Functional Threshold Power
Now we're in to the big scary
world of smoke and mirrors! Whether you know it or not, Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is one of the
key factors of your cycling armoury. But don't worry if you don't know what it is or
why it should be important to you, you're not alone.
Threshold Power is a phrase that has as many perceived meanings as there are
gears on a bike. In this article we'll try to explain, what it is,
why you should be interested in it and how you can go about understanding, measuring
and improving it, to enable you to be a fitter, faster, stronger cyclist.
Before we start, a reality
check. Whole books have been written on this subject, so we're not
going to cover every nuance, or better still overcomplicate things, in a
simple, one page article. I'll try to make this factsheet deep enough to
portray a meaningful representation of the subject but not that deep as we
end up drowning in science and psycho-babble. So here goes...
It's generally agreed that your Functional Threshold
Power is the maximal power output you can sustain for the duration of one hour.
It's NOT your "average" power. As average has a different meaning in
a power context to "sustained".
There are many ways to compute, extrapolate or test for Functional
Threshold Power and Dr Andrew
Coggan seems to be the man with a plan when it comes to this area of
cycling science. So who am I to contradict. Most of this
article will be a reflection of the work of himself and others, with
punditry and anecdotal insight from myself!
Calculating your FTP is quite straightforward. If
you've got power meter analysis software (WKO+ see sidebar on the right) you can use your race and
training data to accurately estimate your FTP through the Normalised
Power function at the 60 minutes axis point. If you're unsure
just email me and I'll send you a link.
You could do a
Ramp Test, a
profile of which is seen here, and extrapolate the figures you need
from its results. The final 60 seconds of sustained power are computed and
approximately 75% of that gives you your FTP.
An alternative is to carry out
a six minute wVO2max Test and extrapolate
your figures, from that. There is also a 20 minute test for slightly
more accurate results or you could go the whole hog and do a one hour test
(a 25 mile/40k TT) and get pretty much 100% accurate results from that.
You can also
compute your FTP from your lactate threshold as the two are very closely
related. They're not the same but they are near neighbours in the
world of FTP figures.
So loads of ways to calculate
it so there's no excuses for not having a
ball park figure! You can even do it with heart rate alone, you
don't need a power meter, although strictly speaking you obviously won't
actually have your functional threshold power figures!
If you're anything like me (an
accomplished slacker) you'll find it very difficult to concentrate for a
full 60 minutes, especially when it starts hurting and there's no one to
talk to. So a 20 minute test (shown above) is a good a way as any of
getting some scores on the doors.
Crack out a full on 20 minute ride
(a 10 mile TT),
grab your normalised power figure,
and you've got 105% of your functional threshold. It's not as
accurate as a full hour test, but it's less stressful, easier to fit in
to a busy schedule, and as close as we need to be for the level of racing
and training we undertake. Remember, this site is written for people
who live in the real world!
Okay, now we've got a figure for our functional threshold what do
we do with it? Functional threshold development is all about
making our athletic engine more efficient.
As a competitive cyclist, raising FTP should be your
primary objective. We need to become more efficient at making use of
our overall effectiveness. Here I'll explain why.
Two riders can have exactly
the same relative VO2max, but it will be the one with a higher
Functional Threshold Power that prevails come judgement day; or the
Island Championships as they're known in Jersey.
Two club riders may turn out
exactly the same power over the course of an hour. They're physical
attributes, heart volume and lung capacity, may differ so their heart
rates could be miles apart. The power outputs and the lines on the
may be the same but their physiological response, sensations and emotions
most definitely won't!
There's more to this game than
just high power figures.
big and not clever
Power meter users often try to hit
the big maximal power numbers to reflect the measure of their prowess on the bike.
Mines bigger than yours type of thing.
I'm sorry to have to disappoint
our macho men, but it's the biggest FTP that's going to
do the damage when it matters not maximal power output. You may have a 1000 watt sprint but
if you've only got a 200 watt FTP then you ain't going to be around at the
end of the race to show everyone what a sprint god you are.
I've tested some
phenomenally strong riders in the lab that would be dropped before they got
to the first hill in the 25 mph "race to the base". As with all things at our level, moderation in
everything is the key to success. It's the lactic threshold,
aerobic/anaerobic boundary that determines who'll be around for the
sprint. It isn't necessarily the strongest sprinter in the race that
takes home the medals.
You're more likely to be "in
for a win" with a 900 watt sprint and a 300 watt FTP. Just
redirect your focus to the less glamorous side of the training spectrum
and reap the rewards.
Functional threshold power gives you a baseline
from which which you can design your future
training levels. Once you have enough power data to
draw a conclusion, changing your FTP is pretty straightforward, it's hardly easy to do but is easy to target; if you
get my meaning.
We've described before that cardiovascular fitness (VO2max) sets the
ceiling for aerobic energy production. The higher your VO2max the
more power you can generate "with oxygen". The blue line limit is,
to a certain extent, genetically defined by our heart and lung capacity
gifted to us from the genes of our parents.
Your metabolic fitness
determines how close you can get to that ceiling without generating
gallons of debilitating lactic and running out of puff. That's
the diagram above. This is the bit we can influence through hard
work, endeavour and restrained, controlled aggression.
Obviously our intention as a
competitive cyclist is to move the red line as close as we can to the
blue. This is how we do it!
First you need to establish your FTP baseline. Re-read the
text above and decide how you are going to evaluate your current fitness
level and determine your functional threshold power.
Once you have
an accurate baseline figure we can now go to town on improving it and
transforming your season, your results and quite possibly your sexual
prowess. The final conclusion is from highly anecdotal evidence that
has little chance of being peer reviewed; but at least I've now got your
Coggan's Power Training Levels
Threshold Power = 300
% of FTP
Taking your bike
for a walk!
All day pace.
Chain Gang pace.
At or around 25m
In the table above we've taken
a rider with a a Functional Threshold Power of 300 watts. If you can
knock out a 25 mile TT in or around an hour you're in this region.
The table describes Coggan's
Power Levels that have become the benchmark for many power meter users
over recent years. Don't be misled in to thinking the levels are compartmentalised in to
white" discrete bins of power and physiological response. There is a
sliding line continuum that blends from one level to the next. It
just fits our mindset better if we put it in to pretty coloured boxes.
For instance you don't go from
below 74% of FTP being wholly Endurance pace and 76% of FTP being
wholly Tempo pace. There is no physiological switch from one level
to the next, just a sliding
scale of effort that eases across the identified training responses.
However the levels do give us a framework for understanding, developing and
structuring, sustained improvement.
Obviously you don't need me to
tell you that you can ride for
longer at Level 1 than you can at Level 5. So I'll let Dr Coggan
explain through the medium of graphs...
The Exercise Intensity graphic below is a companion to the
Coggan Training Levels in the table above.
You can see the gently
decreasing volume duration line starts in the top left corner
(at unit 99), and degrades to finish just before 140% at the bottom right. It
drops through the coloured levels as it moves across the chart, visually indicating a
hypothetical duration of effort sustainability at each physiologically
There's a lot of big words
close together in the above sentence but what it effectively means
is; "The harder you do it, the less time you can do it for".
The line gently rising from the
lower left to the upper right, reflects the physiological strain of your
training. Again, it's fairly obvious that you can undertake many,
many days of repeated Level 1 and Level 2 work but less so when you get to
Level 5 and 6. "The harder you go, the more damage it
does, the more recovery you need before doing it again".
The dark "camel's hump,"
reflects the potential each Training Level has for increasing Functional
Threshold Power. Obviously it peaks out in the middle of Level 4.
At this point, physiological strain is increasing and sustainable volume
is decreasing. So although mid-level four appears to give maximum
performance return, the physical cost is too high a price to pay for most
Recovery from a mid-level four
session is going to be longer than an upper level 3 session.
Unsurprisingly, muscle trauma is also greater. Which means you won't
be able to undertake another quality workout as quickly as you might like. So there is a possibility that, over the course of a
medium term training period, you may, to a very small extent, detrain in
comparison to someone who undertook the level 3 sessions.
Harder isn't necessarily
always better. So, why not drop back to just under Level 4 and
train for a longer duration. Less physical session advancement but
much less physical stress giving you the ability to do another session in
a quicker time frame. Two 60 minute sessions at upper level three
will give a better training return than one 90 minute session at
mid-level four. Train smarter not harder!
So what does all this mean in the real world? You can see
that the lines above converge at 85% of FTP. So that's where we
train. Take a test, get a figure, multiply it by 0.85 and go ride at
that figure for 2 x 20 minute intervals, twice a week. It really is that
Below are power charts from my
turbo sessions specifically designed to increase FTP. In the winter
preparation phase of my training my FTP is 240w. As we get to the
pre-competition period it's 265w and I'll concentrate on getting it to
300w to 320w for the height of the sportive season.
The graphics below are all
taken from the same one hour turbo session. A thorough progressive
warm up, 2 x 20 minutes at threshold, with a four minute recovery between
each, and a high-rev cool-down. Threshold power on the day was 265
watts and the session was undertaken
in a nice, warm 16 degrees centigrade watching, the 2007 Paris Roubaix for
Here we see the ride broken down in to the
specific power training levels described in the charts above. Just
under 40% at Threshold.
This graphic portrays the same information as the above but now we can see
the specific power ranges with each bar representing a 10 watt
spread of power. The ranges to the left are the warm up & cool
If you haven't got a power meter you can still get half-decent results
with a heart monitor. Again the same ride by heart rate. 36%
in Zone 3 with a little cardiac drift sniff in to Zone 4.
finally the breakdown of a single interval by numbers.
85% of 265 watts is 225.25 watts. You
can see for yourself it's bang on the money. In next months sheet
I'll explain what all the numbers in the top half mean. It's the
bottom half figures that interest us for now.
Hour of Gain
Most of my turbo sessions are an hour of pain
but to be honest, this ones not that painful. This is a session that
really is more gain than pain. It's not easy by any means, it
requires concentration, control, a determination to hold back and a big
fan to keep you cool!
The FTP development
Session consist of;
▼ 10 minute controlled warm up with bursts up to
▼ 20 minutes @ 85% FTP
▼ 4 minutes recovery @ 150 watts maximum
▼ 20 minutes @ 85% FTP
▼ 6 minutes cool down spinning at 100 rpm
Six weeks on from my sessions
above, I knocked out the interval below. With results you can all see and achieve yourselves.
refreshing 21 watt increase, or 10% if you wish!
Heart rate up 10 beats which for me isn't a
lot, you can see my max of 230 ish!
Speed up 1 kph , revs up 3 rpm and an
increased distance of 335 meters. Job done.
So there it is. Get tested, by doing it yourself or in a lab; get
your Functional Power Threshold numbers, do some really easy maths, train
at the right level twice a week for three weeks. Take a recovery
week, measure yourself
again and recalculate the figures for your next batch of three weeks'
It really is that simple and
that quick. And it's a 100% sure fire hit of increasing your
threshold, your performance and your enjoyment on the bike. Other
than a race win, there is little more satisfying experience on a bike than
knowing the training your doing is bringing results. It's such a
gratifying feeling, as an athlete and a coach, to see immediate,
sustained, measurable progression.
If the rewards aren't enough to
accept the lack of variety, then don't feel there isn't an alternative. These intervals don't have to
be carried out as an exclusive session. Why not do a one hour turbo
session in the week based on this work out. Then include the other
20 minute sessions as part of a road ride. I try to get my big distance
sportive riders and Iron Man athletes to include a 20 minute controlled burn up in every hour of
their long weekend rides as part of their Pre-Competition build up. The
results they bring, as you can see, are spectacular.
Hopefully this factsheet has provided the
information to help you take your threshold power to the next level.
You don't advance your power output by riding around for three hours on a
club run at whatever speed the leaders choose; or knocking out 1000 watt intervals for 5 seconds
at a time. There is
a sweet spot or, as you'll find when banging it out on the turbo, a sweat
spot, that brings returns that far exceed the perceived effort. And
I'll vote for that any day.
These intervals should not be a
bare all, gritted teeth, hang on for grim death, type effort. They
should be a controlled effort on the edge of aerobicity (my new word from
last month!). You are not Einstein, you can't redefine the
laws of physics. The maths, the workout and the results are simple;
▼ 85% of FTP for 20 mins = continuous improvement
So stay at that intensity and
reap the rewards. If you want to make the interval harder, cut the
rest interval by one minute per week. Then after your recovery week,
increase the effort and reinstate the 4 minute recovery period.
DON'T increase the wattage because you think you can. Of course you
can pedal as hard as you want you just won't get the results you were
expecting. Reign it in and wait for the gains to arrive; show
restraint and save your pent up energy for the race.
Functional Threshold Power can be described
to a layman as "how fast you can cruise." Cruising plays a major
part in endurance sports such as cycling and being efficient at high
cruising speeds is our ultimate aim. The fresher you are when you get to the
finish the better position you'll be in physically and mentally for the
finale of the end game and the race winning sprint. Enjoy the rewards of your 85%
efforts because they bring 100% results.
And if anyone has any
information to backup the sexual prowess claim, feel free to email me and
I'll share it with our ever increasing world-wide readership!
Until next time...