Step back and ask yourself, why are you training? Maybe it’s to be healthy, try a new distance, or prepare for a competition. Ultimately, the goal of training is to progress your fitness level. But how do you know whether you’ve progressed rather than plateaued or negated fitness? One easy and accessible way to do this is to track your fitness benchmarks. Once you know these, you’ll be confident that your fitness level is progressing.
What are fitness benchmarks?
Fitness benchmarks are basically fitness tests. Remember the beep test in high school? It was an intimidating, but highly standardized, assessment of your speed and stamina. By repeating the test over time, you could see if you progressed or regressed the number of laps you could complete, enabling an easy comparison of fitness. Fitness tests can also teach you skills such as pacing, positive mental headspace, technical agility, optimal fueling, and more. Using fitness tests routinely every two to four weeks will allow you to assess your strengths, weaknesses, and overall fitness but also opens the door for experimentation.
Study of n=1
Repeating workouts regularly allows you to experiment and track how different variables affect your performance, recovery, and adaptation. Use a training log to track as many variables as possible, such as:
Your nutrition and hydration before, during, and after the test.
The time when the test was completed.
The temperature and weather experienced.
Whether you ingested caffeine or other supplements before, during, or after.
Your hormonal levels, at the time, are especially key for women.
Your stress levels.
The quantity and quality of your sleep the night before and after the test.
Your Heart Rate Variability.
Other variables of interest.
Over time, patterns will emerge, and you can gain advantageous information.
A word of caution
While eager athletes may immediately want to use fitness benchmark tests, it’s important to ensure that you are ready. Certain tests with advanced level duration and intensity require adequate foundational fitness. Working with a coach will help you discern when and which fitness benchmarks are best for your training, prevent injury, and gain the most insight.
Using fitness tests routinely every two to four weeks will allow you to assess your strengths, weaknesses, and overall fitness but also opens the door for experimentation
Below are examples of different fitness benchmarks, focused primarily on trail running. These can be modified for different endurance sports, such as ultra running, road running, cycling, and swimming. Depending on what you are training for, you will want to focus on specific fitness benchmarks relevant to your event or outcome goal.
Before taking any test, complete a 30-minute warm-up with muscle activation exercises, easy-effort movement, and some short but intense intervals.
Flat 1 km to 1 mile
This workout can feel intimidating as it's for the speedy, type II muscle fiber athletes. Working on max speed will enhance your running efficiency, VO2 max, and power. Find a track, flat road, or buff, flat trail for safety and repeatability. Consider completing one to a few repeats of either distance with ample recovery between each. Afterward, review your ability to be consistent throughout each repeat.
Variable terrain 5-mile or 8-km tempo
This tempo is beginner-friendly as it’s not pace-focused. Choose a loop or out and back on a variable surface, such as an undulating trail or gravel. If it’s slightly technical and has ups, downs, and corners, it teaches agility, pacing, and technical running (or cycling). If it’s in your backyard, there’s no excuse not to complete it every few weeks!
Vertical kilometer (VK)
This test is for the lucky folks with mountains or hills in their backyard. If you don’t have a trail that’s 1000 m (3,300 feet), pick your next best option or hop on a Stairmaster or treadmill. It’s best if completed on a steep trail that’s greater than 15% incline, typically where you would power hike. Ensure you’ve completed some similar vertical volume before a full VK to prep your calves. VKs are great for building strength and power. Explore comparing the effects of using poles or not.
Heart rate threshold test
A time trial not for the faint of heart, typically completed on a treadmill. This can be used to determine your heart rate thresholds, such as your aerobic, lactate, and anaerobic thresholds. Don your heart rate chest strap, set the treadmill to 10% or 15% incline and begin the clock. Every 3 or 5 minutes, increase your pace incrementally over the entire 45 minutes. Near the end, you should be close to your maximum possible effort. Having a coach to direct, supervise, and review your effort is recommended for safety, replicability, and information gained.
The race simulator
A 15-mile or 25-km test can be a great race sharpener. The distance could be increased or decreased depending on what you are training for. Choose terrain similar to your event. It will enable you to practice a race mindset and teach pacing skills. It’s also an opportunity to practice fueling while running around race pace. You can experiment with different fueling strategies to help decipher what sports nutrition products digest well, the frequency of feedings, and the different fuel types for optimal performance.
If you want a fun challenge, dive into the world of Strava Segments. Strava will automatically record your repeated efforts and provide a comparison. Ensure you know where the segment starts and ends. Some smartwatches enable you to push the segment to your watch, automatically telling you where the segment begins, your pace versus the course record, and the finish.
If there aren’t any segments that suit your fancy, or if you think a specific segment is lacking in an area, create one yourself. Learn how to create your own segment here, and read about best practices for creating Strava segments here. It can be your own segment for your fitness benchmark tests.
Gain confidence in your fitness
Take your fitness into your own hands and see yourself become stronger, faster, and more resilient over time. Using fitness benchmarks regularly in your training plan will bolster you to the next level.