Challenging the validity of an accepted training metric and discussing alternatives.
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 second 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.
In the previous article in this three-part series titled “Part One: Does FTP Matter?” We discussed what FTP is and how to determine your FTP.
In this second article, 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.
What Is FTP Used For?
For this discussion, I am limiting the scope to virtual cycling platforms. The concept and use of FTP and some of the pros and cons are as applicable IRL as indoors. For simplicity, though, it is easier to focus on a specific cycling discipline.
FTP is primarily used to set training zones. The first time you perform an FTP test, it’s a bit ‘chicken and egg’. You don’t know that you’re riding at your threshold limit until you’ve done the test. Once you’ve completed the test and your preferred virtual cycling or training platform has calculated your power zones, you should have a reasonable idea of the way threshold feels. Your ability to perceive your threshold limit and accurately pace your test will improve as you do more of them.
You can then enter your FTP number into your preferred virtual cycling or training platform (if not done automatically). Any workouts that you do will use that number to determine the intensity of the workout. Typically you will perform an FTP test every 4 to 6 weeks.
It will ensure that the workout intensity is appropriate for your current fitness level and sufficiently intense that it will force adaptations over time that result in further improvements to your fitness. Think of it as a positive feedback loop.
In the virtual cycling world, you may also use FTP to define racing and social rides categories. Specifically, you divide your FTP by your kilogram weight to determine watts per kilo (w/kg). The theory is that riders are grouped (with upper and lower cut-offs) by ability to provide greater competition in races or appropriate ride pace in social rides. Zwift uses this approach, for example.
While categorization based on FTP is simple to implement, it isn’t as fair as it may seem. It is also easy to cheat. Oh, and it groups people arbitrarily based on a calculated 60-minute power number regardless of whether you are riding or racing for 20 minutes or 2 hours. So you may find yourself hopelessly outgunned depending on the type of race or ride in which you are participating.
RGT Cycling, however, does not use FTP or w/kg to categorize races. The RGT community uses a modified ELO ranking system as used in chess competitions. Event organizers can apply arbitrary categorization if they choose to attract riders of specific capabilities. It is similar to racing IRL, where grouping is by experience and/or age.
In RGT’s ranking system, the focus is on your overall rank or score accumulated over a series of events. Additionally, event organizers typically assign podiums and points so that each event can have its own set of results and ultimately a winner.
Racers carry a rank into each event affected by the competition’s placing and quality (ranking). The greater the difference in rank between you and the competition, the greater the potential change in rank at the conclusion of the event. It is tough to cheat with this system, and if you do, you only disadvantage yourself in future races.
So What Does Your FTP Mean To You?
Bragging rights on the local coffee ride? Justifying time spent on the bike? Or it could be to throw seemingly random numbers at your non-cycling friends to sound sciencey as you try to explain what they mean? Maybe, and I’m going out on a limb here, so bear with me, to monitor your training progress over time?
Serious questions. What does your FTP mean to you? Do you compare your FTP to those on your ride? If so, how does that comparison affect you?
What Does It Mean To Me?
I don’t race. The short story is that I have a heart condition – an exercise-induced arrhythmia that makes the entire premise of racing entirely redundant. It also affects my ability to train. While I can manage it effectively day-to-day, ‘racing’ at 60% of what you know you could do if your heart worked adequately is no fun at all.
So for me, it’s a necessary evil. In my case, even the FTP test itself could end badly, but I need an FTP number to make sense of any training I do. Therefore, I have developed other strategies for monitoring my performance on the bike. I’ve also come to know my body very well, as much out of interest as out of necessity.
I’ll discuss my strategy later in the series and present my argument why I believe it is a superior approach and yields equivalent or better results than building a training plan around a single short test every 4 to 6 weeks.
A Quick Note About Workouts In General
It is important to complete a workout to benefit from all it offers and achieve whatever your set goals for that session or point in the training plan. There is no point in repeatedly failing to complete workouts.
Apart from denying you the intended benefits, failure can have adverse psychological effects on your training and is often an indicator that the FTP you have set in the app is too high. Or you’re just having a bad day.
Don’t be afraid to lower the workout intensity (an option in most apps) to ensure that you can complete it. You could even deliberately set an FTP that is lower than your last test result. You will still see the benefits of completing the workout and avoiding excessive fatigue. No point using a ‘hero’ FTP number if it grinds you into the dust each and every time.
Zwift, RGT, And Other Virtual Cycling Platforms
Zwift may or may not have pioneered the in-ride ‘FTP increase’ notification. Still, they have certainly helped promote the concept of FTP and turned the hype dial up to 11. RGT Cycling, one of my favorite virtual cycling platforms, also provides an in-ride ‘FTP increase’ notification. The response in that user community is more subdued. I believe several other platforms do the same.
I’m not a fan of the in ride FTP assessment for many reasons:
These four issues alone significantly undermine the reliability (accuracy and repeatability) of the FTP number flashed up on the screen, often to the delight of the inexperienced rider. There ensues the ‘FTP increase’ screenshot and the sometimes not-so-humble brag based on what is essentially a virtual house of cards.
The Positives And Not So Positives Of FTP
In the final article in this series, I’ll provide detailed insight into the strategy that I have developed to accurately manage my training intensity and cater to my exercise-induced arrhythmia.
Additionally, I will discuss what I believe to be the pros and cons of relying on a single FTP number, primarily when derived using a ‘point in time’ test.
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!