How pro cyclists test their fitness, with UAE Team Emirates

We asked Jeroen Swart, UAE Team Emirates' performance coordinator, how they test riders each week — and it's a test that we can try too

This article was originally published in February 2022.

Train, rest, improve, repeat. That's every cyclist's dream. But, in the empirical world of cycling, we’re missing something. It should be, ‘Train, rest, measure, improve, repeat.’ As the adage goes, you cannot improve what you don’t measure. It’s why all of us should be benchmark testing.

And we’re not talking long, cumbersome testing protocols that leave you drenched in fatigue for forthcoming sessions. We’re not talking about hitting the labs, either, where accuracy comes at a fiscal and time-sapping cost. Instead, do as Tadej Pogačar’s team, UAE Team Emirates, do and undertake a simple three-minute test that delivers invaluable data on fatigue and freshness, and simply requires a turbo trainer. It’s the fast-track method to reaching your goals in 2023.

External and internal output

Monitoring your performance in cycling is as important as the training itself. That’s the view of Jeroen Swart, performance coordinator at UAE Team Emirates and a professional with years of cycling-science experience behind him. “Certainly when it comes to the professionals, they know how to train,” he says. “They all push themselves hard — but sometimes too hard."

Read more: How the pros train in the winter

It’s the same with many recreational riders who have the added stress of work. They know how to train but often struggle to strike the delicate balance between stress and adaptation. And that’s a problem because if you take on too much stress and don’t recover, you'll break down. Conversely, if you don’t push yourself enough, you won't enjoy positive results. You can only achieve that balance if you monitor your stress and recovery.

Which is where the SFT (submaximal fatigue test) comes in. This, for those of you already tuned in to testing methods, is a shorter and simplified version of the LSCT (lambert submaximal cycling test), created by Swart’s South African countryman, Robert Lambert.

Here’s what you need to do:

The SFT test

The test is straightforward. After a 10 minute self-paced warm-up, you ride for three minutes at your current FTP (functional threshold of power). That’s if you have a power meter or use a smart trainer that has power capabilities. You could also ride for three minutes at your critical power. Those who train solely by heart rate should ride for three minutes at their lactate turnpoint. Broadly, this is the intensity that causes a rapid increase in blood lactate and is also known as the anaerobic threshold.

Jeroen Swart overseeing his riders' warm up before a time-trial. (Image from UAE Emirates)

Those three minutes should feel like 17 out of 20 on a 6-20 rate of perceived exertion (RPE, 6 being very easy and 20 absolute maximum). If you feel like the RPE for those three minutes is lower than that, ride at 110% of your FTP or heart-rate equivalent.

Read more: How to build your cycling endurance

If you don't know your FTP or threshold, you can always start with a power output you feel you can sustain for a maximum of an hour at that RPE and then adapt it as described. The most important thing is to be consistent with the way you perform the test and always use the same values — and ideally the same time of day and day of the week.

Finally, at the end of the test, you need to evaluate the three minutes on an RPE scale and answer the question: how long could you have kept pedalling at that power output if you had continued?

This is a short test you can perform weekly to monitor your fitness and fatigue consistently (UAE uses it on a weekly basis, too). That said, what exactly are you looking for in the data?

The results

Simple. If an athlete has adapted to the training load, they would expect their RPE to be lower and their heart rate average either the same or, if they’re well-rested, higher for the same output (even from one week to the next).

A good performance coordinator also helps his rider putting their socks on. (Image from UAE Emirates)

“High heart-rate response to the power with a low RPE is a sign of good adaptation and also good recovery,” explains Swart. “Over a period of two or three months, there’s a slow reduction in the heart rate for that power output. That’s an improvement in the physiological status; in other words, cardiovascular adaptation. Just note that from one week to the next and from one day to the next, the fluctuation in heart rate is not a result of any improvement in training status. It's as a result of changes in the autonomic nervous system.”

In other words, in the short term, if you’re fatigued, your heart rate’s probably low and RPE high for the same power output. Conversely, when you’re fresh, your heart rate is responsive and elevated for the same power output and RPE low. But in the long-term, a lower heart rate for the same power output is what you’re after.

Naturally, as your fitness improves, your predicted time to exhaustion increases, too. 

Other important things you shouldn't forget

On top of the SFT, UAE coaches use further simple ways to test their riders’ fatigue and fitness. Some of these you can also implement into your routine.

“We undertake self-reported measures every week,” explains Swart. “So self-reported general wellness, fatigue, sleep, stress and mood. The mood is an important indicator of fatigue. In fatigued athletes, the mood declines.”

(Image by Michael Steele/Getty Images)

UAE Team Emirates also record daily heart rate variability (HRV) scores to monitor stress and fatigue. Arguably, this might be a step too far for the recreational rider lacking a support team to analyse the results. That said, it’s something to discuss with your coach if you have one.

Ultimately, focus on your plan, train, rest, test and repeat. Keep it simple and progress will come naturally.

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