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Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Lab testing vs field testing

We're really lucky to have access here in Grand Junction to a world class lab testing facility at the local university.  Just to have have it available is a rare treat.

You might expect, that since I work with many athletes that I would have them in there every week?  Well, not quite.

While I think the equipment they have is great, I don't use it terribly often.  Why, you ask?

The main reason is that once the test is done and you have the results, sometimes those results are a bit of a dead end once you go home and begin training.

Let's take one of the most common tests used there, the VO2 (sub or max) test.  We can get a lot of information about a rider or runner through the use of this test, but not all of it is usable or meaningful to every athlete.

VO2 max testing can run $75-$150 each session
For a cyclist, the most useful piece of information you get from this test is your power and heart rate at "threshold".  From the test you can then craft your heart rate and power training zones so that you can "train appropriately".  Sounds pretty good, and it is on some levels, but the problems are a few:

1.  So now what? 
It doesn't tell you how to train though.  Your training plan still needs to be set up in a periodized manner so that you train longer or harder or rest depending on where your fitness is and what you need to be working on at that moment.  The data doesn't tell you how to organize that, it can just narrow down where your intensity levels lie.

2. Moving targets
While it's great to be able to quantify your threshold power and heart rate, a major problem is these data points (of power and heart rate) are moving targets and require consistent re-testing to re-set zones and power levels.  As you train, your power levels improve and need to be scaled up, which would require another trip to the lab and the shelling out of $75-$150.  If you really don't have any trouble spending this every eight weeks or more, then great.  But since there is an alternative to doing this that's free and can easily be integrated into your training plan, is it really necessary.

Quarq powermeter

There are many variations, but I use a very simple and repeatable 20-minute field test that can be done to easily find your threshold power and heart rate.  Granted if you don't have a power meter it'll require more attention to detail on the heart rate end, but if you don't have a power meter you probably wouldn't benefit  drastically from the lab and it's power data anyway, making consistent re-testing a waste.  Is this field test going to give us as much information as a VO2 test?  Nope, but frankly much of the VO2 data isn't usable on a daily basis, and the field test DOES give us what we need -- a very accurate measurement of what our power and heart rate at threshold are at that time.

Metabolic cart for lab testing

Incidentally, when training with power, once a client gets a baseline of information on how I want them to train and we begin to integrate occasional field tests, it gets very apparent when power zones need to be adjusted and by how much.  There is so much consistent data coming from today's power meters that if you pay attention to it on the right days, you can easily stay on top of your training and get a very accurate blueprint for how the next few weeks of training should go.

So I really don't have a grudge against the local lab -- actually I like very much the people that work there.  And frankly, I've had clients that just really want to get tested in the lab, to some extent for the "cool" factor.  I've often brought them in for an initial early season test which we can then set our first training zones from that session.  After that first test, most clients then opt to just run the field tests since they can be done easily, consistently, and with a lot of accuracy.

So, I love the lab -- very grateful to have access to it -- but it's just not something I need to use every day.

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