Field Testing & How To Get Started, Part 1

Athletes TrainingAs triathletes, we all know what training is about. We train to get fit. We train to prepare for events. We train to reach that next level. But how do we know when our training is working? How do we know when we are making gains in fitness? Is gaining fitness just feeling stronger and faster? Maybe, but how we feel about our fitness can often be an emotional response. Our emotions of how we feel each day and during each workout can easily cloud our perspective of how fit we are. To have the most confidence in our fitness we need objective data. The best way to get this objective data is to conduct tests.

When we think of putting an athlete through a battery of tests, images of laboratories with MET carts and blood lactate calculators come to mind. As an alternative to expensive lab tests, a great deal of information about an athlete’s fitness can be gathered in simple field tests. A field test is a test or set of tests that can be conducted in nearly any environment, making field testing a very easy way to gather information about an athlete’s fitness. In this series of articles, I will present details on how, when, and where triathletes can use very inexpensive means for conducting field tests that will provide clear evidence of an athlete’s development.

Field testing is nothing new, however, I venture to say that the majority of athletes out there are not really utilizing field testing in their training that will show individual progress in a quantitative manner. Having coached and consulted with many athletes over the years, I think that the major reason for this is simply a lack of understanding how to conduct a test that provides sufficient information for documentation. It’s not so much that the tests are complicated: they are not. It’s knowing what to look for in the data collected from a field test that takes some thought and analysis. In this first part of this series of articles on field testing, I will introduce you to the basics of getting started with field testing, including the tools to use, how to measure the efforts in a test, and a few simple examples.

The key is to conduct a test that will return a quantifiable result that shows the athlete where her fitness stands and being able to repeat the test periodically to track progress. To do this, an athlete will need a few tools and a place to conduct the test that will not change significantly from one time to next.

Depending on the tests the athlete intends to execute, there are a number of tools to choose from. For basic tests in most sports, a simple stop watch and a measurable course is all that are needed to begin testing. Since most of the athletes that we coach are triathletes, I will suggest some additional testing tools for swimming, cycling, and running specifically. Here are the basics of testing for the three disciplines of triathlon and helpful tools to use for conducting field tests.

Swimming. For nearly all swimming field tests, I suggest time trialing at various distances or recording distance for a given duration. This makes swimming among the easiest of field tests to conduct. A couple of examples would be a 2000m TT, or distance travelled in 30 minutes of swimming. Swim field tests are best conducted in the pool, however, if a measured open water course is available to the athlete, very similar tests are easily done. A newer tool for swimmers, the SwimSense Performance Monitor by Finis, can also be used to determine a number of aspects of a swimmer’s performance, including pace times, distance (meters/yards/laps), stroke count, stroke rate, distance-per-stroke, and calories burned. While all of this data is helpful and allows an athlete to use any swim as a field test, the bottom line still remains that time taken to travel a given distance is the best measure of changes in the athlete’s fitness and swimming abilities.

Garmin - Lap 1Cycling. With the price of power meters dropping nearly every year, and software being developed that makes power meter data analyzable for those of us without degrees in higher mathematics, access to one of the best tools for measuring cycling ability is within reach. A power meter will measure, in real time, exactly what the cyclist’s effort is moment by moment of every ride she does. This makes each ride a potential field test. There are a number of great tests that can be executed that will give insight into a cyclist’s fitness. Among them is the 20 minute TT, which can be used to calculate the rider’s Functional Threshold Power output or FTP. Bike field tests can be conducted on a bike trainer or on the road using a power meter. Another great tool for the cyclist is a heart rate monitor. Although not as accurate in measuring effort (particularly in efforts above the athlete’s Lactic Threshold), HR monitors are great tools to use for longer intervals. For example, an athlete can measure distance travelled for a 60 minute effort, keeping her heart rate at 160 beats per minute (or setting any relevant heart rate range). It is also very helpful to combine both power output and heart rate together. An example of a field test of this sort is consecutive intervals of 30 minutes at a specific heart rate while measuring changes in the average power output from the first interval to the last. This will give the rider an idea of how her power output declines over time.

Running. The coupling of GPS with heart rate monitoring gives an athlete a great set of tools for running field tests. She can measure both effort and pace simultaneously with these tools. Although, personally, I believe that a simple approach to run testing is still superior. I prefer runners’ timing efforts at the track, which is generally conducted with a simple stop watch. Similar to swim field tests, athletes choose a distance and measure the time it takes to complete that distance: 1600m TT, 3200m TT, 10,000m TT, etc. In addition to tracking the athlete’s progress at given distances, data collected from time trial efforts at various distances can be used to predict paces at greater distances, making the data from a series of time trial efforts work harder. I’ll explore how to get the most out the collected data in future parts of the field testing series.

Measuring Results
In order to measure results, we need to have variables that can be measured. In many cases, time over distance at a given effort is what we look for in a performance. For a simple example, running 5000m, keeping your heart rate (a measure of effort) at 150bpm (beats per minute) while tracking the time in which it takes to complete the distance is an uncomplicated way to collect data. By repeating this test periodically, you will be able to see your progress at the given distance for a given effort.

On 02/01/2011 – 5000m @ 150bpm = 00:21:44.87
On 03/01/2011 – 5000m @ 150bpm = 00:21:13.81
On 04/01/2011 – 5000m @ 150bpm = 00:20:42.74
On 05/01/2011 – 5000m @ 150bpm = 00:20:27.20

Another example, using the same variables in a slightly different way, is to run at an absolute maximum effort for 6 minutes while tracking the distance you travel and measuring your average heart rate within the allotted time frame. Repeating this test periodically will give you several data points that can be tracked. Additionally, the 6 minutes at maximum effort will give you a fairly accurate estimate of velocity at VO2 max (vVO2 Max). You can then use this data to determine vVO2 max training intervals.

On 02/10/2011 – 6 min Max Effort: Dist. Traveled = 1850m/Avg HR = 186bpm
On 03/10/2011 – 6 min Max Effort: Dist. Traveled = 1900m/Avg HR = 185bpm
On 04/10/2011 – 6 min Max Effort: Dist. Traveled = 1900m/Avg HR = 187bpm
On 05/10/2011 – 6 min Max Effort: Dist. Traveled = 1930m/Avg HR = 189bpm

In both of these examples, it is easy to tell whether or not an athlete is improving. In the first example, the athlete is able to complete a 5k run at an effort that elicits a heart rate of 150bpm. In the first month, she finishes in 21:44 and by the fourth month she has increased her pace at this effort by one minute, seventeen seconds. In the second example, the athlete has improved the distance travelled from month one to month four by 80m while running for six minutes at maximum effort. Additionally, we can see that her average heart rate has changed a slight amount over the months. These measures indicate a higher level of fitness in this case.

Conducting and executing field tests are great ways to track fitness throughout the season, allowing athletes to clearly see how the training they are doing is effecting their fitness and likely outcome of competitions. Field testing takes much of the guess work out of knowing whether your training is on track or not.

In future articles in this series on field testing, I will go into greater detail, outlining specific tests in all three disciplines of triathlon and triathlon specific test (bricks), when to conduct these tests within your training and racing season, and how to collect and analyze the data for practical use. In the mean time, if you have any questions regarding field testing, please feel free to contact me.