No matter what endurance sport you do, it's a good idea to know what shape you're in before the season begins. Here's why...
The first half of the summer race season is an exciting time because it's when you find out if you improved over the winter or not. In my early years as an athlete I used to get really nervous before the year's first race because I had no idea how I'd perform. It was like waiting to see if your lottery numbers came up. After the first race or two I chilled out a bit because I knew how fit I was (or wasn't) and what to expect all season.
This lottery approach is not the way forward though, and I've since learned the error of my ways. The best athletes always have a good idea of how fit they are, long before the season even starts. Take Tour De France and Olympic cycling champion Bradley Wiggins for instance. In his build up to the 2012 season he and his coach (Shane Sutton) and performance analyst (Tim Kerrison) looked at a variety of performance measures to identify areas for improvement and also to give an idea of the realistic intensities he could maintain during a race. They measured things like Training Stress Score, power to weight ratio, VAM (mean ascent velocity) and power to drag ratio. Wiggins went into the Tour de France armed with all sorts of useful data. For example he knew that he could ride for an hour at an earth shattering 470 watts of power output.
All this analysis may sound mind boggling, but anyone can record and analyse basic information without a team of experts. The truth is, if you can't achieve certain benchmarks in training, you're unlikely to surpass them in a race. Either way, it's good to know where you stand. When I coach triathletes I typically set them two weeks of solid training followed by a third week which I call "rest and test". In rest and test week the training volume is halved and I include two or three performance tests. At this stage of the season
that involves a 400m swim test, a one mile run test and a five minute bike power test. It's not necessarily to highlight improvements in fitness, as the path to improvement isn't always straight. Testing gives you a realistic set of benchmarks, helps gauge race pacing and indicates when a certain type of training has stopped or started having a beneficial effect.
Aside from fitness, you can also test other things such as the drag on your bike (here's how). The moral of the story is that you shouldn't leave things to chance, because everything is measureable. If you get to
your first race knowing what you're capable of, you'll have more chance of racing to your full potential. You'll pace it right, and your mind will be stronger for having realistic expectations. That's when all the hard work becomes worthwhile.
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Phil Mosley is a triathlon coach and writer.