Cyclist Testing: An Introduction to Performance Testing

The best measure of performance… is performance.

A 20-minute power test on a long stretch of road or a VO2 max test done in a lab—these are the images that come to mind when we think of cyclist testing. Performance tests done on cyclists (vs. non performance based tests) are not only the most important type of tests done on cyclists, it can be argued they are one of the most important parts of a successful training plan. Performance testing can be used to give us insight into multiple areas of a cyclist’s abilities, such as, potential during competition and training status. It is important to note though, the results of a performance test are not an absolute indicator of success or failure. One should not forget that the most important indicator of performance during competition is performance during competition.

Ideally, cyclists want a test to give a close representation of how they will perform during competition. Unfortunately there are many factors that figure into how well you will do in a race, and to date, there is no test that accounts for all of those factors and accurately predict race outcomes. But, if you take out technology and behaviors (such as skills and tactics), you are left with what makes a cyclist fast in a straight line. What makes a cyclist fast on their own is largely a function of the big three: power output, weight, and aerodynamics. These metrics are all quite measurable and can be used to predict performance in competition to a certain extent.

Besides using performance testing to give some kind of broad sense of how an athlete will perform during competition, it can also be used fairly well to determine training status and therefore increases and decreases in fitness. The viability of this, of course, depends much on testing uniformity over the course of the training. Factors such as freshness, testing indoors vs. outdoors, or on a different bike, can potentially change performance outcomes. This is not to say that changes in factors surrounding a test are necessarily bad, but it is to say that the potential for inaccuracies are greater and should be considered.

For this blog series I have separated performance tests into two categories: power tests and physiological tests. As the names imply a power test measures a cyclist’s power over a prescribed amount of time while a physiological test measures certain physiological parameters (e.g. blood lactate concentrations and VO2 max tests). In either case a certain amount of freshness is desirable coming into a performance test. Freshness is obtained by incorporating days of rest or reduced training stress into the training plan prior to a day of testing. It is important to note that a taper may allow for an increase in freshness for a test, but at the same time can allow for a decrease in fitness later on due to the reduction in training stress. This is why it is a good idea to “piggy back” tests with tapers for events and to not test too frequently.

Along with freshness, athletes will want to be well fed prior to the test while also allotting plenty of time for digestion. Be aware that some physiological tests will restrict carbohydrate and caffeine ingestion prior to the test. Most performance tests for elite/trained athletes are some sort of maximal effort over a period of time. Athletes should be mentally prepared to perform an all out effort for the allotted time the test will take place. A test should be scheduled well enough in advance to allow for all of these things to take place.

All the tests that will be described in this series of blogs have a certain amount of relevant information they can offer cyclists, but some are more valuable than others. Because performance tests can be mentally and physically stressful to an athlete, as well as potentially disruptive to a training plan, it is important that we select the best, most relevant tests to do. When determining what tests to do on a cyclist we must consider: whether the test is specific to the biomechanical movement and metabolic energy systems of the sport; the experience, training status, age, and sex of the athlete; and the environmental conditions the test will be performed under.

When considering tests that correspond with biomechanical movement we want to be as specific as possible. This is not a difficult thing to do in cycling. Simply perform the test on some kind of cycle. Whether it is your own bike with a power meter or a cycle ergometer in a lab, the biomechanical motion for the test will be identical or nearly identical to that which is performed during competition. One thing to note is that care should be taken to make sure the position of the rider on the test bike is as close as possible to the position they compete/ride in. If you are testing in a lab on a bike that is not yours it is not a bad idea to bring your own bike (to get measurements from), shoes, pedals, pedal wrench, bib shorts and tape measure.

Since an argument can be made that competitive cycling events, outside of some shorter events on the track, utilize all the metabolic energy systems to some degree we should consider testing all of them at some point. The caveat to this is the oxidative metabolic system produces the vast majority of the energy used during cycling events. Because of this, tests that measure or correlate to aerobic capacity are the most important tests for cyclists and should be given top priority.

The experience, training status, age, and sex of the cyclist should be all considered when not only prescribing tests, but also when analyzing and interpreting test data. For example, functional threshold power is defined by the power a cyclist can maintain for an hour, but in many cases it is not desirable to prescribe an hour-long power test for a cyclist. If you have a novice cyclist, young cyclist, or a cyclist who has just completed their season and is looking for a mental break, an hour-long power test is probably not a good idea. On the other hand, if you have an experienced, fit cyclist competing in 40k time trials, an hour-long test is not out of the question.

With the advent of cycling computers and power meters it is now possible to do certain tests in the field. Some people find they are more motivated when they ride outside and can achieve larger performance numbers that way. It is important though, to consider environmental factors when doing tests outside. The biggest factors of the environment that can affect performance are temperature and altitude. Hot temperatures and high altitude cause decreases in performance. If you live at altitude you may want to consider a correction factor for your results. If you live in a region that has large variations in temperature, or high temperatures, you may want to consider testing inside for consistency. When testing inside it is important to stay cool. Riding a stationary bike removes the convection that you would normally get from riding outside. Use air conditioning and fans on the head, arms, and torso to replace the cooling effect you would get from normal riding.

Baechle, T.R., Earle, R. W., (2008). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Lucas Wall- colleague and friend.

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