The FTP test is the cornerstone of cycle training plans and workouts. Without knowing your Functional Threshold Power you’ll never know which power zones you are training in and as such your workouts are likely to be less effective. Knowing your FTP will also help you pace efforts on the road or in a race.
Consider this blog a beginner’s guide to FTP, focusing on the different kinds of FTP tests, providing FTP test tips and strategies, plus a look at the best ways to improve your FTP score with better pacing.
What is FTP and why should I care?
Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is a measure of how hard you can ride for an hour. Simple eh? Or at least this was the origin of the number. Since FTP is now measured using much shorter FTP tests (see below), FTP is more a benchmark, a number to set your training zones and ensure you are pushing yourself as part of a structured training plan.
You will need either a power meter or virtual power as your FTP is measured in watts. Power meters are expensive so consider virtual power in the first instance to see if all this cycling by numbers is for you. Online cycle training programmes such as TrainerRoad and Zwift provide virtual power numbers, using the power curve of your indoor turbo trainer to calculate your watts.
What are the differences between FTP tests?
OK, so you can measure your power using watts. Now what? Time for the all important FTP test. Simple, right? Steady on, first you need to choose which FTP test is best for you.
First of all, let’s address the elephant in the room. FTP tests are unpleasant. Very unpleasant. Imagine hell and double it. Done properly, you will feel sick. Light-headed. Limbs will tremble. If you’re enjoying an FTP test you’re doing it wrong.
FTP tests are designed to push you to your limits. Be it the full on 60 minute test, the more manageable 20 minute version or the increasingly popular time crunched 8 minute test.
60 FTP minute test
A ‘true’ FTP test. The FTP score was originally designed to predict your maximum power over 60 minutes. An hour of pain will not lie to you. Sure, you can test at 20 minutes or even 8 minutes, apply the calculation and then pretend your can ride at your FTP for an hour. Yet this probably isn’t the case, most likely you won’t have the stamina or mental strength if you’ve not trained to ride at your absolute threshold for such durations.
Yet most don’t have the mental energy to ride at 100% for an hour, myself included. It’s just pure pain. Does that mean shorter FTP test are a waste of time? If you want to know your hour of power, maybe. However, most of us endure FTP tests to set our training zones and both of the shorter tests are more than adequate for such a task. All you need is a comparable, consistent number.
20 minute FTP test
The granddaddy of FTP tests. As much a mental test as a physical test. You’ll aim to be powering away somewhere in the region of 105% of your FTP. The power level isn’t so high it immediately translates to pain. That comes later.
At first you’ll wonder what the fuss is about, the first 5 minutes easy, the next 5 minutes less so, death by a thousand cuts, the minutes slowing, the pain increasing. If the last ten minutes feel like a lifetime, imagine the pain to come in the final minute.
Don’t forget the initial all out five-minute test before the actual FTP test too, which will give you an idea of your VO2max, whilst also emptying your legs of a little power to more closely simulate what your FTP might be like if you were to hold it for an hour.
To calculate your FTP after a 20 minute test, simply reduce your power by 5%.
8 minute FTP test
VO2max time. What? Time to ride hard, very hard. For 8 of the longest minutes of your life. Twice. Argh! The benefits of the 8 minute test is that there’s less time to get the pacing wrong (although you most probably will!) and you have two efforts so you can learn from the first.
The downside is the pain. I find it mentally and physically harder to ride at 110% of my FTP for 8 minutes than I do riding at 105% for 20 minutes. Much depends on the type of rider you are and the training you have been doing.
To calculate your FTP after the 8 minute test, take your average watts from each effort and then reduce this number by 10%. Consider also that this test score may be an inflation of what you could actually hold for an hour given its brevity.
What length FTP test is best?
A question of specificity or simply preference. Are you training for all out efforts or are you looking to increase your power over longer durations? This will help you decide which test to choose.
What type of rider are you? Timetrialler? Aim for the 20 minute test. You’ll be used to powering along for sustained periods of time and each test is actually a good training workout all by itself. More of short sharp hill climber or puncheur? Try the 8 minute test, your stamina may be lower but your power is higher.
It also depends on how experienced you are. You have a choice between the difficulty of pacing a long 20 minute effort or enduring the pain of the short sharp 8 minute test. I started with the 8 minute test, a format I have stuck to even though I’m slightly more comfortable with the longer tests. I like to think I’m more of a hill climber than a timetrialler but perhaps this isn’t so!
Many purists will argue the 60 minute test is best as this actually measures your hour of power, however the other tests are fine for setting your power zones. Which FTP test will give you the biggest number? This depends on your training. Longer training intervals may mean you’re stronger for 20 minutes and vice-versa.
My training plan mixes the duration of my intervals so I’m fairly adept at both tests. If you’re just beginning try both tests and see which gives you the most reasonable number (not highest).
You’ll soon know what a reasonable number is in your following workouts. If your FTP is too high then the workouts will be unbearable and you may find them difficult to complete. Too low and your workouts will be too easy and you’ll not improve.
After a few test you’ll soon come to know if your subsequent workouts are too easy or too hard.
Can I change between an 8 and 20 minute test?
Sure, just don’t expect to compare them and measure progress. You must test consistently every time. So once you have the right test for you, stick with it. Consistency is key, which is why taking your FTP from a repeatable test is better than taking FTP from a race out on the road.
Your first FTP test
Forget about the numbers (that obsession will come later!). Choose the duration of your test and ride as hard as you can. Don’t set yourself a goal, don’t even look at the power numbers. Just ride. Hard. Don’t go out too hard but try to re-assess your pace every micro-interval by breaking the test into four segments e.g. 2 minutes if an 8 minute test, 5 mins for the 20 minute test, 15 minutes for the hour.
It is highly unlikely you will master the pacing of your first FTP test. It took me a good five to six tests until I nailed it and I still get it wrong if I’m overambitious. Use this (and every) test as a lesson. Did you start out too quickly, finish too strong?
How often should I retake an FTP test?
Every 4 to 6 weeks is the general guideline for reassessing your FTP. Long enough for some adaptation and improvement to have taken place but not too long that you don’t adjust your FTP zones and thus your training stagnates. If you don’t retest often enough, you risk plateauing but retest too often and you simply won’t see the FTP gains. Besides, FTP tests are horrible, the fewer you endure, the better.
Me? I retest every four weeks as this fits well with my training plan of 3 weeks on, one week off. This means I retest my FTP when I’m fresh.
How much I can expect my FTP improve?
Most coaches say you should expect to improve 3-4% each time however your results will be highly variable and dependent on a number of factors. If you’re new to FTP testing, it is highly likely that much of your FTP increases will be a result of better pacing. FTP testing is as much an art as a science. It’s also highly likely you will begin FTP testing at the start of the season when you are least fit, hence you may see increases of 10% plus depending on how quickly you adapt.
What is a good FTP?
Your FTP number alone won’t benchmark you against other riders. You need to consider your weight to get the all important Watts/KG measurement. Once you have this magic number, you can compare your Watts/KG against pros or even other Cat 4 hopefuls using this excellent power profile chart. This will also help you identify any weaknesses, either in sustainable power or sprint power.
Remember the 8 minute and 20 minute test are likely to inflate your FTP score. So don’t get too excited if your Watts/KG is really high unless you know for a fact you could actually sustain this for an hour.
What’s the quickest way to increase my FTP?
There are two training methods to increase your FTP. Push from below, or pull from above. Pushing from below relies on sweetspot and threshold rides just below your FTP at 90-98%. In my experience, this increases FTP slowly but surely.
Pulling from above is achieved using lots of hard, VO2max intervals, where you continually spend time training in zones above your FTP, from 105-120%. This will increase your FTP quickly but you will find your peak is less sustainable and you also risk burnout.
Training plans such as the Time crunched Training Plan rely on the latter method. It’s great if you’re using it to peak for an event, not so great if you’re using it as part of a longer training plan.
What’s the best way to improve my FTP?
Your training should include workouts that combine both pushing from below and pulling from above. Early in the season, you should build a solid base, and the majority of your training should push below, and then, as you get closer to your target events, you can increase the workouts pulling from above.
This plan is physically and mentally more sustainable. VO2max intervals are the ones you will hate, the ones that will make you feel ill. Maintaining month after month of such a regime is highly likely to make you hate cycling and yourself!
How to pace an FTP test
Pacing is the most important and difficult part of the FTP test. Go out too hard and you will suffer, but too easy and you risk not reaching your full potential. An underestimated FTP will mean all future training is too easy and your progress is stunted.
FTP pacing tips:
- Don’t start too hard aka The painful one. If you only obey one piece of FTP test advice, this is the one. There is no pain like the pain of clinging on for the remainder of an FTP test, watching in vain as your power decreases and your heartrate increases. Ouch. Realise quickly when you have overdone the start and adjust, which should give you an FTP test with ‘The recovery smile’ in the image above.
- The flatline aka The ideal test. Some advocate aiming for as consistent a level of power as possible for the duration of the test, so your power is a straight horizontal line on your post ride power graph. I think this is an ideal, best attempted only if you have had a very good warm-up. Most pre-programmed FTP tests (Zwift, TrainerRoad et al) don’t have sufficient warm-ups, at least not for an aging rider like I. This means I’m still warming up at the beginning of my FTP test.
- Negative split FTP test. I like to aim for a negative split, where I’m marginally slower in the first half than the final half. I begin a few watts beneath my test target and as the test progresses and my legs warm-up, I gradually increase this, until I’m just above my test target come the end of the test. We’re talking fine margins here, plus or minus 5%
- No sprint finishes. Or surges. If you have the energy to sprint or surge at the end of the test it is a good sign that you undercooked the test. You also risk over inflating your test results which could put you in trouble for all subsequent works.
- Micro-changes. Reassess your power and your sustainability every quarter of the test. Can you go harder or do you need to back-off? In either scenario, adjust in tiny increments until the next quarter of your test is upon you and then adjust again.
14 steps to the perfect FTP test
- Rest. Preparation for an FTP test begins many days before the test. Being fresh will give you a truer reflection of your potential, and ultimately a higher FTP score. Test tired and all subsequent training sessions will be at an intensity below where you should be training. Don’t test if ill or tired.
- Be prepared. Get a good night’s sleep and make sure your last meal was a good couple of hours before the test. Give yourself the time to test, don’t try to squeeze it in between other things.
- Overcome the fear. Get into the FTP mental zone. It’s quite likely it’s been on your mind for a few days already, in fact, you’ve been dreading it, so take the time to cast these fears aside and focus on the challenge ahead.
- Be consistent. Train in the same room, using the same equipment, the same tire pressure, the same warm-up, hell, the same music. Many things can impact your test results. The only variable should you.
- Know your numbers. If you’ve tested before then you know your FTP, which means you can set yourself a test FTP target.
- Don’t be a hero. Don’t be overconfident when setting your FTP test target. Set a modest increase of 3-4% and if this is too easy during the test, ramp it up. Start too high and your test will become hell and your final number will not be representative.
- Be cool. Don’t waste precious energy overheating. Open the window, gets the fans on, dress down. Not that I’m advocating naked FTP tests. Eugh!
- Warm-up adequately. The less you warm-up, the lower your FTP. Fact! I’m slow to warm up. Many of the online FTP tests don’t include a sufficient warm-up. If I extend the warm-up, I can achieve a higher FTP score. However I don’t extend the warm-ups. Why? If I achieve a higher FTP by warming up more, my ego may swell, but the warm-up is no longer reflective of my training plan where the warm-ups are also short. This means I’ll be trying (and failing) to hit numbers that are beyond my cold legs.
- Start steady, increase steady. Start moderately, don’t go out too hard and don’t be overconfident. Use this time to settle in, find the perfect cadence and relax.
- Choose your cadence and gearing. Somewhere around 90rpm is ideal for most, plus or minus 5%. Don’t afraid to change gear, although this is usually a sign of tiredness. I prefer to stick to the same gear with a comfortable cadence near 90rpm, increasing slightly as the test goes on.
- Distract yourself. Focus on form, on breathing, on position. Anything not to think about the pain. Loud music can help. Some watch videos, but I find I need every ounce of focus to hit my numbers.
- Concentrate. Don’t drift off. Your numbers will suffer. You need to maintain the perfect FTP zen, focused without quite feeling the pain.
- Be in the moment. Don’t think about how long is left, focus only on the next minute and then repeat. Completing the perfect FTP test is as much mental as physical.
- Learn. Every test is a chance to learn your best pacing strategy, your target FTP change and more.
How do I know my FTP test was accurate?
You will feel sick, faint. In the final minutes you will have sounded akin to a porn star in a masochist movie. Now there’s something to aim for.