Workouts come in all different shapes and sizes, but what if you only had a few to choose from? What five workouts would be the most productive to raise your FTP and make you faster if they were the only workouts you did? We checked in with TrainerRoad’s head coach Chad Timmerman to find out.
What is FTP?
FTP stands for Functional Threshold Power and broadly speaking, it is an estimate of the highest power you could sustain for an hour. Physiologically, it correlates with Lactate Threshold, the maximal intensity at which your muscles can sustainably fuel themselves and clear waste products away. Ride above this level from long, and blood lactate levels start to rise dramatically- a sign that you’re pushing close to your limit and will soon need to dial it back.
FTP is easily estimated with a performance assessment such as a Ramp Test and is used to set your training zones and customize the intensity of your workouts. Whatever your chosen discipline or riding style, a higher FTP makes you a stronger cyclist. As you train and get fitter, your FTP increases, and you get faster as a result.
The Best Way to Improve FTP
The single best way to improve your FTP is with structured training. Structured training plans use a principle called periodization to productively balance stress and recovery over time, gradually building your abilities without leaving you overtrained. Well-structured training plans also target specific energy systems, strategically developing your aerobic, anaerobic, and neuromuscular capacities to match the demands of your target events.
It can be a complicated balance to get it right, but when it boils down to it, it’s actually quite simple. If you consistently do workouts that push your body past its comfort zone and allow yourself to recover, you will get faster. And while a structured training plan is by far the best way to make this happen, you can achieve major benefits with just a few basic workouts.
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5 Cycling Workouts to Increase Your FTP
TrainerRoad’s head coach Chad Timmerman picked his 5 favorite workouts for FTP improvement, especially for busy athletes. He chose these workouts because they’re particularly time-efficient and impact multiple energy systems, and can turn a minimal investment of time into big results. This is not meant as a training plan, but these workouts can be a great place to start if you’re looking to add some more productivity to your cycling.
1. Sustained VO2 Max Intervals
High-intensity VO2 max workouts stimulate both aerobic and anaerobic energy systems. They are challenging and fatiguing but can create a very high training stimulus in minimal time. Some VO2 max workouts include lots of short efforts, but Chad likes longer intervals for maximum effect.
“If you could only do one workout, this is probably what I’d recommend. Three-minute repeats, preferably at high intensity,” says Coach Chad. “When you can do these for several minutes and repeat them, they become incredibly productive.”
An example is Mount Deborah, an hour-long session including seven 3-minute intervals at 105%-109% of FTP, with 4 minutes of recovery in between. As you get fitter, you can increase the intensity of the intervals up to 120% and shorten the recoveries, but beware- these are challenging and tiring workouts!
Over-unders build muscular endurance, repeatedly raising and lowering intensity before eventually allowing full recovery. They are as much a psychological challenge as a physiological one, teaching you to handle discomfort while stimulating significant performance adaptations. Over-unders can be done at Sweet Spot for a slightly easier workout, but Coach Chad is especially fond of doing them right around your FTP.
“I like riding that line just above and below threshold. Riding at 95% or so of FTP is tough, especially coming off an interval above threshold. This ability can make you a formidable racer.”
Start with a workout like Starr -1, which includes four 6-minute intervals alternating between 90% and 105% of FTP, with 5-minute recoveries. As you get stronger, work your way up to longer intervals and higher “over” periods at 110% FTP. Chad’s favorite workout for this format is Warlow.
3. All-Out Sprints
Every cyclist should occasionally include sprints in their training. Maximal efforts challenge the neuromuscular system, improve your ability to utilize anaerobic energy stores, and help increase muscle recruitment. Limit the recovery between sprints, and they can even bring about aerobic adaptation.
“I like 20- to 30-second all-out sprints,” Chad explains. “They rapidly deplete energy resources, which signals a strong adaptive cascade, especially if you follow each with a recovery period under 5 minutes long. Despite being anaerobic efforts, they spur a highly aerobic reply, which makes you faster overall.”
Sprint workouts are very fatiguing and don’t need to be long. Try something like Charing -3, which includes six 20 second all-out sprints and 3 minutes of recovery time, for a total of only 30 minutes. If you can handle it, extend the length of both the sprints and the recoveries. Six 30 second all-out sprints with 4-minute recovery intervals make for a short, but brutally productive workout.
4. Aerobic Endurance Workouts
Endurance riding is completely aerobic and doesn’t result in much fatigue. It’s the bread and butter of cycling, as most group rides and even most races spend lots of time at this intensity between harder efforts. Endurance workouts can be used to increase overall training volume, and can also be an effective way to burn fat and stimulate aerobic adaptations. They aren’t as productive as higher-intensity sessions, but they also aren’t nearly as taxing and fatiguing.
Chad’s personal favorite is Colosseum, which is a varied session of endurance work ranging from 50% to 80% of FTP. Versions of this workout range from 60 to 90 minutes, with the easiest option remaining entirely below 65% of FTP.
On-offs are high-intensity repeats with very short recoveries. By the end of each set, you’ve accumulated a significant amount of time at high power, and never allowed yourself to completely recover. They are productive and challenging, but many athletes find on-offs surprisingly enjoyable.
Start with a workout like Gendarme, which is composed of two 20-minute sets of 30 seconds repeated at 120% FTP, followed by 30 seconds of recovery. Let yourself fully recover between sets. As you get stronger, you can raise the intensity.
“I like riders to advance to the point where they can ride at 125% or even 130% of FTP during the workout. To be able to tolerate that, respond to it, and recover from it, the payoff is enormous.” Chad says.
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