Functional Threshold Power: What you need to know

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Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is one of the most useful and objective training metrics available to cyclists. It measures the maximum amount of energy an individual can produce over a long period of time. This time period is usually defined as one hour.

From a physiological standpoint, FTP marks the power or effort you can maintain where your lactate levels are being used and buffered effectively and not flooding your system.

When exceeding your FTP, you may experience sensations of rapid or increased breathing rate and your body’s inability to get the amount of oxygen it needs to function optimally (or aerobically).

While other metrics such as heart rate can also denote the change from aerobic to anaerobic work rate, FTP is an objective measure whereas heart rate is influenced on a daily basis by a myriad of subjective factors.

Why is FTP important?

FTP is the central driving metric for many other data that coaches and athletes use to analyze training. FTP is used in calculations such as Training Stress Score (which quantifies the stress training puts on your body), Intensity Factor (which quantifies training intensity), Chronic Training Load (measures stress over time), Form ( measures how fitness and fatigue are balancing each other) and much more.

FTP also allows athletes to establish “training zones” or powerhouses that indicate what improvements or energy systems we are targeting with intervals or training rides.

Additionally, it provides a metric we can measure to monitor improvements.

Finally, FTP allows us to relate through relative difficulty. For example, 200 watts might be very difficult for one athlete, but relatively easy for another. We can bond by discussing a percentage of our FTP.

No matter how fast or slow you might rank, working on a specific percentage of your personal FTP will challenge people just the same. That said, you can train yourself to become more efficient at higher percentages of your FTP with specific training.

How can you measure FTP?

If you ask this question on a group outing, you’re likely to get a range of very passionate opinions. People seem to feel strongly about the way FTP should be measured.

The truth is, FTP is just a training metric and can be measured in a few different ways. While a high FTP can give you great bragging rights, when race day comes around, you’ll need to prove it all over again. If you cheat on an FTP test, it brings up the old saying your high school coach used to say, “You’re only cheating on yourself.”

That said, the ‘right way’ to do an FTP test is one that makes you feel the most confident, allows you to get the most accurate result, and allows you to dig deeper. The following items have been presented as acceptable FTP testing strategies:

1. Time Test: Since FTP is theoretically the absolute best power you can maintain for an hour, it makes sense that it could be measured by a one-hour test.

While this is the most technical approach to the FTP concept, I personally find the concept flawed. The one-hour test is too difficult for most people to perform. Finding terrain that will allow you to ride consistently for an hour can be difficult. It’s also difficult to mentally squeeze your best skill during that time period.

Finally, the idea that you could produce your best result in an hour-long solo test is a little far-fetched, when race-day adrenaline can also cut you some percentages. That said, if you consider yourself a purist or a master of pain, this is a perfectly acceptable way to test FTP.

2. 20 minute test: Probably the most common way to measure FTP is through a 20-minute test. This is the maximum amount of energy you can consistently maintain for 20 minutes. So to get your FTP, you’ll multiply that average power by 0.95.

Twenty minutes is usually a very digestible amount of time for people; however, the only downside to this type of testing is that in order to pace well, you need to have some relative awareness of what this type of effort should feel like.

3. Ramp test: Ramp tests are also popular because they are engaging and tasty.

I’ve seen several different types of protocols for tests like this, but generally they involve increasing power every minute during the test, and the athlete continues to failure and then a percentage of their maximum power will determine the FTP.

This type of test should be done on a stationary bike because following exact protocols elsewhere would be too difficult.

4. Laboratory test: FTP can also be determined via a lab setting using any of the above protocols with a ventilator mask and/or blood draw to help further validate where your threshold is.

For most amateur athletes, this is a very expensive and unnecessary form of testing, but for the real science nerd or a professional, it can provide the extra insight needed for marginal gains.

5. Computer estimates: Some brands have started to do computerized FTP estimates. This means you can train for a set amount of time and based on your results and training an algorithm will determine your FTP.

This method is great for anyone who struggles with testing anxiety or feels like they don’t have time to take tests. Computer estimates are great for getting an FTP that will give you accurate enough training metrics, but your friends probably won’t let that metric fly when comparing values.

Also, it’s important to note that no software can be created equal on this front and you’ll need a large enough data sample for the computer to analyze.

When should I measure FTP?

Because FTP is used to help you set up the best possible training zones, FTP should be measured every time you feel you’ve had a significant or significant change in fitness.

This means that FTP tests are especially important after a long off-season or for a new rider learning their skills. A novice cyclist should also test more often because they are likely to experience gains more quickly. A novice cyclist should test every 4-8 weeks to chart progress.

If you don’t test and continue to use old training zones, you might not be challenging yourself enough. Likewise, if you de-train and use old training zones, you might be pushing yourself too hard.

An experienced cyclist may not need to test as much as a beginner because big gains can be harder to come by. This is one circumstance where a very attentive trainer or computer can help measure and detect small gains.

just a snapshot

It’s worth mentioning that FTP is just a snapshot of your fitness.

While a high FTP can make a lot of things easier in cycling, it also doesn’t give a complete picture of strengths and weaknesses. Likewise, an FTP test is your skill in a single effort in a single day and cannot encapsulate all of your improvements or skills.

An athlete may carry fatigue from one training session to the next and struggle to achieve the numbers their FTP indicates would be possible. That single snapshot is no reason to change the FTP, retest, or panic. It is simply a data point. The best thing we can do as students of this sport is track data points, look for patterns, and rejoice in the improvement.

Functional Threshold Power: What you need to know

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