Cycling Power and Performance Testing

Periodically testing your cycling ability is essential if you are looking to improve through the season. Testing allows you to see and feel gains in strength, while providing knowledge to whether you’re on the right path or not. Performing a test is not only to recognize gains in strength, but to also measure levels of fatigue. Testing can also be done in a variety of ways, indoors and outdoors, to test for more than one aspect of ability.

The three most important aspects of testing are timing, validity, and reliability. The type of results you get from a test, whether indoors or outdoors, will be determined by the timing of the test. So if your goal is to test for peak cycling power outputs, then plan a day to test when you expect to be very well rested. If your goal is to test your handling skills and race pace efforts, then choose a group ride towards the beginning of a training period, after a few rides to dial in your form. On the flip side, if you are curious to your levels of fatigue towards the end of a training period, then plan a ride with a group or a teammate at the end of your second or third week of training. Riding with a group of peers will naturally provide competitive motivation, and test your limits for the day.

 

To view losses or gains in power, speed, or skill, you need results from two test scenarios as close to identical as possible. The closer your test scenario is to the event and sport you’re training for, the more valid the test. For example, the most valid way to test for power on a road bike is to test outside on a road with the bike you plan to race on. Reliability refers to how repeatable and consistent a test protocol is. Testing for power is most reliable while testing indoors. It is easier to control variables such as temperature, terrain, wind and humidity, leading to more reliable results to compare.

Let’s look at a few different ways to test your ability on the bike in the most reliable and valid ways

A competitive group ride with friends or teammates is a fun and great way to test a variety of abilities, including speed, threshold power, race intensity, and handling skills. It is also a valid way to test your strength since group rides can at times mimic race conditions, including terrain specific to your race. Group rides should be well timed and spaced appropriately, since a ride with a competitive group will lead to hard efforts and too many hard effort days within a training period can lead to over training symptoms.

Field testing, an organized test that uses a time trial effort for a set period of time outdoors is another valid way to test. You can test for average power, total distance, or both, for a set period of time, whether that is 10-20 minutes or longer depending on your goals, ability and what you’re looking to learn from the test. Power is a more precise way to measure gains and losses but both power and speed can provide great results to study. Field testing provides a very reliable result since you can repeat the test in the same location over time. Choosing a location free of stops and with the least amount of traffic is the best scenario. Using the same location will ensure you are testing on the same exact terrain, providing a reliable measure of results to compare over time. The downside to testing outside is not being able to control the weather. Outside factors such as extreme heat, cold, or rainy conditions can slow you down, affecting your test results. So it is important to use field testing at times to study for gains in power and speed, but keep in mind external factors that can affect the results and learn from it all over time.

Testing indoors on an indoor bike trainer is the most reliable way to test for results, but it is not the most valid. Riding indoors on a trainer is different than riding outside – (See my article here on cycling indoors vs. outside). Testing indoors with your race bike will provide more validity to indoor testing, but the biggest advantage of testing indoors is consistency. You can use the same protocol as a field test when testing inside and test for average speed and power for a set period of time. Testing on an indoor trainer allows you to repeat a test on the same bike, in the same or very similar conditions. Training fatigue and time of testing may affect results in one way or the other, so it is not a perfect scenario, but being able to control outside factors such as temperature and wind allow you to gain very reliable results to compare over time. Indoor tests are best used for analyzing specific gains in power throughout the season.

The following is a comparison of an outdoor test and an indoor test to show the accuracy of testing indoors, especially for longer duration's.

Indoor Cycling Test
Outdoor Cycling Test

As you can see, power, cadence, and torque measurements for the indoor test are very steady compared to the outdoor test. Power measurements vary about 50 watts on average while outdoors compared to 10-15 watts on average indoors. Variance in outdoor terrain compared to the smooth surface of an indoor trainer is the main reason it is harder to work steadier outdoors. The difference between cadence measurements explains this very well. It is easier to hold a steady cadence indoors where there are no inclines and declines to deal with. This is why testing indoors will provide very reliable results. It is important to note – The outdoor test was done on a flat road with a slight incline.

Racing your bike is the most valid way to test your overall strength and ability, especially when you are racing at or close to your targeted distance. Races are a place where you are moving and pedaling nonstop, creating the perfect venue to test endurance. If you are targeting ultra-distance events or only race a few times a year, then your chances to test your race ability and endurance will be few. But if you race often throughout the season, you will have the opportunity to use certain races as “test races” or secondary priority races. You can use most early season races to test ability and identify weaknesses to improve on, while using secondary races closer to your main event to dial in performance, and study for gains in strength. Races are not as reliable when comparing times from season to season since courses and weather can change dramatically. This creates many different variables that will effect results. So it is best to compare race results from year to year loosely, and use races as a guide to your current fitness for each season.

Making gains in performance is not always a straight path to the top; there are ups and downs to deal with along the way. So, test performance and be realistic about results. Using different ways to test for performance will allow you to view all aspects of your abilities and weaknesses for motivation and to dial in training.

Mike Schultz CSCS