Sooner or later we all encounter setbacks. We fall ill, we suffer injuries, we feel life tangling up our training and racing.
In my previous piece, “After the Setback, Now What?,” I proposed that athletes can best benefit by this piece of advice about coming back: “Start where you are, at your current level of fitness and function, and begin from there.” We all want to pretend that we can just pick up where we were before the setback—fast and fit and healthy. But we aren’t at that level, so we have to resume from our current level of fitness.
So how exactly do you determine your current level and design a plan to build back?
One way to gain a baseline for your current fitness is to do a threshold test. If you are not ill and are no longer injured, doing a test will help you set your current training zones. Test protocols are numerous and can be simple or complicated. To take a very deep dive on the various test methods and their relative merits, listen to this amazingly comprehensive and interesting FastTalk Labs podcast, “The Endurance Athlete’s Guide to VO2max and Lactate Tests.”
Once you have a good assessment of your current fitness level you can derive your training zones, all keyed to your fitness level as it is right now. D3 Multisport Head Coach Mike Ricci explains how to set your training zones in his article, “A Beginner’s Guide to Setting Your Training Zones.”
Many athletes dread test sets. Lactate threshold testing is physically demanding, as you must put in hard efforts to get to lactate threshold levels. Executing a field test (not in a lab) requires executing the chosen protocol exactly, and that takes a certain amount of focus and determination. Don’t fear the test set. Learn to embrace and look forward to it to get the most out of it. Here’s how.
- Review test protocol as specified by your coach (warmup, test intervals, rest intervals, cooldown).
- Set up your watch to display desired values. For the bike, consider power and cadence. Set your phone to a countdown timer to sound an alarm when you are one minute from the end of the test interval.
- Assemble extra resources. If you could have someone right with you at critical times during the test, who would that person be? What would that person say to you at critical times to encourage you to execute the test to the best of your ability? Where exactly would you like to imagine that person to be during your test?
- Identify your mantra. If you use a mantra or useful phrase to manage your self-talk, set it up now.
- Review the physiology. Remind yourself what your body is doing and how it helps. Imagine a bucket with lactate pouring in, and see yourself drilling lots of new holes in the bucket to let the lactate drain out, or some other metaphor for your body’s lactate-clearing function.
- In your mind’s eye, make a full-color movie, 30 seconds long, of your test going perfectly. First, run this movie as if you were watching yourself over there, or on TV. Then, run the movie again, going perfectly, through your own point of view as if it’s really happening now.
- When you start your test interval, find your appropriate level of effort and settle in.
- When you begin to feel fatigue, remind yourself that this sensation is normal and will only last for a while. It is not a sign that this feeling will necessarily intensify. Some athletes feel a flush of fatigue early in the test, and then experience that it levels out or even may dissipate a bit. In other words, stay calm and steady through this experience.
- Invoke your mantra whenever you need it.
- Use the Ferris wheel image when you need it: Your test is like being on a Ferris wheel. Sometimes you are at the top, sometimes at the bottom, and as long as you continue to do your test, the wheel will keep spinning. If you feel toward the bottom during your test, keep going to get the wheel to start to come up.
- In your mind, break up the test interval into smaller segments, such as counting pedal strokes or making an imagined movie of getting to the next landmark on a ride that you have done.
- Invoke your extra resources from the third point under the set-up. Imagine those people saying those very encouraging things just when you need them.
- Stay strong at 75%. Many athletes lose focus about 75% of the way through their test. They also do this in races. So, when you re-focus and re-commit at 75% of the duration or distance of your test, you teach yourself how to do this in a race, and you will put time into the field and gain places in the race while other athletes are going backwards.
- Finish out. Having approached the end of the test, focus on cadence and staying power. You can taste the finish.
- Congratulate yourself. Tests are hard, by definition, and every time you do one you put another entry into the mental scrapbook of having done something challenging. This collection of undeniable data strengthens your future ability to perform at high levels when you need to. And you have made your resource people and your coach very, very happy.
Executing your test gives you a measure of your current fitness level. From there you can set your current, accurate training zones. Now you are on your way to masterminding your recovery. Onward.