Musings of the Curious Cyclist – Part One: Does FTP matter?

Zom_biopic_5Nov2021

Jason Hurst

Challenging the validity of an accepted training metric and discussing alternatives.

Editor’s Note: There are topics that, as a cyclist, become tiresome.  You have read the many takes, heard the debates ad nauseam, and know that everyone is an expert.  Any further mention falls on deaf ears.

FTP (Functional Threshold Power) is one of those topics for me.  Now and then, a new voice comes along.  One that explains complex details in simple, easily understood terms.  Not an expert, per se, but has accumulated a deep knowledge base through experience – trial and error.  

A refreshing look at, let’s just say it, a topic that has left us with paralysis by analysis.  Our heads are still spinning, hoping to land, by chance, on the definitive answer.  Or at least one we can hang our hat on.  

Jason Hurst is one of those cyclists.  Not a scientist or traditional expert by degree.  He isn’t a coach, and I’m not sure he’s ever had one.  Jason is a critical thinker.  One that knows how to dissect an issue to its core, discarding the unnecessary and presenting it in a handy, helpful package for his fellow cyclists.

Enjoy the first article in a three-part series on the topic of FTP.  The first of many articles in which Jason will give new life to tedious cycling topics and bring them back to life.  Or at least put them in practical terms we can all understand. 

What Does FTP Mean To You?

Given the prevalence of ‘FTP increase’ screenshots in some virtual cycling clubs, it would seem that many people do place a great deal of stock in their Functional Threshold Power (FTP) number.

Some may even let it define their cycling experience. I want to challenge the whole concept of FTP as anything other than a benchmark against which training gains are measured. A benchmark with many caveats, that is.

This series of articles isn’t a training plan or even general advice. It’s an opportunity to express my thoughts on the concept of FTP and what I believe is the over-emphasis in many cycling-related conversations. It’s an opportunity to explore the pros and cons and the impact that FTP has on your training and broader cycling goals.

Maybe it will resonate with you. Perhaps it won’t. Maybe you have no idea what FTP is, or you simply don’t care.

I’m hoping the three articles in this series inform those new to Cycling and generate some healthy discussion.

FTP meaning image from RGT

Who Am I?

I am not a doctor, a coach, or an ex-pro. I’m an average Jason with seven or so years of struggle and graft in my experience bag. The experience derived from efforts to improve my cardiovascular fitness and overall health, overcome injury and muscular imbalances and enjoy my cycling as much as possible.

I read a lot. I listen carefully to subject matter experts in the areas of physiology and fitness. I pay very close attention when I work with a health professional to understand the ‘how and why’ of a recommended course of treatment. I am fascinated by human physiology, especially as it relates to cycling.

What Is FTP?

FTP is short for Functional Threshold Power. The clue is in the name. It is a measurement of the threshold power that you can maintain over a given period. Threshold being typically a (high) zone 4 if measured with a standard 6 tier scale of effort. The idea is that the period is considerably longer than you could sustain a VO2Max (zone 5) or anaerobic (zone 6) effort but shorter than you could sustain recovery (zone 1), endurance (zone 2), or tempo (zone 3) efforts.

 

A threshold effort is the point at which your lactate levels have risen such that your body is just managing to cope and ward off near-term fatigue by processing the lactate to clear it from your muscles. It feels a bit awful, but you can push on for a while longer. There are more comprehensive and medically accurate descriptions of what constitutes a threshold effort, but I’ve chosen to use my own. Google is a friend of the curious.

 

FTP is the average power a cyclist can maintain over 60 minutes. Why 60 minutes? It’s probably because someone said it once, and it stuck. It’s also conveniently precisely one hour and sounds sciencey.

 

60 minute FTP probably falls into the same ‘cycling lore’ bucket as “ball of the foot over pedal spindle” and “knee over pedal spindle” and other bike fitting myths. Easier to package and sell to the consumer. Or maybe that’s my healthy skepticism kicking in.

 

Some prolific Googling uncovered a 2017 blog post by Mark Tallon, Ph.D., titled “The Myth of Functional Threshold Power (FTP).” The observation by Dr. Andrew Coggan that experts chose 60 minutes because it is the approximate duration of a 40km Time Trial is consistent with other explanations I subsequently uncovered.

 

For determining FTP, a 40km Time Trial effort was considered representative of a sufficiently challenging threshold effort to establish a reliable measure of an endurance athlete’s performance potential. Like I said because it’s precisely one hour and sounds sciencey.

Woman sweating while indoor cycling

How Do You Determine Your FTP?

The easiest way to determine your FTP is to do an FTP test. Actually, I tell a lie. It’s not easy. In fact, it is a horrible and exhausting experience if performed correctly. There is no escaping it if you want or need to know your FTP. A typical 20-minute test is definitely not a maximal effort test, though. So you shouldn’t be on your death bed at the end of it.

 

Many first-timers get their pacing horribly wrong. They finish too strongly, in which case they could have maintained a higher average with better pacing, or they start hard and fade badly in the latter half and produce a lower than expected average. You don’t know how much effort is too much or too little until you have some experience with FTP tests.

 

Jump on. Have a go. Pay attention and learn from it.

 

Cyclists should perform FTP tests with Erg mode turned off. Some platforms may turn Erg mode off by default when performing an FTP test, but you should make sure just in case. Erg mode is useful for many workouts as it helps to stabilize your power output and means you are more likely to achieve the target watts for the duration of any given workout segment.

 

For an FTP test, though, you need to control your effort and cadence and raise or lower your power output based on how you feel. Erg mode will interfere with the control of your effort and produce an unreliable FTP number because you won’t know if the deciding factor was ERG mode or your physiological limitations.

 

All virtual cycling or training platforms that I am aware of include at least a couple of FTP tests in their list of workouts. Often they are based on a 20-minute‘ test’ that assesses your average threshold power with a warm-up beforehand and cool-down afterward. Some will include VO2Max efforts before the 20-minute test to put some sting into your legs and ideally produce a more realistic FTP number once it is extrapolated over a longer time.

cycling workout graph to determine the meaning of FTP

That longer time is usually 60 minutes, so when you see an FTP number, it is often not the actual average of the 20-minute effort but the result of a widely accepted formula to calculate your 60 minute FTP. That formula takes the average of a 20-minute test and multiplies it by 95% to derive 60 minute FTP. For an excellent analysis of the integrity of this formula and the validity of FTP in general, I recommend an article titled “Can you trust the FTP test to give correct threshold power?” by Dr. Martin Bonnevie-Svendsen.

 

That is why your best 20-minute effort will typically not be the same as your FTP number if recorded across all your rides on a particular platform. Your ‘best effort’ should be higher than your FTP.

 

Ultimately, FTP can be assessed based on any period you want, representing your typical activity duration, e.g., more than a few minutes and less than many hours. That test duration (and formula if extrapolating over a more extended period) just needs to be stated in association with the FTP number to validate it.

 

Using a ramp (really a step) test and then applying a formula to determine your FTP is also possible. The resulting FTP number will be a percentage (*75) of the wattage during your last successful (*one minute) ramp. That is the ramp before the one during which you could no longer pedal above a minimum cadence. Pick your poison. None taste pleasant!

FTP workout graph image

*These are the numbers that I encountered when I Googled “ramp test for TP.” Variations may exist.

Are There Alternatives To FTP?

I would argue that knowing your power over a variety of durations is more informative. E.g., 10s, 30s, 1m, 5m, 20m, and perhaps longer depending on the events you prefer. Not isolated ‘best efforts’ either, as you see in the ride summary screen in Zwift. Those numbers should be gathered methodically and throughout a standardized (and repeatable) ride so that you carry some fatigue into each effort.

 

The 4DP test developed by Sufferfest (now part of the Wahoo SYSTM training app) is one such attempt to provide a more broadly applicable set of training and performance metrics. Then you will have a better understanding of your strengths and weaknesses and a better idea of what you are capable of at any given point in any given ride.

 

Trainingpeaks WKO4 application introduced new metrics such as Modeled FTP and Time To Exhaustion for optimizing endurance training. It designed these to improve upon the traditional single FTP number as the determinant of workout intensity and the success of trained adaptations. Examining these metrics is beyond the scope of this article, but I strongly encourage you to follow the above link in your own time and settle in for some interesting reading.

What Is FTP Used For?

In the following article in this series, I’ll discuss the typical uses of FTP and what FTP means to me. I’ll also make a case for my dislike of the ‘in ride FTP increase’ notification used in Zwift and some other platforms and why it is misleading.

Your Thoughts?

Just that, what are your thoughts on this approach to the FTP debate so far?  Comment below!  Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.

 

For more great performance-enhancing information like this check out the Training & Performance page on The ZOM!

To subscribe to the Zommunique and receive more informative and entertaining articles like this one sent directly to your inbox, click here!
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
6 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
David Stakes
David Stakes
22 days ago

I did my first ever FTP many many years ago, when no one thought about it. At Cumberland college Sports Science sometime in the 70s. I was maybe 22/23 and fairly new to cycling. Result was max power 64w ???? Vo2max of 64,5 So fairly meaningless. Another big guy had 240w power and a Vo2max in the 40s. But as I said not alot of science in any of that. My last FTP was on the platform Rouvy. Which ended up with 148ftp. I am now 71 and 66kg and atypical resting heart rate of 48, I usually max out around the 160 mark. Power riding I know as never been my strong point, I prefer my suffering long and drawn out. Anyway at my age does it matter, probably not. I my days of aspiring to be anything are long gone. But it does interest me still. Interesting article.

Jason
Jason
21 days ago
Reply to  David Stakes

Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the article and hope that you find the remaining two equally informative.

David Oram
David Oram
21 days ago

I do not bother about FTP values that much. Always nice to see an increase on Zwift but I know that after an all out effort one will get such a message but that does not equate to an FTP increase. However, FTP is a useful tool to see if I have improved after a workout plan like I am doing currently, I actually feel stronger so I am convinced my FTP will increase but I am really bad at pacing myself for an FTP test which I truly loathe. FTP tests are artificial and unrealistic, I am riding solo with nothing to aim for such as catching another rider or achieving a PR on a segment. I struggle mentally to push through the pain when doing an FTP test.

Jason
Jason
21 days ago
Reply to  David Oram

I also loathe FTP tests. The two remaining articles in the series will introduce the method I use to understand my current physiological capability and avoid FTP tests. I still use FTP to set workout intensity on a variety of virtual cycling platforms out of necessity. There are software options such as Xert, TrainingPeaks and others that provide a comprehensive analysis of current physiological capability. However, I prefer to use my knowledge and understanding of my body to gauge capability rather than add another layer of software on top of Zwift, RGT, Rouvy, etc.

trackback

[…] the previous article in this three-part series titled “Part One: Does FTP Matter?” We discussed what FTP is and how to determine your […]

trackback

[…] the previous articles (click here for Part One and Part Two) in this three-part series entitled “Does FTP Matter?” I discussed what FTP is, […]

The Zommuniqué

The DIRT Dad Fund

Contribute to a great cause!
The
DIRT
Effect!

Drink Coffee and Do Good!  

What could be better than that?

Click the Image and Shop now!

Related Articles

6
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x

Become a member of The Zom community and get more interesting and helpful content like this directly to your inbox. 

We will not share your information.