Testing: Assessing the effectiveness of your training and monitoring progress
One of the most valuable ways to assess the effectiveness of your training and monitor your personal progress is through regular, periodic testing. Let’s take a look at testing in greater detail – what it is, why you should do it, what you should be testing and what tests work well for paddle sports.
What is testing?
Testing is simply the performance of certain physical tasks at regular intervals over the course of the training year with the results providing insight into the state of your training and the progress that you have made. These tasks can be sport specific (in our case on-water tests or “time controls”) or relevant yet non-sport specific (not paddling) land-based tests that assess components of fitness necessary for on-water success.
Testing can be used in certain cases as part of a selection process in team sports. One of the most obvious examples of this are the combines that professional sport leagues run to assess talent entering the annual selection draft. Though selections are rarely, if ever, made on the combine results alone, the results help identify those with the greatest physical potential to be good professional athletes in that sport.
For our purposes, testing should be used as more of an individual thing. You’re not competing against other athletes as much as competing with yourself. Regular testing provides us with an opportunity to assess the effectiveness of our training and where we are in relation to our goals and gives us an opportunity to set and achieve regular, meaningful goals that lead towards our ultimate goal.
When I was on the Canadian Canoe-Kayak Team, both as an athlete and a coach, athletes were required to test regularly as part of their team contract. Coaches did not pick crews based on test results, however there was a minimum performance standard that athletes on the team were expected to achieve in various tests. Simply put, an athlete aspiring to be “world-class” in our sport was expected to perform at a minimum base level in these tests. These minimums were set using test data collected over a number of years that indicated a very clear standard of achievement for world-class paddlers. But while the testing was valuable to the coaches in this manner as a way to hold athletes accountable, the testing had greater value to the athletes.
Regular testing allowed the athletes to monitor their personal progress and identify where they stood in relation to their goals. I can personally say that I used testing to set goals for my training, knowing they would ultimately support my racing goals. These goals helped motivate me in training sessions, gave me something to look forward to, helped me assess the effectiveness of my training and improve my fitness.
Why you should do testing
If you’re serious about improving as a paddler, there’s no better way to move from goal to goal and track your progress than regular testing. You shouldn’t just be waiting for races to assess your performance. You should be building periodic testing sessions into your training as well. You can collect the data from each test and, if the conditions for each test and the manner in which the test is performed are consistent, you can compare the results from test to test providing you with meaningful information on how your performance and paddling related fitness is trending.
You’ll find testing particularly useful during the off-season when your next race may be months away. Even if you live in a colder climate and are kept off the water by winter conditions, land-based testing can give you something to base short to medium term goals on, get excited about and push yourself in like you would in a race. These tests, measuring paddling relevant components of fitness can have a direct impact on your performance in the coming competitive season by helping you attain a higher level of fitness than you otherwise might while not having imminent races to train for.
During the competitive season we can actually do on-water paddling tests. If you’re training with Paddle Monster you’ve already been doing them in the form of “time controls”. In these tests we are doing a prescribed distance, usually 2km or 5km, in “controlled” conditions (conditions which are as calm and neutral as possible and cane be replicated from test to test). These tests help you track the progress of your paddling performance and provide good insight into the effectiveness of your training and the evolution of your technique and paddling skills.
What should you be testing?
So, let’s cut to the chase. We’ve established what testing is and why we should do it, but what exactly should we be testing?
The whole point of testing is to monitor and assess our paddling related fitness so we need to find tests that do a good job measuring the most important components of fitness for paddling. As most paddling races are at least 5km long, we’re primarily interested in tests which measure our aerobic fitness. That said, the ability to sprint is useful, even if you are racing longer distances, and the ability to sustain a very aggressive pace is important in the opening 10 to 15 minutes of every race, so finding tests which also have a significant anaerobic component to them is a good idea as well.
Running is a great activity to use to do these tests. It places a high demand on our cardiovascular and respiratory systems and is easy to do, requiring no special equipment. Almost everyone knows how to run. The only problem is that some can’t run due to injuries or orthopedic conditions. For their testing they should try to find low impact aerobic activities in which they have the ability to measure distance so they can determine how long it takes them to go a set test distance. Some stationary bikes have this capability, as do Concept II rowing ergs.
Swimming is an activity that we’ve used for testing in sprint canoe as well and is particularly effective as it is a whole-body aerobic activity. Unfortunately, swimming is very skill dependent. If you can swim even a little competently you can use it to assess your personal fitness on an ongoing basis. However, if you sink like a rock it is difficult to get much insight into your fitness from attempting a swim test. In this case, if you test regularly over time you’re likely to see improvement but it is likely to be based as much on improved skills than on improved fitness.
In terms of strength, since we want to paddle with dynamic strokes it’s not only about the weight our muscles can lift or move but also how quickly they can lift it. Power is by definition work down against time, so we’re interested in tests that assess the ability of our paddling muscles to produce power and to produce it sustainably. In canoe-kayak we’ve primarily tested in a few compound upper body exercises that use all the big muscles we use while paddling.
Lastly, when it comes to on-water testing it’s simply a question of choosing a few distances to test at that provide relevant feedback on your fitness. I usually don’t recommend doing tests longer than 5 km as that is plenty long enough of a distance to accurately assess aerobic fitness. Using your 5 km time you can pretty accurately predict your time for 10 km, 15 km, 20 km or more.
One of the problems with testing over longer distances is that there is more chance of conditions affecting the results. Despite one’s best efforts to test in calm, consistent conditions it is likely that wind, waves or current will play a greater effect the longer the test. Keeping the test distance at 5km or under helps to minimize the impact of conditions and thus make the results more meaningful for comparison from test to test. Remember, whether you’re testing on land or on water it is important to standardize the testing methods and conditions so that your results from test to test can be meaningfully compared.
Recommended tests for paddling
We’ll divide the recommended tests into three categories: land-based strength, land-based cardiovascular and on-water.
- Bench pull with 75% of body weight (power pulling): Do the maximum number you can do without stopping. Each rep must be full range of motion, starting from arms straight and pulling all the way up to the point where the bar hits the bench. Novice trainers can use 60% of body weight. If you do not have a bench pull set up then do maximum number of body rows without stopping.
- Bench pull with 60% of body weight (power endurance pulling): Do the maximum number of reps you can do without dropping the bar. In this test we’ll let you let the bar hang while you rest as long as you don’t let go. Novice trainers can use 50% of body weight. If you do not have a bench pull set up then do maximum number of body rows without letting go of the bar or letting your body sag. Otherwise you are permitted to stop and rest.
- Chin ups (power pulling): Do the maximum number you can do with full range of motion. Grip is optional but make sure you use the same grip from test to test. If you can only do 5 or fewer chin ups then repeat this test in lat pulldown using 60% or your body weight.
- Bench press with 75% of body weight (power pressing): Do the maximum number you can do without stopping. Each rep’s range of motion should be from bar just above chest with arms 90 degrees or less at elbows to full extension. Novice trainers can use 60% of body weight.
- Bench press with 60% of body weight (power endurance pulling): Do the maximum number of reps you can do without putting the bar back on the rack. In this test we’ll let you hold the bar with straight arms to rest before doing more reps. Do not rest with the bar on your chest. Novice trainers can use 50% of body weight.
- 5 km run: Do this on a 400m track or on a road course with little traffic to affect times. Cover the distance as fast as you can and record time.
- 1500m run: This is best done on a 400m track. You’re doing 3 ¾ laps. Cover the distance as fast as you can and record time.
- 400m run: This is best done as 1 lap of a 400m track and is an important test if you are specializing in SUP sprints. Do the lap as fast as you can and record the time.
- 800m swim: Cover the distance as fast as you can and record time.
- 300m swim: Swim the distance as fast as you can and record time
If you cannot run or swim then you should find a piece of cardio equipment that is low impact and allows you to measure distance (like a stationary bike for example). You can use the same distances used for the run tests and do the distance as fast as you can and record the time.
- 5 km time control: Find a course you can use that has the most neutral conditions possible and use this course each time you test. Cover the distance as fast as you can and record the time and make note of the conditions so you can compare from test to test and understand the role the conditions may have played.
- 2 km time control: Find a course you can use that has the most neutral conditions possible and use this course each time you test. Cover the distance as fast as you can and record the time and make note of the conditions so you can compare from test to test and understand the role the conditions may have played.
Depending on the events you are specializing in there are other distances you can test at, however for most paddlers that aren’t racing sprints or technical races these tests should be sufficient to provide you with meaningful feedback on how your paddling related fitness is trending.