Being fitness tested: David takes the challenge

It’s not a pretty sight

As the summer looms large it’s now that many of us turn our minds to getting out on the bike more, and try to get a little fitter ready for tackling maybe some events, races or challenges in the next couple of months. 

While it’s easy to throw money at lighter components for your bicycle to extract more speed, there comes a point when you realise that the only thing holding you back from riding faster and further is your fitness.  You can only pedal as hard as your legs, lungs and heart will let you.

In recent years the tools most people have access to help them get fitter have increased exponentially, as technology such as heart rate monitors and power meters have drastically dropped in price and there are now more qualified coaches and literature available on the subject than ever before.

For the amateur mountain biker (like myself), understanding how best to make fitness gains is fraught with an overload of information, with contrasting theories; a search in Google for ‘mountain bike fitness’ chucks out 14,400,000 results. Read just a few of those and while you might feel a little more informed, it’s highly likely you’ll be scratching your head within five minutes of reading. Ever feel confused by it all? Me too.

There is one way to approach the task of increasing your speed and stamina however: fitness testing. Most people will make a personal assessment on their fitness, but I decided to get some expert advice before I get stuck into some hard riding not that the weather is ripe for some dusty trail riding (and particularly as there’s a few events in the next few months I want to do well in).

A fitness test essentially involves going to see one of the many training consultants spread across the country, being hooked up to a ramp test, and finding out what your current level of fitness actually is. Armed with that information the qualified coach running the test will be able to tell you exactly what your strengths and weaknesses are, and will send you away with a ‘plan’ so you can ensure that the riding you do will reward you with improved fitness. Sounds straightforward, so off I popped to visit Sportstest and find out for myself just what it involves.

Getting started

Run by Dr Garry Palmer (also the author of Cycling Successful Sportives), Garry has been testing cyclists (including many mountain bikers) triathletes, runners and many other athletes for the last six years.

I’ll admit, on the drive up to Birmingham, to feeling a little nervous. The drive up has hardly done much to calm my nerves. But I’m also hugely excited. Until now I’ve fumbled from training method to training method, reading as many books and websites on the subject as I can. I’ve had some respectable results and performances at events, but I’ve never managed to hang onto form for very long at all and never really delivered as much as I would like. I feel I’ve got some potential to ride faster.

With the bike set up on the jig (I’m using a road bike that I’ve been using for a little training and riding to work) and everything plugged in and turned on, I was keen to get on and bash out some serious wattage. But before the actual test happens, we sit down and talk.

There’s an initial assessment about where I think I am fitness wise. We chat through my strengths and weaknesses (not the easiest thing I’ve ever done), my weekly mileage, typical average speeds, how my season went, and what my goals are for next year. This all helps Garry get a picture of where each person is, and where they ideally want to be.

Next, it’s time for the scariest part of the test, scarier even than the actual riding part – the weigh in and body fat body fat analysis with a variety of skin fold measures! Cue much breathing in and holding everything taut, but Garry’s calipers don’t lie. The truth is there in numbers; time to face reality. But it’s not all bad news…

Now for the fun (relatively speaking) part. Onto the bike, clip in; face mask on and heart rate strap in place and start pedalling. Good thing there aren’t any mirrors in the room, god knows what I look like with this mask strapped to my face. The test is conducted in two halves; the sub-maximal bit, which is relatively painless. It’s low level, just a spinning along pace, and gets you nicely warmed up. A five minute rest and then the serious part can begin.

The pace is gradually picked up by the machine. The pointer in the middle of the screen, which you’re tasked with keeping in the very centre by measuring your power output, squiggles about. It’s mesmerising and focuses the mind on the pedalling motion. Soon there’s sweat flinging everywhere, my body swinging on the saddle; I squeeze every last part of power out that I can. Then, before I know it, it’s all over. I’m done and slump off the bike.

It’s all in the numbers

Following the test, it’s time to crunch numbers. Mercifully, Garry takes me through each step of the test in a thoroughly reassuring and, most importantly, positive manner. There’s no bad news with Garry, just the honest truth about your fitness. Weaknesses are highlighted but importantly, and crucially, he’s keen to show where improvements can be made. It’s all very positive.

It’s fascinating stuff, and Garry effortlessly cuts through the complexity of body to weight ratio and VO2 max, and I quickly get a profile of exactly where my fitness is. Garry makes it all make sense in my head, and despite the potential for being baffled with all the data on hand, it’s all reassuringly easy to digest. My weaknesses are exposed and he points out what I should be doing to work on them, taking into account my goals for next season which we established earlier on. I’ve learnt more, and importantly understood it all, in this one session with Garry than in all the books and websites I’ve read to date, for that alone it’s worth the money.

Most usefully is knowing where I’m at and what I need to do to recognise a significant improvement in my fitness to help me achieve my desired goals this summer. The guesswork surrounding heart rate zones has been completely removed. I had a rough idea based on personal testing of these zones, but the test has revealed I was a little out – getting this accurate is essential for effective training and realising your potential. I now know exactly what I need to do to improve my fitness over the coming months, and have more confidence in what training I need to do than I ever have before.

That I believe is the most appealing aspect of fitness testing – no more guesswork. Even better, Garry can draft a training schedule that will fit around however hectic your life is and whatever hours you realistically can make available.

To conclude

Think such fitness tests are only for serious or professional cyclists? Think again. I’ve never thought of doing such a test before, I thought it would mean taking my cycling too seriously. But however seriously you want to take it; it’s such a small cost but potentially offers massive rewards.

I’m a pretty average cyclist trying to fit cycling around everything in my life and the most important, and appealing aspect, of the test is being able to get an accurate picture of my fitness, and using the data to thus draw up a plan to train effectively with the time I have available.

It’s removed that guesswork, and I now feel more confident moving forwards. For anyone wanting to realise more potential next season but thinks a fitness test is above them, don’t. It’s probably for the time-strapped cyclist that a fitness test is most well suited. If you’ve got only six hours spare and you want to get around the Etape du Tour next year, your path to success should start with a fitness test.

A fitness test with Sportstest costs about £200. Might sound a lot, but it’s not. It’s a lot cheaper than many of the expensive lightweight upgrade components many people will fit in an effort to go faster. A fitness test is guaranteed to help you ride faster.

Garry undertakes testing in central London (Shoreditch) fortnightly (days vary, but usually Wed and Thur or Thur and Fri), Specialized concept stores in Harrogate, Stafford and Ruislip or Wombourne, near Wolverhampton.

For more information or to book an appointment, call 0333 900 3330 or take a look at the website


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