The FTP test is the best benchmark for tracking your fitness and all the work that you’ve done. It is a point of reference to determine if your training is working, where you want to go, and how you want to get there.
If you're not familiar with the test, it's a 20-minute all-out effort. The goal is to sustain the highest workload you can achieve for the duration, and your score is simply your average watts for the 20 minutes. Of course, it's not a complete measure of one’s ability. It’s not a value to be compared to others. It’s simply a marker of your fitness and progress at that time. Two riders with the same FTP for their weight can have vastly different results in a race because there are many other physical and mental performance factors. The FTP test is a tool for examining your own progress.
To get the most out of FTP tests, you need to approach them like any physical test or race: rested and focused. You also need to get good at taking the test. You can do this by developing your protocol—everything you do before, during, and after the test. This minimizing the variables and reducing anxiety going into it and makes your test results more accurate for comparison.
Below are my favorite mental, physical, and nutritional tips for athletes to create their FTP protocol and get the most out of the test every time.
Whether you're an FTP veteran, or new to the test, there is always room to improve how you prepare for, approach, and execute the workout. Below I've outlined my advice for novice, immediate, and advanced FTP test-takers.
NOVICE When attempting your first FTP test, focus on adequate rest and tapering:
• Three days before the test, take the day off to recover.
• Sleep! Get as much as possible, starting two nights out.
• Two days before, add a 3- to 5-minute interval at an RPE of 7 out of 10 to an easy 60-minute spin. This will prime your legs and teach your brain how an FTP-effort feels.
• Take your nutrition seriously in these 48 hours (see Eating for the FTP Test, below).
• One day out, take an easy 60-minute spin at 90-plus rpm.
• Use the first two minutes to find your rhythm, ideally with a cadence between 87 and 95 rpm.
INTERMEDIATE After a few tests, fine-tune your approach, looking at these critical areas:
• Write down a plan for your process leading up to and for performing the test. That includes nutrition, what time of day you perform best, and how you will use your cadence and heart rate to control the effort.
• During the test, focus on controlling your mind and body to perform the test—not just survive it. You want to experience the test, examining how you mentally and physically react to the 20 minutes.
• Reflect on how your body reacted to the unique conditions (there are always some variables) on the test, and take note of them.
ADVANCED Top athletes dial in the mental aspect of taking the test—digging deeper within themselves to show every ounce of what they’re capable of. Mental strategies include:
• Pay attention to the details, minimize distractions, control what you can, and do not deviate from the plan.
• Demonstrate consistent drive, confidence, and focus while adjusting effort throughout the test.
• Perform to the best of your ability and have patience and pride in your accomplishment, be it good or bad.
• When you feel yourself fading, forcefully exhale like you’re blowing all the air out of your lungs. The next breath you take will be fuller and deeper. This acts as a mental reset.
Eating for the FTP Test
Nutrition is the most important aspect of FTP test prep, so I consulted with my CIS Fitness colleague, and our nutrition coach, Nick Reichert for a complete breakdown of the key meals before and after an FTP test, and examples of what to eat.
THE DAY BEFORE Carbohydrate-focused meals 24 to 48 hours before the test will ensure glycogen stores are full and primed for peak performance. Get most of your carbs from complex sources, such as whole grains, sweet potatoes, or beans. Carbohydrate-rich drinks in the form of low-fat, low-fiber fruit smoothies can provide extra carbohydrates without increasing the likelihood of feeling bloated. An ideal meal is still balanced with healthy fats, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein.
Sample Meal: Six ounces of lean protein such as chicken breast, fish, lean cuts of beef, eggs, or minimally processed tofu; 1 cup of cooked grains such as quinoa, couscous, brown or wild rice, oats, beans, or sweet potatoes; 1 cup of vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, peas, or collard greens; and 1 cup of fruit, such as apples, oranges, berries, or pears.
THE DAY OF Worked into (not in addition to) your normal meals for the day, consume a high-carbohydrate, low-protein, low-fat, and low-fiber meal three hours before the workout. Protein and fat are slow to digest and will decrease the rate your carbohydrates digest as well. Closer to the FTP test, you may want to have a small snack—fruit, juice, sports drink, or a handful of dried cereal—to top off glycogen stores.
Sample Meal: 1/2 cup oatmeal with milk and fruit; and toast with jam, or low-fat yogurt with fruit and granola.
POST-TEST Immediately after you get off the bike, eat a balanced meal with carbohydrates to refill depleted glycogen stores and protein to help muscle recovery.
Sample Meal: Six ounces of lean protein; 1/2 cup of cooked grains, beans, or sweet potatoes; 1 cup of fruit; and 1 cup of vegetables such as broccoli, spinach, peas, or collard greens.
How to Deal With Lackluster FTP Results
Give yourself leeway and look at it as an opportunity for you to improve on for your next FTP test. One of my athletes and an seasoned FTP tester, Nick Paglia, recently shared this sound advice:
“If I were disappointed with a result, I would look at it and ask, where did I have an opportunity to do better? Maybe I didn’t have a great night’s sleep, or maybe my nutrition was off the night before my test.
I believe that dreams without goals just fuel disappointment. But if you examine your result in the context of information—whether you like it or not—that can help you reach your goal. Remember, you can be better tomorrow than you were today.”
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