Contributing writer: Ciarán O’Grady. Ciarán is a Sports Scientist & Performance Coach at NTT Pro Cycling, and operates The Big Chainring., providing sports science and coaching services worldwide. Ciarán holds a Master's degree in Sports Science from University of Kent in England and is in the final stages of a PhD on individualised training methodologies in cycling.

From the starting point of learning to do something, the ever-present question of “am I getting better at this?” is present in almost every aspect of your practice. Cyclists first throw their leg over a bike for many individual reasons but going faster or further is a goal of many.

Here are some forms of testing that you can implement into your cycling routine in order to achieve this. It may take some time and thought to develop something that works best for your individual circumstances and goals; but there should be at least one form of testing here that you are able to undertake.

Testing Examples:

1- Indoor — Maximal cycling tests

With the COVID-19 pandemic ongoing, riding indoors has become the new normal for many cyclists, and is likely to have a place in our cycling routine for a long time to come. Testing indoors allows you to control many aspects of your setup — including a safe and secure environment where you can push yourself to maximal exertion, without needing to worry about dangers present out on the road. Here are two common examples of maximal tests you can implement indoors

- Maximal Ramp Test

After a good warm-up of 10–15 minutes of easy riding (e.g. 100–150W), start to increase resistance by set increments (e.g. 20W each minute) maintaining a set cadence (e.g. 90rpm) until you simply cannot keep your legs turning despite trying your hardest. Ideally you will measure your power output, heart rate (HR), and rating of perceived exertion (RPE) in each stage. Measuring your RPE (see below) allows you to compare tests you have done over time to see if, for the same power output, you have a lower HR and RPE. From a test like this, looking at the average power output from the last 60 seconds of the test is a great way of tracking your maximal aerobic power, or what you could perform on a short (1–5-minute) climb. By comparing your HR and RPE over time, you can track how your body is improving physiologically, and how you are mentally coping with your training load.

- Maximal Fixed-Duration Test

If you would rather not worry about setting up a ramp protocol on your indoor trainer, then a fixed-duration test could be an option to consider. One of the most commonly performed test is the 20-minute time trial. For performance tracking it gives you a firm idea as to whether you are getting stronger. Some people use the 20-minute test to estimate what is called your ‘threshold’, but it can be extremely useful as a basic test of how hard you can push yourself over a sustained period. To complete this test, you need to measure power and HR. After a good warm-up of 10–15 minutes of easy riding (e.g. 100–150W), set a timer for 20 minutes and then start riding with the aim of achieving the highest average power possible in this period. It is a hard test and will require you to think about your ‘pacing’; not going out too hard and struggling to hold a steady power output, but also not going out too easily and having a lot of performance left in your tank at the end!

2- Indoor — Submaximal cycling tests

If pushing maximally on an indoor trainer is not something you find appealing, then working at a lower intensity for fixed periods of time could be a better way for you to track your performance. Again, measuring power, HR, and RPE would be beneficial for this test, as well as recording your RPE at the end of each stage of riding. After a good warm-up of 10–15 minutes of easy riding (e.g. 100–150W), complete five 3-minute periods of riding at increasing power outputs — but nothing that would bring you to a maximal exertion. An example protocol is given below for a rider with a threshold of 300W:

By riding at these fixed intensities, you will be able to record your HR and the RPE that corresponds to each stage, so when you repeat this test over time you will be able to track your improvements. It will be important to keep the set power targets the same each time you do the test, so picking some that will mean you work hard enough to raise your HR and RPE, but not too hard that if your fitness takes a downturn you’re suddenly working far too hard!

3- Outdoor — Fixed-duration power tests

Some of you might find that riding indoors just isn’t your cup of tea, and that is okay! Doing fixed-duration maximal efforts outside can be a great way to gauge your performance using a power meter. It is also a good way of having more flexibility in your testing routine. You can complete these sorts of tests by deciding on some specific time durations (e.g. 1, 5, and 20 minutes), and including maximal efforts of these durations in sessions across a specific ‘testing week’ for your riding. Comparing your power outputs for your chosen durations may open your eyes to where your strengths and weaknesses are as a cyclist — such as being very strong over a short duration but struggling to hold high power outputs in longer efforts, and therefore guide your training between testing. An example series of tests and notes might look something like this;

4- Outdoor — Hill climb tests

If you are a rider who does not use heart rate or power output, then testing yourself against the clock on a climb is one of the oldest ways to benchmark your performance. Choosing a climb that you can repeat easily, which is not exposed to the wind if possible (e.g. sheltered by trees), and that you can reach after around 15–30 minutes of easy cycling. An ideal climb would be something that would result in finishing times between 5 minutes and 20 minutes. From a specified start point, you want to complete the climb as hard as you possibly can and record the time it took you. This time will be your performance benchmark, but it must be looked at alongside the weather conditions on the day, any differences in equipment (e.g. lighter/heavier bike, bottles/no bottles etc.).

“How often should I test myself?”

Testing every 4–6 weeks is a perfect idea for anyone who is looking at making sure that the riding you are doing is productive; even if your riding is unstructured and directed by your feelings each day.

An example timeline would be; start off with a baseline test, complete 4 weeks of cycling where you have changed your routine or brought in some new training sessions (e.g. every Tuesday doing a hard hill climb session that you haven’t usually done), and then testing at the end of the 4 weeks.

“Does it matter what day and time I test myself?”

Testing yourself on the same day of the week and time of day would be ideal. This aims to allow you to perform your testing in as similar conditions as possible each time. Keeping a track of the time and circumstances of your tests can help you answer questions about your performances.

“I’ve done my test; how can I track my performances?”

Whether you write your numbers down in a notebook, or build a spreadsheet with graphs, you need to be able to compare and contrast the tests you have done over time.

Get in touch with Ciarán on his Twitter or Instagram, where he keeps the world updated with the latest research into coaching and performance.