What Is An FTP Test & Can It Improve Your Performance?
FTP, or functional threshold power, is one of those terms that veteran cyclists and coaches toss around casually. But it can be more than a little confusing for newer riders. Don’t worry – we’ll break it down for you.
Simply put, FTP is the average number of watts that a rider can sustain over an hour. Ideally, it refers to a steady effort, not the up-and-down levels you might see looking at your power from a cyclocross race or super-hilly ride.
FTP, which is typically calculated by a 20-minute test, can be a useful number to know, explains cycling coach Jane Marshall.
“It’s a number that you can track, so you can see improvements as you test regularly,” she says. “A lot of the time, we ride and think we’re getting faster, but FTP is one way to know for sure if we’re getting faster, versus just thinking it because of a group ride that went well or a good day on the hills.”
Plus, you’ll need to know the number if a coach prescribes training zones with power.
While FTP can be helpful, Marshall says, it’s also “one of the most misunderstood things in cycling.”
Here’s everything you need to know about FTP, and how it can improve your ride.
How do you measure FTP?
First of all, you need a power meter. Then, you need a place where you can ride for at least 20 minutes straight. Optimally, you would test in a one-hour time trial, but that isn’t realistic for most riders.
Instead, the standard procedure is the following: Calibrate your power meter. Warm up for 10-15 minutes, then cycle at an all-out effort for 5 minutes, followed by 10 minutes of easy spinning. Finally, cycle at an all-out effort for 20 minutes, aiming for a pace that’s your hardest consistent effort – it should remain steady, and not undulate. (For easier calculation, make sure you press the lap button before you start your 20-minute effort). After that, cycle easy for about 10 minutes for a cool-down.
Then, take the average power of that 20-minute effort and multiply it by .95 to get your FTP. For example, if you get 200 watts, your FTP will be 190 watts.
It doesn’t matter if you test inside or outdoors. Just make sure you ride in repeatable conditions, says FasCat Coaching founder Frank Overton. If you test outside, aim for a gentle hill with a 20-minute or longer climb, or at least a stretch of road that won’t involve frequent stops or steep downhills.
Can FTP tests help improve my performance?
Absolutely, for two reasons. First, testing every few weeks gives you a great indicator as to whether your training plan is working the way that you want it to. Secondly, it pushes you to do a relatively hard workout regularly, which can be great for someone who hates intervals and tends to skip out on intensity work.
How should I use FTP results in my training?
Coaches will often use FTP when programming workouts in order to get more specific about interval sets. In fact, it’s Overton’s primary reason for wanting his athletes to test, as FTP doesn’t just give you a threshold number; it helps create “power zones,” similar to heart rate zones like recovery, endurance, temp, VO2, and sprint, which can be used to hone your training.
More importantly, regular testing can show progress, or lack thereof. So while it isn’t a training tool by itself, analyzing FTP results does reveal if your training is working for you—or if you need to change something up to see better results.
A steady increase is ideal, but don’t expect big leaps. Simon Marshall, author of The Brave Athlete, says a 2.5 percent increase in FTP in a training cycle (around 6-8 weeks) is a good power increase. Anything more is unsustainable. If you see your FTP decline or stay stagnant for more than two tests in a row, it’s time to consult with your coach.
How do I know if my FTP is good?
To get a sense of how your FTP stacks up, Overton recommends converting it to a power-to-weight ratio—your FTP divided by your weight in kilograms. Overton says the average newer rider with some fitness will hover in the 2.0 range, while top cyclists in the world hover around 7.0. That number won’t affect your training at all, but it’s a good way to see how you compare to other riders.
What if my FTP sucks?
Don’t stress about it. These numbers don’t exist in a vacuum. Your FTP will fluctuate depending on your season of training and current health status, plus any number of external factors during testing. A harsh headwind, extreme heat or cold, or even just a stressful week at work could all have an effect.
While having a good FTP test is ideal, just remember: You might be in a phase of training where your endurance is improving for longer, easier efforts, or your high-end power for quick bursts is on the rise.
So rather than fixate on one bad test, keep training steadily, and you should see that number rise over time.
How often should I test my FTP?
If you get a number you’re not happy with, it’s tempting to repeat the test as soon as possible. Resist the urge. Testing monthly is perfectly fine, and since it’s an all-out effort, you don’t want to do it too often.