Fitness testing can be a very useful tool. If you’re looking to have a standardized way to check up on your fitness from time to time, if you’re looking to set benchmarks before engaging in a new training program or a new season, or if you’re just curious to test yourself and get a number to label something with, then by all means, go for it. To a certain extent, if you train hard and do hard efforts on a regular basis, you’ll probably have less of a need to test your fitness because you’ll already know what your best power is for a given duration, what your best time is on your favorite climbs, or what your max sustainable HR is going to be for time trials and climbs.
How can you test your fitness? Well, there are a few ways. You can do any of the following:
– go to a lab and have them do a threshold test
– go to a lab and have them do a VO2 max test
– go out on the road and do a maximal 15-30m test to gauge your threshold power/HR/fitness
– go out on the road and do a mix of different maximal efforts (15s, 1m, 5m, and/or 20-40m)
– go out and just do your normal hard workouts
So, what could you have to gain from each of these tests? Well, I think the main benefits for each of these would be as follows:
– You’ll get an accurate measure of your threshold power and HR, as well as having the fun of probably getting your blood lactate levels tested. Getting your blood lactate levels measured can be a good indicator of how fit and efficient your aerobic systems are at the time, and probably also a good indication of how much fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers you have. Knowing how much fast and slow-twitch muscle fibers you have can help you choose which workouts to do and how to conduct them.
– You’ll get an accurate measure of exactly how much oxygen your body can consume. This will be a good measure of how well your lungs and heart can process oxygen, and more importantly, how well the mitochondria in your muscles can take up that oxygen getting delivered and use it to burn fuel. This latter feature is key, because even when you aren’t in peak fitness, your heart and lungs may well be able to process large amounts of oxygen, but if your muscles aren’t adequately trained, that potential won’t be fully used, either because your nervous system isn’t recruiting enough muscle fibers or because your mitochondria haven’t been grown enough by training that they have the ability to process as much fuel as they could with more training.
– If you have a power meter and HR monitor, then you’ll basically establish a good measure of your threshold, but just without the extra cool-factor of the blood lactate numbers. Those numbers are fun, but I think their real value lie in revealing how much of various muscle fibers you have, and to a lesser extent, how well you’ve trained your anaerobic energy systems.
– Doing maximal efforts over the course of 2 or 3 different days throughout a given week can potentially give a pretty complete picture of your overall fitness. Sprint efforts can reveal how much fast-twitch muscle you have, how well you can recruit the muscle that you have, and to a lesser extent, how coordinated you are and how effectively you can apply force to your bike. 1m efforts can reveal how well your anaerobic capacity has been trained for maximal efforts. 5m efforts can provide a good indication of how well your maximal aerobic capacity is trained. And, of course, a longer, time-trial effort will show what your threshold fitness and power is like. All of these things together, can help show what your overall fitness is as well as where you have the most room for improvement. Especially if you have a lot of previous data to look back upon, you can see where you’re doing well and where you should maybe focus on making up ground.
– The last remark is obviously somewhat of a non-answer, but basically, if you’re doing hard, well-rounded training, you’ll be doing all of these sorts of efforts on a fairly regular basis. Even if few or none of those efforts are fully maximal because they might be done as a part of a larger workout, you will probably still have a very good understanding of what your best efforts are like and what they could be like if you were to attempt a fully maximal effort… If you’re doing well-rounded training, then you’ll already know what you’re currently capable of, and won’t really need a fitness test to tell you. But, the extra numbers you could get from a lab like blood lactate or VO2 can be fun and interesting.
With that in mind, I feel like the real value of fitness testing, whether lab or field testing, is found in gauging where you’re at in your fitness before beginning a new block of training. Whether you’re starting training at the beginning of a new year or season, or maybe you’re coming getting back into it after a brief mid-season break, fitness tests can be useful.
If you’re in the middle of normal training, you won’t need fitness testing. But, if you’re in the middle of steady training, and you don’t know how fit you are and feel like you need a fitness test to tell you, then you have a bit of a problem and should reevaluate your training approach. If you don’t have a good idea of how fit you are from your training, and you’re in the middle of a normal stretch of training, then you’re probably not riding hard enough on your hard days and/or not riding easy enough from time to time to recover well for your hard training and race days.