When Is it Time to Test?

A new Good Wolf athlete, John, didn’t yet have baseline data metrics for swim, bike and run training. So after a few weeks of initial training to assess basic performance trends, I prescribed a 30-minute run threshold workout as a starting point. It’s harder to prescribe an aerobic run, for example, if we don’t really know the athlete’s aerobic capacity. Swim and eventually bike tests are up next for John, as the latter requires a bit more recon for a safe place to ride an extended amount of time uninterrupted. He recently moved to a new town.

John did the run workout as planned and we discussed the results. Something he texted me stood out.

Athlete: “So with that set now what’s the goal I should be shooting for?”

Me: “Easy. Consistency.”

That got me thinking.

It would have been easy to simply reply, “Well, we’ll test again after an intense six-week run block where we target boosting your threshold pace by :05.” Why didn’t I do that? (Well, that’s another blog post!!)

Philosophically, I’m not rigid when it comes to testing FTP or thresholds. I don’t believe in testing for data at a specific time or even on any kind of regular basis. At Good Wolf, we test an athlete when it’s time to test, when it’s obvious a test is needed, or we do nothing and see those results naturally through race data (after diligent and consistent training takes effect) and adjust accordingly.

But how did I arrive to this approach? That thought is what occupied my mind during an easy run yesterday morning. It turns out it has nothing to do with triathlon.

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In 1998, I started studying Bok Fu Do Chinese Kenpo, or “Way of the White Tiger.” My dad had been studying Bok Fu for years already, and for various reasons, I wanted to see for myself what he loved about it so much. I needed a new challenge, I had some things to prove to myself, and in my mind, to others too.

In fact, triathlon surfaced in my life years later because I finally rid myself of that deep need to prove my toughness to other people. That, and I really didn’t like getting punched or kicked in the face anymore. (Mr. York still haunts my dreams haha!)

Maybe that’s why I kinda miss the mass swim starts in an Ironman event…I liked the contact.

What is Bok Fu Do? For quick reference, I found this video online of Mr. Milan Shelden and some of my former East-West partners performing at an exhibition in 2006. The fluid movements remind me how much I loved it. If you watch from around 3:43 onwards, that’s closer to what I was studying at the time. Mr. Shelden is the final martial artist to perform.

Our Sifus, Richard Campbell and Mr. Shelden, were literally Hall of Fame instructors and had a direct line to Grandmaster Richard Lee, who founded the modern Bok Fu system in the late ‘60s. Tiger-style kung fu is a descendant of one of the original five forms of Chinese kung fu.

Like triathlon, I felt awkward and brutally self-aware at the beginning, but grew close with the community at the studio and martial arts quickly became a lifestyle. I trained at East-West in Simi Valley for 3-4 days a week for a few years and became better, faster and stronger. All of that gave me greater self confidence and self-assurance.

Looking back, among the things I remember most fondly was the elation (and fright) I’d feel when Mr. Campbell would decide it was time for me to test for a new belt. It wasn’t monthly, or even bi-monthly. It was, “when I know you are ready.”

How would he know? 

The answer was, to paraphrase, the combination of unconscious flow, an ability to perform the techniques under pressure, and with my own signature thumbprint of style and energy.

This played out in no greater way than when I earned my green sash after many months of study. At East-West, we combined every blue-belt technique into a right-side, left-side series of continuous advances up and down the studio mat. I would practice this extremely long-form set EVERYWHERE (parks, the beach, my apartment, a shallow pool), and yet it was not good enough to test with Mr. Campbell. I knew the material, but I hadn’t made it mine yet. I didn’t know it so well that I’d demand the test, and that was everything Mr. Campbell needed to know.

(For reference, I found videos online that approximate some of the movements in this set. Instead of a full-mat kata, the progression was linear, as if a room of enemies stood in a straight line and attacked one-by-one. To pass the test, the intensity and ferocity needed to match the student’s knowledge.

Mastery, or a readiness to test, had nothing to do with knowing the material. It definitely had nothing to do with a calendar.

These are many of my classmates whom I had the great pleasure to learn from and train with many years ago. Mr. Shelden and Mr. Campbell are bottom right, respectively. My dad is middle row far left. Mr. York, whom I mentioned above, is third from left in the top row. With nearly limitless hip flexibility and impeccable form, Mr. York was nearly impossible to defeat in 1:1 sparring. I miss these folks. But not the ringing in my ears!

These are many of my classmates whom I had the great pleasure to learn from and train with many years ago. Mr. Shelden and Mr. Campbell are bottom right, respectively. My dad is middle row far left. Mr. York, whom I mentioned above, is third from left in the top row. With nearly limitless hip flexibility and impeccable form, Mr. York was nearly impossible to defeat in 1:1 sparring. I miss these folks. But not the ringing in my ears!

I can still see and hear Mr. Campbell today clapping his hands, hunched over, peering through me with his giant bifocal glasses, “Fire it up!”

I vividly remember the ferocity of my actual test for that green sash, how exhausted I felt afterwards, as I put everything I had into it.. I remember the immense pride as I accepted that sash from Mr. Campbell and learned to tie it to my waist for the first time.

I hear Mr. Campbell’s voice on the starting line of every triathlon I enter. I hear that voice in every FTP test or time trial I participate in during training.

“Fire it up!” meant it was GO time on the mat. Either I knew the material cold and could apply it with great force, focus and fierceness. Or, I wasn’t ready.

I’ve never shared this with my Good Wolf athletes let alone anyone else.

Now, when an athlete asks me when it’s time to test for a new FTP or threshold pace, they will know why the answer is, “When it’s apparent it is time for you to test.”

And unless there’s no baseline data to assess basic performance as in John’s case, a Good Wolf athlete will know it’s time to test when they can demand one with great confidence. Or… I know it’s time for them to test.

A test is earned, not given. It comes through doing the consistent work, with discipline, focus, an openness to feedback, and passion.

Then, it’s time to fire it up!