Functional Threshold Power (FTP) is a steady power output that you can maintain for an extended period of time. This steady power output is a great indicator of how well you will do on your group rides and races because it indicates the point where you start to fatigue and fade. Generally, if you have a higher threshold, you can ride faster. Threshold training is tough physically and mentally, which makes it a beneficial way to train. If you find these efforts very hard or intimidating, it’s likely the best training you can do!
You won’t know whether you are increasing your threshold unless you measure it first. There are a variety of methods to test your threshold. To estimate it, you can do a 20-30 minute time-trial, aiming to keep your power output steady. This wattage will be slightly higher than FTP for most people, so take 5–10% off your time-trial wattage then base your intervals off of that number. I like to start clients who are newer to threshold, training or just early in their season at the low end of threshold ranges to ensure we complete the workout and see improvement each week — 90% of FTP is a nice spot to start. After a few weeks, you will get a sense for where your threshold is based on your practice.
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Our threshold power can be expressed in absolute terms (240 watts) or in relative terms (4 watts/kilogram for a 60 kg athlete with a 240w threshold). Absolute power helps us understand why big athletes can win sprints but struggle on climbs. They likely have a higher threshold but once gravity becomes a factor riding up hills relative power (w/kg) becomes important. Power profiling is a way to see where you stand in all durations of power relative to categories of racing (cat 1, 2, etc). The important message with the power-to-weight ratio is your cycling performance is due to your hard training and also your healthy lifestyle, balanced nutrition, good sleep and recovery. Take care of yourself and you may see your FTP (power to weight) increase simply by dropping a few extra pounds.
Now that you know your threshold, how can you increase it? Here are five steps to a better threshold:
1. RIDE MORE
For example: Add 30 min to each ride and/or an extra ride each week
Increasing your riding volume each week is a time-tested method for getting better at cycling, especially if you are new to the sport. This is logical: Practice more and get better. There are limits to this because, at some point, we hit a physiological or lifestyle (work/family time) limit. If you have the time to ride more, this is your first order of business. Generally, this time should be spent at an easy, steady pace working on cadence and form to improve your efficiency and endurance.
2. PRACTICE THE TEST
For example (if your FTP = 200w): 2 sets x 20 min at 190w/3–5 min off
This may seem obvious but very often in this age of short attention spans, spin classes and trainer-videos we have forgotten that the classic 3 x 10-, 2 x 20- or 1 x 30-minute interval sessions done once or twice weekly are effective at improving cycling performance. The intervals can be built in a variety of ways. I like to keep it simple and sustainable. Take your FTP and then do the intervals at around 95% of that value (in the threshold zone) in Week 1. Be patient, and raise your wattage slightly each week, making sure you finish the workout rather than quitting because you set your threshold or target wattage too high.
3. WORK ON CADENCE
For example: 2 sets x 20 min at 190w at 70–80 rpm, if you prefer higher rpm
Another common, but often overlooked area to increase performance is cadence. Wattage (power) results from how hard you push down (force) and how quickly you pedal (velocity). It is a common mistake to disregard cadence and focus on the force. If you like to spin high rpm then try using a moderate cadence for your threshold efforts (70–80 rpm) or do higher cadence efforts (90–100 rpm) if you prefer lower cadences during hard efforts.
4. GO HARDER/SHORTER
For example: 3–6 sets x 2.5–4 min efforts at 105–125% of FTP, with equal rest
Shift the focus of the intensity days. Often athletes will do threshold for much of the year and forget the stimulus needs to change periodically. VO2 intervals are great in the weeks ahead of your competition. You can increase the wattage each session and keep the interval set the same or hold the goal wattage for longer intervals each week.
5. ALLOW FOR RECOVERY
If you can’t seem to make your threshold any higher despite doing lots of threshold intervals, it’s time to mix up your training. Many endurance athletes need more recovery to allow them to focus on quality efforts. Try doing 1–2 hard sessions weekly. The other days of the week should be easier endurance efforts with no coasting under 75% max heart rate (or in the low-end of the endurance wattage zone). Focus on cadence, skills or simply good conversation with a friend on your endurance days.
Threshold is an important aspect of cycling performance, but these efforts shouldn’t be the only interval session you do. Test your performance and progress gradually over a series of weeks to keep your fitness improving and know when it’s time to change your training stimulus.