Three tests to measure your running potential

Three tests to measure your running potential

Have you ever started a training schedule not quite sure of where you are at fitness-wise and having to make an educated guess? This poses a big problem for runners – over-estimate your ability and you may over-train and under-perform. Under-estimate your ability and you may sell yourself short and not get the training stimulus you need to improve. Thankfully, there really is no need for guess-work.

Background

When an athlete comes to work with us, one of the first things we need to assess is where they want to go and where they are at in relation to that goal. In our Athlete Questionnaire, runners will have listed their personal bests over various distances providing us a first overview of their potential. But race results over shorter distances have their limitations in predicting future race performance and current fitness:

  • The race, even a personal best, may not represent current or even best fitness of the runner
  • Races over shorter distances do not always transfer as neatly onto the predicted longer distances if the runner has a lack of stamina

The question we need answered is ‘where are you right now’. We prefer tests that can be done ‘on the road’ without very expensive equipment so that no runner is excluded up-front. Over the years we also learnt that sub-maximal tests rather than all-out efforts such as tough time trials or races, can provide a more accurate gauge. Sub-maximal tests also have the advantage of being easier to execute regularly and having less interference with the runner’s training. Even something innocuous such as a Lactate Threshold Test (rather than a Maximal Test) can be quite strenuous and must be approached with the recovery requirements of a hard workout – which could mean 48 hours easy before and after the test as a minimum. On top of this, lactate tests can be expensive and they are by no means perfect and great debate surrounds the best way to use them and interpret the results.

Instead we looked back to Arthur Lydiard and his ground-breaking book ‘Run to the Top’ from 1962 for a method that anyone can do anywhere. We added another method called the MAF test to fill out the final piece of the jig-saw we want to look at before deciding what type of training schedule to provide you.

200m speed test

Lydiard called this test ‘the only gauge’ – a basic speed test to ensure runners did not waste time training for distances at which they would never be competitive thus avoiding a frustration and disappointment knocking on a closed door.

For basic speed testing, the best distance, I have found, is the 220 (ed: yards). Over that furlong the runner who starts slowly can get up to top speed and the faster starter can show his pace without running himself out. – Arthur Lydiard, Run to the Top, 1962

To execute this test you ideally need to go the nearest track and run the test over a half-lap but the alternative is to find another flat measured course or use your GPS watch although this may be slightly off over a distance as short as 200m.

It is a common fault for athletes and coaches not to appreciate the significant and permanence of basic speed. It leads youngsters to waste their time and sour their enthusiasm running at distances at which they will not realise their true and full potential. A boy could crack away with little success for years at the half-mile when he could perhaps be a top-class three-miler. – Arthur Lydiard, Run to the Top, 1962

This problem is not just relevant to elites and talented youngsters. We recently had a middle-aged marathoner who could not – however much he tried break 30 seconds for 200m. This pace equates to 2:30 min/km pace or 4:02 min/mi. Theoretically this runner has enough basic speed to be trained to be very successful over a wide array of distances – certainly from 5 km and upwards. But middle-distance races require an additional gear – even at lower levels. So we know upfront that we are dealing with an endurance man – even if we spent years honing their basic speed, we would not expect to see a fundamental improvement – perhaps he could get down to 28 or even 27 seconds. But even then he would still be basically a long-distance man.

How to perform the test

  1. Find a flat 200m measured course (preferably a track)
  2. Warm-up for 10-15 minutes and include some fast jumping and several short strides
  3. Run 200m as fast as possible from a standing start (it helps to think 9/10 effort as 10/10 effort makes most runners tense up and slow down)
  4. Rest for 5-10 minutes
  5. Repeat twice
  6. Note down the best time
  7. BONUS: If you want to know how much your acceleration and start is letting you down do a test off a running start instead of standing

 

Maximum Aerobic Function Test (MAF Test)

On the other end of the spectrum from your basic speed lies your true ‘easy running pace’. Famous coach Phil Maffetone identified a simple formula that closely matched the intensity where your aerobic energy system provides almost 100% of the energy. If you don’t know what the aerobic system is (or its counter-part the anaerobic), think of them simply as the ‘clean long-term fuel tank’ versus the ‘dirty short-term fuel tank’. From an energy perspective most running distances are predominantly aerobic – even the very short 800 metre distance requires 63 to 73% of the energy demand to be supplied from the aerobic energy system. For the marathon it is more than 99%!

Phil Maffetone therefore established that measuring how fast you can run using almost exclusively the aerobic system (a better word for his test would be ‘Minimal Anaerobic Function test) would provide a very accurate measure of race potential in middle and long-distance racing. His approach closely mirrored a largely forgotten training method by famous German doctor Ernst Van Aaken who used similar methods with Olympic champion Harold Norpoth.

The MAF test requires a heart rate monitor – the only downside of it but other than that can be performed on any course that has an even 1 km or 1 mile loop (or on a track) or even a reasonable flat stretch of road long enough to complete the standard 3 mile/5 km or 5 mile / 8 km version of the test.

Once training has begun we ask runners to just do this as part of Medium Long Runs – as you need 10-15 minutes warm-up and can add as much cool-down as needed. This means the testing does not even need to take away a training day.

With the information we get from this test we can provide you a very accurate estimation of how realistic your current race goals are and how long we need to spend focused on improving stamina and endurance. Rushing into quality training off a very weak foundation usually leads to a runner who only get’s worse as training progresses.

A word of warning: heart rate is a symptom of how much stress the body is experiencing overall – both from exercise demands and otherwise. When your pace is unnaturally low in this test, it can mean you have an injury, underlying illness or other chronic stressor affecting the test. This makes the MAF test a virtual ‘canary in the coal-mine’.

The MAF HR would correspond very closely with these three physiologically determined thresholds: Aerobic threshold (Aer T), Onset of Blood Lactate Accumulation (OBLA) and Fatmax (the highest level of fat oxidation, which occurs during submax activity).

How to do the test

Please refer to our original article on the MAF test (a note for ultra-runners: you can do up to 10 mile MAF tests for more reliable results)

 

Maximum Steady State Test

This test has recently come back into fashion on various running sites in the guise of ‘Functional Threshold’ – a way to find the ‘Lactate Threshold’ without being tested. But Arthur Lydiard’s ‘Maximum Steady State’ is not a physiological measurement but practical one: it represents the best pace you can maintain for 1 hour AND recover well enough afterwards that you could perform the same run the next day and the day after that and the day after that (and so on).

Arthur Lydiard used a very intuitive system of ‘efforts’: 1/4, 1/2, 3/4, 7/8 and FULL effort to guide his runners on how We have found this system is in many ways superior to more modern and seemingly more precise markers because the ‘control’ is built in – if you do a 1/2 effort run and you cannot do it again the next day then you know it was not a 1/2 effort run and you can instantly adjust the next workout of the same effort. Nobby Hashizume, president of the Lydiard Foundation, provided us with a very practical description of the various effort levels:

Someone asked this question on 1/4 effort, 1/2 effort thing. I said, ‘Run the distance as hard as you can. That’s full effort. Cut that in 4…” There’s nothing sophisticated about it. 1/4 effort is fairly easy. 1/2 effort is pushing a bit but you’re still in total control. 3/4 effort is challenging, but still controlled (as Dick Brown would say). The condition of the day changes; your condition changes. If you get some set number, as someone else mentioned, you will be more or less lost with all the complicated numbers. – Nobby Hashizume

We consider the ‘Maximum Steady State’ the best ‘1/2 effort’ you can sustain for 1 hour. If you happen to run a 10 mile race in 60 minutes then that would represent your FULL EFFORT for one hour whereas for a top elite runner their FULL EFFORT for one-hour would be around half-marathon pace. Since 1/2 effort means you should be able to go out and do it all again the next day, we will ask many runners starting with us to do the ‘Maximum Steady State’ test EVERY DAY THEY RUN for 3 weeks. This gives us a very accurate picture not just of where we draw this line but also the runner’s ability to recover and how honestly they can judge their own efforts.

They may start by running 13 km in one hour and tell us ‘that was definitely steady’. Two days later they proudly show us an improvement to 13.2 km while we take note that the heart rate they recorded seems to have gone up a bit. By the middle of the second week they suddenly record a 12 km run and we know they have been ‘straining, rather than training’ and over-estimating their own ‘1/2 effort’. This moment of truth brings us where we want to be.

So how do you do the ‘steady state test’? Arthur Lydiard gave us three simple rules:

  1. To gain the best results for the time spent in training, it is important to run at your best aerobic speed: i.e. at speeds at a level just under your steady state
  2. To carry out this ‘near best aerobic’ training practically, it is necessary to time your runs over measured courses, and to progressively increase the running efforts as fitness improves.
  3. Run at a pace that allows you to complete the second half at the same pace or slightly better than the first AND recover the next day to do it again (if necessary)

 

How to do it

We will let Lydiard describe it:

‘First you have to find your own basic capability. The best way to do this is run an out-and-back course for, say, 30 minutes. Run out for 15 minutes at a steady pace; then turn and run back again, trying to maintain that pace without forcing yourself. If it takes you 20 minutes to get back, it shows you’ve run the outward leg too fast for your condition If you’re back inside 15 minutes without apparently increasing your effort, you haven’t run fast enough to begin with. Next time, you should adjust your pace according to your insights about your condition and capability, so that you return in the same time as the outward journey. It’s good discipline , and that’s something you have acquire early because you’re going to need a lot of it later.” – Arthur Lydiard

Note that Lydiard does not begin by suggesting the 1 hour steady state run but provides an example of 30 minutes. You will need to do the same because not everyone reading this article will be capable of running for one hour. For some of you 1 hour may be easy whereas for others 5 minutes may not yet be possible. And others again will be able to run 60 minutes but it will stretch your fitness to the absolute limits – in such a case there is no value from trying to deduce a ‘maximum steady state’ from your 1 hour run. Instead we will look at a shorter version and slowly build you up to being able to run 60 minutes steady.

To do the test, we recommend simply following the instructions in our article about the workout Lydiard called the ‘Out & Back‘. Ensure that you pick a duration where you can actually apply a good honest effort that you would describe as ‘pushing a bit, but always in full control’. If you wear a heart rate monitor, we would generally expect to see a heart rate 5 to 10 beats above your MAF HR. More than that and you may be lying to yourself about the effort and you will see a detriment in your performance as you continue to do Out & Backs every training day for three weeks.

If done right you may see a nice downward graph such as the one reported by one of our runners here:

 

steady state

How do we implement these tests and how can you do it too?

How it affects training

If we believe an athlete has a huge problem with health, injury or general fitness, we will put in place a period of running where all runs are done under the MAF heart rate – so very easy. If the runner is stressed but not injured, we will also do some very short and fast strides to maintain speed.

For runners who are in good health and have been improving and training consistently for a while, we use a more traditional Lydiard week – in this case only easy runs, recovery runs, long runs and medium long runs are done at MAF HR or below and we instead allow 2-3 ‘steady state’ runs usually in the shape of ‘Out & Backs‘, ‘Circuit Runs‘ and endurance-focused Fartlek.

The latter approach has a number of benefits – improvements happen quicker and the runner get’s exposed to much more variety taking care of especially the boredom that can be the main challenge of doing purely MAF-intensity runs.  Once enjoyment and enthusiasm drips out of training, you have lost the battle and every run becomes a stressor in itself even if it is easy.

How it affects goal-setting

Once we are armed with the three figures: your basic speed, your easy pace and your maximum steady state, we can very accurately predict where your current fitness places you in relation to what you should be able to do to run the time you aspire to over a given distance. We begin by creating a pace chart that lists both your ‘current’, ‘best’ and ‘target’ paces for a variety of training intensities and race distances:

 

 

We base the ‘Current’ column on the three tests conducted. The ‘Best’ column is based on your tests results or your personal best race times – whichever provides the best pace. Finally, the ‘target’ column is based on the expected paces for a runner of the level you aspire to be. The ‘Gap’ column reveals the amount of work you have to do to get from ‘Current’ to ‘Target’.

 

 

In the example here our runner wants to run a 2:47 marathon. This would require a marathon pace of 3:58 min/km. His current ‘Maximum Steady State’ pace suggests that his marathon pace would be 4:24 min/km – so the ‘gap’ is 26 seconds per kilometre. As his coaches, we will now he is ready for the 2:47 marathon when his ‘Out and Back’ pace goes down from 4:33 min/km to 4:07 min/km. How do we know this? Look at the row just above ‘Marathon Pace’  – it is called ‘ Sub-threshold pace (up to an hour)’ – we estimate this equates to 1/2 effort pace for 1 hour and the best representation of where his Maximum Steady State should be. To health check this assumption we also compare the current ‘Long run pace’ which we base on the MAF test to what your long run pace should be:

 

You can see here that the MAF test suggests the runners correct long run pace should be around 5:12 min/km pace and that the runner used to be able to do long runs at 4:50 min/km pace (his ‘best pace’). In order to run his 2:47 target he needs to improve by 30 seconds from where he stands currently to 4:42 min/km pace. Had this runner begun by picking his old pace – 4:50 min/km – he would have been straining right from the start and burning out quickly because currently the MAF test tells us that 4:50 is closer to his ‘moderate aerobic pace’ – a good 22 seconds per kilometre faster than what is comfortable for him.

In this example we therefore know that our runner must drop his MAF pace back to 4:42 min/km from his current 5:12 min/km and his steady state pace should also improve from currently 4:33 min/km to 4:07 min/km. If he achieves both those aspects, we are ready to exit the general training and move onto specific training. If we have run out of time such as in the case where the runner has only a few weeks left and is still far from his goal, we use the results of MAF tests and Out & backs to pick a more accurate target pace so the runner can go into his event without fear of disappointment and with a suicidal pacing strategy.

If we transition to the Specific Practice period, another series of more specific workouts can provide us information to fine-tune race results rather than simply predict but that is beyond the scope of this article.

 

BONUS TEST: Target Pace Test (TPT)

The Target Pace Test is something we like to do with runners who have great doubts about their targets or, on the other side of the spectrum, are insistent they can run their target pace.

We ask them to simply run 2-3 miles at their Target Pace and record their heart rate. Let us imagine our runner above who considers 3:58 min/km his target race pace when in reality he is probably capable of 4:24 min/km pace at the very best. Once this runner does 2-3 miles (or 3 to 5 km) at 3:58 min/km he will have a whole new appreciation of how far or how close he is. The target stops being abstract and becomes very real and we tend to find it provide a focus to ‘bridge the gap’. Since 3:58 min/km is actually this runners current 5 km pace, he will struggle to finish the full test and will likely pull up exhausted after 3 or 4 km and will note a heart rate well into the high 170ies or even low 180ies. He will know without a doubt that he could not even dream of doing a marathon at this pace now – and can focus the mind on building the aerobic foundation and increasing his steady state until he can.

 

We can use the tests here for quite a few other things – such as determining pace targets for longer and shorter runs and determining the best duration for long runs, fartleks and medium long runs. But before we go into those possibilities, have a go at these tests or fill out our athlete questionnaire and let us do it for you. We provide both the customised training plans and online coaching support services if you need regular sparring and evaluation on your training. But nothing stops you doing this yourself following the guidelines here.


Also published on Medium.

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René

Director and coach at ChampionsEverywhere
The man who had every injury and had to learn how to fix them - Rene Borg is the head coach of Glendalough AC and a passionate runner competing over all distances and terrains.
  • Christos Mantzavakos

    All the images are missing!

  • Rene Borg

    thanks for the alert Xristos. I have added back two of the images. the third has disappeared, but we hope to locate it again.

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