This post is meant to help Cyclists avoid frustration around FTP, knowing what it means, how to test it, and how to use it to get better at cycling.
Short Answer: If you are in doubt then set your threshold lower than you think. Then go and train frequently. Pay attention to your workouts and you will gather more information. Consider consulting with a coach if you find yourself not training frequently or failing workouts, there is a good chance you are training to intensely or have made assumptions that are not helping your training consistency.
Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is:
“the highest power a rider can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing”
It is also a duration …
I hesitated to include this but I think it illustrates that we want to be thinking about what kind of athlete we need to be. Your ‘threshold’ is the average power you can sustain for an extended period of time, some people can hold it longer (~60 min) and some people might only hold it for 20 minutes.
If we all just focus on 20-minute tests it doesn’t really get at the demands of a 200-mile gravel race or the explosive demands of track or cyclocross. Pondering how long you need to hold a ‘quasi-steady-state’ is worthwhile. Is your training improving the qualities of training you want to improve and is FTP (in whatever form you test it) going to show you relevant improvement for your race and training goals? *For more on this duration concept see TTE via training peaks
It takes time to change
It is not uncommon for athletes to expect their FTP to just go up in a week, if not in a workout! If you are testing constantly (or strava-ing, zwift-ing, crossfit-ing) but not seeing results it is time to take your time and go through a plan that lets you train consistently and see gradual progress. Practice riding your bike frequently and you should see improvement in the intervals/rides you are doing over 4-8 weeks. If you are newer to cycling or at lower fitness this should be very linear and as expected. Not every phase of the year is meant to increase FTP, especially if it is not specific to your event you will see it steady or decreasing through race and off-season, and that is ok and normal.
Practically your threshold setting doesn’t need to be pin-point accurate – just start training
To illustrate this, consider if your FTP is set at 300 watts but it is actually 320 watts (kudos!). The two threshold zones for these 2 settings (300 and 320) would be 273w-317w versus 291w-338w.
As you can see above there is a large overlap between ‘zone 4’ for 300w and 320w. If you set the threshold and go and train with a couple of hard or moderate workouts a week you will get an idea of whether that setting is accurate based on your RPE and Heart rate. Your ability to FINISH workouts (over many weeks) is a good indicator of the threshold validity as well. Remember DAILY CONSISTENT TRAINING is important!
There are ZONES for a reason! Use the ranges!
Testing lets you practice, see progress, and make decisions.
It is normal to be nervous for test day BUT remember this is preparing you for race day. Testing is just you and your coach, no one else. It is just a practice, just a workout. Prepare like a race and do your best that day, as you do in your workouts. The more your train and the more you test the more familiar the idea of ‘max effort’ and ‘testing’ and racing will become and the more familiar that nervous or ‘excited’ feeling will become (it is normal to keep being nervous for efforts!)
A trick I use with new clients, nervous clients, or those coming back after extended time off is to start the test really easy (by RPE) and ramp into it … go harder as you see the end. Finish Hard. This gets you a number, now go train for a few weeks, come back and use that data and your experience to edge your numbers up. If an athlete struggles to finish tests I will use a 30-35 minute ‘guided’ test that starts at ~Tempo watts, then ~threshold watts then in the last 15 minutes the athlete goes as they feel with the only goal to finish. This often results in a personal best simply by pedaling consistently for 35 minutes and not quitting or fading substantially from an overly ambitious first 5 minutes.
Test data (good and ‘bad’) lets you make better training decisions
Knowing it is normal to have fluctuations in your power numbers across the season is also important. You might see a decline in threshold testing after a block of racing where you perform well due to the harder racing and lowered volume of training. If you have a test where numbers go down this might be a great sign of what training to do next and/or that you need more recovery (mentally or physically).
Smart Trainer Programs & Shorter Tests?
If you are using a training program (e.g. Trainer Road etc) that uses a different duration of test then embrace that test and use the system you are using. Don’t get caught up comparing systems. Embrace the system you are using until it is not working as evidenced by your tests, races, fitness, and/or health are not improving or at least being stable. Be very careful comparing and combining systems.
It is worth using ‘manual mode’ rather than ERG mode for tests (and at least some workouts) to learn to ‘make power’ and to allow some fluctuation in outputs. Many riders find this actually improves their results BUT it also will help you prepare to shift and pedal outdoors!
Again, if you set your threshold too low, most programs let you adjust a given workout by +/- 10% … use this range daily. It is much nicer to add a bit of load to each workout versus failing a workout because you set a threshold way too high. If you are maxed at +10% every workout (and recovering) than this is a good indication that the setting is too high for that workout system.
If you want your ‘true’ threshold and you have not done a 20+ minute test than you know what you have to do! Most races are over 20 minutes so this is simply getting you ready for this level of effort over a longer duration. Yes, it is hard and even uncomfortable … practice being uncomfortable!
Data analysis helps coaches move beyond just ‘FTP’ for designing workouts and quantifying fitness.
For beginners and novices the daily ‘doing something’, or CONSISTENCY, is most important but as we get more advanced (and CONSISTENT) it gets trickier to select the correct intensity and durations to train at. Just looking at one threshold test becomes insufficient.
This is where Data and more advanced analysis can really help.
With all the data available to the athlete and to the coach it is becoming important that software is used to organize this data into meaningful reports to help make better decisions. In the below graph of 1 year of an athletes data, you can see how the ‘threshold range’ is chosen based on the actual work done and where the curve of all the work done levels off to ‘a threshold’
Training Peaks WKO is software that continues to progress and help coaches and athletes harness data. It let’s coaches use and design graphs and reports to help quantify fitness and make decisions for the athlete.
Book a Phone Consult to learn more about how to use your data to train optimally for your fitness and your goals
- Smart Athlete post on using Smart Trainers
- Power Terms and Definitions – https://help.trainingpeaks.com/hc/en-us/articles/115000360551-WKO4-Abbreviations-and-Definitions
- Training Peaks https://help.trainingpeaks.com/hc/en-us/articles/227660507-WKO4-Education-Webinar-Recordingss
- FTP article in Bicycling by Molly Hurford with quotes from Frank Overton and Simon Marshall
- Time to Exhaustion and other new metrics in WKO by Training Peaks