Functional threshold power or FTP is one of those terms that E-Bike cyclist and coaches toss around casually, but it can be confusing for newer riders. Once you get a grasp of this commonly-referenced cycling metric, though, you can use it to optimize your training and coaching.
It’s common to be curious about how your power output or FTP compares with other people, or to wonder what counts as “normal”.
Simply put, FTP is the average number of watts that a rider can sustain in an hour, and acts as a current measure of fitness. Ideally, it refers to a steady effort, not the up-and-down levels you might see looking at your power from a hilly ride or cyclocross race.
FTP, which is typically calculated by a 20-minute test, is useful because “it’s a number that you can track, so you can see improvements as you test regularly,” explains a cycling coach from Golden, Colorado. “A lot of the time, we ride and think we’re getting faster, but FTP is one way to know for sure if we’re getting faster, versus just thinking it because of a group ride that went well or a good day on the hills.”
Plus, you’ll need to know this number if a coach prescribes training zones with power.
While FTP can be helpful, Marshall says, it’s also “one of the most misunderstood things in cycling.” Here’s everything you need to know about FTP, and how it can improve your ride.
There are usually 2 protocols for calculating FTP. An abbreviated 20 minute session + warmup and cool down and an hour session. Most cyclists perform the shorter 20 minute session because it is quicker and about as reliable as the hour session.
Her FTP Is Larger Than Mine
Having a higher FTP than someone else doesn’t always equate to being faster on the bike. It really an indicator of fitness of the individual rather than an indicator of speed and is used to personalize their training based on the results.
Let’s say at the beginning of the year you have a FTP score of 200. After a month of training the FTP score rises to 220. That would mean you have improved your FTP score by 10%, which should equate faster cycling times.
FTP is only one factor in a series of factors that equate to slower or faster times on the bike.
What do you need for an FTP test?
For an FTP test, the first thing you’ll need is something to measure your power output. This is denominated in wattage. To determine this, you can use a power meter. Many current smart turbo trainers have a built-in power meter which makes them very useful.
Of course you’ll also need a cycling computer that provides a read-out of your power meter’s wattage and saves it. The cycling computer can also measure your cadence and heart rate.
In addition, a heart rate monitor is also a must. The extra data gives you an even better indication of your endurance. It also makes it easier to compare results, if you do an FTP test frequently.
Something to keep in mind is your weight. This will allow you to convert your wattage to wattage per kilogram of body weight. This value provides an even better representation of your power output.
Your FTP test’s structure
Start with a 20-minute warming-up. Pick a low endurance speed. You’ll need to warm up your muscles properly for the best result.
3 x 1 minute high cadence / 1 minute rest
Pedal at a high speed for 1 minute with a cadence of around 100 revolutions per minute. This allows your body to get used to the exertion of the FTP test. Repeat this three times and rest for 1 minute between intervals.
5 minutes continued cycling
Lastly, continue cycling calmly for the last 5 minutes of your warming-up. Have a drink, monitor your breathing and prepare for the real test.
The 20-minute FTP test
Start your cycling computer’s timer and cycle at full force for 20 minutes. Try not to sprint, since you’ll need to maintain this speed for 20 full minutes. This is where the lap function of your cycling computer comes in handy. If you stop it right after the test, you’ll be able to tell exactly how many watts you cycled during the 20 minutes.
The cooling-down is an important part of your FTP test. You just gave it your all and your body needs to unwind and break down all the toxins from your muscles. Keep cycling at a low tempo for at least 15 minutes, longer if you want!
How to perform an FTP test on your bicycle
There’s a couple ways to go about performing an FTP test. Firstly, you can choose between a short or a long FTP test. The short test lasts 20 minutes, the long test lasts 60 minutes. This excludes warming-up or cooling-down.
Multiplying the result of your 20-minute FTP test with 95% nets you a pretty accurate estimate of your 60-minute FTP value.
For the FTP test itself you’ll need to find a level road with few to no obstacles. It’s easier and more practical to use a turbo trainer. You can mount your bicycle and power meter, or you can use the turbo trainer’s built-in power meter.
It’s vital for an FTP test that you can keep cycling without interruptions. For 20 minutes, you’ll need to give it your all. Braking and even avoiding unexpected obstacles will negatively impact your result.
How Much Time Does it Take to Improve FTP?
At SHUANGYE, we use computational tools and their powerful data analysis software, WKO5, to track and analyze workouts. WKO5, the gold standard of performance analysis in cycling, allows us to look at details and physiological trends on a deep level.
Each athlete is different, WKO allows us to see where strengths and weaknesses exist and how they can be improved by analyzing a variety of metrics far beyond simple power, such as cadence as it relates to power output, kJs burned, fatigue resistance, even work capacity above FTP.
Very importantly for the purposes of base training, and periodization on the whole, is the tracking of how long it takes for improvements in performance (such as FTP gains) to happen. Gradual progression and consistent training leads to gradual and consistent improvements for most athletes most of the time.
In WKO5, we can see how much training it takes to improve FTP and what that training consisted of, in specific detail. It’s imperative to understand that considerations like nutrition and recovery are as important, if not more so, than the physical stress of training.
Without proper recovery, no gains will be made. Nutrition plays a key role in this as well.We’ve seen that for most riders, it takes somewhere around 300 hours of training to be ready for an exceptional individual performance.
In addition, a CTL greater than 100TSS/day (maintained for a time dependent on the individual) is ideal for this peak performance.
CTL (chronic training load), is an athlete-specific measure of long term training stress. Most athletes can accumulate a CTL of 100TSS/day with a training volume of 12-15 hours each week. For time constrained athletes, it may be necessary to target a lower CTL of around 75-85TSS/day, which can be accomplished with 7 to 10 hours each week.
While it’s certainly possible to gain and maintain fitness at a lower weekly volume (in particular for newer athletes), it becomes challenging for trained athletes to effectively and properly recover when outside constraints require less training time.
There are several considerations to make in order to get a CTL in the 100TSS/day range at the right time. One of the most significant is ramp rate, or how quickly the CTL rises in a given period.
A ramp rate of 3-7 points per week is typically ideal. Sustain much less and an athlete often doesn’t have the training stimulus to improve. Sustain a higher ramp rate for a long period, and the athlete risks excessive fatigue and overtraining syndrome.
Working backwards from the athlete’s goals, CTL should be around 100 anywhere from 2-6 weeks prior to goal events. With a ramp rate average of 5 points per week and a starting CTL of 50-70 (common after a period of rest during the offseason), that leaves us with about 8 weeks of solid training to see any significant improvement in FTP.
In many cases, I recommend adding 2-3 recovery weeks spaced throughout this time. So for most athletes coming off a period of reduced or less focused training, it takes around 10 weeks to begin to see FTP gains.
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