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Determining Your FTP and increasing VO2 Max

If you have been cycling for a while, you’ve probably heard the term FTP (Functional Threshold Power) being discussed among your fellow cyclists. FTP is the amount of power you can sustain for one hour. The unit of measure for FTP is watts, typically reported by a power meter or your trainer.

FTP is critical to know because it is both an indicator of fitness and also the reference used to calculate training intensities for various workouts. You can also use it when racing or in a group ride to pace yourself properly. Without knowing your FTP, your training effort could be too low or too high. You may be dropped in a group ride if you go out too hard.

There are three ways that you can determine your FTP.

1. One hour FTP Test - Ride for one hour as hard as you can with a power meter.

This test is best completed on a trainer and only done when you are significantly motivated. This test is mentally challenging as you will need to put out and pace yourself for a maximal effort for one hour. You can also accomplish this at a time trial event or a 40k race. A race or time trial will be a better motivator. Use the normalized power result as your FTP.

2. 20 minute Test – Ride as hard as you can for 20 minutes.

This test is also best completed on a trainer, and will result in an average power about 5% higher than your FTP. Ride for 20 minutes as hard as you can and record the average power reading for that interval. Take that result and multiply by 0.95 to estimate your FTP. You can use this number to estimate your FTP. This test is taken from Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan's book Training and Racing with a Power Meter.

To complete the test:

  • Warm-up: 10 minutes spin then 3 x 1 minute fast cadence, 1 minute easy, 5 minute spin

  • 5 minute all-out effort - go as hard as you can (press 'Lap' at start and finish)

  • 10 minute recovery

  • 20 minute all-out effort (use the 'Lap' button again at start and finish)

  • Cool down

The average power in the 20 minute effort lap is the result. Multiply this result by 0.95 to get your FTP.

3. Use empirical data. – Ride with a power meter for a few months and upload the data to training peaks. It will provide an estimate of FTP. It is not exact, but will be close to your real result.

Once you get your FTP, divide it by your weight in kg. This will provide your power to weight ratio which is important for climbing. If you ride is mostly flat roads, drag will be a dominant factor. In this case, bike fit, position, helmet choice, wheels, and handle bar position (hoods, drops, tops…) would impact your speed for the same given power.

Now that you have your FTP number, you can use it along with your Tempo power meter to help increase fitness. Many riders that have not trained with power can be riding at too low of intensities and are limited by their VO2 Max.

These intervals will increase your VO2 max and will give you the headroom needed to increase your FTP. Your VO2 max is your limit. You cannot increase your FTP if you have a limited VO2 max. To increase your VO2 max, try these intervals:

  1. 15 minute warmup

  2. 5-8 min at 110% of your FTP. Take 30 seconds to ramp up to power or else you will accumulate too much lactic acid and will not be able to complete the interval. Cadence should be at your top range.

  3. Recover for 3 minutes

  4. Repeat steps 2,3 for 3-5 repetitions.

  5. 15 min cool

As you get stronger, reduce the interval length and go up to 120% of your FTP and increase your repetitions. Below is an example using the Tempo Power meter on a trainer.

The key is to keep power consistent between intervals. Here is the key to why an accurate and repeatable power meter like Tempo is critical for training, racing, or group riding. If the power is too low, you are not reaping the benefits of your effort. If it is too high, you will not be able to complete the intervals. Note how the same speed on the trainer gives the same consistent power. Also note the 30 second ramp up to the desired power. This workout also gives the cyclist confidence that he can pull hard 6 times for 3 minutes with only 3-minute breaks between pulls.

If you can’t perform these on a trainer, take a few hard pulls for 3 minutes the next time you are out with your local group. Just set your head unit to report power and when you are in a long stretch, dig deep and push to 110% of your FTP for 3-5 minutes. Drop back and recover in the draft. Let your fellow cyclists know your intent so they will let you rotate in and out of the paceline. Maybe they will join you when they pull too!

Until next time, Ride hard, ride fast, dig deep!

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