Musings of the Curious Cyclist – Part Three: Does FTP Matter?

Zom_biopic_5Nov2021

Jason Hurst

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

Editors 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 final 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 articles (click here for Part One and Part Two) in this three-part series entitled “Does FTP Matter?” I discussed what FTP is, how to determine your FTP, the typical uses of FTP, and what FTP means to me. I also made a case for my dislike of the “in-ride FTP increase” notification used in Zwift and some other platforms and why I believe it is misleading.

 

In this third and final article, 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, especially when derived using a ‘point in time’ test.

The Positives Of FTP

Knowing your FTP does offer advantages:

Zwift indoor cycling screen

The Not So Positives

There are also disadvantages to relying on FTP:

Do you agree? After all, this is my list. What would your list look like?

What Do I Do?

I said that I didn’t care about my FTP. And I don’t. But I need to have a number to enter into Zwift, RGT, Rouvy, and VirtuPro to set the intensity of my workouts or identify appropriate rides. I don’t do FTP tests to determine this number, although it will be the fastest way to get started if you are new to cycling and want to adopt my strategy.

RGT indoor cycling screen

I use my accumulated knowledge, awareness of my body, and statistics from recent rides to set the FTP in the apps I use when I commence a training block. So even if I take a break from workouts for a while, I can determine pretty reliably what FTP I should use when I resume.

 

I don’t train all the time. I tend to focus on training when a particular event or goal piques my interest, and I know that I am not fit or strong enough to complete it or enjoy it. I know from experience that my body responds well to sub-hour VO2Max style workouts.

 

Keeping workouts, often my creations, under one hour helps manage fatigue and leaves plenty of time to enjoy riding with friends. For my broader cycling program, as informal as it is, I will use short races (for higher intensity), or group and solo rides at varying paces to supplement structured workouts and pad out my weekly distance goals.

 

I have six favorite workouts during a block of training that I consider baseline workouts and use to assess my current capability constantly. That is, whether I raise or lower my FTP or leave it as is.

 

All are less than one-hour duration to minimize time spent testing. The workouts focus on training zones 4, 5, and 6, although some contain zone 3 and are in a format that may be familiar to Zwifters.

Zwift workout screen

My Six Favorite Workouts For Establishing FTP

The Wringer

This short workout concentrates on 30-second anaerobic efforts with short recoveries to help boost VO2 power (just above your FTP). While the intervals may look intimidating and certainly feel horrible at the time, I find it less fatiguing than The Gorby. As a baseline workout, you could use this a couple of times a month.

The Gorby

A series of VO2Max intervals that should be extremely difficult to complete. Give it your all, and note that riding to failure is OK in workouts designed to test your physiological limitations. This workout is excellent for developing an ability to surge strongly and recover well.

 

The official description suggests, “you should use this workout to hone your climbing potential after you’ve developed a solid FTP. Perform 1-2x per week for best results.” As a baseline workout, I’d suggest once a month, given the fatigue it can generate.

The McCarthy Special

This is a workout with anaerobic efforts that build up over time. With lots of near-threshold effort, it should help increase your FTP as it simulates an effort towards the end of a race. As a baseline workout, you could use this a couple of times a month.

Jon’s Short Mix

A solid and time-efficient effort done in approximately 30 minutes. A little something for the sprinters and an SST block to build a little FTP. As a baseline workout, you can use this as much as you’d like, as it shouldn’t generate much fatigue.

SST (Short)

Sweet Spot Training (or SST for short) will give a great bang for the buck. Training at around 90 percent of your threshold (aka the Sweet Spot) is helpful because you can spend quite a bit of time there without building up undue amounts of training stress.

 

As a baseline workout, you can use this as much as you’d like, as it shouldn’t generate much fatigue. Ensure that it doesn’t dominate your rotation as you need variety in the training zones, especially at higher intensity, to ensure the assessment of current capability is reliable.

Emily’s Short Mix

This is approximately 30 minutes of stepped multi-zone intervals of increasing duration. Shorter than The McCarthy Special, but with similar intensity, this workout is time efficient and a good barometer of your current capability. As a baseline workout, you could use this a couple of times a month.

How Do I Do It?

RGT workout screen

These days I use RGT for workouts as well as solo riding and occasional events. I use Zwift for meetups and the occasional group ride. Not that it matters. All platforms have their pros and cons. I occasionally use Rouvy for real-life video instead of 3D, and I like what I see in the VirtuPro beta testing.

 

What’s important with your choice of platform is that you get the information you need from the user interface to ensure your workout is productive. Sexy graphics and a supportive user community are bonuses. The above workouts are already available on Zwift and are freely downloadable from ZWOFactory if you want to use them on RGT or other platforms.

FTP for cyclist image

I perform these baseline workouts on rotation to perform at least once every month. Typically two baseline workouts each week. I choose baseline workouts that complement each other, e.g., The Gorby and SST (Short) one week with The Wringer and Emily’s Short Mix the next week and Jon’s Short Mix and The McCarthy Special the next.

 

Those complementary intensities offer variety and ensure a single training zone doesn’t dominate the assessment of your current capability. It also helps to manage fatigue. I wouldn’t, for example, do The Gorby and The Wringer in the same week as baseline workouts.

 

Typically by the second week of a month or the third or fourth baseline workout in a typical rotation of eight, I’ll have a good idea of whether I should be adjusting my FTP. Either up or down. There is no rule as to how frequently I will adapt my FTP. The basis of this strategy is that your FTP is whatever it needs to be at any given time to reflect your current capability. As a guide, though, I probably wouldn’t adjust it more than a few times a month.

How Do I Progress?

Once I complete three or four baseline workouts with relative ease (challenging but confident of completion), I will increase my FTP by 5% ahead of the following baseline workout. Repeat over the next two weeks with the subsequent three or four baseline workouts in the rotation.

 

This cycle will continue until the baseline workouts become sufficiently challenging to complete the next three or four with considerable effort and noticeable fatigue. I will maintain this FTP, rather than increase it, for the next two weeks or until a new rotation begins, whichever happens first. It ensures I can complete my workouts to reinforce expected adaptations and manage fatigue by avoiding over-training.

 

As a new rotation commences, I will start with the FTP used in the previous cycle but plan to increase my FTP by 5%. I always listen to my body and prioritize the enjoyment of my cycling and my ability to recover.

 

If I am comfortable increasing FTP by 5% after the first three or four baseline workouts, I will do so. If not, then once again, I maintain and wait for the next rotation.

RGT_Emilys_Short_Mix_Cap_Formentor_workout_lowres

How Do I Adapt to Outliers?

What if I have a couple of exceptionally strong performances in a row? There is no rule on how frequently I will adjust my FTP, so I may increase it ahead of the next baseline workout regardless of where I am in the rotation.

 

There is no harm in trying. If it turns out I was having a few good days, and I failed the next baseline workout, I lower my FTP to what it was for the previously completed workout.

 

What if I have a couple of poor performances in a row? By either failing to complete or noticing significantly greater fatigue than usual. I’ll lower my FTP by 10% ahead of the next baseline workout.

 

There’s a fair chance that illness or physical or mental fatigue is affecting my performance, and my body needs some respite from my regular training load. Once I have successfully completed three or four baseline workouts at this lower FTP, I will assume that it’s OK to begin once again increasing FTP by 5%.

I Will Use a Race to Confirm

To complement the baseline workouts, I will periodically do a race (not for a position as it’s an exercise in futility) or a fast-paced (relative to my current capability) group ride of approximately an hour’s duration. I then look at the average power for the ride, not normalized power, because you don’t get any rests or soft-pedaling sections during an FTP test. Then if the average power is:

The reason that I don’t simply accept either the in-ride FTP number or the average of the one-hour ride is that, as I’ve indicated above, the in-ride FTP number is unreliable. One good (or bad) day on the bike shouldn’t unduly influence the intensity of future workouts.

 

My approach creates a constant feedback loop and helps avoid overtraining because you frequently test and observe your physiological limits. You can optimize the intensity of your workouts and your choice of rides and races by better understanding your current capability. My FTP becomes a living thing. Ever-changing to reflect the status of my body’s adaptations to the training I am doing.

 

I don’t care about TSS or IF. I listen to my body and don’t push myself if I don’t feel up to a hard session.

What Should You Do?

Only you can answer this question.

 

I suggest you invest time in thinking about your goals as a cyclist. What do you want to achieve in the short, medium, and long term? That will inform your decision-making when considering what type of training plan to adopt or whether you formalize your training at all.

 

If you are already competing or want to compete, invest in a coach at an elite level. A good coach providing personalized training and recovery plans is worth every cent at that level of competition.

indoor cycling avatar asking a question about FTP

If you want to formalize your training but are more of an ‘enthusiastic amateur,’ consider subscribing to services such as TrainingPeaks or TrainerRoad (just two examples and I am not affiliated with, or a user of, either) to help plan your sessions and corresponding recovery. A coach will expect this at an elite level and use it to manage the training plan they will create.

 

If you just want to improve your fitness in your own time, then Zwift, RGT, Rouvy, and most other platforms provide structured training plans written by experienced coaches. They are generic but usually good enough to yield improvement even though they are not optimized for your goals or physiology.

 

Read, listen to, and ask questions of those who are recognized subject-matter experts. There is so much information available that it can be overwhelming. Identifying someone who can guide you through the oceans of advice is paramount to moving forwards with a few false starts, missteps, unnecessary fatigue, or injuries as possible.

Most importantly, though;

Believe me. I know well those demons that inhabit the dark corners of the mind and come out to kick you into submission when things aren’t going to plan. Be kind to yourself, and you’ll be a better athlete for it.

indoor cyclists

Final Thoughts

I want to think that an approach similar to my own, whereby workout intensity is adjusted more dynamically (ideally by the app itself) based on a constant, systematic feedback loop, makes sense to most people. And maybe concepts such as best efforts over varying durations eventually displace a single FTP number.

 

For now, though, it would be ideal if everyone viewed FTP as nothing more than a necessary training tool and didn’t let it define them or their cycling experience. Where FTP is a tiny cog in a big cycling machine rather than viewed as the entire purpose of the device. And in the meantime, maybe no more screenshots of random in-ride FTP increases 😉

Your Thoughts?

What are your thoughts and what part does FTP play in your cycling experience? 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!

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