FTP Testing to Track Progress & Set Goals
By Chris Bagg - Professional Triathlete - Portland, Oregon
When I came into triathlon, 13 years ago, I rode my bike like any 23 year-old would: as hard as I could, without any regard for pacing. The approach worked during my first few years in the sport, the bike playing my trump card to make up for my much weaker swim and run legs. Unsurprisingly, when I started racing professionally, my all-in approach on the bike stopped working. My competitors might sacrifice a little time to me on the bike, but I was playing catch-up from the swim, and had to play defense on the run. My coach and I poured years into developing my swim and run, getting them to their current, respectable levels. Something is happening in professional triathlon, however: on both the men and women’s sides, bike times are getting faster. I was, this past year, merely a mid-pack cyclist on the bike. It was time to refine the approach.
Power meters, close to ubiquitous in the sport these days, can provide the road map necessary to change your cycling outcomes in 2016. Unfortunately, despite how commonplace they’ve become, they are rarely understood or used correctly, by athletes or coaches. Most athletes I know who own power meters use them more like basic thermometers, rather than the intricate pieces of medical equipment they can be. Athletes look at their power with a “what am I doing right now?” approach, in the same way you might check the weather to decide what you’re going to wear that day: immediate information, but no global or longitudinal perspective. A power meter, coupled with tracking software, can give you the kind of perspective and accountability necessary for long-term development.
OK, credibility asserted, let’s start with some numbers. Ready? Ready. The first piece of jargon you need to know is functional threshold power, referred to as FTP for brevity’s sake. FTP is the average power you can potentially hold for one hour, given current fitness. Why “potentially?” Most athletes and coaches test FTP by riding as hard as possible for 20 minutes and then subtracting 5% for the test. I tested in early January, averaging 392 watts, coming up with an FTP of 373. I doubt, however, that at current fitness I could hold 373 for an hour. An hour at FTP is exceedingly difficult, physically and mentally, which is why many athletes and coaches don’t use it. Unfortunately, if you never cross-check your FTP potential from a 20-minute test against a true 60-minute test, you’re unlikely to know if your FTP is accurate. What happens is that athletes get really good at those 20-minute tests, but their power drops off sharply beyond 20-30 minutes. If you want to be able to hold your FTP for an hour, you need to do a lot of supporting work, building your fitness and endurance at and slightly below threshold. That’s beyond the scope of this particular piece, though. We’re talking about using your power meter to set up some reasonable power goals for the year.
OK, when professionals race Ironman or half-iron distance races, they typically average 80% and 90% of FTP, respectively. Age groupers will be slightly below these numbers, but not too much. 75% and 85-87% would be good goals for the two distances. I’m going to bring in a second athlete, at this juncture. Heather Jackson, 5th at Kona last year and looking to move up this year, did her own 20-minute test in the past month, resulting in a present FTP potential of 260W. I’m going to introduce a second term here, which is watts per kilogram, or w/kg. W/kg is a great way to compare athletes, because it standardizes the conversation. Heather is 54 kg at present, and I’m at 80 kg. If you look at our w/kg at threshold, they come out to be pretty similar: HJ is 4.81 w/kg at threshold (260/54), and I’m 4.66 (373/80). Our numbers at threshold, though, don’t really help us too much, since we’re both long course athletes. Below you’ll see our numbers (right now) for the distances we race:
If you look at the most successful iron-distance athletes these days, you’ll find they ride the 112 miles at 4.0 w/kg, so HJ and I have a little work to do (moving up from 3.85 and 3.73 w/kg, respectively). The great thing about measuring with w/kg is that it gives you two paths to improvement: add power, or lose weight. If I’m going to get to 4.0 w/kg for IM, I could either increase my threshold power to 400w while staying at 80 kg, or lose 5.4 kg (almost 12 pounds!) while staying at 373 watts. Instead of attempting either of those difficult goals, I think it’s more sensible to work on both sides. For me, that means raising my FTP to 390 (a difficult, but not insurmountable improvement of 4.4%) while losing 2 kg (4.4 pounds). From HJ’s side, she might target a new FTP of 270 and a new weight of 53 kg.
That’s a lot of numbers. Sorry about that. I hope you’re still reading. If you are, your next question is probably “Great; how do you get there?” Well, the weight loss stuff is beyond the scope of this article, but the power stuff isn’t. My first iron-distance race isn’t until August, and it’s my A priority race for the year, so I’ve got some time. Sure, I’d love to race at my goal power at my half-iron races throughout the spring and early summer, but that’s unrealistic. If I can be hitting increasing power numbers (while losing weight) between now and August, I know I’m on the right track. I do some bike racing on the side, and there are time trials at stage races in February, April, June, and July that I’ll use to measure my improvement. “OK,” you’re now saying “That’s the big picture stuff—what are you actually doing to move the power?” There’s a lot of different ways you can get there, and many different coaches have had success with different methods. Here’s a short and dumb answer, though: you have to be doing some very intense work above threshold to raise your threshold. Don’t get me wrong: work below threshold is crucial to your overall racing success—you cannot train on high-intensity alone (even sensible time-crunched training plans call for a pull back from high intensity every eight weeks, switching to an aerobic focus for a period of four weeks), but the only thing that can push your threshold up is training above that threshold. HJ’s been doing a very difficult workout, recently, where she spends short amounts of time well above threshold, followed by even shorter bouts of recovery. The end result is a middle-distance interval (between 6-10 minutes) with a lot of high intensity work. This kind of effort pushes your threshold power up over time. I spend two days a week at a local cycling studio in Portland (C-Velo Cycling, check them out, tell Rick that Chris sent you), where recently we’ve been doing classic VO2 max intervals. “Wait, what’s VO2 max?” you’re saying right now. Don’t worry about the physiology of it. Basically, it means 105-120% of FTP. A classic VO2 max workout is deceptively simple: warm-up well, and then perform 6x3’ intervals at 115-120% of FTP, followed by 3’ of recovery after each one. If you can complete all six without falling below 105-110% of FTP, you’re doing really well.
OK, I think that’s enough math for today. If you have questions, you can always ping me at email@example.com. Enjoy those VO2 max intervals—imagine them as taking your medicine.
If you're in the market for a power meter, I'd check out Pioneer Power
Thanks for reading - Bagg