Why Threshold Tests are Worth the Stress

Why Threshold Tests are Worth the Stress

Dreading test day? Here are four ways threshold tests can benefit athletes—and why you shouldn’t be afraid of them.

There are few things more anxiety provoking to an athlete than threshold tests. Opening up the TrainingPeaks app and seeing the dreaded test in your list of to-dos can be highly emotional. Whether it’s a 3 x 300 T-pace test for swimmers, 20 minute best sustainable effort on the bike, or 5k time trial, all systems scream alert and the brain shifts into survival mode. It’s akin to what we all experienced in our childhood—test anxiety.

The good news is that it’s totally normal to feel this way. If you struggle with managing test-related stress, know that most athletes experience some form of test day anxiety, whether subtle or extreme. But it doesn’t have to feel this way. Threshold tests can be incredibly beneficial to athletes, and if you can learn how to manage your stress response, they can make you bulletproof come race day. Here are four reasons threshold tests are your friend.

Threshold tests evaluate the effectiveness of your training program, not your ability as an athlete

Labeling a workout as a “test” immediately puts you at a disadvantage. The words we use to describe things shape our reality, and in turn shape our response. Changing the name of these sessions from “test” to “workout” isn’t just a mental strategy, it’s what they actually are—a hard workout to benefit your race day goals.

For the athletes I coach, I use almost every workout to confirm the value of the training program in bringing about desired goals. In this sense, a threshold or FTP test is one session in a series of workouts that serves as both a marker for adaptation, and as a workout that challenges an athlete’s comfort zone. The metrics we get from these sessions let us know how the training is progressing, and how to adjust moving forward. They are not a “test” of your ability as an athlete.

Threshold tests make you a stronger athlete, both mentally and physically

Reframing threshold tests as workouts is easier said than done. Almost all athletes perceive these workouts as tests, regardless of any attempt to reshape that perception. But this can actually be used to your advantage. Since the workout will generate sensations or an arousal-state that is similar to what you experience on race day, you have a great opportunity to work the mental game. Train mental fitness on test day, and it will be there for you come race day! Consider studying TrainingPeaks sports psychology articles for specific mental training strategies. Segmenting, mantras, and visualization are just the tip of the iceberg.

Threshold tests are hard workouts that will bring about future training adaptations. They focus on an area of opportunity to develop a wide range of physiological adaptations. So each time you complete a test, you make yourself mentally, emotionally, and physically stronger. Treat this day like any other training day – one that is designed to help you meet or exceed the demands of race day. 

Threshold tests ensure your training plan is accurate

Another key benefit of threshold tests is that they have research-backed evidence that give us confidence in setting zones and prescribing intensity. We understand, through best practices and research, the relationship between 3 x 300 or a 1000TT in the pool and T-pace. We have evidence to support the relationship between a 20 minute TT on the bike and functional threshold of power, or heart rate zones. Similarly, we know how to project training zones based on your 5k TT in terms of pace and heart rate. You or your coach can make reliable predictions about training intensity based on these sorts of sessions, which will ensure that the training you do each day is at the appropriate intensity. 

There are disadvantages, too. Test day is just one day in many days and weeks of training, and there’s no guarantee you’ll perform your best. But that’s okay. A single day of either training or racing doesn’t change the work you have put in and the adaptations made. Remember, your threshold is only one way to gauge proper intensity; you can’t pass or fail this workout. 

The data can’t speak for itself. It must be understood in the broader context of a training plan, as well as what happened in a particular workout. That’s why coaching is both a science and an art. Deciding what to do with the data is a coach’s unique artform.

Threshold tests challenge you to focus on the process, rather than the data

My number one tip for approaching these types of sessions is to shift your focus from the outcome – pace, heart rate, power, etc. – to the process itself.

The process may include: 

  • Executing effort based on your RPE (rating of perceived effort). Instead of looking at the numbers, check your breathing and how your muscles feel. 
  • Breaking up the effort into mentally manageable bits, such as a one minute to five minute box. For example, a 20 minute TT can be broken up into four five-minute segments. When that gets too long to seem manageable, it may become five one-minute segments, so all you need to do is be in the minute you are in. You can do anything for one minute, and then one minute more!
  • Controlling your attitude. Use music, visual stimulation, positive affirmations, smiling, counting, and similar “bumps” that help you maintain a positive attitude. 
  • Focusing on form. I use toe to head checks to ensure that my movements are effective.
  • Relaxing into the challenge. In light of the tension I was holding regarding cycling, one of my former coaches advised me to “turn off the lights in the rooms that have no working in them.” He was instructing me to relax – especially the parts of the body that have nothing to do with forward motion. Relax your face. Relax your grip. Release any tense muscles or areas of the body to allow them to work more effectively. 
  • Avoiding the temptation to engineer the workout by overthinking – just be. Avoid arbitrary expectations before the session. After all, one of the goals for these sessions is to ensure you are using the correct training zones. If you set expectations prior to starting, you are either going to limit yourself or set yourself up for disappointment. 
  • Approaching the session with curiosity. Instead of setting expectations, be curious. Ask yourself I wonder what I can do today? 

Practicing the above is easier said than done. Most athletes, including myself, will find it very difficult to ignore the numbers – but it’s important to try. Focusing on the numbers can not only be discouraging, it can actually impede your performance.

Most of the time the numbers aren’t encouraging, as we perceive them as either too low or too high. This may cause you to push too hard at the start, resulting in the “fly and die” scenario. It can also cause you to start off too conservatively and miss your best effort on the day. 

For example, your heart rate will be high, especially as the session goes on. That is normal and expected, even desired. But seeing that high number can produce anxiety and the negative thoughts that are associated with it. These thoughts can include:

  • My HR is too high. 
  • I can’t sustain this
  • This is too hard. 
  • [Insert your thoughts here.]

Try to ignore outcome metrics like power and pace in the first two-thirds of the session, though they may serve a positive purpose in the latter part of the session to keep you on task and focused. You know that moment in a workout when you are far enough into it that fatigue has built up, but not so far into it that you can reasonably convince yourself that you are almost done? I call that period the “dead zone” – and we have to actively fight through that period. 

Sometimes, we might want to make deals with ourselves. They may sound like: 

  • I can just back off for a minute and regroup after. 
  • This workout doesn’t really matter. I don’t care. 
  • I didn’t hit the number I wanted, so I’m just going to quit. 
  • [Again, insert your thoughts from the dead zone.]

During these moments, use power or pace as a carrot to chase, or even as a whip to keep pushing. Play a game by keeping the number constant, or by trying to build it each minute or over several minutes – even if only by one watt or one second per mile.   

Test days help you learn how to manage your effort to get the best out of yourself. They provide valuable experiences that can help you develop positive coping skills so that you can manage stress come race day. The most that you can ask of yourself is to give your best effort on the day, within the confines of your current fitness level. Learning to be proud of your best effort, regardless of the outcome, is key to finding joy and fulfillment in your endurance lifestyle. 

Maria Simone

A USA Triathlon Level 2 endurance and USA Cycling Level 2 certified coach, Maria Simone is the owner and head coach of No Limits Endurance Coaching (www.nolimitsendurance.com). She enjoys long weekends in the pain cave, races with hills, and hard runs through meandering single track trails with her husband and two dogs. Maria takes a holistic approach to training that considers physical ability, mental strength, and life-work-training balance. Maria works with endurance athletes of all levels, with the common thread of helping her athletes pursue and achieve their big dreams. She blogs about her personal experiences in training and racing at www.runningalife.com