Cycling Fitness Test

Alternate Testing Methods for Endurance Cyclists

BY Kyle Wolfe

The 20-minute lactate threshold test is the gold standard when it comes to determining aerobic fitness. But there are easier ways to gauge your progress.

One of the most difficult things for a coach to impress upon the endurance sports athlete is the critical importance of regular testing and assessment of the athlete’s fitness and training.

In one of my recent USA Cycling Coaching Continuing Education webinars, we discussed how it can be tricky at best getting athletes to do the standard 20-minute thrashing to determine their Functional Threshold Power. Whether it be an allergic reaction to testing or an inability to concentrate for that long, the 20-minute FTP test often makes for failure or worse, excuses: “sorry coach, had to work late, kid had lacrosse, couldn’t find the pump” and so on. So let’s talk about some other ways to measure fitness.

Go Shorter and Extrapolate

The first step to success with any type of racing or performance is to establish a solid aerobic capacity which in part determines how much low intensity power you can produce and helps combust the lactate that you are producing with any hard efforts. Whether you are sprinting a thousand times in a technical criterium or headed up climb number two of seven at a crazy French Fondo, then you will need a good “base” or aerobic capacity to recover after every effort.

Since most of us don’t have access to (or the budget to pay for) fancy lab testing, we have learned that a great way to test your aerobic capacity is with a simple all-out three (3) minute test. This might be pain-inducing and less than fun, but it is a convenient way to determine if a rider’s overall “fitness” is headed in the right direction.

Consider Different Variables for Different Athletes

The short 3 Minute Test (3MT) can help track our aerobic capacity and conditioning in an easy-to-perform self-test. Then, by working with a coach to focus on event-specific power duration requirements, we can prepare for the critical improvements to help with performance on the big day.

One of the biggest opportunities for me to teach my athletes comes when I talk about event specific energy systems and durations for their goals. For instance, a long-distance triathlete or climber headed to the Alps is going to depend on a different set of Critical Power (CP) durations than a cyclocross or criterium racer. These athletes are not necessarily “born with it”, they also need to be trained specifically for those events. This is most easily demonstrated with the simple Peak Cycling Power chart on your Training Peaks dashboard screen.

cycling fitness test

You can see from the CP of this young racer in Europe how his power meets the demands of the racing there: punchy, hard and aggressive. Conversely, the next example is of a woman here in the States who is better at longer climbs.

cycling fitness test

Both the peak of the curve and the slope of the drop off is much shallower on the second example and shows how one rider has specialized their training differently then the other; both for the requirements of their events… and because one might not like criteriums!

Accordingly, we might task these two riders to test for and focus on certain critical power durations that are best for their type of races: 30s, 1m and 5m for the lad and maybe 5m, 12m and 30m for the climber. It is up to the coach to manage their expectations and determine what should be the focus.

With the USA Cycling Talent ID Camp

The New England version of the USA Cycling Regional Talent ID camps starts next week, and along with all the other things covered there, we ask the young riders to do an all-out Short Field Test. At our camp, this will be done on an uphill road approximately 1.5km long with an average gradient of 6.7%; there is no rest on this road!

This test will both show who is a strong watt per kilogram rider—but more importantly, it will show who has been doing their homework. As a physiologist friend of ours recently said: “Endurance sports are fair. If you do the work you get the results.” Please note that the lads and lasses of the Talent ID camp will easily shave a minute off that hill and add a watt or so per kilogram. Ouch, kids these days, amiright?

Performance is Important Too!

This particular effort shows some tired middle-aged legs trying to at least find some good roads for the camp, but if you were to compare it to this rider’s best 5 minute duration a few months ago, it would show a significant improvement in watts. It would also match the Chronic Training Load’s upward climb on his Performance Management Chart. Testing aside, it is important to show athletes a tangible value to their aerobic fitness so that they can stay motivated.

cycling fitness test

By performing the simple three-minute test, and then working with a coach towards your specific power and endurance goals, you’ll be well on you way towards having a good event and most importantly, having fun!

2018 Athletes' Choice Award

Athletes’ Choice Winner: Cycling

This article was one of the most popular on TrainingPeaks in 2018. To see all the winners, visit the Athletes’ Choice 2018 Page.

Avatar1501788798 7
About Kyle Wolfe

Coach Kyle Wolfe is the Head Coach and Performance Director of Finish Fast Cycling based in southern Vermont and working with racers, athletes and riders from Ogden to Oudenaarde. Kyle is a USA Cycling Level 1 Coach, Power Based Training Certified, a Training Peaks Level 2 Coach and of course the Camp Manager of the New England Talent ID Camp.

Visit Kyle Wolfe's Coach Profile