Increasing your Functional Threshold Power (FTP)
What is Threshold Power and how can you increase it?
Functional Threshold Power, or ‘FTP’ is regarded by many as the holy grail of cycling performance, where some argue the higher a riders FTP, the better the bike rider they are. Whilst there is some truth in this, there is far more than ‘having a good FTP’ that determines how strong a cyclist someone is. Let’s explore…
Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is a measure of a riders ‘Lactate Threshold’ (LT) which is the point at which your body is able to flush or clear lactate away at the same rate that it is produced. Riding at LT results in a horrible feeling in the legs, whereby they feel full of lactic, however the effort is sustainable for a long period of time (for one hour if push comes to shove) as the lactate is being recycled efficiently.
For ease of understanding, LT is quantified as the power that a rider can sustain for one hour, measured in Watts, i.e. a riders FTP could be 250Watts. The higher a riders Lactate Threshold, the more Watts can be produced ‘at threshold’, which is represented by a higher FTP.
In real terms, a higher FTP means we are producing more power, which translates in to being able to cycle faster – which is surely a good thing, right?
A higher FTP will help all cyclists – here are a few examples of the real world benefits we can realise with a higher threshold;
- Take climbing a hill at 20Watts sub threshold, if our threshold increases, we can either climb the hill still at 20W sub threshold and go faster, or we can ride at the same power output and speed, but we are then our sub threshold effort becomes ‘even more sub’, which results in the effort being easier.
- Time Trialing. It depends on the length of the time trial, but whatever the distance, you will be riding around your LT. Let us take a long time trial, say 60km – you may be riding say 95% of your LT for the majority. So, the higher your LT, the higher power that 95% represents, which translates in to a higher speed you are able to travel at.
- Come the end of an event, whether that’s a road race, criterium, sportive or weekend ride with friends – it’s often not the fastest person that wins or is able to produce the strongest sprint, it’s the person who has the most left in the tank. I.e. the person who has not spent too much time working anaerobically (above LT) just to get to the finish. We all know that feeling of coming to the end of an event, getting out of the saddle to sprint, and the legs give way. We have simply burnt all our matches. To reserve our glycogen stores and our ‘matches’, we want to be riding aerobically, sub-threshold as much as possible. The higher our LT, the greater our ‘buffer’ to LT, which means that come the end of your event, you would not have had to work as hard. We will have more left in the tank, enabling us to recruit all our fast twitch (Type II) muscle fibers, to produce that maximum neuromuscular power effort.
There is more to it than just your power output
Another factor to consider when talking about FTP is a riders weight, since the heavier you are, the greater the mass that you need to move. Let us take two bike riders – Rider A is 60kg and Rider B is 90kg, and both have an FTP of 300W. Rider A is using 300W to drag a 60kg mass along, whilst Rider B has the same power, but has to drag an extra 30kg along with them, which results in Rider B being slower. The impact of weight has an even greater impact when accelerating and going up-hill.
When combining our FTP with weight, the metric we talk about is our Watts per Kilogram of bodyweight (w/kg), which is what determines the speed that we travel. Weight has a huge impact up hills, whilst on the flat, other factors come in to it, i.e. how aerodynamic we are. Aerodynamic drag is air resistance attributed to an object. It is a product of an objects drag coefficient (Cd) or “slipperiness” and it’s size, critically it’s frontal area (A). Hence, the scientific measurement of aerodynamic drag and the input required by a cycling power model is Cd x A written as CdA.
Whilst FTP is a great metric to gauge cycling performance, there is still more to gauging cycling performance than just FTP
As I hope is evident from above, developing your FTP will lead to a whole bunch of real world benefits to your cycling – however, depending on your goal, it is likely that FTP is not the only metric you should be tracking. Briefly, if you want to be good at riding up steep climbs, or covering a few km quickly, or simply ‘packing a punch’ so you can tackle climbs in sportives easier – yes, developing your FTP will help, but arguably even more important is your ability to ride anaerobically for a short period of time. The ability to make an explosive effort, for a few minutes – to close a gap, get up a climb or attack a group towards the end of your event. Having a high FTP will help ensure you are fresher when it comes to making this effort, however having the ability to push out a lot of power for a short period of time – our anaerobic capacity or engine size, also in part, determines our performance.
The most widely adopted way to profile a bike rider is to complete 4 max efforts across different durations, which are;
6 seconds – to ascertain Neuromuscular Power
1 Minute – Anaerobic Capacity
5 or 6 Minutes – Vo2 Max
20 Minutes – FTP / LT.
We then benchmark, using Dr. Andy Coggan’s Power Profiling Tables – which is nothing new to the coaching world, however the concept of ‘power profiling’ seems to have taken off from a marketing point of view. Power profiling is much more widely talked about and communicated by coaches now. For more info on Power Profiling – I suggest reading the following, straight from the inventor himself – https://www.trainingpeaks.com/blog/power-profiling/.
I hope you find this article thought provoking and are able to take something away from it – if nothing more than we should all try to increase our FTP! How can you do this? Here’s how;
Push our FTP up, by riding sub-threshold, around Sweet Spot, building our Aerobic Base, and our aerobic engine size;
Drag our FTP up, by working anaerobically, well above threshold to ‘increase our anaerobic engine size; or
Work on both – in separate sessions, or combining the two in a session known as ‘Under – Overs’, where we work under our threshold for say 4 minutes, then we tip above for a few minutes before returning to an aerobic state. This switching from aerobic to anaerobic, producing lactate and recycling it forces positive adaptions to our efficiency and LT.
My personal favorite session is the following 1 Hour 10 Minute Session – give it a go and let me know how you get on;
10 Minute Progressive Warm-up inc. 3 x 6 second surges
2 x (12 Minutes Sweet Spot – 8 Minutes Recovery – Zone 1)
2 x (4 Minutes Zone 5 – 4 Minutes Zone 1)
4 more minutes of Cool Down
Article written by Rowe & King Coach, Matt Rowe