How do you know if you are improving? Perhaps you can tell you don't get tired as easily or the duration of your workouts is longer. One of the best ways to measure your improvement is by using Benchmark Workouts (BW). BW are also excellent for testing new equipment or changes in your technique as well.
But first what are BW? They are workouts that are repeatable under similar conditions so you can compare results and measure improvement. There are several reasons to incorporate BW: measuring improvement, motivation, testing equipment as well as technique changes, race predictions, establishing race paces, adjusting training schedules and setting training parameters.
There are an unlimited number of BW you can create for yourself; it really depends on the purpose of your test. Mainly, I would suggest you test in a couple of ways: aerobic BW, Maximum Sustained Pace (MSP), and testing for training zones such as heart rate, paces, of power. The BW for MSP typically double up as testing for training zones.
It’s important that your BW be repeatable and conducted under similar conditions. For example, doing a 5k run BW on a flat course will yield very different results than one on a hilly course, or sea level versus at altitude, or 50 F versus 85 F. Your physical state is important to consider as well; make sure to do your BW rested. Biking BW are typically done indoors on a trainer as it’s difficult to control outside elements when cycling, such as traffic, stop signs and lights, etc. When running, make sure to pick courses you can do uninterrupted. It’s not safe to dodge cars and intersections. Out and back courses are great for BW when running. Swimming in many ways is easier since most swimming is done in a pool. At the same time, a crowded pool can make it difficult to conduct a proper BW. Open water BW are very doable as well. One consideration though is a course that is easily defined and one not too stretched out that allows you to zig zag. Swimming straight is a challenge for most triathletes, and with a BW you want to do your best to eliminate the ability for the straightness of a swim path to affect the results. Though now a days, if you have a high end Garmin that will measure your 100 pace in open water, it solves that challenge!
How often should you test? The body needs enough time in order to make adaptations based on the training load provided; in general that takes about six weeks. A good rule of thumb is to test every 6-8 weeks. When you conduct a BW workout always make sure to include a thorough warm up and cool down. BW when done at MSP versus Aerobic pace/effort are quite strenuous, so only do them after being cleared medically to do so!
MSP, also referred to as Threshold, such as Functional Threshold Power test for cycling, or Lactate Threshold Heart Rate test for running or cycling. With MSP your goal is to maintain the fastest pace/effort that you can sustain regardless of the distance whether it be 20 minutes, 5k, 10k, 500 yards (swimming), etc.
Here are some examples of BW for Swim, Bike, and Run.
SWIM Benchmark Workouts
I would recommend to begin with one of the following 3 workouts:
3 x 100 @MSP w/ 10 seconds rest
3 x 200 @MSP w/ 20 seconds rest
3 x 300 @MSP w/ 30 seconds rest
Record each interval and then figure out your average 100 pace. Which BW you do should depend on your swim fitness. Do the longest of the three BW in which you are strong enough to hold a steady pace for all three reps. It's important to stick to the rest period too.
As you prepare for your "A" race you may also want to do one of the following BW: 500, 1000, or 1500 straight swim for time at your projected race pace/effort. The longer your race, choose the longer set. For example, for an Olympic distance you may choose 500, Half Ironman 1000, and Ironman 1500. If you are a stronger, more competitive swimmer you may opt for a longer distance. Sometimes you may swim in a pool that is commonly crowded which makes it harder to conduct a proper BW; in which case it may be wiser to choose a shorter BW.
BIKE Benchmark Workouts
The most common bike BW is known as a FTP or Functional Threshold Power test and is most commonly 20 minutes. This requires the use of a power meter or "virtual" power with systems such as TrainerRoad.com and others. If you are reading this wondering what the heck Power is or means, don't worry there are other ways to do bike BW. You can use a HRM (Heart Rate Monitor) and do a Lactate Threshold Heart Rate test. It's a 30 minute effort at MSP. Take your average HR over the final 20 minutes. Do this by hitting the lap button 10 minutes into the BW (after warm up of course).
Once you have your LTHR, you can easily figure out your HR zones. You could then determine which HR zones corresponds to your race distance and then conduct a 20 -40 min steady state effort in that HR zone. Doing this on a trainer, you could conduct that BW at the same effort/HR and as your fitness improves the variable you'd be measuring for would be avg speed or distance. Both would increase as your fitness increases and you can use these results to measure your progress.
You could do the same thing without a HRM or power meter. Simply ride for 20 minutes at your MSP and measure your avg speed or distance based on your cycling computer.
BW for cycling are typically conducted indoors as its much easier to control the variables of traffic and environment such as temperature, precipitation and wind. If you have a safe stretch of road where you can ride uninterrupted, you can do your test outside. There is a 10 mile stretch of road around Mercer Island that I've used for years. Every once in awhile I've been held up in the middle by a school bus or road construction, and that sucks, but this also illustrates why most bike BW are conducted on trainers.
Run Benchmark Workouts
BW at MSP are excellent for not only determining training paces and HR, they are great tools for predicting race times and serve to help establish the proper race pace. Choose the BW that matches your level of fitness and your race goals in that if you are training for a half marathon or marathon, a 10k BW would be more useful that a 5k BW.
Common BW at MSP are: 2 miles, 5k, and 10k. Wearing your HRM will also serve as a LTHR test. You could also do the same 30 min LTHR mentioned above under bike BW.
Once you use the HR data from the BW you can figure out your Aerobic HR and then you can set up an Aerobic BW. An example would be running 3 miles at your Aerobic HR. Over time and as your fitness increases you would see your running pace drop.
You can use races as your BW, just keep in mind that if a course is hilly you'd be expected to run slower. In a race it is common to run about 5% faster than on your own. Doing a run BW on your own, over the same course, is much more repeatable. I like to use out and back courses. Make sure to choose a course that is uninterrupted from intersections, etc. You can also do a BW on a treadmill. Setting the incline at 1% will yield results in line with running outside. Running at 0% on a treadmill will typically allow you to run faster than you do outside.
In summary, figure out what you want to improve. Complete a BW so that you know your starting point. Train. Re-test after at least 6-8 weeks. Evaluate your progress so you can make changes to your training as needed. And don't forget to have fun!
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