Periodically testing your cycling ability is essential if you are looking to improve through the season. Testing allows you to see and feel gains in strength, while providing knowledge of whether you’re on the right path or not. In addition, performance testing can measure levels of fatigue. Testing can be done in a variety of ways, indoors and outdoors, to address more than one aspect of ability.
The three most important aspects of testing fitness and speed are timing, validity, and reliability.
Let's talk about timing first. The type of results you get from a test, whether indoors or outdoors, will be determined by the timing of the test. If your goal is to test for peak power outputs, then plan a day to test when you expect to be well-rested. If your goal is to test your handling skills and race-pace efforts, then choose a group ride towards the beginning of a training period after you’ve had few rides to dial in your form. On the flip side, if you are curious about your levels of fatigue towards the end of a training period, then plan a group ride or go with a teammate at the end of your second or third week of training. Riding with a group of peers will provide natural competitive motivation, and test your limits for the day.
To view losses or gains in power, speed, or skill, you need results from over time from two test scenarios as close to identical as possible. Comparing changes in performance over time is where validity and reliability come into play. The closer your test scenario is to the event that you’re training for, the more valid the test results. For example, the most valid way to analyze your power on a road bike is to test outside using your race bike on roads similar to the future event. Reliability on the other hand refers to how repeatable and consistent a test protocol is. Testing for gains or losses in power is most reliable when performed indoors. It is easier to control variables such as temperature, terrain, wind, and humidity, leading to more consistently comparable results.
Now let's look at a few reliable and valid methods of testing your ability on the bike.
Group rides: A competitive group ride with friends or teammates is a fun and great way to test a variety of abilities, including speed, threshold power, race intensity, and handling skills. It is also a valid way to test your strength since group rides can at times mimic race conditions, including terrain specific to your race. Group rides should be well timed and spaced appropriately, since a ride with a competitive group will lead to hard efforts, and too much of that within a training period can lead to overtraining.
Field-testing: Field-testing, an organized test that uses a time-trial effort outdoors, is another appropriate way to test. You can test for both average power and total distance for a set period of time. The time period may be 10-20 minutes or longer, depending on your goals, ability, and what you’re looking to learn from the test. To measure gains or losses, it is most precise to observe power during a field test, but speed is also a good variable to study. Field-testing provides very reliable data since you can repeat the test in the same location over time. A location free of stops with the least amount of traffic is an ideal test scenario. Using the same location will ensure you are testing on the same terrain, providing a reliable measure of results to compare over time.
The downside to testing outside is not being able to control the weather. Outside factors such as wind, extreme heat, cold, or rainy conditions can slow you down, affecting your test results. Field-testing is important for studying gains in power and speed, but keep in mind that external factors can affect results.
Indoor testing: Testing indoors on a trainer is the most reliable way to produce results, but it is not the most valid. Riding indoors on a trainer is for obvious reasons very different than riding outside (see my article on cycling indoors vs. outside). Testing outdoors with your race bike will provide more validity than indoor testing, but the biggest advantage of indoor testing is consistency. You can use the same protocol as a field-test when testing inside and test for average speed and power for a set period of time. Testing on an indoor trainer allows you to repeat a test on the same bike, in the same or very similar conditions. Training fatigue and time of testing may affect results in one way or another, so it’s still not a perfect scenario, but being able to control outside factors such as temperature and wind allow you to get very reliable results to compare over time. Indoor tests are best used for analyzing specific gains in power throughout the season.
The following is a comparison of an outdoor test and an indoor test to show the accuracy of testing indoors, especially for longer durations.
It is important to note that the outdoor test was done on a flat road with a slight incline. Even so, you can see that power, cadence, and torque measurements for the indoor test are very steady compared to the outdoor test. Power measurements shown vary about 50 watts on average while outdoors, compared to just 10-15 watts indoors. The variance in terrain outside compared to the smooth ride of an indoor trainer explains why it is harder to work steadier outdoors. The difference between cadence measurements demonstrates this very well; it is easier to hold a steady cadence indoors where there are no inclines and declines to adjust to. This is why testing indoors will provide very reliable results.
Racing: Racing is the most dependable way to test your overall strength and ability, especially when you are racing at or close to your targeted distance. Races effectively construct a scenario where you are moving and pedaling non-stop, creating the perfect venue to test endurance. If you are targeting ultra-distance events or only race a few times a year, then your chances to test your race ability and endurance will be few. But if you race often throughout the season, you will have the opportunity to use certain races as “test races,” or secondary priority races. You can use most early season races to test ability and identify weaknesses to improve on, while using secondary races closer to your main event to dial in performance, and study for gains in strength. Races are not as reliable when comparing times from season to season since courses and weather can change dramatically. So it is best to compare race results from year to year loosely, and use races as a guide to your current fitness for each season.
Making gains in performance is not always a straight path to the top; there are ups and downs to deal with along the way. When testing performance on a bike, be realistic about results. Using different methods to test performance will allow you to identify more strengths and weaknesses, providing motivation for training and exposing important areas to work on.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to hear more from Mike, check out his free webinar on TrainingPeaks this Thursday, 5/31 at 1 PM MDT on "Preparation and Pacing for a 100-Mile MTB Race".
Mike Schultz brings more than 10 years of racing and training experience from national endurance and ultra endurance events, mountain bike stage races, and 24 hour solo cycling events. Mike is the head coach and founder of Highland Training. He is certified with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), Personal Trainer and as a USA Cycling Certified Coach. He continues to compete in endurance and ultra endurance events on a regional and national level to further study the science behind sports specific training. He also competes to practice what he teaches. Mike resides in the Laurel Highlands, Pennsylvania, where he coaches and trains full time and year round. Follow Mike on Twitter@Highland_Mike.