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Fitness Testing & Training Zones

Rob Hawkins

Fitness Testing & Training Zones

Following on from the first part of this article that provided all the information you need to understand the benefits of training with zones today part 2 will focus on explaining how to conduct a fitness test, record and analyze the information from the test, set up your zones whilst also pointing you in the right direction to get started with a full structured training plan. I’d strongly recommend reading part 1 in full before continuing with this article.

Before we get started

I just need to be clear on something… Conducting a fitness test as per the one we will discuss here is a very strenuous activity. Following a structured training plan is also challenging physically so you must ensure that you are in good medical condition before you get started. Personally each year I visit the GP to get a quick check over to make sure all is well before I get going and I’d strongly recommend this if you are new to riding and exercise or have been away from the bike for a while.

By the end of part 2 you will be able to

1) Warm-up properly prior to the test.

2) Complete a Threshold Test.

3) Complete a structured cool down to help recovery.

3) Record and analyze your test data.

4) Set-up your training zones (for Heart Rate or Power).

5) Know where to go for some excellent structured plans to get you started if you’re new to this.

The 20 minute warm up

It’s essential that before we start a training session we warm up progressively until we reach the level of intensity that the training session is going to be ridden at. You can’t expect just to start a session and perform to the best of your ability, you must be warm first. Unless I’m doing low intensity predominantly zone 1 & 2 rides I use the following routine for the majority of my sessions on the turbo and where possible out on the road. By the end of the warm up I always feel ready for action and in the right frame of mind for the next part of the session. You might like to know that this warm-up is used by all levels of riders from youth team right up to pro riders in the British team.

As with any training session it’s advisable to make sure that you are fully fueled and hydrated before getting started. If possible conduct the test a couple of hours after a light balanced meal and make sure you have been drinking water leading up to the test. I always take two 750ml bottles on the bike for this session and ensure that I start drinking early in the warm-up.

If you skip the warm-up you are just robbing yourself and test results will not be valid.

The warm-up routine:

Gear Selection : Use the large chain ring and mid way in the rear cassette as this will allow you to use the same gear throughout the warm-up.


— 5 mins @ 90RPM (smooth pedaling)

— 2 mins @ 95RPM (smooth pedaling)

— 2 mins @ 100RPM (smooth pedaling)

— 2 mins @ 105RPM (smooth pedaling)

— 1 min 30 sec @ 110RPM (smooth pedaling)

— 30 sec @ 120-130RPM (Go hard and try and stay in control)

— 2 mins @ 90RPM (This is to recover so relax)

— 6 sec @ 150+ RPM (Maximum possible cadence)

— 1 min @ 90RPM (smooth pedaling)

— 6 sec @ 150+ RPM (Maximum possible cadence)

— 1 min @ 90RPM (smooth pedaling)

— 6 sec @ 150+ RPM (Maximum possible cadence)

— 2 mins 42 sec @ 90RPM (This is to recover so relax)

Threshold Test - Some background

This test is good to use if you are using either a Heart Rate monitor(HRM) or Power Meter(PM). When you review your results you will end up with either something called your Functional Threshold Heart Rate(FTHR) or Functional Threshold Power(FTP) if training with power. Quite simply this test and your functional threshold (FTHR or FTP) is the highest level of intensity you can sustain on the bike for an hour. When I conduct this test I like to think of Bradley Wiggins or Tony Martin in a Time Trial holding a sustained, even amount of power over the entire course. They don’t go off too hard but set an even pace that they know can be sustained for the duration. If there’s anything left in the tank late on they put it all down on the road towards to finish as there’s no point in holding anything back. Like the pros if we go off too hard then you will not be able to sustain that pace and at some point during the test your pace will drop significantly.

Over time as you complete your training your speed (pace) at your threshold level will increase - in effect you will be able to ride harder and further for the same level of effort in a given amount of time. Improving your threshold level with training is certainly a big help when riding the long sustained climbs out here in the alps.

There’s a lot more to be said on this but to be honest the majority of people that I’ve coached have wanted to get on with the riding without knowing all of the detail so in a minute we’ll dive straight in, you can always ask questions or do some on line research at a later stage if you would like to know more (see notes at the end re British Cycling).

The Threshold Test

I always say that the Threshold test should feel like the hardest 30 minutes you have ever spent on your bike - sorry, it does pay off though! For this reason you need to be mentally motivated to complete the test and rested physically so have a day or more off before you attempt the test. This is really important because you do not want to have to repeat the test at this stage, do it once and get it right. If you get off the bike at the end of the test and feel even slightly fresh you’ve not pushed hard enough!!

The test is over a period of 30 minutes but you only use the information collected in the final 20 minutes to set your zones and performance benchmarks. For this reason I recommend using a Garmin or similar and use the lap functionality so that you can look at just the final 20 minutes data when you are finished and have uploaded the to Strava/Training Peaks etc.

Session objective - Ride as hard as you can for a full 30 minutes.

— After 10 minutes click the lap button to start the timer for the final 20 minute lap.

— Try to sustain the highest pace you can for the entire 30 minutes of the test with a cadence of 90 to 100 RPM.

— Controlling your cadence is important as this information is used to validate the test next month (yes again!)

Cool Down

It’s good to get into the habit of doing a structured cool down after training sessions of medium to high intensity so here is the one that I use after my sessions, again courtesy of British Cycling. A structured cool down will help with recovery so as with the warm up start to get the habit now and use it after every session you do.

— 5 mins @ 90RPM (relaxed pedaling very low resistance/small ring)

— 5 mins @ 90/100RPM (harder gear but keep your breathing steady and under control)

— 5 mins @ 100RPM (the first 5 seconds of each of these minutes is maximum flat out effort followed by 55 seconds of easy at 100RPM)

— 5 mins @ 90/100RPM (keep it real easy and be sure to keep drinking water at this time - I make sure I have a 3rd bottle available in the room plus my recovery drink close at hand)

How will this look at the end?

Complete test including warm up and cool down

If we look at the above example you can see that after the first 20 mins of warm up the sustained effort begins (click the image to enlarge). You can also see that the effort is sustained right until the end when the pace is lifted a little leaving everything on the road and nothing left in the tank!

The all important 20 minutes (your lap!)

The all important 20 minutes

Here you can see the all important 20 minute lap highlighted, this is the section that will be used to measure performance and set your zones up.

Analyzing the test data

This is actually really simple. There are a few pieces of information you need to take from the last 20 minutes of the ride. I find it useful to create a spreadsheet to record the info not just for the first test but for subsequent ones so I can quickly compare tests and see how I’m doing.

Remember you are only using the data from the final 20 minutes of the test.

Record the following information:

1) The duration (i.e.=20 mins)

2) The average heart rate or power (i.e.= 172bpm or 275 watts)

3) Distance traveled (i.e. = 11.5km)

4) Average Cadence (i.e. = 96RPM)

5) Average Speed (i.e. = 38kph)

6) Temperature (i.e. = 12 degrees) This is optional but it helps to ensure test conditions are the same each time you repeat the test. Results will not be valid if the testing environment is not very similar each time.

How do we use this information?

As an example and armed with the above dummy information we can see that during this test the rider covered a distance of 11.5km in 20 minutes with an average HR of 172bpm, average power of 275 watts at an average speed of 38kph. Once training has started you would expect to see the distance covered and average speed increase for the same heart rate during the 20 minute period when the test is repeated in say a months time. So next time out if the training has gone well for the rider he may cover 12.1km in 20 minutes with a higher average speed for the same heart rate of around 172bpm. This would be a good indication that the training sessions the rider has been following not to mention the consistency of training are working as there’s a clear improvement. I hope that makes sense?

If you were lucky enough to be using a power meter you would (I’m sure you’ve guessed this already) expect to see an increase in the average watts produced for the same Heart Rate during the test as well. I like to think of your heart rate as the cost of delivering the watts, speed and distance.

Generating Training Zones

I’m not a big one for reinventing the wheel. British Cycling have a tool that will generate your zones for you and I’d recommend using this each time you complete the test. The Zone calculator at BC is free and you do not need to be a member to use it.

For our dummy rider here are his Training Zones based on Heart Rate:

British Cycling - Heart Rate Training Zones

If our rider was using a Power Meter this is how his zones would look:

British Cycling - Power Training Zones

Right progress has really been made now and if this is the first time you’ve conducted a test like this you’re well on the way to making some significant changes in your performance not to mention the fact that you now know exactly what’s going on with your body when you train. All that remains is to enter these heart rate or power zones into your Garmin or bike computer and become familiar with them so that you know where you should be spending your time in future sessions. I find it useful to have a screen on my Garmin showing the current training zone rather than just the actual heart rate or power, personal preference but I find it easy to remember I’m training in the correct zone like this.

What next?

So the test is over and you’ve got your zones set-up but what now? I’ll cover other specific aspects of training in future articles but you will now need to find and follow a structured plan that is specific to your needs. You will also need to repeat this test on a monthly basis to ensure you can see how progress is coming along and perhaps make changes to your training plan if needed. I recommend conducting these tests every 4th week which for many people is a week of recovery to ensure adaptions can take place before the next training bock begins.

You must be patient, changes in fitness do not come over night - they arrive as a direct result of being consistent in your training and performing sessions that are specific to your needs.

British Cycling - Training Plans & more

For those of you that are already members of British Cycling you have access to a wealth of training sessions especially if you are planning to ride a sportive. There is an excellent 12 week foundation plan that will help develop your base fitness over the winter months and will really allow you to move towards your next seasons goals. If you are not a member it’s not a big outlay especially when you consider what you have access to so well worth a look.

You can find the introduction the the foundation plan here and from this point you can navigate to the other plans available depending upon your current level of expertise and riding aspirations. Don’t be tempted to dive in at the deep end and go too hard early on in the season, take some time to develop your base endurance fitness and you will be rewarded next summer as a result.

You’ve come a long way so go and put your new found knowledge to the test, literally!

Train hard but train smart…


  • 20 Jan 2015 21:00:35

    Good info and it goes to show that you don’t have to have a power meter to start to reap the benefits of structured training. Before I had my first power meter I’d always do similar to yourself in the tests and see how far I traveled in the 20 mins hoping that it had increased!!

    Thanks very much for contributing positively to the post.

  • 20 Jan 2015 20:05:19

    Before I got a power meter I used a basic cycle computer with the sensor on the rear wheel to record time, speed, average speed and distance (on the turbo with exactly the same setup each time to keep it consistent). Then you can gauge improvement by seeing if your 20 minute numbers increase from test to test. It’s not perfect, but it works if you have nothing else.