Testing the Waters – Are You Faster?
Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reprinted with permission

Photo_1.1_Testing_2We often hear comments about the need to test, maybe it was to determine training zones, but rarely do we hear about the process of how to test. Because if you are serious, you have probably wondered about how to test this mysterious element called “faster”. The simple element of outputting more power, or being more aero may not be the whole story.

By John Howard and Doug Dunn

What is faster?
If you are like most of us, you probably have a favorite training ride that you use as a benchmark, or maybe a long hill someplace. When you compare the time or average power numbers, have you ever wondered “Damm, I felt stronger, why am I slower?” The facts are clear, you may have done better, but if the numbers don’t show up what do you do?

Let’s dig deeper, what does it take to really measure improvement? If you have the personal discipline and time to conduct some tests, we should be able to discover your true potential. Questions about the benefit of equipment changes, a bike fit, or does a new warm up routine work? To find answers, we need to perform quality testing.

Fun in Testing
If the word “test” causes you to flash back to cramming for an exam, don’t let it put you off. For cyclists, tests should be fun and enlightening – even the part where we are cranking hard. To set up a test protocol, start by answering these questions:

• What do you want to test?

• What conditions are relevant for this test?

• Which of the conditions will be controlled?

• Which of the conditions will be allowed to vary?

• Which variables can’t be controlled?

Those questions might sound complicated, but let’s treat this process as another challenge. Say you want to monitor your progress in training for a 40 km time trial in an upcoming race. Your progressive performance is a 40 km time trial, but from the perspective of quality training this distance is too great to complete in a test so let’s cut it in half and test 20 km for the purpose of producing a realistic test with effective training value. Let’s begin with a baseline result. This means we will use an initial performance—either an existing effort at 20 km or create an initial effort for comparison to later performances. Let’s assume you have a previous result so we can apply some variables:

What Conditions are Relevant?
Here are a few:
• Time
• Distance
• Power – average/max
• HR – average/max
• Speed – average/max
• Start speed
• Cadence – average
• Total weight – rider and bike
• Tire pressure
• Condition of the bike

There are also environmental factors in play that may greatly affect results
• Temp
• Wind speed
• Humidity
• Atmospheric pressure
• Elevation (gradients)

Then there are external factors, often logged in your training diary:
• Time of Day
• Fueling or eating pattern, including pre-ride
• Mental stress level (job, family, etc.)
• Week’s training (on bike, off bike)
• Physical health/well being (getting over a cold, etc.)

That is a long list, but not every variable is significant.

What Conditions Will Be Controlled?
For this test, you will control:
• Distance
• Start speed
• Cadence – average
• Total weight – rider and bike
• Tire pressure
• Condition of the bike
• Course

Distance, tire pressure, condition of the bike, and the actual course may seem obvious, but you need to make sure these things are consistent each time you perform the test including fueling and the warm up, unless those are being tested. One way of making the test more consistent while eliminating some of the variables is perform it on a stationary trainer. In this example, cadence is listed as controlled. In another test, you may be interested in the effects of a higher or lower cadence, so that variable will be measured in a second or even third test.

Obviously the parameters of time, power, and heart rate will vary. Of course, this list is limited to those things you can actually measure. If you don’t have a power meter, that parameter can’t be included.

Which parameters can’t be controlled? You can’t control Mother Nature, the environmental parameters, like temperature, wind speed, wind direction, and humidity. Humidity is probably not a major factor, but wind speed and direction will be. If the environmental conditions are very different, you may want to flag the data for that test or even consider not doing the test until the conditions are closer to the baseline. Of course this probably is your best reason for conducting the test on a trainer.

Picking the Test Course
Now that you know what you are testing and the parameters, what is next step? For this longer 20 km test, completed outside, it is important to choose the course well. While in general the course could be anything, a course that is generally flat or perhaps with a slight incline would be ideal. In the real world, you won’t be able to find an ideal course. While it is good to do this longer test outside, we suggest doing two tests, one on a stationary trainer and one outside. Keep in mind that because the conditions are different, the indoor and outdoor test results will vary so in most cases, you can’t directly compare the data.

There are some other things to think about for the outdoor course. There should be no stop signs or traffic lights. These will introduce variations that will not be repeatable especially if you need to wait for cross traffic. There should be no turn where other traffic might interfere with the turn. You shouldn’t take risks to do a test. A bike path is not necessarily a good place for a test since you may need to slow down for other bike traffic or pedestrians. If necessary, shorten the course to avoid hazards and things that might cause variations in speed and effort.

Run the test… Don’t forget the equipment check, charge those batteries; log the data in an appropriate file in whatever system you have available. Study the data and finally draw your conclusions. Now you have the basis of a qualitative test that will help direct your progressive training. In two weeks, run the test again. If the results are inconclusive, test again in week # 4.

From a mental standpoint, the advantage of this type of testing is that it establishes both a base of training discipline, and an expectation of tangible improvement, two of the most important variables in athletic advancement. As you progress through the various tests we think you will find yourself looking forward to the process. Yes, they are hard, but this is the essence of training and you are developing a sense of direction that will provide a guiding light for the future.

In our next installment, we will discuss and establish a protocol for aero testing. This will be a practical alternative to wind tunnel testing accomplished with defined useable variables. Stay tuned.

About John and Doug:
John Howard is one of the pioneers and true legends of American bike racing with palmares including: 3-time Olympian, Ironman world champion, bicycle landspeed record, USA Cycling Hall of Fame, and elite and masters national champion. John is also an active cycling coach and the author of Mastering Cycling. Check out more information about John and his coaching at www.fittesystem.com and www.johnhowardsports.com

Doug Dunn is a FiTTE practitioner with a deep interest in how to meld the rider with the bike. He is a long time competitive cyclist and electrical engineer with an extensive background in the development of test protocols.