Key Performance metrics: Looking beyond FTP

Functional Threshold Power (FTP) has gained popularity as the key performance metric throughout the past years amongst many riders. Ride up to any training session, indoors or outdoors, or any race, and you may catch someone asking another ‘What’s your FTP’. Perhaps even someone being proud of how his or her FTP has gone up by 10 watts!

So what exactly is FTP? Measured in watts or relative to body weight in W/kg, your FTP is theoretically the power that you can hold for 1 hour. Simple? Measuring FTP is not complicated either, doing a 20 minute all-out effort after a good warm-up and thereafter taking 95% of the average 20 minute power would give you your magic number.

Take the FTP test: 20 minute all-out power x 95%.

But is FTP all you need to perform in cycling? Now before we go on, it is imperative to understand that cycling is a fairly complicated sport and made up of different events and specialities. For a non – professional cyclist, you could be looking to complete an epic 5-day mountainous ride, a grand fondo in Malaysia, the legendary Taiwan KOM race, or just your local criterium. Each and every one of these events pose a different challenge to your body, a different system and mechanism to produce power, a different approach to training, and ultimately a different set of performance metrics that need to be measured for effective training and performance improvements.

Long story short: No. FTP is not all you need.

But wait, where did FTP even come from? Back in the early 2000s, the term was coined as a key performance measure. Simply put, the FTP test is a field test meant to estimate your lactate threshold, or as some call it, your anaerobic threshold. This threshold separates two out of the three energy systems that your body uses to produce power, namely, your aerobic and anaerobic energy system. As your body switches into it’s anaerobic energy system, the rate at which your muscles produce lactate is faster than what your body can clear out. Remember that burning sensation you experience before you find your legs blowing up, your breathing getting more laboured? That’s your body’s natural response as it tries to clear, and actually re-use, that lactic acid by attempting to take in more oxygen. Unfortunately, there is only so much oxygen one can take in and use (2 separate mechanisms) and thus when too much lactate has been accumulated, the muscles are no longer able to function and performance is inhibited.

This means that any rider should aim to spend majority of his/her time below that lactate threshold, way below if possible, and only go above his/her lactate threshold for the crucial moments in the ride/race, when a huge amount of power is needed. Think trying to create a breakaway through a huge attack, or following a rider as he/she attacks up the climb. I like to think of these big moments as matches, and everyone only has so many matches in his/her matchbox. Unfortunately, if you are already at lactate threshold while the rest of the group is cruising, you are going to find that your matches would’ve been spent before the race even ever began.

So now that we understand why a high lactate threshold is crucial for any rider, and how FTP is actually an estimate of your lactate threshold, why do so many of us do a FTP test instead of a lactate threshold test? Good question, because if I had the choice to do either, I would always go for the lactate threshold test. It does however, have its limitations, such as availability, difficulty in interpretation, and cost. Traditionally, lactate threshold tests were done in a lab setting, requiring specialized equipment that were difficult to purchase and specialized physiologists to run and interpret the results. These factors drive up costs. The FTP test, on the other hand, was easy to implement, did not require specialized equipment (besides a stationary trainer) and personnel, and virtually almost zero cost.

The Lactate Threshold test requires finger pricks and small blood samples to be taken during each stage of the test.

So why not just use FTP? If you hadn’t already noticed, the FTP test was always meant to be a field test, easy to implement, but an estimate of your lactate threshold. Results are also highly variable due to the nature of the test. A well – paced effort is required to ensure an accurate FTP reading, so those riders you see going easy-ish at the start before “sprinting” for the virtual line as they approach that last minute mark will not get the best results. Studies have also shown that taking 95% of your 20 minute effort does not always correspond well with your 1 hour power, and doing a 1 hour effort while ideal, opens up more opportunities for potential confounders.

Perhaps more importantly, is the fact that FTP only highlights one aspect of your physiological profile as a rider. Other energy systems come into play as your push hard on the climbs, recover as your re-enter the draft of the group, and sprint for the line. Simply basing your entire training on FTP alone just doesn’t make sense now does it?

It doesn’t. So look beyond FTP as the only key performance metric and realise that there’s more to your performance than just FTP.

Want to find out more? Stay tune for our next article where we will explore other key performance metrics to consider in your training. Better yet, subscribe and you will get notified the second we publish it!