The variability of ‘fitness testing’

An interesting experiment evolved with one of my female swimmers in the pool a few weeks ago.

Over 3 weeks we did the same simple ‘Progressive intensity’ swim session shown below:

Warm up 

– 10mins easy swim

Main set 

400m @ 70%
– 15 ri
300m @ 80%
– 15 ri
200m @ 90%
– 15 ri
100m @ 100%
– 60 ri
100m @ 70%
– 15 ri
200m @ 80%
– 15 ri
300m @ 90%
– 15 ri
400m @ 100%

The session was all done on RPE alone, no watches, no numbers just the swimmers natural instinct as to what pace felt right on the day. I gave all the swimmers the option of having a timed 400m for the final effort. Not many hands up went up for this but I was pleased to see one lady (Kate), was very keen to give it a go.

Kate’s stand alone PB over 400m was 7:21 prior to this testing.

The results over the next 3 sessions were fascinating, mainly because they were completely inconsistent.

– Week 1: 7:22

– Week 2: 7:52 

– Week 3: 7:04 

The pacing within these sets was consistent with no outstanding variables. The test was also done at the same time and day each week.

– During week one Kate was in the lane with 3 other swimmers who were roughly 6-7 secs apart in a 25m pool. There was minimal drafting affect.

– During week two I put Kate in a free lane on her own to minimise any drafting affect. Interestingly out of all of the 3 swims this is where Kate said she felt at her best and thought she was swimming her fastest.

– I took a slightly different approach again for week 3. All 4 swimmers in the lane came out to the pool saying they were very fatigued. I then gave them the option of a timed 400m at the end, as expected they all declined. Being the devious coach I am I still timed their efforts anyway to see what would happen.  What was clear to me watching from the side of the pool was that all 4 swimmers were actually swimming really. They just didn’t know it.

To their amazement all 4 swimmers then proceeded to set lifetime bests over 400m.

This highlights why athletes should take a more open-minded view of fitness testing within training. A poor test result or training session doesn’t necessarily mean your training isn’t going well; it could just be that you chose the wrong day to do it. Rarely do the stars align for us on that one-day where we want to achieve peak performance.

More often than not, what an athlete actually experiences during a training cycle is brief ‘flashes’ of fitness improvement. By this I mean that during some of their sessions they will start to see numbers or readings that exceed what they have done before. This is your body’s way of telling you the training is actually working. It doesn’t always reveal itself under ‘test conditions’ because on-going training fatigue and life stresses can sometimes mask underlying fitness improvements.

Tests can be so variable and unpredictable. As much as we wont to see consistently improving linear results, this is rarely ever the case.

It also poses the question of how much emphasis you should place on fitness testing when the ultimate performance indicators are your race results. A brilliant test result is a great confidence boost, but means nothing if you fail to perform on race day. Some of the best athletes in the world are notorious for underperforming in fitness tests but then rise to the occasion when out there racing. Based on their test results they shouldn’t be able to do what they do – but they do it anyway.

I think it’s much sensible to take a much more open-minded view of fitness testing. Primarily I do it because I want to see how an athlete responds to a challenge I’ve set them, it’s certainly not just about seeing great numbers. These tests will be highly variable depending on the athlete. I want to see how they react in that moment when their mind is telling them to stop or slow down. Do they give in or do they find a way to over come what they are experiencing? Either way it tells me how resilient and determined they are, or if there is a weakness we need to work on.

The reason I emphasise this is because there are so many elements that an athlete has to deal with during racing that are physical, technical, tactical and psychological. These are all stresses you have to be able to respond to. You have to develop the tools to deal with different scenarios that will be completely out of your control, including how you feel on that particular day.  It doesn’t need to feel good to be fast, but you do need the mental fortitude to keep going.

Test results mean nothing if you don’t have the skill sets required to race well. Fitness testing is just a small part of a much larger picture that determines the type of athlete you become. As much as fitness testing can provide benchmarks it should also be relevant to the athlete in question, it needs to help them grow and develop in some way. Never just test for testing sake; it has to have theory and reason behind it. You also don’t need to follow standard fitness testing protocols, be creative, in doing so you can target your weaknesses and turn them into strengths.

This past year during my swim squad training I have seen more swimmers hit PB’s than ever before. Many of them being set towards the end of swim sets like these when fatigue was highest and they didn’t know they were being timed. I have also seen more breakthrough performances during training sessions that weren’t labelled ‘fitness tests’ during bike and run sessions.

The main reason for this is there was no pressure or stress element at play. This allowed them to remain calm and in control, which invariably for many helps performance shine through. For many becoming highly stressed about a task can inhibit performance. This is because it produces negative emotions such as fear and anxiety, but it doesn’t need to be this way if you channel these emotions to the task at hand in a more positive way. Don’t dread it, welcome it, because this energy is much more efficiently utilised if it is directed into your performance, rather than being wasted worrying about it.

A much more sensible way to look at it is to let all of your training and racing be your ‘testing ground’. Take a much more relaxed approach because fitness testing is just a small part of a very large jigsaw puzzle, it doesn’t determine who you are as a racing athlete.

It’s also important to realise that some days will be good and some will be bad, it’s all part of the natural cycle of training. The key thing is to not let it mentally play on you for too long if you have a bad session or result. You have to let it go, holding onto it is futile.

So keep looking forwards, not backwards, because tomorrow can be a completely different day entirely.