By: Gordy Paulson, Level 1 USAC Coach and Master/Elite Coach with Peaks Coaching Group
You’ve purchased a power meter. You’ve trained hard and seen progress. You’ve spent hours on the trainer doing more 20-minute sweet spot intervals than you care to count. You’ve done the Functional Threshold Power (FTP) testing - multiple times - to measure your threshold. For a while, you excitedly watched your 20-minute test numbers rise but then, they stall.
What’s this!? Does this mean you’ve reached the limit of your FTP improvement? Does it mean your training is no longer working? Are you doing the wrong workouts? Are you not trying hard enough? Does this suggest that you should purchase a different power meter?
All too often we assume diligent training leads to linear increasing FTP. This simply is not the case. Threshold improvement is realized, for lack of a better phrase, in “fits and starts”. There are times when improvement follows a linear trajectory. At other times, however, FTP can appear to diminishing despite continued training. FTP can also appear to be “stuck” at a number despite the athlete’s efforts to improve. If this happens to you, what should you do?
To begin, I recommend checking some basic metrics. Are you getting enough rest? Knowing your Training Stress Balance (TSB) can help guide this. Are your hard workouts hard enough and your easy days easy enough? A cycling power meter can be indispensable for this type assessment. If neither of these seem to apply you may need to dig deeper.
Change It Up
First take a long look at where you are, and how you got there. Are you doing the same workouts day after day and week after week? You may actually be getting too good at doing those workouts. Your body has gotten “efficient” at them and you aren’t triggering adaptations any longer.
Remember, you need to stress the system to send the adaptation messages. Maybe it’s time to change things up. Consider doing a really long ride if that’s not something you usually do.
It might be a good time to vary the workout pattern. If you do a rest day Monday, hard day Tuesday, easy recovery Wednesday, hard skills day Thursday, easy day Friday and two longer ride days on the weekend, try moving those around. Perhaps do an easy day Monday, hard days Tuesday and Wednesday, easy day Thursday, rest day Friday and long rides on the weekend. Give it a couple weeks and see if things get shaken up.
While it isn’t the first choice of many athletes, one way to change things up is to rest more. Often a “training vacation” of 3 or 4 days is followed by a noticeable improvement in performance.
Move Your VO2max Level Up
Increasing FTP does not increase VO2max. To do that, you need to do VO2max level training. Here’s the thing, VO2max can act as an upper level “ceiling” for FTP improvement.
When you first begin training to improve FTP it’s likely that there’s a pretty wide range of power between the two energy levels. But, as you improve your FTP numbers they will get closer to the VO2max level. Eventually, you’ll reach a point where more FTP training doesn’t have an effect on increasing FTP (although, as explained below, it may improve your durational window at FTP).
I have observed that for many serious amateur cyclists who train hard, their FTP number is generally in the range of 75-85% of their VO2max wattage. In this situation focusing workouts on improving VO2max can be beneficial and might open the door to increasing FTP.
Note, however, getting improvements in VO2max is difficult. Improvements do not come in large numbers. Additionally, there is an increased danger of overtraining when your training focus is predominantly on VO2max.
Change Your FTP Focus from Watts to Duration
The concept that there was a power output / duration connection for effectively establishing training zone targets really took off as a result of Hunter Allen and Andy Coggan’s ground breaking book, Training and Racing with a Power Meter, (Training and Racing with a Power Meter). There Dr. Coggan stated, “FTP is the highest power that a rider can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for approximately one hour.” (emphasis is mine).
Note, it says “approximately”. But, “one-hour” became the standard for duration. Unfortunately, a static 1-hour duration for FTP output doesn’t apply universally. Some authors have indicated that the 1-hour duration for threshold output applies only to about 50% of training athletes.
FTP is an estimate of the power output that corresponds most closely with the maximal metabolic steady state, what’s more commonly referred to as “threshold.” In contrast to VO2max, which is primarily limited by the cardiovascular system’s ability to deliver O2-carrying blood to contracting muscle, FTP is primarily determined by the ability to balance aerobic ATP production via mitochondrial respiration with ATP utilization. This does not happen in the same duration for everyone.
As the concept of Functional Threshold Power took hold, coaches and athletes began to implement training using FTP derived targets. By using FTP testing to set targets, amateur cyclists made a giant leap up in the level of their performance. It was a revolutionary concept that made a meaningful difference. The label “FTP” is used in general as a level of output (power) sustainable over time. Initially the time component was said to be 1-hour. That was easy to measure and fit well with a protocol for testing. As training tools progressed, however, it became clear that the time component varied from one athlete to another.
Power training theory has advanced in the past 10 years. With the release of powerful analytical training software such as WKO4 (WKO4) it became feasible to look at the concept of FTP in a more robust way. WKO4 introduced the concept of TTE (Time to Exhaustion). TTE is he maximum duration for which power equal to mFTP (“modeled Functional Threshold Power, i.e. a concept too broad for discussion here) can be maintained.
This development recognized that the sustainable “threshold” power of a cyclist can occupy different durations for different athletes. Also, this TTE can change for each athlete in ways related to what was happening with the athlete’s threshold. Given this expansion of analytical capability, I believe we should not assume that FTP should always be based upon a 1-hour effort.
So, how does this relate to being stuck at a stubborn FTP level? It may be that your training efforts are resulting in an improvement of your TTE while your FTP stays the same. This is not a bad thing.
Change Your Training Focus
While it might not help push your FTP higher, a change of focus for your training may help you become a stronger, more effective, rider.
Don’t get fixated on one number i.e., your “FTP”. Success on the bike, especially in competitive situations, is related to a number of factors, some not even physiological. And, in the physiological realm, it is related to more than having an enormous FTP number. Altering your training emphasis might impact your riding success more than single-mindedly chasing a higher FTP.
For example, this might be a good time to focus on “training” your recovery. Recovery is a process which benefits from training. Just as you repeat intervals to get stronger, repeating a pattern of the recovery process will help your body adjust to prompt effective recovery. Armed with improved recovery you might discover that you can respond to pack surges, or deal with rolling terrain much more effectively - even if your FTP remains the same.
Repeatability might be another area for focus. Training your ability to do FTP level efforts for less than your TTE, but doing an increasing number of them as your training progresses may yield another trump card which can be played when the numbers are pinned on or your ride mates decide to ramp up the ride. You may find that the ability to repeat 5 or 6 efforts near your FTP for less than your TTE can gain more advantage over someone who might have a higher FTP that was attained by a steady diet of 20-minute efforts.
We get better at the things we do over and over. If that’s doing 20-minute efforts, then that’s where your strength will lie. But if that is the only “card in your hand” you might come up short for many riding or racing situations where the intensity is not required for 20-minutes but is required for shorter, repeating durations with, in many cases, less recovery time.
So, What Does It All Mean?
Don’t get discouraged if your FTP seems “stuck”. Don’t panic. Assess what you’re doing. Develop a new strategy and implement it. Be patient and persistent. In the end, you’ll have the FTP you deserve!
Gordy Paulson is a USAC Level 1 Coach. He has coached athletes to National Championships and, as a former Category 1 Road Racer has claimed a number of National and State Championships. Gordy is a Master/Elite Coach with Peaks Coaching Group.