Completing an FTP test will help set your cycling training zones to get the most out of your power meter during triathlon training and racing. Here’s how.

Your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) is the average maximum power you can sustain for an hour on the bike, measured in watts. Blasting yourself for an hour when not in a racing situation is a colossal physical and mental challenge, not to mention a serious session that would take a lot of recovery.

FTP is the average maximum power you can sustain for an hour on the bike

Instead, a 20-minute all-out effort where you’ll try and eke out every watt your muscle fibres can generate is a great alternative – and that’s exactly what we’ll cover here.

Why do an FTP test?

FTP is the most well-known power metric for good reason – it will form the basis of all your bike training, setting zones to enable the best quality sessions, giving you ranges for pacing at each triathlon distance and helping you judge improvement throughout the season and from year to year. Regular FTP tests keep this (hopefully rising) figure up to date.

Read our guide on Why Train With A Power Meter For Triathlon for more.

Preparing for your FTP test

Given the importance of the FTP test’s outcome, establishing a clear and repeatable protocol for yourself will give you the most meaningful data for test-to-test comparison. This means taking into account both the test setup itself and how rested you are when you complete it.

Your FTP test is best tackled with fairly fresh legs, so working it into your schedule following a couple of days of easy recovery training will give you the best chance of completing the test strongly.

Try to standardise your pre-test routine as much as possible. Hydrate yourself with the same type and amount of drink each time, eat the same breakfast and try to test at the same time of day with the same pre-test warm up.

FTP testing on a turbo trainer

Given the need for most northern hemisphere athletes to train indoors during the winter, when you can also do plenty of interval work to increase your bike power, testing on a trainer is a great way to approximate lab conditions and keep your training zones current.

Get your setup dialled in by controlling as many elements as possible. This could include wearing the same clothes, maximising airflow with a fan and using the same resistance settings on the turbo.

A pumping playlist of tunes will help you overcome the mental challenges of testing on a turbo trainer while keeping a cold drink on hand will help to keep your core temperature in check.

FTP testing on the road

When race season is approaching and the majority of bike training switches to the outdoors, it makes sense to test your legs on the road too. You’re likely to find that your FTP figure will be higher on the road than indoors. This is down to factors such as the wind cooling you down, the mental stimulus of being out in the open and even bike sway giving more natural biomechanics.

If you’re completing your test on the road, always keep to the same course and try to test in as similar wind and weather conditions as possible. Controlling ‘fair test’ conditions is definitely harder on the road with other traffic to be wary of, so pick a course with minimum turns, traffic lights, roundabouts or big hills that will cause a freewheeling downhill on the other side.

FTP test protocol

Warm-up

The FTP test is 20-minutes of leg-burning max-wattage output, so a good warm-up is essential. Spin easy for 10 minutes varying cadence, then put in a progressive five-minute effort in to get the legs and heart ready for what’s coming up before easy spinning again for another five minutes. Let your heart rate drop again before hitting the start button for your test.

Pacing

Despite the FTP test being characterised as an all-out effort, it should still be largely aerobic. Tip too far into your anaerobic system and you probably won’t make it to the end.

Good pacing is therefore paramount to get good data at the end of your test, but it’s not always simple to achieve. Go out too hard and you’ll pop before the end, unable to keep up the power. Ride too easy and you won’t get a true reflection of your fitness.

Pace as you go

One way to pace your FTP test is to constantly asses yourself as you go. To paraphrase Tour de France yellow jersey holder, hour-record holder and time trial specialist Chris Boardman – if you’re sure you can make it to the end, you’re not going hard enough; if you know you can’t make it to the end, you’re done for already. So, what you’re looking for is that sweet spot where you’re not quite sure you can complete it.

One benefit of this option is that you can also choose ride without viewing your cycling computer – allowing you to focus on your breathing and how your legs feel as opposed to being fixated on your current wattage.

Pace in sections

Another great approach is to split the 20 minutes into four five-minute sections, starting off hard, but holding a little something back so that you can increase your average power for each five-minute interval until you’re working at your maximum during the final effort.

How often should you do an FTP test?

Preparation for your FTP test will vary depending on your training phase. If you’re doing lots of focused work to build your power on the bike, then planning an FTP test every four to six weeks will help you gauge your improvements and set the most accurate training zones as your fitness increases.

Regular testing also requires regular resting beforehand and recovery afterwards, so if you’re more concerned with maintaining bike strength while working on your swimming and running, testing less regularly – perhaps every eight to 10 weeks – will mean less disruption to your overall training consistency.

Whatever the frequency of testing you choose, your last pre-race test should be about four to six weeks out from your goal event to help you create a scientific pacing plan.

How to set your cycling power training zones

Once you’ve got your average power for the test, times this by 0.95. This calculation is designed to offset the difference in time between your true FTP – an hour’s riding at maximal effort – and this shorter test.

Entering your final FTP figure into many only training platforms will provide you with your zones automatically. If you’re using a good old spreadsheet to log your training, you can calculate your zones using the chart below, which can be found in the seminal cycling power training guidebook, Training and Racing with a Power Meter by Hunter Allen and Andrew Coggan.

The latest edition of Training and Racing with a Power Meter was released in spring 2019, updated for the latest technology and training methods. If you’re interested in diving deeper into power, it’s an indispensable guide.

  • Zone 1 – Below 55% of FTP
  • Zone 2 – 55% to 74% of FTP
  • Zone 3 – 75% to 89% of FTP
  • Zone 4 – 90% to 104% of FTP
  • Zone 5 – 105% to 120% of FTP
  • Zone 6 – More than 120% of FTP

Armed with your training zones, you can tailor your sessions to best meet your goals, ensure you’re not going too hard in recovery sessions and get maximum bang-for-buck during structured workouts.

What’s next?

So, you’ve sweated it out, got your FTP figure and set your zones. Now comes the fun part, training hard to see that number rise. Check out our Power Meter Training For Triathlon article to get started.

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