Fudging the Numbers: A Practical Guide to Increasing FTP

When cycling’s favourite comedian Phil Gaimon retired, he began a quest to push dopers from the top of KOM segments on Strava (at least in his local area). Despite being retired one peculiar thing happened to Phil’s fitness in his hunt for Strava segments; he saw some of the best 20 minute power numbers of his life. It left many wondering whether Phil actually intended to remain retired (certainly many asked whether he should remain retired). The suspicion around his so-called retirement was further exacerbated by the fact he was still wearing his team colours despite no longer being an active part of the Cannonade-Drapac team. As a climber and all-rounder, his aerobic threshold is certainly a fundamental part of his performance, and he likely spent a lot time developing his aerobic capacity. So what was the secret? Did he retire prematurely? Did he suddenly tap into a magic training program that unlocked hidden potential? He certainly isn’t doping. That would be a sad and ironic twist to his Strava quest (and career for that matter). So what was it?

The simple answer boils down to an age-old and familiar adage, “Practice makes perfect.” Anyone who trains with a power meter is likely familiar with the concept of FTP and the awful 20 minute power test that we do to determine FTP. FTP is meant to be an indicator of our aerobic ability and we spend countless hours on the bike trying to increase our ability to metabolize fat more efficiently at higher work rates. Where we get lost is when we become obsessed with our 20 minute power. When we test our FTP, a higher 20 minute power means a higher FTP, but it doesn’t necessarily mean a better aerobic capacity. If you head over to any bike forum, you’ll see numerous people endorsing the benefits of the 2x20min threshold workout for improving FTP. The fact is, while these workouts do have a positive impact on overall aerobic performance, they also can inflate your 20 minute power ability above what your true aerobic capability actually is.

When Phil Gaimon retired, he didn’t suddenly gain a bunch of aerobic performance, he just got really good at 20 minute efforts. The Strava KOM segments he was after were predominately 15-25 minute climbs. Prior to that, when he was an active bike racer, his training was devoted to developing huge endurance ability. Like most bike racers, he needed to be able to produce a lot of power for a really long time. He needed to be able to ride in breakaways for hours at a time, to respond to attacks and spend up to 2 hours riding close to threshold. The true indicator of his performance was his actual performance not just how many watts he could produce for 20 minutes.

If you’ve ever followed Coggan’s actual test protocol (the same one found in Trainer Road’s 20 minute test) there is a precursor 5 minute VO2 max effort before the 20 minute effort. Many cyclists, when testing their FTP, skip this part of the test and simply ride their hardest for 20 minutes and use the result to determine their FTP. That 5 minute interval is meant to burn off some of the glycogen in our muscles and fatigue our anaerobic system slightly so that our 20 minute effort is a more representative indicator of how well our body can metabolize fat.

FTP isn’t supposed to be based on our ideal 20 minute power. 

If you want to perform better aerobically in races, you need to spend time developing your aerobic system through a healthy mix of low intensity, moderate intensity and high intensity workouts. Recent science tells us that classic low intensity base training isn’t always effective (and can be detrimental) but neither should we spend all our time at or near threshold. Think of riding at threshold as practice for riding at threshold. Focus your training goals to developing the ability to ride hard for a long time rather than devoting all your time to developing your ability to produce huge watts for 20 minutes (unless of course prologue TTs are your specialty).

FTP is often considered the maximal effort over one hour. This is why we take only 95% of our 20 minute power when determining our power zones. It’s not always the case that we can ride our FTP for 60 minutes. The new WKO4 software incorporates an algorithm to estimate the time-to-exhaustion (TTE) while riding at threshold. It allows us to see how well we can actually ride at our tested FTP. If you only ever spend time practicing your 20 minute power, you might find that your ability to sustain your FTP for an hour is lacking and your TTE poor. The following example is a common situation we see in cyclists: Rider A has a 20 minute power of 380 watts making his FTP 360w. Rider B has a 20 minute power of 360 watts making his FTP 340w. Rider A’s actual measured 60 minute power is only 330w while Rider B’s actual measured 60 minute power is 340w. Rider A might be able to boast that he has a higher FTP but his actual aerobic fitness is worse than rider B’s. Which one do you think will last longer in a breakaway?

We all want to increase our FTP. But our focus should be on increasing our actual functional threshold rather than improving our 20 minute performance if our goal is to perform better overall aerobically.

 

Questions about this article or training? Send an email to info@humanpowerperformance.com

 

 

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