We have set up our sled to the best of our ability via part one and part two of our bike fit series and now it’s time to turn over the cranks in earnest.
Whilst not critical, it is a great idea if at any point you wish to ensure you are getting from point A to point B as fast as humanly possible, to establish where our current form is as to guide our future training.
And this is where the confusion sets in…
Testing, both on and off the bike, serves two purposes. Yes, getting a gauge of your current fitness levels is important but providing valuable data to drive your training is as important if not more so.
We will attack testing from two angles, firstly for the rider that needs hard numbers to establish programming and secondly for the rider who simply wants a procedure to test over and over again to know they are progressing
It is not just within the cycling fraternity that testing is butchered, It’s evident across many sports and activities. How you run your test is pretty much more important than which test you select.
Let’s address the key principles of testing to ensure you aren’t undertaking maximal efforts with minimal benefit.
We need to make sure what we are testing is actually specific to what we are trying to improve. Of course, we wouldn’t want to perform a six second maximal power output test if our aim was to assess our big aerobic engines.
That may seem straightforward but there are examples of coaches using tools such as rowing ergometers as a priority test for elite level downhill mountain bikers. Rowing and sending a carbon sled downhill faster than anybody else on the mountain look vastly different and not overly specific.
A test has a high validity when it tests exactly what it says it is supposed to test. Things can become an issue when more than one component of fitness can have an affect on testing results. For example, many of us at one stage or another would have undertook the old “sit and reach” test to assess hamstring flexibility. Well, for those that couldn’t even get close to the bloody box and blacked out as a result from the strain of simply trying to lunge at your toes, the test is also affected by lower back extensibility and the flexibility in those baby cows of the calf muscles. Whether you are male or female, the position of your pelvis, the length of your arms can also all have an effect on the result.
Whilst many modern tests have reached a point of high validity, it’s important to keep this in the back of your mind. Is this test targeting what I want it to target and ONLY that?
For mine, the most important factor of testing. That the test can be performed in the same manner over multiple trials and it reproduces consistent results. It seems pretty straight forward, especially for outdoor testing on the road or trail. If you performed the test with a tail wind and the next effort with a howling head wind, we know those two results aren’t going to be the same and thus voiding any possible information on improvement within your training.
But some of the other variables that we don’t tend to consider are;
- Time of day
- Previous days nutrition
- Previous days sleep
- Previous days work/study
- Testing apparatus (which bike)
- Power meters and heart rate monitors
Even a minor one, let’s say you test on a loop near your home. Even though you may test on the exact same course, even starting from a different place can make it difficult to analyse the numbers to assess improvement or lack thereof.
So which test to run?
Currently the most utilised test amongst cyclists is the Functional Threshold Power test. It is a calculation of the maximal number of watts one can sustain for an hour in the saddle. The key word being “sustained”, this is not a peaks and valleys measure, rather an indication of steady effort.
Many training programs, both on the road or on the trainer are utilising a measure of FTP to form the basis of personalised training zones.
The gold standard is to set out on a 60 minute time trial effort but unless you have perfect conditions this can be impractical for many. A shorter version within 20 minutes is what most folks will use and whilst it can slightly overestimate the FTP if you have quads built on top of quads with the ability to sprint like a manx missile or cyclists who are able to operate anaerobically (without drawing upon oxygen) for a lot longer.
But the MOST important thing when it comes to the FTP testing, is whatever machine you are going to be using to train on is the machine you test on. It’s certainly not uncommon for one to complete a FTP test on an indoor Watt Bike, an indoor trainer and another out of the road and all return slightly differing results.
Rather than be concerned with which one is exactly right, it’s more critical to commit to training on the machine you tested on and you won’t have an issue.
Many of the indoor trainer programs including Zwift which are ever so popular today have inbuilt FTP testing protocols as the training programs featured within these programs are based off FTP.
How to Find & Test Your Cycling FTP — Official Instructions | ZwiftFunctional Threshold Power (FTP) represents the highest wattage you can expect to put out, on average, for an hour. If a cyclist knows their FTP, they’re ready to tackle training in a smart way. Want to know yours? Follow the instructions outlined here, and you’ll be knocking out your fitness goals in no time.
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Determining FTP is one of the best ways to accurately assess your fitness level. Follow the instructions below to find yours.
1. There are two ways to find your FTP on Zwift: the ramp test and the standard test.
2. First, the ramp test.
a. Find it on the pulldown on the workout screen.
b. It starts with an easy warm-up and incrementally increases until failure.
c. Plan on four-to-eight minutes of hard effort during the ramp test.
d. The entire test, with a warm-up and cool down, will take about fifteen-to-twenty minutes.
3. Next up, the standard FTP test. There’s a one-hour version and forty-five-minute version on Zwift. You can access both from the workout screen.
a. The test itself is just 20 minutes. The rest of the workout is a warm-up. If you have a smart trainer, the warm-up can utilize ERG mode).
i. Once the 20-minute test begins, Zwift automatically turns off ERG mode so you can control your power output rather than relying on the trainer to do it for you.
b. Going in, know that it’s going to hurt. If you’re an experienced cyclist or triathlete, you probably have an idea about what sort of wattage you can maintain. If you’re new to FTP tests, start at a pace that feels challenging but sustainable for the first 10 minutes.
i. After the first 10 minutes, try to increase your power incrementally. Many find an additional 5 or 10 watts doable.
c. Last five minutes: give it your all. You should finish with nothing left in the proverbial tank. Remember, pain is only temporary.
d. Give yourself a high five. We’re sending you a Ride On from Zwift HQ!
Zwift is the app that makes indoor training fun. Connecting cyclists and runners around the world, Zwift mixes the intensity of training with the immersive and engaging play of gaming. Ride or run virtual worlds with a community that motivates you at every mile. You'll get faster and stronger and have a blast doing it.
You can become the undisputed king of the mountain, leave your competitors in your wake to become the sprint jersey holder, or simply join your friends for a leisurely run on a Sunday morning.
And you can make fun fast day or night, even if it’s raining, snowing, or just plain awful outside. Got goals? We’ve got a training plan for you that adjusts automatically depending on your schedule. Just want a workout? We have more than a thousand to choose from, or you can build a custom workout.
Just download our app, connect your bike to your indoor trainer, and start your 7-day free trial. And if you want to run, you can do that for free. Just download our app, connect your treadmill or cadence tracker, and you’ll be off and Zwifting in no time.
The typical protocol for finding your FTP on the road with a power meter is a popular method by cycling coach Hunter Allen and exercise physiologists Dr. Andy Coggan and Stephen McGregor (Training-Racing-with-Power-Meter) is featured below;
- Find a road with a climbing grade between 2-4% with no stops, traffic lights etc.
- Warm Up: 10 minutes easy with 3 x 1 minute quick cadence with 1 minute easy
recoveries followed by a 5 minute easy.
- 5 minute full gas effort
- 10 minute easy recovery
- The Test – 20 minutes all out, full gas, balls to the wall SUSTAINED effort
- Cool down and calm down.
- Multiply the 20 minute by 0.90 if you would consider yourself more of a sprinter and 0.95 if you are more of a sustained effort mountain goat.
“I don’t have a power meter or indoor trainer”
Absolutely not an issue!
Our next point of call is using a heart rate monitor like the days of yesteryear.
Firstly we need to find a baseline heart rate or “resting heart rate”. To get this it is best to either wear the monitor overnight and collect the pulse first thing in the morning upon waking. There is no time where you will be more “resting”. This is the number we watch to see if long term fitness changes are occurring.
Now we need to find the maximum and it must be done on a bike (our specific principles mentioned earlier).
- Find a steady hill free of stops.
- Stay seated whilst you climb your legs off for somewhere around 5 minutes
- Once you cannot go any quicker, it’s time to launch.
- Perform and all out, wrestling the bike 20 second effort (no shorter).
- We should be at or very close to a maximum.
You may have heard of the old equation 220 – Your current age equation to find your maximal heart rate. Please don’t try and use this, the founders of this equation themselves have even had to acknowledge that they basically made it up and is not a great identifier for maximal heart rate.
“I don’t even have a heart rate monitor”
Now we get to go old school and design our own time trial. It may feel like the most ghetto option, simply you, your legs, your bike and a stopwatch. But every professional team, coach and doctor (cyclingnews evans confirms fitness test taken with ferrari) have different tests they return to, both on road and off road.
Some teams will use the same climb year after year as their test. There is no reason you cannot do the same. Yes, it won’t allow you to structure your training to a high degree of personalization but something is better than nothing and if we aren’t assessing, we are guessing. Just remembers the principles of testing mentioned earlier in this article when designing your own personal time trial to return to time and time again.
In our next article, we will start to discuss where these numbers fit and how to use them to guide your training.
Good luck and god speed, because only the cycling lords know how truly butal maximal testing can be!
Check out more from Todd here;
Todd has spent his entire life on some form of two-wheeled sled. From lugging a shovel around on the handlebars of his BMX as a kid to mountain biking and road as he matured, if it’s had two wheels, he has done some skids on it.
Having spent time working within the bicycle retail industry and also completing countless bike fits, he has since obtained a Bachelor’s in Sports Science along with a Masters in Strength & Conditioning to complement his time spent within National and Olympic level sporting organizations. He has a keen interest in overall Health and Well-being with the greater aim of using the bicycle as a vehicle to give back to the community.
Find Todd and Shepherd Well-being here