Cycling: 4 Ways to Test Your Progress

Gauge where you are with your cycling progress by using one, or all, of these testing methods.

I am fanatical about numbers. I guess that comes with an engineering science background. I find that measuring things helps to keep training focused and gives you an understanding of where you are in your performance or fitness journey. I am a firm believer in the maxim, “What gets measured get done.”

There are many ways you can measure your cycling progress and here are a few, ranging from the simple to the more complex.

1. Simple Time Trial

This can be an organized club event over an officially measured course or a local loop around the roads near where you live. If you make your own time trial, choose a safe route that avoids maneuvering near traffic. You could even use your local commute for this.

“I am a firm believer in the maxim, ‘What gets measured get done.'”

All you need in the way of equipment is a stopwatch. Warm up, start the stopwatch, and off you go to time how long it takes to complete your circuit. There will be some variability in the results due to weather and traffic conditions, but if you keep a regular record over several weeks, then this will be an indicator of how your training is going.

2. Ergometer Time Trial

This test is similar to the first but in more controlled conditions on an indoor cycle or ergometer. If you are using an indoor cycle, then be sure it is set up exactly the same way each time to reduce variations in your results. If you are on a turbo trainer, then use the same resistance setting and check the tire pressures are the same each time.

For this test you will either need to time the distance you have cycled over a fixed time or the time it takes to complete a certain distance. As you are using an indoor cycle for this, it needs to be equipped with a computer that can measure the distance, usually for the rear wheel.

A more advanced configuration would be to use a power meter or a trainer with a built-in power measurement. A measurement of your average power over the time or distance gives some further information. The standard FTP test (functional training threshold test) is based upon this protocol, measuring your average power over a sustained maximal effort of twenty minutes.

cycling testing, cycling ftness

Note: Both of these first tests require a maximal effort over a period of several minutes. However, you may not have a suitable outside circuit available to you, or the thought of twenty minutes watching the clock indoors may not appeal. What can you do then? There are some tests you can indoors that do not require a sustained maximal effort. These may be more appropriate or desirable for some people. Keep reading!

3. Sub-Maximal Test

The sub-maximal test is similar to the ergometer time trial except for the intensity required. In this test, you need to set up your bike on a turbo trainer and ride at a sub-maximal level while recording heart rate, speed, and cadence.

To ensure the results are consistent, you need to calibrate your turbo trainer. First make sure you select the same resistance setting each time and use exactly the same tire pressure. Then sit on the cycle and increase speed to a known value, for example twenty miles per hour. Then stop pedaling, let the cycle freewheel, and record the time taken for the wheel to stop rotating, for example, fifteen seconds. Ensure this time is the same for each test by adjusting the tension on the rear roller.

“Recording your results week to week or before and after training will show you how you are progressing.”

The sub-maximal test is then performed by riding at a medium fixed speed, cadence, and gear for a known period of time and measuring your average heart rate and final heart rate. Ten minutes should be sufficient for your heart rate for stabilize. As you progress, you should find over the longer term that your heart rate decreases during successive tests. You will also see some short-term fluctuations depending upon your state of recovery and general health.

4. Orthostatic Test

This is the final text option, and it requires very little activity. Some sports watches come with this test pre-programmed into its functions, but you can also do this with a simple heart rate monitor and a stopwatch. The test in its simplest form requires you to lie down for a few minutes while rested and measure your average heart rate, then stand up and measure the highest peak heart rate, then measure your average heart rate while standing still for a few minutes.

Here is the output from one of my recent tests. On this particular day, the resting average was 50bpm. The standing average was 65bpm and the peak when standing up was 71bpm.

cycling testing, cycling fitness

I would expect this to vary depending upon my recent exercise history and how well I had recovered, how well I slept, and how well I was feeling. Here is a summary showing the scatter over a few weeks. These are the same readings on both the left and right, one indicating which line represents which bit of information, and one highlighting certain results that deviated from the average.

cycling testing, cycling fitness

Having gone back through my diary, these deviations correlate with days on or adjacent to a significant training load, such as two days adjacent training or a longer training session or bike ride. The shaded areas A and B show a rise in the standing peak and standing average heart rate and recovery a few days later. This is followed a few days later at C by another test with high value that is associated with a significant training load.

Testing for the Long Term

Recording your results week to week or before and after training will show you how you are progressing. If results start to show an adverse trend, this may be due to over training and requiring some more time to recover. In some cases they can also be an indicator of the onset of an illness before you notice the symptoms.

More on cycling:


1. Association of British Cycling Coaches training manual.

Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.

Heart rate diagrams produced using Polar Flow web application.

Leave a Comment