Base testing is an invaluable tool for coaches and athletes alike at any time. However, it is particularly useful when returning to training after a break.
When athletes come back to sport after time away, base testing can help coaches and trainers to establish where they are at, so we can create effective and safe training plans to bring them back to peak performance.
In the second session of our Return to Play webinar series, Dr. Victoria Burgess looked at the principles of base testing and how it can help athletes and coaches as they return to training after the pandemic.
Like other sessions in the series, the webinar was offered free over the summer months and aimed to give coaches, trainers, and athletes the tools they need to regain fitness after a break.
Dr. Burgess is an athlete herself, holding a Guinness World Record for being the first female to paddleboard 115 miles from Cuba to Key West in under 28 hours, non-stop. She is a certified sports nutritionist and has a Ph.D. in Leadership, Health and Human Performance from Concordia Chicago University, where she now teaches as an adjunct professor.
Along with its doctorate program, Concordia University Chicago also offers an online bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a master’s program in applied exercise science, with five unique concentrations to help you reach the next step in your career.
Catch up with the full webinar here.
An Introduction to Base Testing for Athletes
Base testing is a broad topic and needs to be adapted to the specific sport or activity your athletes will be participating in. As you read through the advice in this article, consider how you can apply the overarching principles to your own sport. How can you use them to help your athletes (or yourself) return to competition after a long break, without risking injury or overtraining?
Physical fitness covers several aspects, including:
- Cardiorespiratory fitness
- Muscular endurance
Most sports include elements of all these factors but may skew more towards some aspects over others. When you are using base testing, it is important to consider first whether your sport leans more towards some of these than others. This will help you design an effective testing program.
Base testing is always a useful tool. It gives us an accurate, evidence-based picture of where each individual athlete is at currently, so we can identify areas to work on.
Typically, base testing is carried out at the beginning of a new program and then intermittently during it. This means it also helps coaches and trainers to evaluate whether training programs are effective or if we need to tweak our approach to help our athletes optimize their performance.
Having a clear idea of our athletes’ starting point is important at any time, but especially now as they return to play post-covid. For many, the pandemic has meant a significant time away from training and competition, with the associated loss of conditioning and change in body composition.
After so long without access to their coaches and their usual equipment, we can’t expect athletes to return at their pre-Covid level. Base testing helps us to establish where they are right now. With this data, we can help them get back on track in a realistic way, reducing the risk of injury and maximizing performance.
If you’ve not previously used base testing, now is the time to start.
Before you decide how to evaluate your athletes’ performance, consider your actual sport and what will be most relevant to know. Some useful questions to ask yourself include:
- What is the intensity of the sport? Is it intermittent bursts of movement like in soccer or steady-state cardio like cross-country running?
- Does movement typically take place from a standing start, as it does in football? Or is it more continuous, like in soccer?
- Does the sport require athletes to change directions quickly?
- How important are reaction time and speed?
- What energy system does the sport mainly use – ATP-PC, glycolytic, or oxidative? Is it mainly aerobic? Anaerobic? Knowing this will help you make a fuel plan for your athlete so that they have adequate nutrition to meet the energy demands of the sport.
Use these questions to make a summary sheet of your sport. This summary will then inform which tests you use.
The Basics of Performance Testing
How frequently you carry out base testing depends on your sport and the seasonal pattern of training for your athletes. In general, Dr. Burgess aims to test at the start of a new season and then quarterly during the season. You may want to test more regularly out of season.
The aim of the testing is to develop a profile for each individual athlete. You can record this digitally or use a notebook. Revisit this profile periodically to evaluate the effectiveness of athletes’ training programs and monitor their health status.
Coming back after Covid-19, younger athletes especially are keen to get back into training and competition. As a result, those at university or high school level may try to hide any signs of weakness. Monitoring them regularly helps us to identify any issues and avoid injury.
If an athlete is coming back from injury, base testing can help with the rehab process too.
Many sports use the whole body. But some have a particular slant. For example, golf or javelin both mainly use the upper body, while long jump mainly uses the lower body.
As you decide which tests to use, bear in mind the requirements of your specific sport and the areas of the body that it uses most.
Types of Tests
There are many different options available for testing your athletes. Before you decide which ones to use, check the validity and reliability of each test you are considering. There’s a large body of research available via Pubmed to help you choose appropriate tests.
It may sound obvious, but it is worth noting that whatever tests you use at the start of your program are the ones you need to continue to use throughout. Sometimes we learn about other tests or have access to new equipment that can tempt us to change our approach. However, the tests need to be the same for the results to be comparable.
Of course, you should also choose tests that are relevant to your sport. If you train footballers, there is no point in asking them to do a swimming speed test, for example.
The list below is not comprehensive, but it should give you a starting point as you decide which tests to use.
Flexibility is often overlooked by coaches and athletes alike. But Dr. Burgess likes to do them on all her athletes. Flexibility decreases injury risk and increases performance, so it shouldn’t be neglected.
The sit-and-reach test is the classic option for testing trunk and lower body flexibility. You need a specific piece of equipment, but it is simple enough to make your own – Dr. Burgess made hers out of plywood.
1RM tests are a great option for strength testing and are considered one of the best ways to assess strength outside laboratory conditions. A handgrip strength test is another option for sports where hand and forearm strength are important.
Vertical Jump Test
Another one that requires a specific piece of equipment, vertical jump tests are useful for sports that require a lot of jumping, such as basketball and volleyball.
Speed tests should be relevant to your specific sport. For example, sprint tests for sports where you need short bursts of speed, 100m swim tests, 40m cycle sprints, etc.
Speed and Agility Tests
The shuttle run test is useful for assessing agility and for sports where athletes need to be able to change directions quickly.
All athletes can benefit from aerobic tests. Beep tests are a standard option that is a good predictor of VO2 max.
Body Composition Tests
The importance of body composition is often overlooked. But it can have a real impact on performance.
Firstly, excess weight will obviously cause an increase in fatigue. However, we can’t forget the mental health component of body composition and weight gain.
Returning to competition after the pandemic, many athletes have gained weight and have lost fitness. This is likely to impact their mental health and affect their performance. Younger athletes, at university level and earlier, are especially vulnerable to struggles with mental health due to the perceived aesthetics of their bodies.
As coaches, part of our role is to find a way to work with body composition information while taking into account the likely mental health impact of weight gain or muscle loss for athletes, particularly younger ones.
If you have access to them, high-end body composition machines that use BIA or DEXA technology will give you the most accurate results.
BIA stands for bioelectrical impedance analysis machine. It sends a safe electrical pulse through the body and measures the resistance that occurs when the electrical pulse meets body fat.
DEXA is a full-body scan that uses a low dose of X-ray to give a precise measure of body composition, including body fat, bone, and lean mass.
However, not everyone will have access to these machines. If you don’t, the skin fold test is still considered a valid option. It isn’t as accurate as BIA or DEXA but will give you an idea of body composition.
Dr. Burgess cautions against using BMI as a method of assessing athletes’ weight. It is an outdated tool that was never intended for use in individual assessments. It doesn’t take into account body composition, so someone with a lot of muscle will often register as overweight.
What Order Should You Do Tests In?
For the best results, the NASM suggests a specific order to do tests. Obviously, you don’t want to do the most strenuous tests first, as these will affect how the athlete performs in the other tests too.
Ideally, aim to spread testing out over several days. Few athletes have the patience to endure a full day of tests. You could, for example, do one or two tests before practice. Don’t carry out any testing after practice, as fatigue will affect the results.
Performance assessments especially should be done on different days, or athletes won’t be able to perform at their best for every test.
The best place to start is with a review of the athlete’s health. Even if you have worked with the athlete previously, it is worth revisiting their history when they return after the pandemic, to see if anything has changed in the past year.
There are standardized forms you can use to assess an athlete’s health status and whether they are safe to return to training. One is the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire (PAR-Q). This will help you to identify any risk factors that may require a referral to a medical professional.
Once you have determined whether the athlete is ready to return to exercise, tests should be carried out in the following order:
- Biometric measures – these include blood pressure, heart rate, height, and weight.
- Anthropometric measures – body composition tests, circumference measures, and other such metrics fall into this category.
- Static postural assessment – this looks at the position and alignment of the spine, neck, shoulders, hips, pelvis, knees, and feet while the athlete is standing still.
- Movement screens – examples could include an overhead squat assessment, single-leg squat assessment, gait analysis, etc.
- Flexibility tests – sit-and-reach tests
- Muscular endurance tests – these could include push-up tests, pull-up tests, etc.
- Cardiorespiratory tests – shuttle runs, sprint tests, and beep tests are all options for this category.
- Performance assessments – depending on the sport, these could include tests of power, speed, agility, and/or quickness.
Once you have carried out your tests, you will have a profile for the athlete that shows their current physical status. Coaches can then set an effective training plan that suits the athlete’s current level of physical fitness and helps to lower the risk of injury or overtraining.
This is especially important after a break when athletes are at higher risk of injury due to changes in their fitness and loss of conditioning.
Team practices may need to stay the same. However, coaches can modify training in the weight room and during cardio exercises outside of team practice to meet the needs of each individual athlete.
If you have them, you can use measurements from before Covid to provide a gauge. Knowing where athletes were before the pandemic versus where they are now can help coaches identify the most pressing areas for improvement.
The results of body composition tests will also be especially important as athletes return to play post-Covid. A significant concern currently is athletes who are coming back worried about weight gain.
These athletes may focus on under-fueling to lose body mass, instead of looking to fuel for performance. This leads to poor performance – both because athletes aren’t adequately nourished and because they are preoccupied with weight concerns.
For coaches, body composition tests can provide an opportunity to educate athletes on the importance of fueling properly. It is a chance to discuss appropriate nutrition, including pre-, during, and post-workout fueling and adequate calorie intake.
Many of us don’t talk enough to our athletes about proper nutrition and fueling for performance. Having those conversations now is more important than ever.
Until you start using base testing to inform your training plans, you don’t realize what a valuable tool it is. When you begin to chart progress and have those figures written down you can really focus on where athletes can improve.
When you have the results of the tests, take the time to sit down with each athlete individually to discuss them and agree on their training goals. This is also a great way to help athletes regain their motivation.
Many coaches have found motivation is the biggest challenge as athletes return to competition after the pandemic. Recording their progress and using test results to set short-term goals can help to inspire them again.
Base testing is also a useful tool for personal trainers who are working with individuals.
All of us have strengths and weaknesses. Base testing can give coaches, trainers, and athletes a clear idea of what these are, so we can work to improve them.