This intriguing article in last week’s New York Times Magazine talks about the value of pretesting. The results of pretesting help refine the learning process and lead to better outcomes on final exams.
It strikes me that the same goes for endurance sports. There’s huge value in pretesting your training. The race itself should not be the only examination of how your work is going—just a final exam, and sometimes one that’s not that weighted. Testing isn’t always fun, but it doesn’t have to be hellacious. It’s a critical part of honestly assessing things as they actually are—and that’s mindfulness.
Racing Wisely, my book on mindful racing, covers testing in depth. Here’s a sample.
In order to adjust your training so you can achieve your best performance on race day, you’ll need to have a clear, concrete idea of how your training is working and what your abilities really are—not what you wish they were. Quantify and track your performance by repeating a time-trial test every few weeks. A time trial measures all three of our potential variables: intensity, time, and distance. Fix two variables of the test every time you repeat it, and look for improvement in the other variable. Depending on your sport and target race, tests could look like this:
- swimming 100 yards or meters all out for time; or swimming 5 x 100 yards or meters on short rest all out, looking for the best average time per 100
- swimming 500 yards or meters all out; or swimming 3 x 500 on short rest all out, looking for the best average time per 500
- riding a 3K time trial as hard as you can and measuring time
- riding a 40K time trial with your best effort and measuring time
- riding a five-minute time trial as hard as you can and measuring distance or power
- riding a forty-minute time trial with your best effort and measuring distance or power
- running a mile at your best effort for time
- running 5000 meters at your best effort for time
- running 30 minutes at your best effort for distance
All of these tests should be preceded by a warmup that culminates in a few short, fast efforts and a slightly longer, target-effort interval. You can complete them during your regular stepback (or “rest and test” weeks), or wherever they make most sense. Spread them out at least three weeks. Repeat your tests on a fixed course: the track, an open stretch of flat road, a trainer or treadmill (use the same treadmill every time if you can). Give each test an honest hard effort, without excuses. You need to know exactly where you stand in your training. Your best effort in a test will leave you feeling quite drained by the finish. If you can speed up considerably at the end of the test or realize you had more to give, you’ve learned something useful; if you slow down or stop, you’ve learned something else useful.
Track your tests. This can be done in a notebook, on an Excel spreadsheet, or in an online program like Training Peaks (trainingpeaks.com). Watch your progress month to month. Don’t get hung up on a single poor test—we all have bad days. Often we learn more from the tests that don’t go well than from the tests that do. Bad tests give us the opportunity to look at the training cycle that led up to them and assess whether we should make adjustments. A downward trend of poor tests indicates a need to adjust the stress/rest and consistency/variety balance in your training. I outline these adjustments below.
Regular performance tests are wonderful for building mental skills. Repeating them once a month or every other month will give you a race-simulation experience, from the apprehension beforehand to the satisfaction after, while encouraging you to push yourself based on exactly what you have to give, not how others are doing around you. Pay careful attention to the mental process before, during, and after your time trial. Are you having negative thoughts? What exactly are you afraid of? Is it in your control, or out of your control? Can you recast your thoughts to see the time trial as an opportunity, not a crisis? I ran my personal best mile on the track in the midst of high-volume Ironman training, because I figured I had nothing to lose—I was training for long, slow distance. To be candid, I even asked myself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” and envisioned some cataclysmic outcomes that might happen. They didn’t. I did learn that there’s much more in my legs, lungs, and heart than I expect, which was a valuable lesson for the Ironman.