Benchmarking is a very cool, key practice. It's what athletes do naturally in the arena, before, during and after competition; and it's what individuals and corporations do to learn what works (or doesn't) and improve. I've conducted formal benchmarks for HP, Nortel, U.S. Secretary of Defense, and others. Wikipedia defines benchmarking here. Done best, it is not just comparison of gross inputs and outputs, and assessment of focal processes. Rather, solid benchmarking involves understanding many dimensions of activity and environment, and comparing ecosystems where results are produced. Without proper context, adoption of someone else's best practice may do more harm than good -- e.g., applying advanced testing to an immature software development process can be disruptive because there is not a structured means to implement results.
I'm benchmarking now, sizing up my fitness and ability to improve it, in order to ride Tour d'Afrique (TdA) from Cairo to Khartoum, 2000 Km, starting January 2012. I've been carefully reading rider's blogs for the race in progress, and looking at historical reports, maps, equipment lists, etc. Getting a feel for the ride, environment, facilities, healthcare options, nutrition, etc.
Today I had a good training ride, a 114 Km (71 mile) loop on a mountain bike in my neck of the woods (above). That represents a very easy TdA day, albeit with knobby tires which made the ride harder (CAI-KRT will likely be mostly on slicks). Repeat that ride, about 20 Km more distance, 15 days in a row (with two rest days), and that approximates January's ride. Add sleeping in a tent in the desert, afternoon temps to 120°, Sudanese sandstorms, primitive hygiene, and likely stomach bugs, and that's a benchmark.
While there are sophisticated ways my kids, elite bike racers, measure performance -- sustained power, watts per kilogram, VO2 efficiency, -- my current strategy is to build increasing time on the bike and distance, on consecutive days when I can ... progressively lose weight, spend nights in a tent ... ride in the desert late this year and such ... My average speed on today's ride was 25 Kph on pavement and 15 Kph on the canal towpath. As with distance, I'd like to bring this average up, to about 30 on pavement and 20 kph on towpath/packed dirt sustained for 4-5 hours. My heart rate seems pretty good, averaging 135 bpm and maxing at 172. I'd like to keep average HR under 140 at the sustained speed and distances. This should provide better recovery, day over day.
As I punch through the initial time and distance training, I'll check in with my internist and cycling coach to fine tune measures and technique. If things seem on track by April/May, I'll make the deposit for TdA. Then, Black Lion (named for the hospital in Addis) and me will be on our way ...