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Assessing endurance performance – The value of field testing

Written by Science2Sport.

· By Press Office · 0 comments

We have recently launched a short course entitled, “Cycling Science: The essentials of cycling physiology and coaching”. In this article, we are covering some of the content from the second module which focuses on assessing endurance performance. For further information about the course, please click HERE.


Performance testing is often implemented to assess adaptation to a training programme. We have previously written a more detailed article on laboratory-based performance tests, which you can find here. Laboratory-based assessments require the use of expensive equipment, are time-consuming and can be disruptive to a cyclist’s training programme. The increased affordability of power meters has resulted in an increase in the collection and analysis of field test data. However, when field test data is being collected and analysed, the following points should be considered;

1. Is the testing protocol valid?

A test is valid if it correctly measures what it claims to. In other words, a performance test for a cyclist should produce data that can accurately predict cycling performance. For example, a one repetition maximum bench press will have little value for predicting cycling performance. There is some debate as to whether laboratory-based assessments are valid measures of endurance cycling performance, but the strong association between the variables; VO2max, threshold, cycling economy and peak power out, and cycling performance is hard to argue against.

2. Is the testing protocol reliable?

Reliability refers to how repeatable the results are. In other words, if we repeated the same testing protocol, on the same athlete, with the same equipment, under the same conditions, we would expect the same results. Every test will have a certain amount of measurement error, and for a test to be considered reliable, the error or measurement must be low. Field testing is less reliable than laboratory-based assessments due to exposure to factors that could affect the outcome of the test (environmental temperature, road surface etc.).

3. Is the test sensitive to change?

If the cyclist’s performance has improved, the data collected from the test should reflect that.

Field tests can take numerous forms, but the most commonly used field tests are hill climbs, time-trial (TT) efforts of varying duration or distance, and standardised training sessions. The 20 minute time trial is commonly used to determine a cyclist’s functional threshold power (FTP). There is a strong association between the average power output during a 20 minute TT and a cyclist’s threshold. If you are interested in reading more about this link, we recommend you read this article. Performing a TT effort requires a quiet stretch of road, or a track that will ensure that your effort is not interrupted. The effort in the figure below was performed on Franschhoek Pass by a young road cyclist. Following a sufficient warm up, the cyclist hit the lap button and held a relatively constant power output until the timer reached 20 minutes.

Figure 1: 20-minute time-trial effort up Franschhoek Pass Cadence (Blue), Power output (Purple), Heart rate (Red).


Pacing during these longer TT efforts is an important consideration and can have a large effect on the result of the test. The importance of pacing is probably best illustrated in the two figures below. Figure 2 shows a well-executed time-trial with a relatively constant power output (green line), compared to Figure 3 where the power output is highly variable. Cyclists should be familiarised with these type of efforts in order to assist them in improving their pacing strategy and ultimately performance.

Figure 2: A well-executed time-trial.

Figure 3: A poorly executed time-trial.

Field tests can also be disguised as standardised training sessions, such as a set of 3 x 10 minute intervals. An increase in average power during these intervals could be valid measures of improvements in cycling performance. These field tests can track changes in performance and supplement the laboratory data which is collected less often. The data in the set of graphs below was collected during a training block aimed at improving this cyclist’s sustainable power output, and each session involved a set of 10 minute intervals. Each date represents a single training session, each dot represents a single interval and the green dashed-line represents the average for that particular session. The cyclist was able to increase their 10 minute power output (session average) as they progressed through this training block. A simple training session that is repeated at regular intervals during a training block can serve the role of a field test and provide an indication of the cyclist’s training progression. Tracking the variables of cadence and heart rate provides further insight into how the session was executed and the fatigue levels of the cyclist.

Figure 4: Data from a standardised training session that can be used as a field test to track progression.
For further information on the “Cycling Science: The essentials of cycling physiology and coaching” short course, click here.

To read last week’s article on measuring endurance performance, click here.


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