Tests. Not a word that normally conjures up warm, fuzzy feelings. For most, it’s a reminder of frantically scribbling out maths equations or english essays while being watched by a teacher.

However, not all tests are as bad as algebra ones. Granted, they’re tough (the name gives it away), but they offer three magic things:

  1. Benchmarks: Like most things in life, if you don’t take control and put some old-fashioned sweat into whatever you’re doing, you get nowhere. If you don’t know where you’re coming from, you have nothing to improve on. Goals are crucial, and call them what you will: benchmarks, results, markers, numbers, milestones – they’re are a huge part of it. You can’t have the nicely-lit ‘after’ photo if there aren’t any ‘before’ results.
  2. Mental and Physical Strength: There are all kinds of modern motivational phrases I can throw at you, but they all come down to one that beats them all, and was said by Friedrich Nietzsche – “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger”. Gym selfies and sitting on a couch don’t make you stronger. Tests do.
  3. Better Living Through Chemistry: If you want a natural buzz, you can’t beat endorphins. Especially those which come after a hectic testing session. Combine that with a feeling of self-mastery and improvement, and it can’t be beaten.
Midway through the VO2 Max test and hurting.

Midway through the VO2 Max test and hurting.


Warming up the fancy equipment and my old knees.

I was tested yesterday at the High Performance Centre of the hallowed Sports Science Institute of South Africa (SSISA) yesterday as part of a brand-new programme by Discovery called the Vitality Elite Fitness Assessment. Pitched at endurance athletes who are already doing either running or cycling (road or MTB) races regularly, you need to pass a pre-participation screening (health questions) and a few performance standards to be eligible – you can show this by providing your official finishing time of your last race. You also have to be older than 18 and younger than 60. This assessment tests your mobility and flexibility using a comprehensive movement screen; they do body measurements and they do the dreaded VO² Max test – either on a treadmill or by hooking up your bike to the machine. It does mean you end up with a Bane-like mask over your face for the test, but having your VO² reading is a brilliant tool – it shows you how well your body uses the oxygen you breathe (or wheeze) in, and is a very accurate measure of your fitness. Think of it like a service at a car station, it checks how well your engine is running, and what kind of horsepower you can put out. The HPC has been doing these VO² tests on the best athletes in the country for over 19 years now, so they know what they’re doing. All three of these tests provide a great snapshot of your endurance-based fitness and can help tell where you can improve to become faster and fitter.

Discovery have sweetened the deal too, offering 10 000 Vitality points for every athlete that does it. The cost? R1500. You don’t need to be a Discovery member, but you can pay for it out of your medical savings fund if you are a Discovery member and are on Vitality. This test is also available at 5 other fitness centres around SA too.

The main results of this test? After lasting roughly 14 minutes sweating in the Bane mask and hitting 193 heart rate, I walked away with a relative VO² Max reading of 51.4 which showed me that I need to put my running shoes back on. I missed the competitive amateur running category, and was shown to be at the level of a club runner, which I can’t be too angry about since I haven’t hit the tar or trail since the birth of my daughter 5 months ago. But it is high time for a new running goal and plan. My last VO² Max reading (also at SSISA) was two years ago, and it was 57.5 – so I need to get back to that level. Proof of the value in testing right there.

One the positive side of things, I scored high on my mobility and flexibility which I never expected (and my training coach, Chris Oman, still doesn’t believe). I got 19 out of a possible score of 21. The mobility stuff and warm-up drills must be working.

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I walked away with a great snapshot of my cardio fitness, my body measurements and my mobility, and with a customised training plan to fix the areas that needed fixing. The Sports Scientist and HPC consultant who tested me, Ben Capostagno, was brilliant. After doing the tests and seeing where my weaknesses lie, he provided a detailed results document, and four different pdfs and plans to fix up the different areas, including a running plan. The only element I feel is missing is a strength component. In my opinion, there should be a few bodyweight strength tests (for both endurance athletes and average joes) to find out where their weaknesses are. This would provide a great overall fitness standard for anyone who wants to get fitter and stronger, not just a endurance-based athlete.

So in conclusion, it’s a great test, especially if you use it as a benchmark in a training programme. Give yourself a goal like doing 2Oceans Ultra, the Cape Epic or the 94.7, whatever your favourite kind of endurance challenge is, and do this as both a starting point and an end point. You’ll get all kinds of info and stats about how to improve your performance and it’ll be an acid test of how much your training is paying off. Check the VEFA page for more info.

Just don’t get too worked up about the Bane mask. It’s not as bad as it looks.