Monitor Progress Now to Improve Season Performance

Melanie McQuaid provides advice on using test sessions to help monitor your progress throughout the course of the season.

See I told you that tri top was enormous on me….

For most of us, February is the point in the season where we find our focus. Whether the end of 2008 marked the end of debauchery or the beginning of our 2009 build, February is unlikely to be a month in which athletes racing the Northern Hemisphere season are exhibiting top form. In many cases, the first couple of months are the lowest point in the year where fresh, untrained bodies are being prepared for the rigors of training.

Although testing immediately after a long break can be demoralizing in some cases, it also represents your reference point. With no race-specific training on the menu, you can measure what your base fitness is when you start a training regime. This way you can measure how effective your training is by looking back on where you were before you began that training.

Despite how unsatisfied you might be with the initial test, you may find subsequent tests very motivating as you can see improvements made over time. If you aren’t making any measurable progress, chances are you might need to reassess your training to figure out why you are not improving.

The ultimate measure of training success is racing. I know there are individuals that require the adrenaline and stress of a race to truly achieve their best results. If you require more serious consequences to commit to a 100 percent effort, you could see a series of unimpressive tests leading up to a great race and wonder why you bothered to test at all. At the end of the day, testing doesn’t always measure your best effort, but it can also measure underlying fitness.

As a coach, I ask athletes to perform on a day that perhaps they may not otherwise “feel” like doing it. Many athletes have experienced poor form on race day. How they dealt with that particular day likely determined the outcome. Practicing in a training environment will help you to prepare for any race day.

Here are some test sessions that will help monitor your progress over the course of the season. These simple and accessible tests can be incorporated into your training to help guide you over the course of this season. At the end of the day there is a common theme: Perform an activity over a measurable distance for a measureable period of time. Measure, record and repeat and over time you will have a progress report. You might have the option to incorporate lactate, power and other metrics into your test sessions, but it doesn’t need to be that complicated. That data is useful but could be overkill if you are just starting your journey in triathlon. Keeping it simple is the old school, and ultimately time tested, method of finding success.


It is fairly easy to test yourself in the swim. Swim a given distance and record your time. What distance you choose for your time trial will depend on what you want to measure. If you have had a lengthy break from swimming, give yourself two to three weeks to find your feel for the water again before performing a time trial. I believe a 1000m or 1500m time trial is probably your best measure of overall fitnessĀ at the beginning of your race season. As you approach your first races of the season and have worked on speed, you may want to measure your 400m time to determine your start speed in racing. If you have been working on technical ability or sprint speed, you would measure a 50m or 100m time trial. I find that a bit of a decrease in swim volume without a large decrease in frequency is a good way to prepare for the test. Keep in mind that fatigue from the other two sports will affect your best performance in the pool.


The most common test I have heard of for cycling is a step test performed on a load generating trainer or bicycle. The athlete performs increasing loads over a set period of time until failure in order to determine what power, heart rate and lactate value are exhibited at increasing loads. This test is fabulous but requires a load generating and measuring device (power meter or power measuring trainer), which may be a bit advanced for a true beginner.

To keep it simple, find a five to 10 km off-road loop or a 10 to 15km road loop. If you are running your test off road, you may want to keep it relatively low in technicality to measure pure fitness. Mountain biking requires a combination of technical and physical abilities, so having some technical elements can help you measure your progress in both abilities. If you test on the road, you can measure speed, cadence and distance to give you more numbers to use when you have completed your time trial. The most important thing is that the efforts must be repeatable and somewhat measureable. Basically, if you ride your loop faster in six weeks, you are fitter. You will want to rest and perform a good warm-up prior to the test to get your best effort on that day.


In running, testing is a complete no brainer. Sign up for a local 5K or 10K race and get a time. There are often early-winter road races that you can participate in that offer an added bonus of a race environment to truly get the competitive juices flowing. Logging times will allow you to use data to determine your paces in training. These scenarios are also great for testing your triathlon race warm-up. Use your race specific nutrition, mental routine, prerace breakfast and any other race specific activities you would like to test or master. The more your training mimics racing, the more you will be prepared for the race.

A bonus to all of this testing is that you can practice putting on your “suffer-face” preseason. There is a lot to be said for reminding yourself of where your limits are as you strive to improve yourself athletically. At the end of the day, it isn’t always the fittest person that wins the race. Sometimes it is the person who is most prepared to suffer.




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