Starting next week, Jalapeno Cycling will be spending several days devoting our classes to testing Functional Threshold Power (FTP) for athletes. Because the vast majority of training plans use FTP as a baseline measurement for drills and targeting zones, you may have already heard of the test, but before signing up for a class, you may want to see if performing the test makes sense for you.
To begin, we should mention that the formal test isn’t a walk in the park. Its goal is to give an accurate indicator of how much power a rider can exert over the course of an hour. Because attempting to hit the gas for a full 60 minutes is an impractical assessment for the majority of riders (it’s far too easy to overcook or underperform early in that kind of long effort), the test instead involves warming up and executing a full 20 minute effort that coaches base the FTP around.
Even though it isn’t a time-consuming effort, the test is stressful on the body, and isn’t for all riders and situations. Here is a list of common times when you should NOT take an FTP test:
1. “Right before a big event.” This is an understandable mistake: riders may second-guess their power numbers just before the big day, especially when it comes to the solo efforts of time trials and triathlons, and want to know what targets they need to hit after several long cycles of training blocks. However, a hint of uncertainty and tapering towards the event is far better than putting additional fatigue on your legs.
2. “If you are about to engage in dedicated training for the first time.” Unfortunately, some programs often have beginning riders perform an FTP test right off the bat. The test is difficult without spending much prior time in the saddle, and the data it provides riders won’t be useful for long. When new riders begin dedicated training for the first time, the gains not only come fast, but are incredibly volatile for each rider. There are far better and accurate methods of tracking progress and determining zones than this immediate trial by fire.
3. “If you recently took the test.” We are amazed at how often we see pre-made programs that want you to perform an FTP test every other week. There are several major problems with this: while a 20-minute block is a great way to find a baseline for the rest of your training, it’s not the end-all be-all interval that you only need to gauge your performance by. There is no reason you should be taking this test more than three times per year (and even that is borderline overdoing it). It is a test that will monopolize several days of your other training, which is not a good thing if you could use some One-Legged-Drills, Base Riding, or VO2 Max Intervals instead. Secondly, by constantly measuring yourself with this test, you’ll inevitably catch a test on a bad day, and demotivation will strike hard when you believe you are regressing after months of hard work.
Those were the bad times to take an FTP test. On the other side of the spectrum, there are some ideal times that your future training could benefit from the test:
1. “Early into your building period before your season begins.” This is a great time to allocate some training time towards one FTP test, especially because this is usually the time when you or your coach is planning out your training schedule, and it helps give more direction. It is also a period of time where you are not interfering with any big events. Be forewarned, though, that there is one drawback to performing an FTP test here. Usually this time frame comes a little after an extended off-the-bike recovery week or two from the season before, and you shouldn’t be too surprised to find that your numbers will likely be about 10-20 watts lower than the power you were putting up after tapering for the big event at the end of the prior season. Remember that this drop is natural and necessary; don’t let it demotivate you.
2. “A few weeks after you get a power meter for the first time.” In reality, this shouldn’t conflict with any of the three times not to take an FTP test above (you REALLY shouldn’t buy a power meter right before a big event; I promise that it won’t improve your short-term performance.) After you purchase a power meter and get familiar with it and the numbers for a break in period, you might as well put it to good use. A FTP test gives you an even better meaning to the numbers you are seeing and can help you chart out a training path in ways that “perceived effort” cannot.
3. “During your season if you feel that your power numbers have already drastically changed or you believe you are training in the completely wrong zones.” This is very difficult to correctly gauge without an experienced coach. It could mean that you’re overtraining, or possibly feeling under the weather. Still if you are deep within a hard interval block and you feel like you could carry a normal conversation, you may want to consider taking an FTP test. Again, there are plenty of other factors that can trigger an unexpected drop or rise in power: a miscalibrated power meter, low batteries, or an error in an earlier FTP test. However, if you feel like you went through the full troubleshooting gamut, and you feel like you’re working well out of your zones, it might be time to see where you now measure up. This is especially true if you are basing your current zones on an FTP test you took a year or more ago.
If you find that this is a good time to take an FTP test, consider booking an appointment at Jalapeno Cycling. While you can set up individual sessions where you can take the test all by yourself, Kate is also hosting small-batch sessions as a more economical option. You can email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to create a profile and reserve your spot next week.
Jalapeno Cycling is a bike shop, sales, repair and fitness center located in Bloomfield, New Jersey.