Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tests and Measurements

“You can’t manage what you don’t measure.” – Peter Drucker, management theorist

I recall that in my undergrad work I thought of my Tests and Measurements class as the most boring course I had ever taken. I saw no purpose for it. My how things change. Today I wish I could take that class again as I believe this is one of the most important aspects of athletic training. I’d have a lot more questions and be much more involved.

I now test and measure the athletes I coach in many different ways throughout the season. This includes body composition, aerobic capacity, metabolic tendencies, functional power and pace, heart rate patterns, mental skills, and sport-specific skills.

For most all of these there are numbers that serve as baselines for where we are at a given time in the season. Most of them come from quite precise measurements in a clinical setting with an exercise physiologist conducting the testing. The picture here shows such a test in progress. Others are based on field tests such as all-out time trials or heart rate-regulated time trials. Video recording is used for skill measurement as it allows the athlete to see exactly what I see. It’s amazing how different the athlete’s perceptions of what they feel they are doing and what they are actually doing often are.

Without this testing done about every four weeks I wouldn’t really know if athletes were making progress toward their goals or not. If test results show we aren’t going in the right direction I make adjustments to the program in some way to get back on track. It’s really easy to stray without such controls in place.

What can you do to test yourself? One way to establish such a baseline and get good information about your current conditioning and important training numbers such as heart rate, pace and power zones is to arrange for a VO2max test. You can often find these offered by health clubs, university health and physical education departments, medical clinics and even retail stores catering to runners, cyclists and triathletes. Many coaches also provide such services. Expect to pay in the neighborhood of $150 to $200.

Self-testing is also possible and can work quite well if you are diligent about controlling for such variables as rested state, diet, warm-up, equipment, and weather. Since the changes if you test every four weeks are likely to be on the order of one to three percent even small discrepancies in any of the above variables could give you inaccurate information. Chapter 5 in each of my Training Bible books offers suggested methods of self-testing in much greater detail than here.

Getting accurate feedback on how your training is going is one of the most important things the serious endurance athlete can do to achieve high goals. It’s too bad I didn’t realize that 45 years ago. I could have raced better and done a better job of coaching much sooner.


At January 25, 2009 9:10 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...


Are professionally administered tests any less vulnerable to differences caused by diet, warm-up, equipment, humidity, etc.?

I test on the last day of my rest week. I go out on the same bike, and ride the same course. That's about the best I can do with my budget. Are there still too many variables?

I hope your wife recovers soon!

At January 25, 2009 9:45 PM , Blogger Jot said...

How can anyone not accept this?

Scientific Method:

1) Hypothesis
2) Test and verify
3) Revise #1

Missing #2 means you're just shooting in the dark.

-Jot "needs to redo a MAF here soon"

At January 26, 2009 8:30 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon--Generally, tests done in clinics etc do a better job than _most_ athletes do when self-testing. That doesn't mean you can't tightly control many of the variables yourself. Thanks for your kind comment about Joyce. Her knee is healing up nicely and doesn't seem to slow her down much.

At January 27, 2009 3:36 PM , Blogger Jacob Brickman said...

I'm an age-grouper triathlete with about 3 yrs of endurance athletics behind me. I'm going in for my first VO2max test this week! My main purpose in doing the test is to identify my Heart rate Zones for running and cycling. From my own self-testing I think my running LT is slightly higher than my biking LT. I'm wondering...Do I need to do a test on the treadmill and the bike. Or is there a common multiplier that will convert results from running to biking or vise-versa?

At January 27, 2009 8:35 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Jacob--Thanks for your comment. Run LTHR is almost always higher than bike LTHR. I've never seen one lower although it could happen. The difference is typically in the range of 5-10 bpm. So subtract 7 from your run (or add 7 to your bike) to get a pretty close estimate which can then be confirmed with field testing and watching hard efforts.

At January 28, 2009 3:18 PM , Blogger Ed said...

Joe- Many thanks for your writing and sharing. How does testing change for an athlete taking beta blockers? Can I still use the self-test methods for LT and then the training zones in your books, or do the beta blockers skew that and make something else better, like heart rate reserve or RPE? I'm particularly curious about estimating AeT in the context of beta blockers or learning an alternative method for AeT workouts. Many thanks and, yes, the doc signs off on what I do. If it affects the answer, my goal this year focus on time trialing no longer than 10mi. I want to develop 25mph and then push how long I hold it. That's my single goal this year. Years ago, I did slow hilly centuries and 1000 mile multi-day tours.

At January 28, 2009 3:24 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Ed--How about if I have the TrainingBible Coaching Medical Director, Dr. John Post, answer this question for you. Please write to me at and I'll put him in touch with you.

At January 29, 2009 5:11 PM , Blogger BP said...

Hi Joe,

Great blog you keep here. I'm a long time reader and first time writer.

As a varsity athlete I'm looking to take my training to the next level.
Can you recommend what test I should do to determine my caloric (measure in carbs, protein, fat ) following Chris Carmichael's idea of a periodized nutrition plan.
I guess I'm asking how to determine what my body is using at fuel during different types of training and how to refuel effectively, and what test is best for determine this.
Thanks in advance for the response.


At January 29, 2009 6:55 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

BP--Interesting that my friend Chris gets the credit for periodized nutrition. I wrote about it my Training Bible books initially back in 1996. My Paleo Diet for Athletes goes into much more detail though.

At January 30, 2009 6:50 PM , Blogger Wayne said...

Just some feedback on an ealier post of yours regarding testing for Functional threshold power. I started testing my FTP using your LTHR method last fall during my Cyclocross season and found it to be remarkably accurate, always within a 10 watt difference compared to a 30 minute TT effort. Now that I have just completed my first base block of this season, I just retested and found my FTP to be about 25-30 watts lower than my best effort last Fall, despite having my LTHR remain the same. Thanks so much for this very valuble tool to gauge how my training is progressing, and how I can more accurately set my training zones depending on my current fitness level.


At February 5, 2009 8:30 AM , Blogger Tim said...

Joe -
Do you prefer pace zones as oppose to HR zones for run training? I use your TBB to build my annual plan and to field test LTHR for running. I recently starting use power and WKO+ and notice that you can calculate run pace zones based on your formula. If the conventional thinking is pace zones are better, should I use the avg pace for the last 20min of the 30min effort as my LT pace for the calcuation?

Enjoy London,


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