-best sharp.”
Benchmark Testing Sets
1K time trial
“We sometimes use 800 meters instead of 1000 because it’s a more commonly used distance in swim pace calculators.”
Warm up 15-20 minutes
Swim as fast as possible for 1000 (or 800) meters
Divide the time it took to complete the test by 10 (or 8) to determine your pace for 100 meters
5 x 100 meters
“Three times 100 meters is the usual protocol but I don’t think that’s enough to say much about your fitness,” Golich said. “We’re looking for the point where there’s a decrease in performance. That’s why I like 5 x 100 meters.”
Warm up for 15-20 minutes
Swim 100 meters fast five times, with 20 seconds rest between
Average the 5 times and compare to previous benchmarks
Critical Power Test
Use a power meter or heart rate as a metric. Look for increase in lactate threshold heart rate, increase in functional power. “I like this test because it provides three data points—10-second, one-minute, and 20-minute,“ Golich said. “Lactate threshold is the bread and butter of aerobic training of course, but this gives a look at anaerobic capacity too.”
Warm up for 20 minutes
10 seconds of all-out effort
Spin easy for 3-5 minutes
One minute all out
5-10 minutes of easy spinning
20 minutes as fast as possible
Cool down 20 minutes
30-Minute Time Trial
Real simple; average power and average heart rate over the 30 minutes is a usable estimate of your functional threshold power and lactate threshold. Improvement is increased LTHR and/or FTP, or covering a greater distance during the 30 minutes.
Warm up for 20 minutes
Ride as hard as you can for 30 minutes
Cool down for 20 minutes
2 x 8 Minutes Time Trial
This one is less daunting for a beginner than the 30-minute beast, and more relevant for someone focusing on sprint or super sprint events. Chris Carmichael and Jim Rutberg, in their book The Time-Crunched Cyclist, say the average power of the higher of the two 8-minute efforts is about 90 percent of your functional threshold power.
Warm up for 20 minutes
Go all out for 8 minutes
Spin easy for 10 minutes
Ride all out for 8 minutes
Three useful assessments include two time trials—30-minute or 12-minute—and one distance-based, a 5K. Golich recommended the less daunting 12-minute effort for beginners or those focusing on sprints, and the 30-minute trial for experienced athletes and those competing at Olympic distance and further. “If I had to pick one, the 5K is probably the best and safest test,” she said, “partly because, at least in a pre-Covid world, there were tons of 5Ks happening. It’s a lot easier to push yourself in a race environment.” As with cycling tests, evaluate improvement on increased LTHR—running farther in the 30-minute or 12-minute tests, or covering the 5K in less time.
30-minute Time Trial
Run as fast as possible for 30 minutes
5K Time Trial
Particularly if this is accomplished in a race, you’ll probably exceed your lactate threshold and move into anaerobic range at some point, so average HR for this 5K effort will be slightly greater than your LTHR. Again, use the same warm-up and cool down you’ve done for previous 5K field tests.
12-Minute Time Trial
Run all out for 12 minutes
Did you go farther than last time?
If you’re looking to see improvement across swim, bike, run, and strength, join us for our Benchmark a Better You winter challenge.