DIARY: La Santa–Bleep Test

After Wednesday’s mini-triathlon all our racing at La Santa was behind us: a 5k, a half-marathon, an aquathlon and a bike leg in the mini-tri had joined forces with the many exciting classes we did to provide for a great week’s workout but I was still looking forward to the “Running School and Bleep Test” on the Wednesday afternoon.

We were told ahead of time that the result would not be entirely precise if we had tired legs, but I was more interested in evaluating the format for my own coaching purposes in any case although I made myself a promise to try and reach level 16 (the highest previously set at La Santa) and be the last man standing in the test regardless (one will be stubborn and conceived).

Bleep Test

The bleep test is quite simple: you have two lines (or cones) 20 metres apart  and you have to cover the distance between them so that you touch the line with your feet just when the bleep (or beep) sounds (you can download bleep tests in many places such as here).

The bleep starts out slow (very relaxed actually) and get progressively faster and as you go it’s important to never move faster than the bleeps (plenty of time for that later). Every time the bleeps get faster, you advance a level and on each level there is three “shuttle runs” (three runs back and forward). So your score is determined by your number of levels (from 0 to 21) and shuttles (1-3). Our Welsh running instructor informed us that level 21 is basically impossible to achieve.

As the bleeps got faster during our test, people started to miss more than two consecutive shuttles after which they were out and got their score. A bit of grace is built into the system in case you just mistimed the rhythm which can be easy to do.

Susan decided to stick to me in the beginning, figuring I had the right metronome qualities to keep a slow pace early. This worked out well for both of us, at the time Susan left the test, no other women were left.

As the pace increased it went from comfortable to hard but never into “super hard”. My greatest problem was turning around and accelerating fast enough which was eventually my undoing as the instructor called count on me at level 13 and 2 shuttles. Some goals had been achieved, though, as I walked off I had been running the last few shuttles on my own.

The Score

Using the tables provided by our running instructor, I could equate my performance to a VO2 max of 57.7 ml/kg/min (the “Very High” category for someone in the 30-39 age group). Interestingly, the VO2 max calculator at Go2Lydiard estimates 56.44 ml/kg/min based on this year’s road race performances.

So despite the tired legs and my problems with acceleration, the tests are quite consistent in terms of the actual oxygen usage I display. However, in a clinical trial using more sophisticated equipment my actual oxygen intake was measured as 78 ml/kg/min back in 2008. This was partly because I was slightly lighter but there’s another reason for this discrepancy.

When you are still developing as a runner the oxygen usage of your muscles is not optimal due to capillarisation levels not being fully developed. It is therefore possible to take in more oxygen than you can effectively use and this is probably the phenomenon I am experiencing, e.g. I cannot currently fully utilise my actual oxygen capacity.

This is something worth keeping in mind if you do a VO2 max test that is not clinical: It’s likely that it is not your true oxygen intake capacity but just a measure of what you can currently use effectively.

The test – how I rate it

I would have some concerns around the bleep test as the most effective way of testing a runners ability to run to their max because of the technical element involved in turning around quickly inside a small 20m confine and the importance acceleration after the turn plays in your average speed. People with high agility, superior reflexes and a lot of fast-twitch fibres and good endurance will have an advantage on this test over runners without these qualities.

That being said, the test still produces reasonably good results but I don’t see the need to handicap it with these concerns. Instead it should be possible to design a test that features continuous running around a track with ever-increasing speeds until failure. By having the athlete only focusing on running straight ahead without any need for turning, braking and acceleration, you should get a more realistic picture of current fitness levels at least as it is relevant to middle and long distance running.

Next up, I will talk about the excellent “Running School” that followed our Bleep Test.