Testing Times

Want to know your 10k form? Can’t find a race? Owen Anderson explains how two simple tests can predict your performance – without the costs of expensive lab tests

Knowing what sort of 10k shape you’re in is never an exact science. Training sessions might indicate the kind of time you should run, and yet, somehow, often your estimate and your actual performance are poles apart.

But help is at hand – and you don’t need races or laboratory evaluations to assess your competitive fitness. In fact, two very simple exams – a plyometric leap and a 300-metre sprint – can reveal what kind of 10k shape you’re really in.

That probably seems a little surprising. After all, plyometric leaping and 300-metre sprinting don’t seem to bear a close resemblance to 10k running. But read on, and we’ll explain why these tests work so well.

Of course, it’s fortunate these simple tests are so functional. Races and lab appraisals represent good opportunities to size up fitness, but you may have to go through long stretches of the year when competitions are not available or convenient for running, and lab check-ups can be very expensive.

In addition, race courses of similar length may vary tremendously in terrain, temperature, humidity, and associated wind speed, making comparisons between venues difficult. It’s good to have some back-up measures – tests that can be carried out under unvarying conditions – that let you know whether your training is going well.

Fortunately, a couple of great “field tests” of running fitness have been uncovered by Kris Berg, Aaron Sinnett, and their colleagues at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in the United States.
What’s more, both tests can be completed within one modest workout; when wrapped inside a warm-up and cool-down, for example, they won’t take more than 20 to 30 minutes of your time. During your overall training, they can be completed on any day when you are feeling good. Generally, you’ll perform these tests every four weeks or so to monitor fitness.

“Each of the tests completed were designed to examine different physiological factors”

To discover their great tests, Berg, Sinnett, and co-workers recruited 36 well-trained runners (20 men and 16 women). The average age of the subjects was 28 years (range 19-35), and their best 10k run times varied from 32.27 to 51.63 minutes, and top marathon clocking (for the 27 individuals who had completed a marathon) ranged from 3:20 to 4:23. During the six months leading up to the Berg-Sinnett study, the runners had been averaging about 30 miles of running per week (although some logged as many as 80 weekly miles). On average, the athletes worked out five times a week for about 43 minutes per session, while 19 of the 36 runners were engaged in regular strength training to supplement their running sessions.

One week before the investigation began, all 36 athletes competed in a certified 10k road race, and their times were recorded. Seven days later, they visited the UN-Omaha laboratory, had percentage body fat checked, and then reported to an outdoor track for a variety of field tests. These “anaerobic power tests” included a 50-metre sprint, a 300-metre sprint, two types of vertical-jump tests, and a plyometric leap test. All five tests can be performed easily by runners and coaches, without special training.

To avoid a situation in which one or more of the test results might be more influenced by fatigue than others, the five tests were administered in random order, with the exception of the 300-metre sprint, which was always performed last. The thinking here was that an all-out, 300-metre sprint might produce enough tiredness to “blanket” the other exams with fatigue and prevent the best possible performances; it was therefore decided to put it last. Naturally, the subjects jogged for about 10 minutes and stretched their muscles before the testing began.

Each of the tests completed were designed to examine different physiological factors. The two sprints were conducted on a track with a rubberized surface, while, for the two vertical-jump tests, the athletes leaped into the air, as high as possible, and touched a Vertec™ measuring scale with their fingers.

To carry out the fifth exam, the plyometric leap test, the runners began from a standing position and then performed three consecutive leaps forward by springing from one foot to the other, finally landing on both feet after the last leap. The movement is the same as the triple jump performed in track-and-field competitions, except that the plyometric leap test begins from a standing start.

So how did all of these tests match up with the athletes’ performances in their 10k races? And which tests were the best predictors of endurance running prowess?

As it turned out, 50-metre sprint time, 300-metre clocking, counter-movement jump height, static jump height, and plyometric-leap distance were all significantly correlated with 10k running time.

However, for the 36 runners combined, one test – the plyometric-leap – was by far the most tightly connected with 10k performance: in fact, plyometric-leap distance, detected during a test requiring just a second or two to complete, was able to explain 74% of the variance in 10k running time for the 36 subjects! Adding in 300-metre sprint time raised the level of explained variance to 78 percent. The plyometric-leap distance and 300-metre sprint time were the only variables powerful enough to “enter” the regression equation for 10k prediction.

Given the ability of 300-meter sprint time and (especially) plyometric-leaping ability to account for differences in 10-K running ability, the Omaha researchers developed a regression equation for predicting 10k time, as follows:

10k time = 57.22 – 5.15 (plyometric leap distance in meters) + .27 (300-metre sprint time in seconds)
As you can see from the equation, any increase in plyometric leap distance or quickening of 300-metre sprint time should advance 10k performance. As an example of how the equation works in practice, let’s say that a runner covers 5.9 metres in his/her plyometric leap test and hits the 300-metre sprint in 54 seconds flat. Our equation would then develop like this:

10-K time = 57.22 – (5.15)(5.9) + (.27)(54)
10-K time = 57.22 – 30.4 + 14.6
10-K time = 41.42 minutes

Incidentally, the number achieved for this athlete – 41.42 minutes – is not just a prediction of 10k time: it is a marker of fitness.

Jump further, run faster

As plyometric-leap and 300-metre sprint abilities improve, so will 10k running prowess (as long as a runner is carrying out balanced training, of course, i. e., is not doing just jumps and sprints during training), and the number will get smaller over time. Thus, the number can be recorded every four weeks or so (after plyometric-leap and 300-metre testing) as a marker of developing fitness. When you get close to the number which has been associated with your best performances in the past, you’ll know that you are fit and ready for high-quality racing. When the number gets better (smaller) than it ever has before, you will know that you are extremely fit and ready for breakthrough performances. It will be interesting, too, to compare the numbers from year to year. If your training is truly progressive, the number produced by the equation should gradually diminish over time.

“Neuromuscular power and coordination are important predictors of endurance success – and they need to be steadily developed over time”

However, the Omaha results don’t imply that you should begin daily sessions of plyometric leaps and 300-metre sprints if you want to run a great 10k. Rather, they tell us that neuromuscular power and coordination are important predictors of endurance success – and that they need to be steadily developed over time. Great neuromuscular power and coordination are not optimised by high-volume training at moderate speeds, nor are they maximally developed during a six-week block of high-intensity work. Rather, they are developed systematically over the course of many training years by the progressive use of high-quality running workouts and running-specific strengthening sessions, with the latter moving through phases of general, specific, hill, and explosive work.

Near the beginning of this article, I told you that I would explain why 300-metre sprinting and plyometric leaping do such a great job of predicting distance performance. Here’s the explanation: to be a good plyometric leaper and to be a good 300-metre sprinter, you have to be able to apply a lot of propulsive force to the ground in a highly coordinated way, and you have to apply that force very quickly. 10k (and all endurance) performances hinge on exactly the same things. As the Omaha researchers expressed it, increased rate of force production and reduced time on the ground (per foot strike) are characteristics of faster performers in endurance events. If you improve these variables, you will start racking up the PBs you have always wanted.

Owen Anderson is the editor of Running Research News (www.runningresearchnews.com) and the co-director of the Malibu Running Camp (www.maliburunningcamp.com).