POWER TESTING: PROTOCOLS
WHAT TO DO WITH WATTS?
Measuring an athlete’s power output on the bike is now commonplace amongst triathletes and cyclists. While there are a number of testing methods and protocols used to quantify and monitor an athlete’s fitness level, we’ve covered three that span the spectrum.
The Ramp Test
Coach Steve Neal and former pro cyclist Andrew Randall who run the Cycling Gym in Toronto, designed a ramp test-based protocol to determine an athlete’s performance limiter.
The test has two parts. First, a traditional three-minute ramp test to failure, starting at a low wattage. A low wattage start provides the most accurate information for each training level possible. The following data is collected: heart rate, respiration frequency, respiration efficiency and muscle oxygen saturation.
The second part of the test is a more gradual ramp test during which blood lactate, heart rate and muscle oxygen saturation are measured. The result determines optimal aerobic function which we call “lactate balance point” (the point at which lactate is no longer being cleared from the first ramp and starts to accumulate again). Lactate balance point is particularly important to middle- and longcourse triathletes as it determines your race performance.
Once you know your limiter (and it’s different for everyone), you can individualize your training to get you to the next level.
Critical Power Model
A well-established model called the Critical Power Model has been extensively used in numerous sports to characterize an individual’s aerobic (CP) and anaerobic (W’) energy system. The model can be used to predict performances and provide specific training intensities. Traditionally, several varying exhaustive tests are required to estimate CP which can take upwards of seven to 10 days, including recovery periods between tests. Attempts have thus been made to develop a single test protocol to address this shortcoming.
The 20-minute time trial is the standard test in the cycling community that is used to determine CP and training zones. The 20-minute time trial average power is used to predicted an athlete’s one-hour power (also known as functional threshold power, FTP). Once FTP has been set, an athlete can determine their training zones using percentages of FTP. Agreement is not universal, but the following guidelines give an idea of the different zones commonly used in triathlon training: Zone 1 < 60% FTP Zone 2 = 65 to 80% of FTP Zone 3 = 85 to 90% of FTP Zone 4 = FTP +/- 5% Zone 5 = 126 to 133% of FTP However, CP derived from the 20-minute test ignores individual variability and is sensitive to poor test pacing strategy which reduces the accuracy of CP.
An alternative protocol is a three-minute allout test and addresses the shortcomings of the above-mentioned protocols while producing an accurate estimate of CP. The test requires a maximal effort through the entire three minutes and the average power output over the final 30 seconds that is used to identify the individual’s CP. Once CP has been determined, an athlete can calculate their training zones.
Dr. Ming-chang Tsai, research scientist in the faculty of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto and data analyst/sports scientist with the Canadian Sports Institute Pacific, has developed an algorithm to shorten the three-minute all-out test to as little as 1.5 to 2 minutes and once the study is published, the algorithm and protocol could revolutionize cycling testing protocols.
The Blended Test
My company, Wattsup Cycling, an indoor power-based cycling studio in Toronto, integrates two different kinds of tests to yield power zones. The first part is a sub-maximal ramp test where blood lactate values are measured every three minutes. The ramp test is taken to just past one’s “lactate threshold” (approximately equivalent to one’s one-hour maximum sustainable power). After a brief recovery, the second part of the test is a fiveminute all-out self-paced time trial. It is a combination of the lactate values and time trial results that are used to establish an athlete’s unique training zones. The zones are therefore based on both an athlete’s physiology and performance.
There is no one test that measures all variables of interest. Every test protocol has its strengths and shortcomings. The tests described above are somewhat specialized. Simpler tests are available, ones that can be self-performed. What matters from a practical perspective is how simple the test is to administer and how repeatable the test protocol is. If you find a test that is simple and repeatable, hold onto it. It’s more important to be consistent so you can accurately track your improvements.
Coach Adam Johnston owns Wattsup Cycling. in Toronto ( wattsupcycling.ca).