Fitness testing for training levels

Posted on: March 23, 2018

Fitness testing for training levels

Fitness testing to establish training levels is a great way to track progress, refer to and track wellbeing.

Fitness tests should be strategically placed at regular intervals (typically every 3months) to demonstrate (hopefully!) development and adaptation to training.

For optimum feedback, it is vital that you perform the SAME test and replicate as many variables – environmental conditions, etc, as possible. Consistency is the key to “seeing” true development. Swapping from one test to another will not provide accurate results.

Be aware, but not disheartened, that progress may be slow (especially if you are a seasoned athlete), or results may dip. Dips in performance do happen and are physiological indicators of elevated fatigue / stress – your body is CRYING OUT for you to ease off!

Perception and Training Tools

We encourage our athletes to train by feel as well as using digital data. Learning to develop one’s own perception of exertion is a priceless skill. Perception is the most important gauge you have; your feelings of effort will never let you down or run out of batteries, although using technology does help in the early days.

Using data from fitness tests to get training levels allows you to cross-reference your physiological levels with your psychological perception. You can, and need, to compare your heart rate range (data from a training tool) to your perceived effort; so for example, Level 2 (in heart rate) should feel EASY (using your senses).

Often our perceived effort is not calibrated correctly; seasoned athletes are often used to working too hard and the feeling of EASY (aerobic training) is at a heart rate of Level 3 – training at too high intensity and not getting the aerobic training intended (this is often the cause of a plateau in performance).

How to test for multisport training

We opt to use bike tests for Maximal Heart Rate (MHR). This is, overall, less invasive and provides accurate results for the bike (where most training is conducted) and provides a sub-maximal MHR range for running.

Why not test power too?!

Heart rate is more consistent, can cross-over to running and tells more about your overall fitness and wellbeing. Power is easily affected by many variables (heat, nutrition, sleep deprivation, stress, etc) although it can be an added data point if power meters are used.

Bike tests (swim and run tests too) are NOT designed to predict triathlon performance. Bike tests are based on the single sport version of the discipline – they do not translate to triathlon performance as swim fatigue, transitions and runs also must be factored.

Training by power alone often leads to over exertion and demotivation. Everyone has experienced those low energy days, when you cannot reach a targeted power or pace, because one or more variables are preventing you from performing. It leaves you feeling deflated, disappointed and even more tired because you stressed and pushed yourself to achieve the level range.

Heart rate stays truer for longer (as it is a physiological measure of what is happening to your body) which is why we highly recommend training by feel and perception – EASY is always easy but might be faster on good days and gentler on bad days.

 Bike test comparability for running

MHR on the bike will potentially be just under your true MHR for running (studies show it is only 5-10 beats per minute less). We choose to coach sub-maximally for run sessions as running is the most stressful discipline. It is the discipline most likely to – and often does – cause injury or excessive fatigue. Therefore, training at a slightly lower HR reduces stress, injury and fatigue rate.

It is the safer option!

Training levels and perception

The levels below are based on the normal heart rate tables / ranges you would get from Garmin, Suunto, etc, but the levels have been combined into 4 simple ranges.

  • Level 1 – less than 60% MHR – RECOVERY

Feels VERY EASY and is the least stressful type of training you can do, and will generally be used at the start of each session to transition up to the higher levels.


Feels EASY and develops aerobic capacity / efficiency (the major component of the overall training programme). This is the training level that is the most important but often missed – only by learning to go slow (or low intensity) will you ever fully realise how fast you can go!

  • Level 3 – 75-85% of MHR – SUSTAINABLE POWER / THRESHOLD

Feels comfortably hard, referred to as MEDIUM; this is the threshold training.

  • Level 4 – 85-95% of MHR – ANAEROBIC POWER

Feels HARD and is the highest training level, it is used in small quantities as triathlon is an aerobic sport, not anaerobic.

There is no Level 5 or MAXIMUL effort – remember you are aerobic athletes, even if you are doing a super-sprint triathlon!