Customised performance assessment

19. March 2019

A performance test reveals your fitness level and indicates which areas you should focus your training on to achieve the desired performance. But which measurement methods are suitable for running? 

Those who do sports not only find joy in movement but also want to improve, get faster, and run lighter. Athletes want to know where both their strengths and weaknesses lie and how to improve them. 

A performance test determines your current fitness level. Most of the testing procedures for endurance athletes involve defining the individual anaerobic threshold, which is used as a starting point for grading the individual training zones. In practice, it therefore makes sense for a runner to check the results of their performance test, preferably within the first weeks of taking it. This can be done by doing a continuous tempo run for 30 minutes at the determined threshold. If the threshold pace cannot be maintained for 30 minutes, then the threshold (or the levels derived from it) has been set too high.

Whether indoors in the laboratory or outdoors: it is important that the performance tests are as standardised as possible and always conducted under the same conditions. Only then can they be meaningfully compared with each other and only when the individual test results are obtained under the same conditions can they really indicate whether the sports training bears fruit. Below are the most important testing procedures for runners that can be performed by professional providers:

Conconi Test

Procedure: Running field test on a track. The people being tested run alone or in groups of up to 20 participants (maximum on a 400-m track) from marker to marker (every 20 m). The next control point must be reached by each beep. They start at a speed between 8 km/h and 14 km/h and increase it by 0.5 km/h every 200 m. The heart rate measurement is taken at every speed level and at maximum performance.
Comment: Determines the anaerobic threshold in order to establish the training zones. Its suitability as a progress test is limited (since external factors influence the accuracy of the test).
Plus: Simple, possible to test groups simultaneously.
Minus: The stages are too short in time for the heart rate to settle. The test evaluation is only based on the heart frequency curve. The results are difficult to interpret if there is a missing kink in the speed/heart rate curve. The experience of the evaluator as well as previous knowledge of the athlete’s performance capability are of decisive importance for the assessment. A field test is influenced by the weather conditions.
Conclusion: Suitable for groups, young athletes, amateur athletes, and students looking for a cheap introductory test.
Cost: Favourably priced (< CHF 100), easy to conduct at schools/universities or clubs.

Lactate level test on the treadmill

Procedure: Stage protocol with a stage duration of 3-6 minutes. A 30-second running break is taken between the speed levels to collect blood samples for the lactate measurement (finger, earlobe). The intensity is gradually increased until the individual maximum performance is reached.
Comment: A good method for determining lactate thresholds and thus the individual anaerobic threshold, which enables your current training condition to be analysed and the heart rate zones of the training zones to be determined. A good progress test for assessing the development of your performance.
Plus: Laboratory test with a high degree of standardisation and reproducibility of results. Can be conducted for specific sports (running, bike on an ergometer or cycle ergometer/roller).
Minus: The short stage lengths (3 minutes) mean you barely attain the lactate steady state. Some runners experience coordination problems as they are not used to running on the treadmill (especially at high speeds). The tempo on the treadmill can also not be replicated in open country. It is easier to run faster on the treadmill as there is no push-off foot movement, which is why a gradient of around 1% is often used. 
Conclusion: The effort involved is justified. Takes around 90 minutes. This test is suitable for all those who specifically want to do heart rate training. Important: maximum physical exertion required (maximum test). It makes sense to do a progress test by repeating the test after about two months or in the following year at the same time of the season.
Cost: Around CHF 250 

Spiroergometry on the treadmill

Procedure: Stage protocol along the lines of the lactate level test with a 30-second break between the treadmill test stages for taking blood samples. The intensity is gradually increased until the individual maximum performance is reached. Breathing through a mask on a flexible hose determines the gas composition in the inhaled and exhaled air.
Comment: Allows the training zones to be calculated via the so-called ventilatory thresholds as well as the lactate curve. Precise method for determining the maximum oxygen intake (VO2max / VO2peak) as an important assessment of the potential endurance performance. It is therefore a good screening test for the endurance performance or potential classification of young athletes.
Plus: Laboratory test with various measurement parameters and is deemed to be the most accurate performance diagnostics test (gold standard). It is possible to determine the movement economy by comparing the oxygen intake capacity under the same load (running speed) over time. Offers the opportunity to assess the endurance performance capacity by using reference values for different types of sports. This is also used for medical tests. 
Minus: Short stage lengths, not really a sport-specific test. Also associated with a higher technical and equipment outlay. The person being tested must breathe through the mask, which is not well tolerated by all, and particularly causes coordination difficulties when running since the field of vision is also limited.
Conclusion: Demanding test, takes about 90 minutes. Suitable for ambitious competitive athletes. As with the lactate level test, it makes sense to repeat it after about two months or in the following year. Offers little benefit compared to a well-conducted quality lactate level test. 
Cost: Around CHF 350

4 x 1000 m field test

Procedure: As with the Conconi Test, the field test is usually conducted on a track. The stage length is 1000 m with a break of 2 minutes between the stages. The test persons start alone or in groups at freely selectable intervals (depending on examiner’s capacity in terms of measuring the lactate). The athletes are instructed to run the track distance 4 times at different levels of intensity ranging from easy, medium to fast and flat out.
Comment: Gives a good indication of the test person’s perceived exertion and under certain circumstances can identify incorrect training (training in the wrong zones). Training recommendations can be made with appropriately selected running intensities. Can also be used as a progress test.
Plus: Several people can be tested together, which means less effort and lower costs. Can also be performed without lactate.
Minus: The validity of the test depends heavily on the person’s capacity for self-assessment and body awareness (choice of running intensities) as well as on the test procedure and outdoor conditions.
Conclusion: Very good introductory test or for testing teams/clubs.
Cost: Depending on the size of the group, around CHF 100 / person.

Insightful field tests

Compared to laboratory tests, field tests are usually conducted in the open air and can be easily completed by yourself if you take a somewhat routine approach. 

Field tests serve as an important assessment of your competition-specific performance capability and should be as sport specific as possible: this means every athlete should be tested in their own type of sport and in the appropriate environment, i.e. runners on the treadmill, cyclists on the ergometer, cross-country skiers on skis, swimmers in the water, and mountain bikers on the bike. For a short-term prediction of your competition performance, field tests are generally more insightful than laboratory tests, but are subject to the proviso that the environmental conditions cannot always be influenced and kept the same. 

The field test factors that can be influenced should be standardised as far as possible, for example, by always choosing the same test lap or conducting the test during a recovery week two days after a heavy training load and ensuring you are in good health. If you want to determine your anaerobic threshold, a 30-minute test provides a good basis for this because you normally run constantly at maximum effort (which is close to your threshold pace) after 30 minutes. If you want to estimate your time for a target competition, the distance of a test lap should be tailored to the target competition distance and comprise about 50%-70% of the target route. For a 10-km performance, you would then select a test lap of about 20 to 30 minutes and for a marathon test, the half-marathon distance or a 25-km race, etc. The selected route should preferably be run at a constant, maximum tempo. It is interesting for lifetime athletes to see how the test results record their progress over several years.

In addition to your end time (or average speed), your heart rate curve and perceived exertion (Borg scale) can be used for the field test assessment, and even lactate measurements are possible with a bit of know-how and a lactate measuring device.