by Chris Bagg and Josh Amberger

Ed. Note—2020 continues to pile on, as Kona and 70.3 World Championships are both officially off, even in their rescheduled slots. But endurance athletes are a hardy and adaptive lot, changing goals to reflecting the changing landscape. In Australia, although triathlon isn't occurring, some limited time trialing is possible, and Wattie Ink. professional Josh Amberger got back to some of his roots by taking 8th place in the Queensland State Time Trial championships last month.

Whether you're a sprint-distance gun, or an ultra-distance diesel, raising your sustainable steady-state power will make you faster and more efficient on the bike. When athletes such as Josh Amberger head out to their local time trials, or simply shoot for a local Strava segment, they aim for that power range, and in the "race of truth," few other statistics matter as much. Notice we didn't use the term "FTP," although that is essentially what we're talking about. We'll define our terms in a second, here, but today we'll talk about ways to improve that steady state ability, so you can time trial or climb faster, even if you won't be racing this year.

What is "FTP?"

OK, a lot of ink has been spilled on this topic, but we'll do our best, here. As you sit there reading this, your body is generating something called "Lactate." No, it's not milk, and it's certainly not lactic acid, and really what it is doesn't matter too much today. As you exercise harder, you make more of it. For a while, while you're simply pedaling away at a moderate intensity, you make a consistent amount of it, measured in millimoles per liter of blood. For most athletes, this is around 2 mmol/L. You make lactate, and another process takes that lactate and converts it into a different fuel source at roughly the same rate: you're making it and then getting rid of it equally. At a certain intensity, however, your system can't keep up, and you make more lactate than you can get rid of. You've passed "steady state" lactate production ("steady state" means that the level remains the same), and you can see that point on the graph below.

Image courtesy of lactate.com

That moment when the lactate turns up, right around 250w? That is the place where this particular athlete leaves steady state lactate production. For many coaches and athletes, they would estimate (estimate!) your "Functional Threshold Power" around that number. OK, why "functional?" Well, functional basically means "this is our best guess." FTP is, essentially, simply an estimate of where that change in lactate production occurs. Functional suggests "this is the best we can do," and that's going to be about right. Without lactate testing, we'll only ever be estimating. So without a lab, what do you do? Well, there are many, many different ways to come up with our best guess at an FTP. Here are a few:

  1. Ride as hard as you can for 20 minutes. Take 91% of the average power. This is a nice conservative estimate (the 95% of 20 minutes tends to overestimate FTP)
  2. Do The Sufferfest's 4DP power test
  3. Ride as hard as possible for 30 minutes, and use the best 20' power from that effort as your FTP (caveat: the 20' has to be the final 20 minutes; if you go too hard and then die your data isn't reliable)
  4. Ride as hard as possible for eight minutes, and take 89% of that number (note that this is going to give you the least accurate number, despite it being the shortest and most attractive test)

How do you Change it?

Although we can get into the nitty-gritty of tests, that's not our goal today. We want to raise that FTP as much as possible, so what the test means doesn't matter—we just want a place from which to start. Now that you have your FTP, here are some ways to improve it. Note that when the workouts say "as hard as possible," it is for the time prescribed, so 40 seconds as fast as possible is going to be harder than two minutes as fast as possible, dig?

  1. Tabatas: these are essentially micro-intervals with even more micro recoveries. Warm up thoroughly, and then perform three sets of 4x(40" as hard as you can go, 20" totally off), with five minutes of easy pedaling in between.
  2. VO2max/maximum aerobic capacity intervals: if you can raise your  VO2max/improve the amount of oxygen you run through your system, you will use more oxygen while exercising and shift into lactate production later. Try a thorough warmup, and then perform 8x(2' as hard as possible, 2' easy).
  3. Big gear sweet spot intervals: more science here, but that's not what we're doing today. Perform a total 15-60' of intervals at around 90% of FTP with a 1/5 rest to work ratio (so a 15' interval gets 3' of recovery).
  4. Steady aerobic work: say what? Don't you have to go fast to get fast? It's more complicated than that, sadly. Riding at moderate intensities builds a whole bunch of systems that help you clear away lactate, meaning that your lactate threshold will happen "later" (i.e.: at a higher intensity). Spend a big chunk of your week here, at 55-83% of FTP. Hours, not minutes.
  5. High threshold work: as you get closer to your event, drop in 30-40' per week of riding at 91-100% of FTP. How close? Start six weeks out.

So what's the result? Add those sessions to your training, and you should experience your lactate curve moving to "the right" on the graph. Below we see graph that uses running, but the principle is the same.

Image courtesy of lactate.com

You can see in the green tests (November), the lines for both HR and speed (for cycling, speed would be swapped out for power) have moved to the right. As we suggested above, this means you hit that lactate upturn "later," or at a higher intensity. You can now ride or run sustainably faster than you did before.

How Often?

We suggest giving yourself some kind of test every 8-12 weeks. You can be as scientific as you'd like, as long as you remember you're doing a test where n = 1 (there's only one subject in the pool), so it's not statistically reliable. Still, if you can climb your local climb, or get around your homemade time trial course faster, then you have improved your FTP. So get after it, and let us know what your results are!