Anatomy of a Performance Test
Some of us love them. Some of us hate them. Some of us love to hate them. What are we talking about today? Performance testing. There isn't one "correct" way to execute a strong performance test - as they say, there's more than one way to skin a cat. What I'd like to present today is a suggested approach to your performance tests. I'm going to use bike testing as the primary example, but the strategy can also effectively be used with swim and run testing as well, not to mention races.
One of the most common mistakes with performance testing is going out too hard. This is done for many reasons: a) the perceived need to "build a cushion" for when things start to hurt, b) lack of confidence in the ability to start conservative and finish strong and c) the fresh, adrenaline-fueled feeling you most likely have at the beginning of a test or race.
Without further ado, here is how I suggest you approach your next performance test (it's quite simple, really):
a) Determine a goal for your test. Today, I am going to use watts as my example. You should have training data that backs up your goal pace/effort/watts.
b) Start out conservative for the first ~20% of your test...something like 5% below your goal.
c) Slowly build effort throughout your test.
d) Surge for the last 20% of the test, spilling it all out - whatever you've got left in the tank.
I have attached some graphs of some good and not-so-good performance tests (from an execution standpoint).
The following two graphs appear quite similar in terms of execution. One is of a five minute test, the other is of a ten minute test for the same athlete. The goal numbers were 420w for the five minute test and 385w for the ten minute test, with previous PRs of 416w and 375w, respectively. The goals were realistic based on recent training trends and workout execution.
You'll notice that for both tests, the athlete starts out at lower than goal power for the first minute or two. In the case of the five minute test, the first minute was at 405w, a full 15w below target for the five minutes. For the ten minute test, the first two minutes were at an average of 371w.
For the five minute test, the minute-by-minute breakdown is as follows:
5-minute average: 424w
The ten minute breakdown in two-minute increments:
10-minute average: 388w
This athlete ended up exceeding goal power for both tests by executing sound tests and set PRs for both tests.
The next two images are of less-than-ideal execution:
This graph is from an athlete that had a reasonable expectation of a 320-325w 5-minute test but went out about 25% over goal power for the first 30 seconds. What does that do? Primarily, it puts you into severe oxygen debt from the start and eats into your energy reserve. It's very difficult, if not impossible, to recover from going out at a pace that is significantly above your goal (ie: what you're physiologically capable of).
This one shows a less dramatic drop from the start through the body of the test, but still recovers to finish strong(ish). Neither of these examples yielded efforts for which the athlete was capable and backs up the idea starting conservative.
Now this suggested approach can be used outside of performance testing as well. How many times have you gone out hard for the first mile of a 5K and completely fallen apart for the last two miles?
Another way to execute a performance test is through even pacing the effort. My experience is that even though this type of execution is sound, it is quite difficult from a psychological and physical standpoint.
In my experience as an athlete and a coach, the best results from performance tests and races of virtually any length come from conservative, "easy" starts that build in pace/effort throughout the effort and finish with the last stroke, step or turn of the cranks being almost the last one you can possibly take.
The next time you have a performance test on the schedule, give this strategy a shot and let me know how it goes!