Cyclocross

The Transformative Power of the FTP Test – Bicycling

In 2010, Nick Paglia looked in the mirror and saw a tired, heavy face. He didn’t like the weight he’d gained or how it made him feel. Inspired to change, Nick grabbed his dusty mountain bike and went out for his first ride in a decade. He’s barely stopped pedaling since.

After Nick’s best cyclocross season, in 2017, he was sidelined by a herniated disc for six months and began to reevaluate his training methods. Post-injury, Nick rejoined my Monday night Back-to-Work ride (a.k.a. #bringthewatts) on Zwift. The BTW ride focuses on sustained, fast-paced, and race-simulating power. It teaches riders how to pace a long, difficult effort and builds their functional threshold power (FTP), or the average power they can sustain for an hour. I’m a huge fan of using FTP efforts in training. By riding the razor’s edge of how hard you can push, you not only train your legs and lungs, but you also teach yourself to pace and meter out the hardest efforts. I connected with Nick through my Zwift ride, and he realized his single-minded focus on raising his power, with no attention to mobility or core strength, wasn’t going to cut the mustard if he wanted to improve without getting injured again. That’s when he joined CIS Training Systems, my coaching company.

Like many programs, the CIS system bases athletes’ workout efforts on their latest FTP tests—typically performed every four to eight weeks. This is going to ruffle some feathers, but at CIS, we train our athletes specifically to take the FTP test. At 13 weeks into Nick’s training, I programmed a three-week block of six FTP tests, twice per week on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a 90-minute ride (no rest day) on Wednesdays.

If this sounds intense, hear me out: I believe riders need to practice FTP tests to perform them at their best. It’s just like taking prep tests before the SATs, and it’s also why I focus my BTW ride on FTP efforts. For long-term training and workout programming, this practice helps athletes consistently hit their potential on FTP tests and establish a more reliable training benchmark—there’s no questioning whether they should or could have gone harder.

The high and regular frequency of the six tests also gives riders the opportunity to learn about what prerace or hard workout protocols set them up for success, as well as how they can best recover to ride hard again in 48 hours. And while it’s not the main purpose, six FTP tests will always bring more watts by the end.

For many of my athletes, like Nick, the block of tests is transformative. Too many cyclists freak out ahead of an FTP test because of the word “test.” That anxiety can raise their heart rate and hurt the result, but through this block, riders become better mentally and emotionally prepared to work hard. Repeating the FTP test six times in three weeks gives athletes the structure, process, and confidence to get through it every time.

“That first week of FTP tests was scary,” Nick told me. “But I felt a sense of accomplishment and then asked what I could do better.” The following weeks gave him the opportunity to find the exact gearing and cadence (92 rpm) his body preferred; he dialed in a larger-than-usual dinner the night before; and he developed a stretching and foam-rolling routine to prep his legs for that second effort of the week.

“As the tests went on, I saw my heart rate come down significantly. I was controlling my breathing, I got my nutrition worked out, and I was also getting stronger,” Nick said. “What I learned on FTP tests has translated to everything, even long rides. My body position is better. I can relax more on efforts. I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. It’s taught me to be smarter on the bike.”

This mind-set change, embracing discomfort and difficult efforts, has made Nick more motivated for the upcoming fall cyclocross season. “I used to find excuses to skip hard days,” said Nick. “Now, no matter how busy I am, I find ways to make them happen.”

With the six-test block behind him, Nick performs an FTP test every three months to assess his progress. “I look forward to it, and I don’t care about the number now,” he says. “Well I do care about the number, but I know it will show progress.”

Before I get into the details of the test, understand that while FTP is an important measure of current fitness and an incredible training tool, it is not the metric, nor does it define your total fitness. The result is just a snapshot in time. Approach these tests as measurements in your overall cycling résumé. Don’t get overwhelmed, and have fun with it. Read on for a deeper dive into preparing for, executing, and recovering from an FTP test.