The Indoor Cycling Association is committed to helping instructors understand some of the more challenging aspects of teaching indoor cycling, such as power and heart rate training. To this end, we bring you some of the top educators and writers in our industry. This article is by guest contributor Lenita Anthony, M.S., master educator for Stages Cycling.
I’m Not a Cyclist…So Why Do I Need to Know My FTP?
Maybe, like me, you have had non-cyclist students ask you why they need to know their FTP. Or maybe you’re an instructor who wonders the same thing: Does everyone who comes to class really need to get caught up in the functional threshold power numbers game when their goals have nothing to do with ever riding a bike outdoors, let alone “getting faster” or racing?
My answer is a resounding yes! If you are fortunate enough to teach on an indoor bike with accurate (meaning measured vs. estimated) power, the benefits of knowing one’s FTP are significant for anyone coming to class hoping for improvement or change…which in my experience is everyone!
First, let’s review what FTP is: Functional threshold power is the average wattage one can sustain in a maximal effort for one hour. Unlike expensive laboratory tests that define the intensity at which certain physiologic events take place (e.g., lactate threshold, OBLA, MLSS), FTP is a “functional” value; it is what you actually can (will) do, and as such, can be affected by psychological elements as well.
FTP involves no expensive testing and is easily measured on any bike equipped with a power meter.
Using FTP as a benchmark, personalized power-training zones can be defined based on the physiologic stress they induce and the energy system(s) utilized.
Quantification and Customization
Indoor cycling participants who know their FTP are able to quantify the work done in class. This is not just in absolute terms, like knowing they walked or ran three miles; FTP allows quantification that is relative to each individual’s personal ability.
Consider the following example: Two cyclists are riding outdoors. They are riding together, but for one rider with a high degree of cycling fitness, the pace is comfortable and easy. At 60% of his FTP, he is riding in what would be his “endurance” zone and could do so for hours. For the other rider, who has not spent much time on a bike and is far less fit, the pace is quite difficult and barely sustainable. He is at or even over his threshold power for much of the ride. The two are riding the same speed over the same terrain, but they are not doing the same workout. The relative training stress is much greater for the untrained rider, and the effect of the workout will be very different.
Our goal as indoor cycle instructors is to help each of our riders get the same workout relative to their current capacities. When riders know their FTP and associated zones, the workout is scalable and instantly customized; all fitness levels can ride together and reap similar benefits.
Quantification matters; like medicine, dosage drives outcomes when it comes to exercise. Dose too high? Unwanted negative side-effects are likely to be the result. The right dose of training stress exposes the body to more than it is accustomed to, but not so much that it overwhelms its ability to adapt. When each rider knows their FTP, they can adhere to an exercise dose that “fits” their current fitness status—one that is challenging, yet realistic and doable.
While not every non-cyclist who attends your class has the same reason for being there, it’s safe to say that all hope to derive certain benefits from regular attendance. Increased cardiovascular fitness and endurance, decreased disease risk, weight loss—all of these desirable outcomes are common expectations. Yet those expectations are not always realized. And when expectations don’t meet up with reality, well, it’s a recipe for disillusionment and discontinuation. If everyone in class knows their FTP, you as the instructor are FAR better equipped to help them meet their expectations and deliver the results they are seeking.
Weight loss is one of the most common changes riders are seeking when they come to class. They know that indoor cycling is a great way to burn calories—and they’re right. It can help create the negative energy balance necessary to lose weight without extreme or excessive caloric restriction. Power output is the determinant of how much energy (kcals) is expended during a ride, so observing this metric throughout the ride can help the non-cyclist maximize the energy deficit they want to create.
Take the rider who has faithfully been taking class for months, trying to pedal faster and faster to match the high cadence she sees others doing. She has found that if she takes all the resistance off, she can indeed turn the pedals almost as fast as they do. However, now that she is observing her power and knows her FTP, she has a framework to evaluate this strategy. She can observe what it does to her wattage and, consequently, the amount of energy she is expending. What power zone could she maintain if she lowered her cadence but increased her resistance?
She discovers that by decreasing her rpm by 10, she now can generate 20 more watts and maintain the effort longer than she could at the very high rpm she was previously riding. Her new strategy will be more effective at helping her meet her weight loss goals because she is now doing more work.
Another important consideration is that as FTP rises with chronic training, so does one’s calorie-burning potential within a given time frame (e.g., a 45-minute class). When FTP rises, every zone takes an upward shift, so doing the “same” ride (in terms of relative intensity) now requires more energy (kcals) to complete, yet the perceived difficulty to the rider is the same.
This simply means that as you get more fit, you have the ability to burn more calories at the same perceived exertion. But without the benefit of working with FTP, the rider may never recognize this and make the required changes in cadence, resistance, or simply pushing herself harder.
FTP serves as a baseline against which future comparisons can be made. It is a snapshot of a rider at a particular moment in time; with subsequent re-tests, progress (or lack thereof) is objectively verified. Many of the healthful physiologic changes that accompany increased cardiovascular fitness are not outwardly visible, but if a rider’s tested FTP increases, they know that improved cardiovascular and muscular efficiency are responsible for it. The sense of accomplishment that an increase in FTP brings represents more than just a number!
If, on the other hand, FTP does NOT improve over time, this too is valuable information, serving as an alert that the exercise dose (be it intensity, duration, and/or frequency) may need to be altered. Knowing your FTP and retesting it over time can help determine the effectiveness of a training program, so time invested in training is not wasted.
For the cyclist and non-cyclist alike, knowing FTP brings an increased focus into every ride. Having a specific goal for a segment (e.g., “Can you keep your power in Zone 5 for the next 3 minutes?”) not only helps riders understand what to do, it gives them a clear objective to focus on. This helps them stay engaged and accountable to themselves.
Goal-based workouts ward off the complacency, distraction, and boredom that can accompany classes that have poorly defined objectives. Not only does time pass more quickly when a rider has a strong focus, but they are more likely to push themselves through the difficult sections of the ride, less likely to give up, and ultimately will have better results.
Knowing one’s FTP can help strengthen the mind-body connection, or sensory awareness in regards to exercise. New exercisers can feel anxious or unsure about what certain sensations mean; they may have difficulty discerning between the normal mild to moderate discomfort that accompanies vigorous exercise and more significant signs of fatigue or injury.
Knowing one’s FTP gives the rider an additional and important bit of information to help assess this. For example, by observing their power output relative to their known FTP, they may be better able to differentiate, and accept as normal, sensations like heaviness in the legs, increased respiratory rate, etc. Or conversely, is the discomfort occurring at a percentage of their FTP they know to be beyond their capacity to maintain for the intended duration?
Combining both sensory input and objective data helps increase “exercise intelligence” and makes the rider better able to gauge when to push themselves and when to back off.
Knowledge is Power
Probably the most common objection I hear from instructors on the use of FTP by non-cyclists is the fear that bringing “too much science” (i.e., FTP) into the class mix will somehow diminish the fun factor. To them I would ask: When did getting a results-oriented workout and having fun become mutually exclusive?!
Your personality, your cueing, your energy—all of these are what make class fun, and none of them need to go away when FTP is introduced. But studies on long-term exercise adherence show there is something even more powerful than fun that keeps your clients coming back: mastery. Knowing their personal FTP sets riders up for successes that lead to mastery and keeps them focused on themselves vs. others. Both of these boost self-efficacy. Creating a sense of self-efficacy is empowering and can have a beneficial spillover effect into other aspects of their health and wellness. Why would we as fitness pros NOT want this powerful health benefit for our clients?
So now what? How to you prepare your riders for an FTP test, what kind of FTP test should you do, and how do you coach those FTP tests?
If you are an ICA member, we’ve got you covered with the resources and profiles below. You can get a 2-week trial by signing up here.
This 5-part series will help you prepare your riders for the rigors of a longer FTP test through the use of longer intervals to improve their aerobic abilities. Below are the first three in the series:
How to Incorporate Long Intervals, Part 1: Why Longer Intervals Are Important.
How to Incorporate Long Intervals, Part 2: Preparing for an FTP Test
How to Incorporate Longer Intervals, Part 3: Progressive Programming Over 6–8 Weeks
Here is a profile that works as a great template for your longer intervals.
Below are three ways to estimate FTP: a 3-minute test, a ramp test, and the 20-minute test.
The Ultimate HIT, a profile using a 3-minute test to estimate FTP
Establishing Training Zones Using a Maximal Aerobic Power Ramp Test
The 20-Minute FTP Test: Coaching Play by Play. Includes powerful coaching cues to help motivate your riders through this tough challenge.
Need ideas for music for your FTP tests?
We’ve got six Spotify playlists, including two with several hundred high-energy songs that work really well for these assessments.
What do you do after you’ve done the test? Do the training zones confuse you?
You’ve Got Your FTP Number, Now What? This article provides the calculators for the 3-minute, the 20-minute, and the maximal aerobic power ramp tests so you can create personalized training zone cards to hand out to each rider.
Profile: Tour of the Training Zones. This detailed profile will guide your riders from Zone 1 through Zone 7 and hep them attach an RPE to each level of intensity. This profile may do more for your own understanding of coaching different levels of intensity than any you’ve ever experienced!