With winter well and truly here we are all now becoming embroiled in the task of winter riding and training. Riding with a power meter correctly can enlighten and improve any training program. This, along with our current Belgium Plus PowerTap wheelset offer that we've got going in our outlet has inspired me to write this little article on training with power and the fundamental concept of "Functional Threshold Power"
TRAINING WITH POWER
"FTP" AND WHY IT'S IMPORTANT
FTP is a popular acronym within modern cycling and is now more relevant than ever with power meters becoming increasingly affordable. It stands for “Functional Threshold Power” and refers to the average amount of power, in watts, that a cyclist can sustain for an all out, maximal effort of 1 hour in duration. FTP corresponds very closely to another common training term that is the “Anaerobic Threshold”. In fact, for the purpose of simplicity we are going to assume in this instance that they are in fact the same thing.
Carbohydrates and fats are the main sources of fuel for the human body when cycling with both preferring the presence of oxygen to be converted to energy for use during exercise. At low exercise intensity levels the body will happily chug away, steadily utilising oxygen to break down the carbs and fats to produce energy. However, as exercise intensity levels rise so does the demand for energy and oxygen. Every athlete has a maximum level of oxygen that their body can take in and “use” to produce energy. Above this maximum level the body switches to exclusively using carbohydrates as these can also be “burned” to produce energy without oxygen - fats can no longer help as they can only be used when enough oxygen is present.
The trouble the athlete now has is that this carbohydrate only energy pathway has a nasty bi-product called lactic acid. Lactic acid is the main culprit when you feel your legs searing under heavy effort as it, in layman’s terms, is trying to shut your muscles down. As the cyclist speeds up so does the level of lactic acid. Up to a certain level the human body is able to get rid of as much lactic acid as is being produced. However, above a critical level of effort, which varies from athlete to athlete, the produced lactic acid is more than the body can dispose of so it instead accumulates within the muscles and blood, causing the all too familiar burning sensation.
The “Anaerobic Threshold” (also read FTP…) is the maximum intensity/amount of power that the cyclist can produce while there is still a balance between lactic acid production and elimination. Effort durations above this are brief as the muscles are “shut down” by the lactic acid.
So, what does all of this mean and how is it connected to cycling performance? Put simply, if your FTP increases then you go faster! Now, while FTP refers to a 1 hour effort, increasing it doesn’t strictly limit improvements to this duration exclusively. Of course, if your FTP increases then so will your performance over durations of around 1 hour but the knock on effects at other durations of cycling are also significant.
You’ll recall that FTP is linked closely with being able to use oxygen to produce energy. If oxygen can be used then you can basically keep cycling for longer. So, if your event last for longer than an hour you can improve your performance by focusing on increasing your FTP. By increasing your FTP the levels of power that sit beneath this intensity, or more importantly, the levels of power that you will use during your longer races, also shift upwards.
Likewise, if your event is shorter and more intense than an hour you can also see benefits to performance by an improvement in your FTP. By increasing the level of power where you can still use oxygen you will decrease the amount of time that your body needs to burn carbohydrates without oxygen. This results in less lactic acid production and a delay in the inevitable corresponding “muscle shut down”. Shorter events will be easier or quicker because you are utilising oxygen for a greater period of time before the lactic acid kicks in.
Consequently, a large proportion of a performance cyclists training should be geared towards gradually improving the FTP. There are a vast number of training schedules and methods that will help in this regard and every cyclist will react differently to varying training stimulus. But, our 6 step guide to increasing your FTP that can be found below is a great place to start.
RAISE YOUR FTP IN 6 STEPS
Step 1: Just Ride:
When you first start training with power it’s a great idea to initially just get acclimatised to how everything works and feels. This period, which could last for around a couple of weeks, is just spent riding with your power meter and making mental notes of what’s going on. How do you feel when riding at different levels of exertion? What sort of power do you produce when going hard up your favourite hill? When cruising along at a steady speed where are the watts sitting? What’s your peak power when sprinting for the sign on your normal group ride?
This period is also useful to getting your bike computer set up to show your new power metrics in the way you want it to. But, remember to stay focused on the road and not your power numbers to avoid any potential crashes!
Step 2: Test yourself:
Now that you’re used to the ins and outs of how your power meter works it’s time to do a test to see where your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) currently sits. To do this you need to find an uninterrupted course that’s going to take you 20 minutes when riding “all out”. An uphill course is always best for this but not absolutely necessary. Just ensure you use a course where you can apply the power pretty evenly for the duration - downhill sections are no good for this!
A good warm up is always suggested before doing the test. Something like 30 minutes with a couple of 5 minute medium/hard efforts should ensure that your body is firing correctly.
Then, it’s on to the test. Don’t set out too quickly as you’ll blow up too early and won’t get an accurate indication of your FTP. Rather, set out during the first 5 minutes of the 20 at a level that is around 90% of what you believe is maximum. Then for the remaining 15 minutes it takes you to complete your test course try and hold a steady, maximal effort. If you manage to do this right then the last 5 minutes should be quite unbearable. It takes a bit of practise to nail these types of effort but you’ll quickly learn how to get the best out of yourself.
At the end of the test make sure you record your average power for the entire 20 minute effort - this number is important to know as your go forward…
Step 3: Calculate your FTP:
With your 20 minute test completed and the average power over this effort recorded you can now work out your FTP. Obviously FTP is the amount of power that you can sustain during a 1 hour all out effort whereas you have only completed a 20 minute all out test. Fear not, an accurate estimate of your FTP can be derived from the results of your 20 minute test. Generally speaking, although variances do occur, a cyclist can hold around 95% of the power recorded during a 20 minute all out test for an effort lasting 1 hour. So, to find your FTP simply take the average power you recorded during your 20’ effort and times it by 0.95 (x 0.95)
Step 4: Work out your new training zones:
Taking your new FTP wattage you can now work out your power training zones. These zones are important because they make sure that you are accurately training at the right level to increase performance within different cycling durations or disciplines or are training specific energy systems correctly. In this example we are looking to increase FTP and there is a specific zone to train in that guarantees time efficient training within this regard. The exact training zones and the percentage of FTP that each zone uses do vary depending on which format you may be following. In this example we’re going to follow a classic model that was coined by Dr Andrew Coggan who is very well respected when it comes to training with power. To find your personal training zones, simply calculate your FTP by the percentages within the table below:
ZONE 1: Active Recovery: < 55% FTP
ZONE 2: Endurance: 56 - 75% FTP
ZONE 3: Tempo: 76- 90% FTP
ZONE 4: Anaerobic Threshold: 91 - 105% FTP
ZONE 5: VO2 Max: 106 - 120% FTP
ZONE 6: Anaerobic Capacity: 121 - 150% FTP
ZONE 7: Neuromuscular Power: NA% - Sprint Effort
Step 5: Get training!
This is where a good training plan, a good coach or a knowledgeable friend can really help. However, we are focusing on trying to improving the FTP in some simple initial steps before becoming immersed in the world of training with power. As FTP closely correlates to the anaerobic threshold we need to focus on training within Zone 4 for our specific training efforts. Note here that I said “specific training efforts”, in that, you definitely shouldn’t be trying to constantly ride around at this intensity because a) it won’t be possible and b) trying to do so would be wholly unenjoyable. Rather, your tailored FTP raising training sessions should focus on this Zone 4 intensity. You actually only need to include 1-2 of these tailored sessions per week to your riding to see good improvements. A couple of good specific FTP training sessions could look like this:
2 x 20 mins in lower Zone 4 with 5-10 mins very easy riding in between efforts.
4 x 5 mins in mid to upper Zone 4 with 2-3 mins very easy riding in between efforts.
(both sessions should be preceded and followed with a good warm up and cool down respectively)
Step 6: Re-test and re-evaluate:
Maybe train for 3 weeks where you have nestled in some sessions like those suggested in Step 5 amongst your general riding. Then it’s time to repeat the initial 20’ all out test to see if you’ve made any improvements. This test would be best done when you are well rested so be sure to have at least 2-3 days of easy riding beforehand to ensure you’re feeling fresh.
Once you have completed this second test you can see if you’ve made any improvements and re-calculate your training zones accordingly.
By following a pattern like this your future training and riding can evolve and progress in line with how your numbers are changing. Training with power is accurate and time efficient so you’ll soon be able to pick up hints of what you’re doing right and wrong by analysing your results and training data. You can then make adjustments and changes accordingly without any guesswork being involved.
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