Disappointing FTP tests- we’ve all had them, but no one likes to admit it. FTP is just a number used to calibrate your training, but many cyclists incorrectly see it it as a status symbol, and seek a constantly improving value as validation. Why does FTP occasionally decline, and when it does, what do you do next?

Key Takeaways:

  • FTP is just a metric used to set training intensity
  • Training is not linear and every athlete experiences occasional declines in FTP
  • Structured training and recovery are the most important factors in improving, and the most common causes of decline when neglected
  • The correct training volume is unique to each athlete and monitoring FTP improvements can help find it
  • A lower FTP makes subsequent training easier and allows the body time to recover

The Ramp Test and FTP

TrainerRoad uses a Ramp Test to assess your current fitness and find an estimate of your FTP (Functional Threshold Power), which is used to calibrate the intensity of your training to your ability. While a high FTP might be a fun thing to brag about to your friends, the Ramp Test is not a contest or measure of your worth as a person or as an athlete. FTP testing is just a tool to help you train properly and more effectively, and as a result, to help you get faster.

Whether your number increases or decreases from test to test, the only meaningful value of the result is how it is applied to subsequent training. Tangible improvement is encouraging, but gains tend to get smaller and harder-won as you get fitter and nearer to your personal best. Eventually, every rider’s improvement will slow, and even the most dedicated of us occasionally see FTP decline slightly. It’s disheartening but common, and can occur for many reasons. The key is not to see it as a failure, but instead as an opportunity to redefine your path going forward.

Why FTP Might Decline

Quite simply, a decrease in your FTP is a reflection that your body is not able to perform as effectively as it was previously. This can reflect short-term trends in your condition, or be an indication of something more significant. What are some possible causes?

Neglecting Structure and Recovery

Structured training is the most effective way to get faster and is the basis for all TrainerRoad plans. Likewise, abandoning or neglecting structure is the easiest way to lose fitness and get slower, as training becomes less targeted and effective. This is reflected in a decreased FTP. 

Losing motivation and skipping workouts is a frequent culprit, especially with no races on the calendar, but this is a near-sighted approach. The more training you’ve done over time and the fitter you’ve been, the higher your baseline, and this year’s solitary hard work can lay the foundation for next year’s race results. 

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Many riders neglect structure with the onset of nice weather, replacing purposeful winter workouts with unstructured rides outdoors. It’s amazing how quickly this can cause a measurable decline in FTP. It only takes a few structured rides a week to maintain fitness, and TrainerRoad Outside Workouts are an ideal way to accomplish this while still heading outside into the fresh air. 

Sometimes, structure is maintained, but you may reach the limit of what you can accomplish with your current life circumstances and training plan. The fitter you get, the harder it is to continue achieving big improvements, and the more likely you are to stagnate. If you find yourself reaching a plateau, examine your diet, recovery, and external life stresses and consider how they might be limiting your progress. Also consider whether your current training plan is addressing your weaknesses or merely maintaining your strengths. This is also a good time to consider adjusting the other major factor in gaining and losing fitness: volume.

Fine Tuning Volume

The goal of training is to stimulate supercompensation, in which stress is balanced with recovery to stimulate improvements in performance. Too little training, and not enough adaptations are stimulated; too much training, and the body’s ability to recover is overwhelmed.  Your individual physiology and level of experience determine how much volume you can handle and how much you need to perform your best.

Increases in volume

Adding too much volume is a common mistake, as athletes assume that more of a good thing must be even better. Generally, the higher your level of experience and the stronger your underlying foundation, the better equipped you are to handle higher volume, but increases should always be gradual. 

The rate at which a volume is increased is called ramp rate and there is a limit to how high it can go before overwhelming an athlete’s tolerance. If you rapidly increased your training and subsequently saw a decrease in FTP, there’s a good chance your ramp rate outpaced your abilities, especially if you found your motivation declining too. In this case, a resulting lower FTP is a good thing, as it will make your training slightly less intense and can allow your body’s adaptations and recovery to catch up. If training continues to be overly challenging after several workouts at the lower FTP, it’s a good sign that volume is still too high, and rest is needed. 

Decreases in Volume

On the other hand, if you’re recently decreased your volume and saw subsequent declines, it’s a safe bet you’re no longer causing enough adaptive stress to trigger improvements. This is especially common if you were previously at a very high level of fitness. The closer you are to the peak of your abilities, the more it takes to maintain, and the more quickly fitness declines without adequate stimulus. 

What Should You Do Next?

After a disappointing FTP test you can always choose not to accept the result. In most cases, the numbers don’t lie, but it is worth considering recent workouts and how your body feels. If you’ve had no problem completing your training and have continued to see improvements in your abilities leading up to the test, there’s a chance the result really was an aberration and you underperformed. The Ramp Test is relatively low-stress and in this situation it’s a great idea to test again in a few days to confirm your suspicions.

If you choose to accept the new, lower FTP, think of it as an opportunity. Your workouts will get a little easier, allowing your body a better chance to adapt. If you’ve overextended yourself, the decline in FTP can serve as a leading indicator, and a reduction can help prevent a minor overreach from becoming a serious case of overtraining. Even at lower intensities, training is still productive, and the work you do with a less impressive-sounding FTP helps build a foundation for bigger improvements later on. Fitness is seldom linear, and oftentimes a step back precedes a leap forward. Keep your eyes on the prize and remember that FTP is just a number, used to help you get faster.

For more cycling training knowledge, listen to the Ask a Cycling Coach Podcast— the only podcast dedicated to making you a faster cyclist. New episodes are released weekly.

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Sean Hurley

Sean Hurley is a bike racer, baker of sourdough bread, and former art professor. He is a connoisseur of cycling socks, and a deep believer in the power of periodized, science-based training. Rumor has it he also runs a famous cycling instagram account, but don't tell anyone about that.