You are ready to have your best cycling season of your life and you can’t wait to get started on making that happen. The only problem is that you are not sure of the best way to do that. In the past, maybe you have always ridden hard every time you rolled out the door, but you noticed that at some point in the summer, other people kept improving and your fitness just stayed stagnate. You hear lots of talk about training zones, FTP, threshold intervals and base miles. Some people might have two zones: all-in-effort and chatting over brews. You hear that the bigger your FTP the better you will be. You know that threshold intervals hurt and some people say that base miles hurt more because they keep bonking on those longer workouts.
So where do you start?
A simple and effective way to gain some basic understanding is to do an Functional Threshold Power test or FTP. This number is defined as the highest average watts that you could hold for 60 minutes. Some coaches will use data from a 40 km time trial to set FTP, but typically, after a warm up, the test is riding as hard as you can for 20 min on a trainer in a more controlled environment. At the end of the 20 min, you would record your average power and your average HR. After determining your 20 min averages, you would subtract 5% from those numbers to account for fatigue to extrapolate your 60 minute FTP.
Once armed with this 60 minute FTP number, coaches have used ranges to set training zones for athletes to help guide them through a workout. For example, a coach might assign an athlete to ride at 80% of their FTP for 20 minutes to build endurance. For shorter more intense intervals, a coach might prescribe intervals ranging at 110-120% of FTP.
Here is the kicker.
The goal is not to do workouts to raise your FTP. The goal is to be faster on your bike.
In the book, The Road Cyclist’s Guide to Training by POWER Part I by Charles Howe with contributions from Andrew Coggan, Ph.D. Third Edition, June 2007, Howe writes,
“Average power during a 40-60 minute time trial, or functional threshold power (FTP), provides a logical basis for training levels since it correlates very highly with power at lactate threshold, the most important physiological determinant of endurance cycling performance…”
It is this statement that has driven scores of cyclists to strive to improve their FTP which then is assumed to correlate to better cycling performance. In my experience, this focus doesn’t always hold true when using the 20 min test being the protocol and also when focused on during the off season.
I sometimes think about it in terms of ice cream. When there are higher average temperatures and an increase in reports of crime, ice cream sales are higher. I don’t know of many people who would disagree with that statement, but not many would agree with the statement that higher ice cream sales causes higher crime and warmer temperatures.
Obviously, with performance and FTP there is certainly more of a reciprocal relationship then there is with warm weather and ice cream, but in my experience a rider can focus on workouts that lift their 20 minute test numbers and thus increase their predicted 60 min FTP value, but ultimately not change their performance over a true 60 minute effort and therefore not have a high correlation to performance. Yet a rider with high, true 60 minute fitness will have both a high 20 minute test result and a high correlation to higher performance.
The other thing to take into account is when in your training plan will FTP type intervals yield the best fitness boost. The body typically needs a new type of training stress about every 6-8 weeks to keep improving. After that time period, the adaptation will stagnate and fitness and performance will not improve at its full potential. Many athletes still don’t have power meters on their bikes or even if they do, the power graphs from riding outside never look as crisp and clean as they do indoors on a trainer. Because of this holistic access to clean power numbers during the indoor season, it is extremely challenging to not focus on the numbers and want to improve your publicly displayed FTP numbers. Often times, the chase is on and riders will choose workouts that will help them realize these FTP gains.
The pitfall goes back to the timing of these kinds of workouts.
If the choice is made to work hard over the winter season to increase FTP, two things typically happen. First, the rider’s aerobic ceiling becomes underdeveloped and will create a cap to how much growth potential the rider has. As riders work on building base fitness, the body adapts by creating infrastructure to prepare for assisting higher intensity workouts later. The better your infrastructure, the higher your aerobic ceiling. A super highway can handle more traffic than a two lane farm road. Second, if you use that 6-8 week training block in the winter to lift your FTP, when it comes time to continue to build that fitness in the early summer, your body won’t react to that kind of training stimulus and your fitness build will remain flat.
What comes next then?
As I stated earlier, the goal isn’t to raise your FTP. This is not a pre-test and building to a post test. Doing a FTP test is a starting point to exploring and developing a training plan to maximize bike speed during the race season. Having this number helps track time at lactate threshold so that you can limit how much time you spend there. You should have time at this intensity, but during the winter it should be limited. Having this number also helps to define what kind of rider you are: aerobic or anaerobic. Exploring and finding your aerobic threshold as a percent under your FTP during endurance efforts and your percent above FTP during efforts of one minute, you start to build a profile of where you excel and where you are deficient. Some riders, who are very endurance based, might ride at their aerobic threshold at 90% of FTP and be able to sustain 125% above FTP for 1 minute. Another rider, who is very anaerobic, might only be able to sustain 78% of FTP at aerobic threshold, but can sustain 166% of FTP for 1 minute. The interesting thing is that it is possible that they have the exact same FTP number.
Knowing your FTP won’t tell you where these other thresholds are, but it is a reference point, a landmark of sorts. This landmark can be used along with the historical ranges to help athletes start to explore their unique riding strengths and weaknesses and dial in their training zones.
So what is the final action plan for this winter?
How do you start the path to a great 2018 season? First, go and do a Functional Threshold Power test and establish a fitness landmark that you can refer to. Then, determine a routine to consistently get in your workouts. Having a time and a place to be that is unlikely to be interrupted by life and other distractions is a great strategy. Almost every coach that I have heard interviewed has said that the secret to good fitness building is consistent training and from my experience, I totally agree. Along those same lines, find a gang, posse, clan, support system, friends, ride leader, community that will help you get out the door and show up week in and week out. When working on your endurance and base building, when in doubt, always decrease your intensity. On the other side of the spectrum, challenge yourself and be aggressively cautious (I know, that sounds a bit oxymoronic) on the short intervals to find an honest upper limit for those intervals between 1 and 5 minutes. Finally, for every step along the way evaluate, review, question, assess to constantly try and dial in your intensity levels to set yourself up for a great year. If you just feel lost in all of it still, find a coach or trusted mentor and ask them about the times that they got their training wrong, what they did differently the next time and what’s their current approach.
Enjoy the journey!