25 Aug Looking beyond FTP, by MetaSport coach Lemuel Lee
You may have heard in the cycling jargon “FTP”, that stands for Functional Threshold Power. FTP has gained popularity as the key performance metric throughout the past years amongst many riders. Ride up to any training session, indoors or outdoors, or any race, and you may catch someone asking another ‘What’s your FTP’. Perhaps even someone being proud of how his or her FTP has gone up by 10 watts!
Measured in watts or relative to body weight in watts per kg (W/kg), your FTP is theoretically the power that you can hold for 1 hour. All you need to do is a 20-minute all-out effort after a good warm-up, take 95% of the average 20-minute power, and you get your magic number.
But is FTP all you need to perform in cycling? Long story short: No.
As with many sports, cycling is made up of different events and specialities. You could be looking to complete an epic 5-day mountainous ride, a Grand Fondo, the legendary Taiwan KOM race, or just your local criterium/Olympic distance triathlon.
Each and every one of these events pose a different challenge to your body, a different system and mechanism to produce power, a different approach to training, and ultimately a different set of performance metrics that need to be measured for effective training and performance improvements.
But wait, where did FTP even come from? Back in the early 2000s, the term was coined as a key performance measure. The FTP test was designed to be a field test meant to estimate your lactate threshold, or as some call it, your anaerobic threshold. This threshold draws the line between holding a sustained power for your 4-hour round-island ride, 5-minute climb, or 1-min steep uphill sprint. As your body crosses this threshold, your muscles start to produce lactate faster than what your body can clear out. This results in the all-familiar burning sensation in your muscles, an increasingly laboured breathing pattern, and the eventual inhibition of performance.
This means that any rider should aim to spend a majority of his/her time below that lactate threshold, way below if possible, and only go above his/her lactate threshold for the crucial moments in the ride/race, when a huge amount of power is needed. It also means that if you want to go faster, you should aim to raise your lactate threshold as it is a limiter of performance, simply put.
So now that we understand why a high lactate threshold is crucial for any rider, and how FTP is actually an estimate of your lactate threshold, why do so many of us do a FTP test instead of a lactate threshold test? Good question, because if I had the choice to do either, I would always go for the lactate threshold test. It does, however, have its limitations, such as availability, difficulty in interpretation, and cost. Traditionally, lactate threshold tests were done in a lab setting, requiring specialized equipment that were difficult to purchase and exercise physiologists to run and interpret the results. These factors drive up costs. The FTP test, on the other hand, was easy to implement, did not require specialized equipment (besides a stationary trainer) and personnel, and virtually almost zero cost.
So why not just use FTP? If you hadn’t already noticed, the FTP test was always meant to be a field test, easy to implement, but an estimate of your lactate threshold. Results are also highly variable due to the nature of the test. A well-paced effort is required to ensure an accurate FTP reading, so those riders you see going easy-ish at the start before “sprinting” for the virtual line as they approach that last-minute mark will not get the best results. Studies have also shown that taking 95% of your 20-minute effort does not always correspond well with your 1-hour power, and doing a 1-hour effort while ideal, opens up more opportunities for potential confounders.
Perhaps more importantly, is the fact that FTP only highlights one aspect of your physiological profile as a rider. Other energy systems come into play as your push hard on the climbs, recover as your re-enter the draft of the group, and sprint for the line. Simply basing your entire training on FTP alone just doesn’t make sense now does it?
It doesn’t. So, look beyond FTP as the only key performance metric and realise that there’s more to your performance than just FTP.