Baseline Fitness Testing for Triathletes

Triathlon coach Dr. Kurt doing an FTP test in the pain cave!

Triathlon coach Dr. Kurt doing an FTP test in the pain cave!

For many triathletes, this is the time of year when we are building our base training. However, there’s one thing we should do before getting too far into our training plans: fitness testing.

Why? Because it’s helpful to have a baseline from which to structure your workouts so that you get maximum benefit from each workout. If you are working with a coach, he or she will want to know your baseline fitness level in all three disciplines of triathlon: swim, bike, run.

Fitness testing also identifies your weaknesses. You might be a great swimmer but lack power on the bike. Or you might be a fast runner but inefficient swimmer. Comparing your test results to others in your age/gender group and to yourself over time, can identify areas for you to focus on in your training.

There are various ways to do fitness testing but we will provide a few basic, easy tests for you to do to see where you are at baseline. These tests should be done every 4 to 6 weeks to see how much you have improved and/or what areas you need to focus more on.

Ideally, it’s best to do one test per week for each of the three sports. Thus, do the swim test one week, the bike test the next week, and the run test the following week. If you do not have that much time to spread them out by a week, at least plan on recovering for a few days between each test.

Swimming- time per hundred yards or meters

Warm up 600 yards, 4x100 yards, building each hundred and take your fastest 100. Alternatively, warm up 600 yards, and do a 400 yard swim for time (effort should be moderately hard) and divide total time by four.

This 100 yd or meter time is what some coaches use to plan your workouts.

Example: Let’s say your 100 yd time is 1:30 (1 minute 30 seconds). This time is used to plan your sets, such as these:

  • Aerobic set of 100 x 6 would be 2:00 (1:30 swim, 30 sec rest)

  • Anerobic set of 100 x 6 would be 1:45 -1:50 (1’30 swim, 15-20 sec rest


Biking:- The fundamental unit of measure is FTP or functional threshold power.  This refers to average power in watts that a rider can generate over one hour and requires a power meter of some type (crank, pedals, crank arms).  This test can be done on a flat or slightly uphill course with no stops or on your trainer.

A modified version of this test is FTP for 20 minutes.  Do a warmup for 20 minutes and then begin the 20 minute ride, riding as hard as you can sustain for the full 20 minutes. The average wattage achieved for the 20 minutes x.95 is comparable to the 60 minute FTP.  

If you don’t have a power meter, you could use functional threshold heart rate (FTHR), but it is much less accurate.

Running - Run testing can involve functional threshold pace (minute/mile), or functional threshold heart rate (FTHR).  Typically, this test is done over a 60 minute run at the highest pace or heart rate that you can sustain or by using either a 5K race or 10K race time.  

Usually, it is recommended that the distance for testing be 10 -15 kilometers because the 5k race pace often utilizes some anaerobic capacity with lactic acid buildup, which can skew the results. If you choose to use your 5k race time for testing, there are formulas that allow you to determine your functional threshold pace that account for the anaerobic part of the run, but it involves some extra calculations.

You can also use your heart rate monitor to find your FTHR.  This could be done by wearing your heart rate monitor while running 60 minutes at a hard sustained effort or doing a 10K race.  This can help set HR zones for training. Since it is important to be able to retest periodically, it may be more practical to do a timed course close to where you live/train versus a 10K race that may not be available frequently.

As a triathlon coach, I provide testing for all of my athletes. It helps me to know how to structure their workouts. We re-test after four weeks and adjust workouts as needed. This is how to be intentional about your training!

Questions? Contact Triathlon Coach Dr. Kurt Dallow here.

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