Fitness testing helps athletes

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— You've invested in a new pair of running shoes and you're going to do more than cheer at this year's Steamboat Springs Running Series. Or perhaps you've been taking spin classes all winter and you're thinking about doing your first century ride. Maybe you've been training diligently, have enlisted the help of a coach and have your sights set on winning your age group at the Steamboat Triathlon.

If you fit any of these scenarios, consider a fitness test that will give you the hard truth about your current fitness status. A fitness test is any objective measurement of your athletic abilities.

Fitness tests come in many forms. A maximal test involves exercising until complete fatigue occurs. You go until you cannot go any further. One such test is a VO2 Max assessment, which measures maximal oxygen consumption through analysis of expired gases. It generally is considered the gold standard of cardiovascular fitness assessments. If you think of your body as a sports car, VO2 max represents the size of your engine.

Submaximal tests are kinder, gentler ways to assess fitness. These tests may be preferable if you are less active. Older and younger populations also may benefit because the cardiovascular system does not have to be taxed to its maximum to obtain useful information.

A particularly useful submaximal assessment is a lactate threshold test. At low exercise levels, lactate can be used as an energy source. When you are working hard, your body produces more lactate than it can utilize and it begins to accumulate at higher levels in the blood. This point is known as the anaerobic (without oxygen) threshold or lactate threshold. The longer or faster you can go before accumulating excess lactate, generally, the more fit you are.

At this point you may be thinking, "I already know that my engine is better suited to a Pinto than a Porsche. Why do I need a test to tell me a bunch of numbers confirming what I already know?"

By themselves, results of fitness tests do not mean much. It is what you do with the information that is important. For example, once you know your lactate threshold, you can use it to determine the heart rate zones for endurance workouts and various interval sessions.

Cycling coach Katie Lindquist uses fitness testing to collect the information she uses to design training programs for athletes.

"Physiological tests, VO2 max, lactate threshold and metabolic testing all produce information critical to helping clients reach their fitness or performance goals," Lindquist said. "As a professional cyclist and cycling coach, these numbers are invaluable for determining not only baseline information on athletes, but also for measuring their progress and making changes to their training programs as fitness improves."
Common barriers to fitness goals include lack of time, boredom and injury.

Fitness testing can help on all fronts. Many recreational athletes fall into a pattern of exercising at the same intensity: hard enough to feel like they are really "getting a workout," but not so hard that they feel they are "going to blow up" all the time.

Fitness experts call these "junk miles" because the body is not being stressed enough to make significant gains but it is being taxed enough to wear it down.

By knowing your current fitness status in terms of heart rate and power production, you can design a program that incorporates both hard efforts and recovery days. This will help you to avoid injuries and the same old routine. A little knowledge can go a long way toward improving your time and enjoyment during that trail run, century or triathlon.

Jennifer Kerr, DPT, is a physical therapist at SportsMed.

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