Coach Tip Tuesday: Why Fitness Checkpoints are So Challenging
As many of you have seen throughout your lives, January is a month that feels like a more natural “starting point” for a plethora of goals that people set for themselves. Somewhat related to this, January is also often a month when it makes sense for many of the athletes who I coach to complete some fitness checkpoints. These checkpoints help provide us both with an honest check-in of where the athlete currently is in terms of their training and also help us to wisely chart a course of training for the coming training blocks that ultimately lead to goals that the athletes have set for themselves.
Types of Fitness Checkpoints
You may be asking, “What kind of fitness checkpoints are you talking about, Coach Coach Laura Henry?” Well, there are many different variations of fitness checkpoints, but the most common ones I tend to schedule this time of year are Functional Threshold Power (FTP) Checkpoints on the bike, Lactate Threshold Heart Rate (LTHR) Checkpoints in running, and Critical Swim Speed (CSS) Checkpoints in swimming. Each of these checkpoints are repeatable, which means that they can be used at different times over the course of an annual training plan to track an athlete’s progress against a consistent, measurable standard.
The data (both “real” and subjective (which is also real, folks :) )) is immensely helpful for me as a coach, as it allows me to see what is really going on with an athlete. And one of the most important things I see from these checkpoints is how an athlete mentally and physically handles something that is both specific and challenging.
How Fitness Checkpoints Must Be Conducted
Yes, as you may have gathered (either from the names of these checkpoints or from your own experience doing some/all of them), these workouts (checkpoints) are very challenging. Not only do they demand the highest sustainable output from the athlete, but they also must be completed under a particular, specific set of circumstances. These “controlled conditions” ensure that each checkpoint that is completed is done so under mostly identical circumstances, which is what enables us to compare the results from each against each other to measure progress of training.
It’s like a lab experiment that we conducted in science class at school; variables must be controlled so that we have an actual idea of what is different so we can see any differences in results. But all of this means that there is a difference in these checkpoint workouts from “normal” workouts; there isn’t as much room for mistakes or errors in how the workout is completed or recorded. And many of us do not realize how much we unconsciously rely on the ability to make mistakes or have things go wrong, so having this pressure of having to get things right can feel like a lot.
The majority (though not all) of the athletes I work with are adults, and even though many of us are done with school, I can tell you that a Final Surge workout title with the word “test” or "checkpoint" in it still provokes some anxiety (and even fear) in some athletes. Yes, it’s true; we struggle with something that is going to “test” us. If I use other vocabulary to describe it (such as “assessment” or “checkpoint”), then sometimes the athlete doesn’t feel the same level of anxiety or intimidation as they do if I use the word “test”.
Additionally, asking someone to work their absolute hardest is a big ask, as it will not be comfortable, and it may even hurt a bit. This idea of being in pain or intensely uncomfortable is, well, uncomfortable for folks. It makes it feel even harder to them.
As a result of all of this, most of the athletes who I have worked with over the years have told me that they “hate” these types of fitness checkpoints. Many have said that they dread them. Some have taken the entire day off from work to do it because it was causing them so much angst. Others have flat-out asked me to remove them from their training schedules and haven’t been willing to do them.
What is interesting about this is that every single athlete I have worked with over the years has had the capacity to work hard and push themselves. In fact, as I have often said in the past, one of my biggest jobs is actually helping athletes hold themselves back so that they have enough in the tank to push hard and reach their goals when it’s time to do so. So, I do not ever doubt that athletes can complete these checkpoints; they prove to me on a regular basis that they absolutely can. However, when we “change the game” to have it be a workout that is a specific, measurable test of this, many athletes get intimidated, nervous, or scared by the challenge.
So why are fitness checkpoints so challenging? One of the biggest reasons is that we build them up in our minds to be a “big deal”. The word “test” stirs up a lot of internal dialogue for us, even those of us who haven’t taken a school test or been graded in many, many years. Another is that there isn’t as much room for flexibility in scheduling or mistakes or errors during the workout itself (because mistakes and errors in the execution or recording of the data can mean that the results are not usable). This might be one of the most frustrating things in this situation: to complete a fitness test and not have usable data afterward. But the data is the one and only reason why these fitness checkpoints are conducted. If something happens that generates bad data, it's at least the same (if not worse) than having no data. Unfortunately, there isn't an "A for Effort" if this happens; a Fitness Checkpoint without data or with bad data is a failure.
How Fitness Checkpoints Add Value
Though they require specific, controlled circumstances and there are many rules that go along with them fitness checkpoints do have a valuable place in training. So, how do we embrace fitness checkpoints and all the good that they can bring to our training? One of the biggest ways is to use them for exactly how they are intended to be used: as a comparison against our own selves in our training. Looking up what other peoples’ results are is not useful, as it can unjustly influence what we think about our own efforts. In this way, these checkpoints are entirely different than the tests that we took in school. We’re not seeking results compared to a “perfect” standard or to see where we fall on a curve that is defined by the results of others. Rather, fitness checkpoints are check-ins on where we are at a given point in time. We don’t stand to lose anything from doing them, and we stand to gain a lot in terms of an honest look at where we are.
Another thing we can do is embrace the challenge presented by these checkpoints and see them for the opportunities that they are. They offer us an opportunity to learn about ourselves as athletes, to learn more about the gear and technology that we have invested in, and they also provide a wonderful opportunity for us to simulate a hard, race day effort. Many of us have the goal of getting stronger and/or faster in a race over the course of a training plan, and going hard in a race doesn’t just magically happen on race day. The ability to put forth the effort required to reach our goal in a race or an event is cultivated in training, which means that we need to simulate the mental and physical demand required of such a hard effort in order to do this most effectively.
The Bottom Line
Yes, fitness checkpoints are challenging. Yes, they are actually tests, no matter what their actual title is in a training plan. But pushing yourself is probably exactly what you are ultimately after with your training and workouts. So, the next time you have a fitness checkpoint on your training schedule, see it for the wonderful opportunity that it is, give your absolute best effort, and use what you learn from that experience to help chart a course of training that leads you to where you want to go. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.