Should I do some fitness testing?

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.

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What makes a good warm-up?

A good warm-up is instrumental to any good performance, whether it’s a hard workout or a race. You can’t do your best unless you’re both mentally and physically prepared for the effort. In general, what follows is advice about how to approach any kind of hard workout or race, but of course there are a lot of different factors, so it’s impossible to address all potential contingencies at once, but I’ll try to address some of the main ones.

First off, one of the main features of a good warm-up, if not the key, is simply getting your body warm. As you get warmed up, your body increases and redirects bloodflow to the working muscles, allowing for more oxygen delivery, allowing for more metabolism to occur in those tissues, both causing the tissues to get warmer. Ultimately, this helps increase your potential for performance, because your enzymes for burning fuel operate best at higher temperatures. So, warmer muscles with more oxygen can burn more fuel more easily and efficiently. This is the main thing to think of when thinking about warming up.

Associated with the above happenings, as you exercise and get warmed up, your hormones and nervous system adjust to the new demands of what you’re doing and help your body rise to the occasion by becoming more hormonally prepared to burn a lot of fuel and by letting your nervous system get prepared for hard efforts. This is where hard efforts in a warm up come into play. Doing a few light sprints or some harder aerobic efforts can help your body get ready for longer or harder efforts than a simple aerobic warm up will prepare you for.

Any time you need to do hard efforts early in a race, you should include a bit of hard aerobic, anaerobic or power efforts in your warm up. Hard aerobic efforts will prepare your body for hard aerobic efforts. Anaerobic efforts will help prepare those energy pathways to be used to their fullest potential. Power efforts, like sprints and seated big-gear efforts will help your nervous system be more prepared for maximal muscle contractions needed in sprinting or other hard efforts. If you just ever just riden steady for 30m before doing some VO2 intervals, then you’ve probably felt that the first 1 or 2 efforts weren’t your best or didn’t feel as good as the 2nd or 3rd effort did, after you’d gotten more opened up. So, keep that in mind, and just do a bit of light work beforehand, and those efforts will feel better off the bat.

So what does that mean for workouts or races? How should I warm up for specific efforts?

For tempo and threshold workouts or road races that are not likely to start off too hard, 20-40m of steady aerobic riding should be adequate. Starting off slow for a few minutes, getting a feel for your legs, and slowly easing into a steady but conversational pace, you should be ready for some solid tempo riding or threshold efforts. Make sure you feel warm and loose, hopefully you’re breaking a decent sweat. If you’re doing some threshold efforts, continue riding and include a few minutes of light tempo to ease into the higher aerobic riding before really doing hard threshold efforts. Or, start your first threshold effort with a few minutes of tempo before slowly easing into the full threshold intensity.

If you’re doing VO2/aerobic capacity efforts, anaerobic capacity efforts or starting a time trial, crit or road race that will likely start off hard, then you’ll need to do the previous warm-up routine, but add some extra work. Do a few minutes of tempo and/or threshold riding, maybe do a couple of short 1-2m VO2 efforts, and maybe do a few short accelerations of 10-20s or so. Riding some easy, but slightly higher intensity efforts will help further the warm up and get you ready to do hard efforts more effectively.

What do I do personally?

For a tempo/threshold workout or road race:
20-40m of steady aerobic riding, maybe including a few minutes of light tempo

Basically, before high-aerobic work like threshold efforts or a road race with a modest start, I’ll mostly just try to get my aerobic engine well warmed up by getting warm, breaking a sweat, feeling my HR get elevated, and just make sure the I get a feel for being able to ride my threshold power comfortably.

For a time trial (usually on a trainer until the last 10-15m before the start):
15-20m steady riding
10-20m tempo riding
5-10m of threshold riding in 2-3m short efforts
2-3×30-60s high-VO2 efforts with 1-3m easy between
2-3 short accelerations on the road

For a time trial, I want to get my aerobic metabolism warmed and ready to go, just like a threshold workout, but I also want to make sure that I get my heart rate well elevated a few times before the start and my breathing highly elevated a few times, even if just briefly. I find that pushing your HR and breathing up towards their high-end a few times really helps being comfortable when you’re trying to sustain them at 90 or 95% of their max. For a long time trial, I think I usually can feel fine if I just do a heavy aerobic warm-up, keeping it at or below my threshold power the whole time, but especially for shorter <20m time-trials, I really feel that it’s key to get a few minutes of aerobic capacity efforts in and maybe a few accelerations on the road, to get my HR and breathing prepared for a maximal effort and my nervous system prepped for some hard contractions.

For a crit:
basically the same as a time trial, but probably with a few more sprints

Again, like a time trial, it’s just good to be ready to ride hard from the start, unless you know that it will be easy and comfortable to sit in for the first 10-15m of the race and use that as a part of your warm up. Otherwise, just doing a few extra short accelerations on the road helps get ready for all of the hard accelerations involved in crit racing.

Special Considerations

warm/cold weather
If it’s warm, then you can usually warm up more quickly because your body will get physically warm quicker. If it’s cold, then it will take longer to warm up adequately, and sometimes a lot longer. Always be sure to dress accordingly. Dressing well is often an issue of comfort, but also of performance. If you overheat or if you can never fully warm up your legs, both can compromise performance.

if you’re on a trainer
Generally, because you don’t have the wind-cooling effects, and because you can pedal without stopping, warming up on a trainer usually takes less time than warming up on the road, unless it’s exceptionally warm. I usually prefer trainer warm-ups for races if it’s cold, and for time trials. Warming up on a trainer is nice because you have control over how much and how hard you ride without deferring to the pace of a riding partner or any road issues (hills, descents, intersections, etc.). For what it’s worth, I’ll usually spend around 30 minutes on a trainer, and 10-15 minutes on the road before a time trial.

if you consume caffeine
A lot of people find that when they have some caffeine, they warm up more quickly. Probably the main reasons for this are that caffeine is a nervous system stimulant and its effect on catecholamines in your body. Namely, your nervous system gets a bit amped up and your body will have more epinephrine/adrenaline, again, potentially helping you to be ready to exercise.

if you haven’t ridden
If you’ve taken a day or two off, then sometimes it takes longer to warm up. Just feel it out and see how your sensations develop.

if you have ridden
Usually, if you worked out a bit yesterday, then today you’ll probably warm up better, more easily. If you’re pretty fresh, but did just a bit of hard work the day before, you’ll probably be pretty ready to go. If you did a big ride or a hard workout the day before, you may have some extra stiffness or lethargy and take a bit longer to get going.

If I did an easy 2h ride with a few minutes of threshold or a short VO2 effort yesterday, then today I’ll probably warm up as quickly as I am able. If I did a hard, long ride yesterday, then today it might take me an hour or two to feel remotely normal and ready to ride hard.

Bottom line: warm-up well, never force a hard effort when you really aren’t ready.

How can I maximize my endurance?

So, recently I’ve been thinking about various things that you could do if you were trying to train your endurance if you were significantly limited in some way or another. Basically, the question is, how can I hack better endurance?

Mt Diablo photos 102

Plenty of people don’t have enough time to ride as long as they would ideally want because of their school or work, or they have weather to contend with for a large part of the year that limits their ability to ride outdoors. I have similar challenges, because I coach and work a part-time job outside of racing and usually the winters where I live are pretty rainy and cool for a good portion of the year. Anyway, here are a few of strategies I employ and ideas I’ve had to help enhance endurance if you can’t ride as much or as long as you might want.

1. Follow more intense rides with medium, steady to high-endurance rides. Presumably, you planned your more intense workout on a day that you would be recovered, so there’s no compromise there because you got in the intensity that you planned for. The day after your intense ride, you’re still likely to be a bit low on glycogen, and so your body will react more strongly to an endurance stimulus and produce more aerobic enzymes as a result.

2. Limit your carbohydrate intake at times. Again, training when your glycogen stores aren’t at their full capacity helps enhance your body’s production of aerobic enzymes when you do endurance training. For example, if you’re just fitting in some short workouts during the week and longer rides on the weekend, consider doing a short ride or cross training activity on Friday, but then limit your carbohydrate intake to moderate levels and focus on low glycemic index foods with a good mix of fat and protein, then followed by a long ride on Saturday. If you’re snacking on vegetables, nuts, beans, lentils, avocado, salads, maybe some light meats, and avoid refined carbohydrates on Friday afternoon and evening after your pre-work ride, then you’ll probably start Saturday’s ride after a light breakfast and some tea or coffee, and you’ll be burning a bit more fat and you’ll deplete your glycogen stores during the ride more thoroughly, giving yourself the net effect of a higher mileage ride or week.

3. Ride lots of high-endurance and tempo. High-endurance and tempo riding is great for a coupe of reasons. Compared with natrual-paced, conversational riding, high-endurance and tempo riding burns both glycogen and fat at a higher rate, result in a higher HR, and put more stress on your neurological system. Basically, you’ll finish your rides more glycogen depleted and burning more fat (causing more of an endurance adaptation), you’ll stress your heart and lungs a bit more (making them more efficient), you’ll help your lactate threshold improve (because you’ll naturally be floating near or above your LT on-and-off, especially on hills or windy sections in your ride), and you’ll get more of a muscular endurance workout (your muscles will learn to better tolerate stronger contractions). Mixing in lots of high-endurance and tempo riding basically creates a much greater stress to your body’s endurance systems, so it’s great for enhancing endurance. The only downside is just that, it’s more stressful. For someone who has all the time in the world to train, this won’t work as well, because you generally can’t keep up 3-5h ride every day or two with this increased stress. That’s why pro cyclists spend more time at a conversational pace. But, for people who are forced to recover more between training rides (i.e. normal working stiffs with severely limited training time), it can be good to make use of that recovery to focus on slightly increasing the aerobic intensity of their weekend long-ride.

4. Ride long when you can, and consider doubling up on long rides sometimes. Clearly, high-volume weeks and high-volume rides are going to give some of the best opportunities for enhancing endurance, but if you can’t manage to do that all of the time, don’t worry about it. Just do it when you can. Even if you can only get in a 3h ride each weekend, but every 2-3 weeks, you can go out for a 5-6h group ride with your buddies, then go for it. Doing that longer ride when you can will make a world of difference compared to just keeping a steady training diet of 3h rides (although you can do well with 3h rides if you mix in lots of tempo, plan an interval workout the day before your 3h ride, or double up with two 3h rides back-to-back on the weekends, for example).

I remember in past years trying to do 5-6.5h rides every week for a month before going out to do the Everest Challenge (200 mi, 29000 ft of climbing in 2 days). The EC is a race I’ve done every year since I started racing, and I love it, but it’s really long and hard, so it’s daunting if you feel like you haven’t had enough endurance training. I used to think I had to do 5-plus hour rides every week for 5-6 weeks to build up to the intense endurance that the race requires of its participants. But in recent years, I’ve found that I can get all the endurance I really need in just 3 rides in that 6h range if they’re mixed in with some other quality training that follows some of the above rules/suggestions (i.e. lots of tempo and high-endurance on 4-5h rides, plus good intensity on other rides with VO2 max and threshold efforts).

6. Ride hard, lift weights, and run. If you’re on a tight schedule, it’s really key to increase the higher-end capacities of your heart and lungs (oxygen delivery), your neuromuscular systems (force production), and your metabolism effectively (burning fat and carbohydrate to do mechanical work), so that the sub-maximal stresses of endurance riding can be tolerated for longer. Some of the best ways to do those things are to simply ride hard. Whether that’s intervals on the road during your mid-week 2h rides, or hard efforts on a trainer during 1h weekday rides, they’ll be much better than just cruising around. Likewise, strength training is an excellent way to increase neurological recruitment (i.e. the number of muscle fibers you can use to generate force) and to increase muscular endurance (i.e. how long it takes for those muscles to fatigue when engaged in sub-maximal contractions). And, of course, running is a highly effective way to increase aerobic fitness, and can often put as much stress on your heart and lungs as a solid bike ride, but in half the time or less.

Clearly, doing longer workouts on a regular basis will be the best way to get better endurance fitness, because it’s the most specific stimulus to get that result. But, not everyone has the time and availability for that. That’s the whole point of this article, to address the issue of how to try to get around to the same result with an alternative approach.