Athletes typically like to know how their training progress is going over the course of a few weeks, few months, or even over the course of several years. Though unlike tracking progress in places like the weight room, where you can see day to day progress as the weights you lift increase incrementally each day, tracking fitness for endurance sports takes a little bit more planning and specificity.
Every once in a while, most coaches like to do one of two things: either schedule a race for an athlete to test fitness, or implement benchmark tests every so often. Having these things built into a training plan can allow a coach to know how certain workouts have made an effect on an athlete’s fitness, while also giving the athlete some positive (or negative) feedback on the work that they’ve been putting in. Since progress for most endurance sports can’t be tracked on a day to day basis, these tests usually have to be done several weeks apart in order to allow for proper adaptation to take place. For example, you can’t run a 5k time trial, do one track workout 2 days later, then run another 5k on the 4th day and expect to have a change from the first test.
But what kinds of things are important to test for in these benchmarks? Well, it depends what you’re focusing your training on at the time. Different phases of training usually call for different means of benchmark testing for different aspects of fitness. During the base phase, benchmark tests will likely have to do with duration and total exercise capacity and tend to be less specific. These can even be normal workouts such as a weekly long run. In build phases of training, testing becomes a little more specific, focusing more on power and harder efforts rather than bulk mileage. Periodic time trials would be a good example of these. Once you enter into the race specific phase of training, this is where benchmark testing becomes very specified for the target race. These would be repeatable time trials or timed efforts that closely mimic the race course or conditions in order to give the best insight into how an athlete will perform on race day. Good ways to do these are swim, bike, or run races. These give you athletes a competitive scenario in which to test their strength and see just where they stand in training. Then there are lead up races, or B and C races, that can act as very good benchmark tests during training. Having individual swim, bike, or run tests give good insight into how an athlete performs at a single discipline, but lead up races give a good idea of how an athlete performs with all 3 in a competitive racing scenario.
Benchmark tests are a good way to measure fitness over the span of a season and should be done regularly. The data collected allows for better workout planning and better planning for any given race. But remember that these tests are like miniature races, so don’t do them too often or you risk burning out and not letting your body recovery properly, not to mention not giving yourself enough time between tests to do any real training. So remember next time your coach has you doing the dreaded 20 minute power test, its all for a good reason!