When you’re out riding just for the love of it and not following a training schedule or riding with others, it can be tough to measure how fit you are and are becoming. With many experience-based fitness measures being very subjective, it’s useful to have ways of tracking improvement as you go.
If like me, you work unsocial hours or don’t live near a cycling club, it can be difficult to measure your own abilities against others. However, three methods can help you measure your own cycling fitness to see just how well you’re doing.
None of these methods are perfect and none will indicate fitness better than a day spent in a sports science lab. However, these are all accessible and ignoring the cost of the power meter, all are free or very affordable. For the majority of us recreational riders who just want to see gains even if we don’t feel them, any of these methods will work.
Speed over distance
This is the most basic fitness test and involves timing yourself over a set distance to see how fast you complete it. There are variables such as traffic, weather such as wind direction, time of day and other influences, but as a rough guide it can be very effective.
Strava is built entirely on this method. It measures your time over a given distance and compares it to other rider’s times over the same route. It can also use some clever maths to estimate calories, average power and so on, but the essential method is the same, speed over distance.
Decide on a local circuit. Make it one you’re familiar with. Try to find one that doesn’t have too many junctions, traffic lights, hazards or anything else that will get in the way of your timings. In other words, remove as many variables as it’s practical to do on the road. Measure the route with a cycle computer/Strava/Garmin/phone GPS or whatever and then time yourself over that course.
Continue to do this over the season to see how much faster you can ride the course. Ignoring those variables, improvements in time means an improvement in fitness.
Alternatively, if you have a turbo trainer you can do the same over a given distance. It is much more manageable on a trainer as you don’t have to contend with all those variables.
Heart rate monitoring
If you have a heart rate monitor, you can use it to assess how fit you are and measure any gains you make. Taking the route above as an example, if you’re attaining the same times over your route but your heart rate gradually drops a beat or two per minute as a result, that is a concrete sign of improved fitness.
On the other side of the HRM coin, a lowered heart rate can also tell you when you could push yourself more. A significant drop in heart rate over your course does show improvements in efficiency but it can also show you where you can push harder. If you’re seeing significant drops in your BPM (Beats Per Minute) you can push yourself at those times, which further compounds your gains.
There is a lot of noise around power meters and their use right now, especially as more consumer units are becoming available. The upside to them is that they are a very effective way of measuring your power output and overall fitness. The downside is that they are still too expensive for most of us.
As a general rule, increases in power over your given route shows clear improvements in fitness. A steady power curve over the route also shows efficiency as well as fitness which is a very useful metric.
Power meters can also show imbalances in physiology, where you’re coasting but don’t realise, where you could go harder and faster and a bunch of other metrics that the data weenies amongst you would find very useful. It’s a little overboard for me right now, but if you’re a racer or want to go pro and have a grand to spare, it is the ultimate way to measure cycling fitness.
Those are the three main ways a cyclist can gauge their fitness without using a lab. I’ll cover them in more depth at some point in the future because I want to learn much more about them myself. In the meantime, try them yourself to see how you’re doing.
Even if you’re not that competitive, you’ll be surprised at how measuring performance changes the way you approach a ride!