Training is usually done with the objective of improving to become a complete athlete, both physically and mentally. Sadly, the process by which we obtain improvement is not as simple as it appears. Numerous aspects of your everyday life, such as the quality of sleep and recovery and overall stress, will factor in the body’s ability to respond to a certain workload.
The million-dollar question: How are we to know if we haven’t done enough, or if we’re doing too much?
Despite numerous tools to measure workout quality such as TSS/rTSS (quantifies training workload), TSB (calculation of the balance between short term recovery and long term fitness), HRv (extrapolation of recovery levels in relation to cardiac activity) or independent evaluations of the nervous system, the relationship between workload and recovery remains a grey zone in the world of endurance sports.
Many elite runners have a common practice: they repeat a ‘test circuit’ on a weekly basis. After a warm-up, complete this circuit at race-pace effort, according to the feeling of the day. To ensure objectivity, resist using a watch for pacing. It should only serve to measure time. The result can be used to compare this week’s fitness and fatigue levels compared to prior weeks.
The best time to do such testing is following a rest day. Considering a training schedule when long workouts are on the weekend and Mondays are relatively easy, Tuesdays would be the most appropriate time.
The test should be a short one. If it were too long, it would compromise the remainder of the training week, which is far from being the goal in this instance. In fact, this is the very reason that many coaches do not like repeating such tests frequently. We are obviously not talking about physically draining testing such as MAP or threshold tests. The idea is to obtain a reference point from which one can monitor both progress and fatigue from week to week. It is also important to understanding that the effects of a training overload can surface several weeks after the fact.
These tests can take on different forms according to the athlete’s present fitness level or long-term objectives. For example, an 8 minute all-out effort would be far too much for someone at the beginning of his training season or for someone with the long-term objective of completing a sprint distance triathlon.
Several coaches gave us their two cents on the matter:
Kary Spy of Ks Training: “I use a very simple test – 4 x 2’/r1’ – at low intensity, the last effort being at a higher intensity.”
Nicolas Hemet (Coach of Antony Costes): “I analyse decoupling (EF and PW:HR) at regular intervals around SV1 (aerobic threshold).”
*(EF) Efficiency Factor and (PW:HR) ratio between power/speed (bike / run) and heart rate during a certain workout or interval. This allows knowing the endurance an athlete has developed over time.
Aerobic Decoupling (Pw:Hr or Pa:Hr) is a percentage derived from EF during the first and second part of an aerobic workout where the goal for a well trained and rested athlete would be to score below 5%.
It is important, when using such analysis, to look further than just pure performance gain and to monitor cardiac activity. For a well-trained athlete, in similar conditions, a lower heart rate (better EF) is potentially a good sign. However, decoupling will confirm whether or not the lower heart rate is the result of accumulated fatigue.
Such analysis must be repeated frequently and in similar conditions. It is highly important to do it in the most standardized context possible such as on a home trainer or treadmill with identical room temperature and ventilation.
As previously noted, the objective of these tests is to monitor both progress and fatigue. An athlete will generally have predetermined work zones and will gain confidence if he/she sees progression over a period of time.