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Sportstesting with the Doctor

What and How to Test
The importance of exercise testing is well understood by athletes in many sports including cycling. However, the question arises as to what is the most appropriate method of testing physiological characteristics. In order to answer this, three factors must be considered. The first is to ensure sports specificity of the testing method, the second is to assess validity of the tests chosen, and the third is to examine the reliability of the tests.
Before undertaking any test procedure, cyclists and their coaches must ensure that any testing protocols administered accurately reflect the energy requirements of their particular event.

More importantly, you should also undertake the testing in conditions similar to those met during your competition. For example, a test cannot be truly deemed “sports specific” if a cyclist is made to ride a laboratory ergometer in which the position or the gearing differ significantly from their usual training/competition bicycle. Additionally, if a cyclist is used to riding outdoors (at an average speed of ~30-40 km/h) with a “normal” ambient temperature of ~15°C, it is likely that riding indoors in ~20°C with no wind cooling effect will yield differing physiological responses (especially in heart rate and sweat rate). Therefore, a sports specific test should stress the energy systems that would be important to competitive outcome under conditions in which his riding position and environment are as close to “normal” as possible.

It is important that the test should measure what it claims to measure (i.e. the test should be valid), and if it was repeated it should provide the same results (i.e. be reliable). While this sounds obvious, if a testing procedure does not accurately measure what it is designed to do, the interpretation of result may prove difficult at best, and at worst impossible. Consider an athlete wishing to relate maximal oxygen consumption with their performance. Unfortunately, because of ability, the test chosen by this athlete lasted less than 5 minutes. As a result as much as 30% of the power produced may have been generated by anaerobic (non-oxygen using) sources. Therefore, changes in power output observed in subsequent tests would be difficult put down to changes in aerobic ability, anaerobic ability, or both.

Pre-test control
To further ensure the reliability of the testing so that on-going comparisons in test results can be made, some amount of pre-test control should be assumed. This should include some athlete and environmental controls. Essentially, prior to testing, a cyclist should do the following:
• Be fully fit – that is illness and injury free
• Be in a rested condition – that is, able to perform maximally. Ideally the cyclist should be in the same physical condition as would be expected for an important competition. A minimum rest period of 24-48 hrs from previous heavy training or competition is often recommended
• Be fully hydrated and carbohydrate replete. Nutritional preparation for a test could be similar to preparation before a race.
• Have a standardised (or quantified) warm-up that will allow maximal performance without the risk of injury.
• Use his or her usual training or competition equipment, including bike, shoes and clothing. Where the use of the cyclist’s own bicycle is not possible, the cyclist should take great care to exactly replicate his or her normal position before commencing testing.
• Undertake the tests when he or she is used to competing and training.
• List training, diet, environmental conditions and any other stressors, that may influence performance in the days preceding the testing.

The cyclist who wishes to fully maximise the potential benefits of cycle testing should therefore consider undertaking physiological assessment under carefully controlled conditions, so that ongoing changes in physiology and strengths and weaknesses can be carefully monitored. The actual methods of testing used will often depend of the physiological stresses of the particular event, but will usually employ some manner of testing sub-maximal (endurance) exercise, maximal aerobic performance, and sprinting ability.

When to test
Each individual must decide the most appropriate time to undertake physiological assessment. The optimal solution would be to undertake testing as frequently as possible (essentially every 4-8 weeks). However, this may cause problems, as each athlete would be recommended to have a full rest day prior to testing, and may be unable to train satisfactorily on the day of the test. Therefore, it would be proposed that the athletes should undertake some form for physiological assessment between two and six times a year.
Ideally, riders should undertake a test before and after each different training phase and either shortly before, or after, their major competitions to get an on going view of the year. Cyclists or their coaches should continually use testing as a method of monitoring changes in physiology as a result of training, and where appropriate change the training as necessary.

Summary Physiological assessment for any sport can give a coach and athlete very useful feedback on both the efficacy of a training regimen and the strengths and weaknesses of the individual athlete. However, the testing methods must be both valid and reliable. Additionally, cyclists should plan to test maximal, sub-maximal and anaerobic (sprint) capacities to consider the full physiological profile required for success. Standardising external factors in a laboratory setting is easier, and will give more reliable results than field testing. Finally, athletes should undertake assessment on a frequent basis with strict standardisation before and during the test to make meaningful comparisons.

Due to the highly variable nature of cycling competition, performance outcomes will not necessary indicate changes in physiology, training state, “fitness” or nutritional state.
“Fitness testing” is therefore needed to monitor changes over time. Results will increase with good training and decrease with poor training or over-training.
Testing can also be used to highlight strengths and weaknesses that may influence competitive ability.

The tests chosen should be:
• Sports specific; valid; and repeatable.
• Specific tests should be chosen to relate physical characteristics and performance outcomes for specific events.
• Testing should always be conducted following standardised procedures, and will often be best conducted following a rest day. Ideally tests should be conducted every 4-8 weeks, but should be undertaken a minimum of twice per year.

From G.S. Palmer, “Field Testing” in High Performance Cycling (edited by A.E. Jeukendrup).

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© 2002 by Human Kinetics Publishers.  Adapted with permission from Human Kinetics (Champaign, IL).

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