8 easy ways to track your cycling fitness
© Mark Roe/Red Bull Content Pool
Looking to improve your on-bike performance? These fitness monitoring methods from a coach who works with top riders like Rachel Atherton and Martin Maes will ensure that your progress stays on track.
We all want to get better at riding. We want to be fitter, stronger, more skilled and better able to handle climbs, sprints and technical descents, and so we train. We do indoor spin sessions, outdoor stamina-building rides, and cross-training in the gym to strengthen our core, arm and leg strength. But if you want to make sure you’re actually getting better, you need to test your fitness regularly.
Fitness testing was once reserved for professional athletes. Times have changed though and there are now many more ways to monitor progress and track performance without requiring the financial backing of a professional team.
1. Using a stopwatch on a local hill
Having specific testing roads or trails is very useful. This might be an uphill road where you've set a previous maximum effort which you can return to at the end of a training block to assess progress. While you don’t want to time every ride up them, you can use them as your benchmark testing tracks. Seeing time drop on your local climbs is hugely motivating and encouraging.
This also works for coming down them. Mountain bike riders can benefit from a track with varying terrain to time and re-assess as the year progresses. These benchmarks will drive training.
2. Tracking heart rate data and noting changes
Maximum testing efforts aren’t fun. By their very nature they push you to your limit and are mentally draining, so shouldn’t be repeated regularly. But don’t forget that sub-maximal efforts can also give a very good insight.
When it comes to heart-rate response, for a given effort or pacing, an increase in fitness will result in a decrease in average heart rate. If you have a climb that you can ride at a consistent average speed, and also log the average heart rate for that climb, returning and repeating that same steady effort with improved fitness will show a lowering of heart rate (assuming all other variables are the same). This allows more insight without ‘to the limit’ tests.
3. Track resting heart rates
Monitoring your heart rate shouldn't be limited to on-bike activities. Measuring your resting pulse is a very good habit to get in to and can be done with a cheap pulse oximeter that sits on the finger or with a heart-rate monitor.
First thing in the morning while you're still relaxed, take a measurement and note your resting heart rate. Improvements in aerobic fitness will generally lead to a decrease in resting heart rate.
Monitoring your heart rate shouldn't be limited to on-bike activities
Heart rates are also a good indicator of your body not being 100 percent, as fatigue or the onset of illness can see an increase in resting heart rate. Noting changes will help you understand your body better and adapt training or rest to suit.
4. Have a ride of KOMs or QOMs
Cycling apps such as Strava are very useful to track progress, but can often goad you into turning every ride into a full race effort to gain status on the app. However, if you train and prepare for a specific ride when you know you've made improvements and are willing to try for a KOM or QOM (king/queen of the mountain) on a specific track or segment, you can use this as a great tool. It will drive motivation, monitor changes and allow you to compare to previous results.
Do be aware that some small changes can be hidden as the accuracy isn’t always there. From personal experience, I have led a friend down a trail and, although he was behind me, his time was many seconds faster than mine, so do take times with a pinch of salt!
5. Use rate of perceived exertion to show how things feel
It’s important not to be solely focused on the numbers, but to factor in how things ‘feel’ too. After all, there is a good link between your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) and threshold effort levels; when effort perceived reduces for the same effort, it shows that fitness is improving. It will often indicate mood, fatigue and training status.
It’s important not to be solely focused on the numbers, but to factor in how things ‘feel’ too
When combined with other forms of feedback, RPE can be used to determine progress and also readiness for a race or test. It's also a useful motivator; 'I felt great up that climb today!’ is more motivating than anything else and doesn’t require any technology or further feedback.
6. Testing on a turbo trainer
Technology has improved hugely in this area over recent years, with turbo trainers and stationary bikes now offering feedback and testing that would have previously needed performance laboratory access. There are many different tests that can be set to test different fitness components, so you could test your functional threshold power (FTP), max power, or repeated sprint performance and compare to previous results.
The key things to remember when testing and re-testing are that you should be rested and ready to test before each effort, and that what you're testing is relevant to the training you’ve been doing. If you have been training with medium-to-long duration interval sessions, don’t expect max peak power to have increased.
7. Compare to your friends
For many of us, riding with (and beating) our friends is the biggest motivation and pleasure when out on two wheels. Noting progress and changes is also most clear when riding with a group and seeing how you have progressed or improved within it.
Feedback is often most encouraging from those that you care about
Feedback is often most encouraging from those that you care about and as such will motivate you more to continue the effort. Skills development is something that's often overlooked but is also something you can make huge increases in that are immediately noticeable to your friends.
8. Gym fitness testing
The obvious strength test is that of the weight on the bar – can you lift more now? But testing doesn’t have to be maximum weight on the bar every time. It could be the maximum number of reps you can do to show strength endurance progress; this could be 50 percent of your one rep max squat, which will give a very different challenge to just a max lift.
Gym training should also influence power and as such the rate at which you can impart a force. Jump height is an easy way to test this, whether it be on a jump mat, marking height on a wall, or trying to jump on to a high box. Having a clear way to mark improvements outside of just weight on the bar is useful and rewarding.