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How to determine functional threshold power (FTP) and cycling training zones

If you’re serious about getting faster on the bike, there are two training tools you shouldn’t be without a heart rate monitor and a cycling power meter.

While a heart rate monitor is critical for determining how the body is responding to training sessions, how well you’ve recovered in between workouts, and if you’re hydrated, a cycling power meter is just as essential of a training tool.

Use this guide to learn more about how a power meter can help you determine your functional threshold power (FTP) and establish training zones to fine-tune your workouts and improve your pacing during a cycling race.

Lactate threshold versus functional threshold power (FTP)

During heavy exertion, lactic acid is produced in the muscles. When you begin to produce lactate faster than your body can remove it, you’ve reached your lactate threshold. If you go beyond your lactate threshold, your body will no longer be able to sustain the work load and eventually force you to slow down.

While it is possible to raise your lactate threshold to maintain a higher intensity level for a longer period of time, you’ll need to establish your training zones to focus your workouts.

Your true lactate threshold can only be determined through blood tests using expensive laboratory equipment, but Dr. Andy Coggan at Training Peaks developed a similar test to calculate a cyclist’s functional threshold power (FTP) by using a power meter.

Functional threshold power is defined as the highest power output you can sustain for a set period of time – usually a one-hour time trial effort. When a cyclist is at or below FTP, oxygen usage and lactate are level meaning you’re able to clear excess lactate from the body and sustain your effort.

Calculate your functional threshold power (FTP)

To calculate baseline fitness numbers so you can set your training zones using FTP, you’ll need to perform a field test using a cycling power meter. If you don’t have a power meter and want to calculate basic heart rate zones based off of maximum heart rate, follow this guide.

Here’s what you’ll need to do to perform an FTP test on the road or indoor trainer:

  • Warm up for 10 minutes.
  • At the end of your warm up, ride as hard as you can for 20 minutes.
  • Determine your average power output during this 20-minute period by analyzing the data on a power meter.
  • Multiply your average power by 0.95 to find your FTP.

For example, if you average 280 watts during your 20-minute effort, your FTP would be 266 watts, or the pace you should be able to maintain for a one-hour time trial effort.

It’s usually a good idea to redo this test several times for accuracy. To test your fitness gains throughout the year, redo this basic test and compare your average power output.

Determine your training zones

While training zones for other endurance athletes are often calculated as a percentage of maximum heart rate, most serious cyclists base training zones off of a percentage of your FTP.

Why? Because heart rate can be affected by a number of external factors in cycling, such as wind, cadence, and terrain that can skew your actual lactate threshold numbers.

Once you’ve calculated your FTP, you can use these basic zones developed by the popular power analytics site Training Peaks:

Training zone 1

Also known as active recovery, training in this zone will require you to stay at or below 55% of your FTP. Riding in zone 1 should feel easy, and is usually completed after a race or hard day of training.

Training zone 2

To stay in zone 2, or the endurance zone, you’ll need to be between 56% and 75% of your FTP. Depending on your level of fitness, it may be possible to ride in zone 2 for two hours or more on consecutive training days.

Training zone 3

Workouts in zone 3 are known as tempo, and require your effort to be between 76% and 90% of your FTP. Tempo workouts usually last between 20 minutes and two hours depending on your level of fitness.

Training zone 4

Training in zone 4 is commonly referred to as the lactate threshold zone, and the effort will feel similar to your FTP training test described above. To stay in zone 4, you’ll need to be at 91% and 105% of your FTP.

Training zone 5

At 106% to 120% of your FTP, efforts in zone 5 are short and intense, usually lasting between three and eight minutes. Workouts done in zone 5 are done to improve your VO2 max.

Training zone 6

Intervals done in zone 6 are considered to be anaerobic, and are completed above 120% of your FTP. These efforts will generally last between 30 seconds and one minute.

Training zone 7

These efforts are considered neuromuscular and last for a duration of no longer than 10 seconds. Since the effort is all-out, no FTP is needed.

Raise your lactate threshold with intervals

No matter what your lactate threshold is, it’s possible to train your body to become more efficient at getting rid of lactic acid. To do so, you’ll need to focus some of your workouts in zone 4 of your FTP.

No matter what your lactate threshold is, it’s possible to train your body to become more efficient at getting rid of lactic acid.

Below are two different interval sets you can include in your workout routine that will help you to raise your lactate threshold:

Workout #1: Steady State

  1. Warm up for 10 minutes.
  2. Ride for 10 minutes, keeping your average power numbers between 91% and 105% of your FTP.
  3. Recover for 10 minutes, spinning easy in a cadence above 90 revolutions per minute (rpm).
  4. Repeat two to three times, depending on your level of fitness.
  5. As the intervals become easier, increase the length of the interval until you can ride at your FTP for 30 to 40 minutes.
  6. Cool down for 10 to 15 minutes.

Workout #2: FTP + VO2 Max

  1. Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes.
  2. Ride for 20 minutes, alternating between five minutes in zone 4 of your FTP and two minutes of zone 5.
  3. As the workout gets easier, try to complete two sets.
  4. Cool down for 10 to 15 minutes.

 



Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals or physicians. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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Please note that the information provided in the Polar Blog articles cannot replace individual advice from health professionals. Please consult your physician before starting a new fitness program.

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