Performance Testing for Triathlon Training

Regular performance tests within triathlon training are a critical piece to any training program. It doesn’t matter what the sport or activity you are trying to improve, the old adage holds true, “what gets measured, gets improved.”

In our first article on this topic, we discussed the importance of testing within triathlon. We briefly covered:

  • WHY regular tests are important,
  • If testing is right for YOU
  • Sample tests for swim, bike and run.

Here’s the direct link.

We will now discuss how we use the data from the test results and how you can do the same.

Quick Review

As mentioned in the prior article, testing should occur approximately every 5-8 weeks. The time frame can vary depending on the time of year and training cycle an athlete is in. Needless to say, it should work WITH the athlete’s schedule, not against it.

It is important to remember, testing can be done in many ways.

Tests can vary from one coach to another based on their philosophy as well as the athlete’s goals, current fitness and other factors. At RTA Triathlon, we usually perform tests within training, but race results can also be used when necessary.

The bottom line is there are no universal workouts or tests among all of the coaches in the world. The one thing that is important, however, is the tests are easily repeatable with minimal outside factors/variables.

For example, we prefer to have our athletes perform their bike test inside, on a trainer so they don’t have to worry about cars, stop signs, turns or changes in terrain. We also prefer our run tests to be done on a track for similar reasons. Also, definitely NOT on a treadmill because the moving belt and overall nature of a treadmill can present misguiding results.


How to Use the Test Data

Now that you understand the value of regular testing within triathlon training (read original article) and have an idea how the tests can & should be done, we will cover 4 ways you can use the data.


Current Fitness

First, tests are the perfect way to gage your current fitness. It doesn’t matter what you did 5 years ago, last year, or even a few months ago – what’s important is TODAY.

This information will play an important role in the items to follow.


It is important to understand it is NOT realistic to be in peak, “race ready” fitness year round. Peak fitness is only achievable 2, maybe 3 times a year. It is completely normal and a good thing for your fitness to vary throughout the year.

Just to be clear, I am not suggesting you be sedentary at any point, I’m only saying you cannot expect to be in peak fitness every day of the year. Even the very best athletes aren’t “in shape” year round.

This is because your body needs periods of lower volume  and different stress at different times. Done correctly, this will help you recover mentally and physically and consequently put you in position to push beyond where your fitness peaked in the previous year.


Effectiveness of Training Program

Regular tests in each discipline are a good way to measure improvement and fitness gains.  Why wait until race day to see if your training program is working?

It’s normal to have “bad days” from time to time.  So if you have a bad race, but you KNOW your fitness is “there” (because you have been testing) you can brush off the race results and focus on the next one.

Similarly, if your test results are not what you (realistically) expected and you think you just had a “bad day,” you can easily re-test a week or two later.

If your test results still don’t seem right or if you just haven’t seen improvement in a while, it’s important to ask, why?

Are you regularly missing workouts? Have you been overly stressed from work or family?  Are you regularly sacrificing sleep in order to train?  These are only a few questions, but the point is you can reevaluate your training approach if necessary and avoid finding out on race day for the first time.


Workout Design & Specificity

When preparing for a triathlon, each workout should have a purpose and a specific goal.If your workouts do not (or you just don’t know) you are likely doing a lot of “exercising” and not actually training. This can be a huge waste of time and effort especially when you are trying to maximize your time.

Generally, the purpose for each workout will change depending on the athlete’s needs & time of year (i.e. the closer to the goal race, the more race specific workouts should be).

Using your most recent test results, you can set accurate training zones for swimming, cycling and running. Zones help provide defined parameters so nothing is ambiguous.

The zones can be based on heart rate, power and/or pace.

While each way mentioned above can be extremely valuable when creating “zones,” in some cases it’s good to have a secondary way to gage work. For example, heart rate AND power for cycling or heart rate AND pace for running. Keep in mind there are a lot of variables when it comes to heart rate and it also takes a few minutes to stabilize when changing efforts. These are a couple reason why we like to have other means of measuring effort when necessary.

Ultimately, the training zones you create will enable you to target specific energy systems within various workouts thus bringing a bit more purpose to each.



Establish Race Strategy

Have you ever noticed how many people walk extended parts of the run in 70.3 and IRON distance triathlons?

Assuming they trained properly for the race, it’s usually because they they didn’t have a race strategy or they simply didn’t execute their strategy. NO ONE CARES how fast you biked if you can’t run the run. In a triathlon, you have ONE finish time.

Assuming you had a good taper (VERY IMPORTANT), toeing the line on race day with a thoughtful and realistic race strategy is a great way to ensure you have the best race possible. This is a priceless comfort especially when nerves are running high before the gun goes off.  At this point, all of the work has been done and the only thing left to do is execute… YOUR plan.

Your race day strategy should be a process oriented approach. Meaning, you will focus on everything you can control and nothing you cannot.  It should include nutrition, pacing and a plan A, B and C Rarely do things go exactly as planned so it’s best to be prepared. This is especially true for longer races like half and full iron distances.

Your most current testing data is a great place to start when establishing your race strategy. This will help you establish accurate and realistic heart rate, power and pace targets for each part of the race. We do this for all of our athletes leading into their races. Assuming the athlete sticks to plan and executes we can regularly predict an athletes finish time with unbelievable accuracy. Ken’s first IRONMAN is a great example of this.



At this point, hopefully you have a better idea of the importance of performance testing and how you can use the data to ultimately have the best race possible. If you are not incorporating regular testing we encourage you to give it a try.




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