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. Be careful assuming 20 min TTs (or FTP) are everything, many cyclists should be more concerned with riding more (hours or CTL/TSS). 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.
Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is:
“the highest power a rider can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing”
It is also a duration …
So with that definition in mind, your ‘threshold’ is the average power you can sustain for an extended period of time. That ‘extended period of time’ is called Time To Exhaustion and is also trainable. So you can increase the time you can hold FTP or Increase FTP depending on your goal (Track sprints or Long course triathlon.) I mention this as I think the 20-60 min test confusion AND the type of training many people do (ie. moderate every ride) leads to not improving the QUALITY (wattage) portion of threshold and rather extends it. *more on TTE
It takes time to change
Too many riders expect their FTP to just go up in a week, if not in a workout! Take your time and go through the plan. Practice riding your bike frequently and you should see improvement in FTP over 4-8 weeks but this depends on how long you have been training and what type of training you are doing. Not every phase of the year is meant to increase FTP.
Your Threshold doesn’t need to be pin-point accurate
If your FTP is set at 300 watts but it is actually 320 watts then your threshold zone would be 273w-317w versus 291w-338w if you used 320 watts. So you could ride at 317 watts and be ‘in zone’ for the higher setting.
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 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!
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. The more your train and the more you test the more you will have an idea on how it should feel.
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 to edge your numbers up.
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.
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 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.
Training Peaks WKO is a 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.
As an example, the power duration curve below is set up to show zones specific to this athlete. This helps make workout targets that are relevant to the athlete using the plateaus and ‘kinks’ in the curve.
If you are a sprinter you will have a big spike on the left of the graph and then a bigger drop-off. The image above is more of a ‘TT’ rider with a more gradual slope in the curve and higher threshold.