Why Focusing on FTP Is Making You a Slower Triathlete
Words by Coach Neal Henderson, Chief Science Officer at The Sufferfest Sports Science Division and coach to the pros. Learn more about Coach Neal.
If you're a triathlete you’ve probably heard this piece of training advice: If you want to get faster on the bike, you need to focus on steady-state workouts to build your FTP. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Not only does the bike leg demand more than just steady power, focusing on FTP might actually be hurting your bike split.
Before we get into why that’s the case—and how you should be training for your next triathlon—let me give you a little background on who I am and why I might know a little bit about helping people get faster on the bike.
I have over 20 years experience coaching cyclists and triathletes at the highest levels of the sport. I’m extremely fortunate to have coached athletes like Rohan Dennis, Evelyn Stevens, Flora Duffy, Cameron Dye, Taylor Knibb, and others to a combined 28 world championship victories and Olympic medals. Here’s what my experience and analysis of decades worth of performance data have taught me:
The Bike Leg Isn’t A Steady-State Effort
The bike leg of a triathlon is the most costly in terms of total energy expenditure. During the course of a typical triathlon, more than 50% of race time and total energy is spent on the bike. It’s also the discipline where you see the most variability in power output. Power can vary from 0 watts to 500+ watts within seconds.
While the demands of a given race are somewhat determined by the length and course profile, the bike leg still sees large variations in power output. Even in a non-drafting, 40km bike on a flat course, a top athlete will spend more than 28% of the bike leg above FTP.
To illustrate this point, let’s look at the power output of Cameron Dye during the 40km bike leg of the 2018 edition of the St Anthony’s Triathlon, where he placed third. In the graph below, light to dark yellow represents efforts right around FTP, with Maximal Aerobic Power (MAP) efforts in orange, and Anaerobic Capacity (AC) and Neuromuscular Power (NM) in red. As you can see, well over 20% of the bike leg was spent at intensities above FTP.
And here’s an example of power output from an ITU Draft Legal Sprint Podium Finisher. Note that less than a quarter of the bike leg is spent at or near FTP, with efforts at MAP intensities accounting for a full 20% of the time spent on the bike.
And this from a professional triathlete's 4th place finish at IRONMAN Texas. You can see that pacing to catch up to the leaders in the first half of the race required lots of MAP and FTP effort before the athlete settled into a sustained General Endurance Tempo effort for the second half of the bike leg to save energy for the run. That’s over 24 minutes at MAP intensity out of the five hours spent on the bike.
As these graphs illustrate, performance in a triathlon is not exclusively determined by your threshold power. Just as you need to work your swim and run fitness at a variety of speeds and intensities, your training on the bike needs to include variations in intensity to provide the appropriate stresses to trigger improvement.
Specific neuromuscular (NM) training like cadence drills and standing starts is necessary to teach your body how to effectively recruit your fast-twitch muscle fibers so you can accelerate in big gear and get up to speed. These accelerations require that you produce power anaerobically, which means you’ll also need to train your Anaerobic Capacity (AC) so you can tolerate the extra lactate and settle quickly back into your steady, FTP effort without spending too much time recovering. If you don’t focus on these systems during training, you won’t be able to perform at your peak come race day.
Follow the MAP to a Higher FTP
Endurance sports are all about oxygen. Training increases both the amount of oxygen your body can use and the amount of power you can produce with that oxygen. Putting those two factors together gives you your Maximal Aerobic Power (MAP), and underneath that value is your ability to produce sustainable power (your FTP).
Though steady-state riding is largely dependent on your FTP, your FTP is largely dependent on your MAP. The physiological relationship between MAP and FTP is well-documented, with your MAP acting like a ceiling that holds your FTP down. Virtually all of the successful elite triathletes that I've coached have a MAP power that is more than 20% above their FTP. Want to increase your FTP? First you have to raise your MAP, and that means incorporating specific high-intensity interval sessions into your training (Nine Hammers, anyone?).
Mix It Up
Burnout and overtraining are often caused by monotony. That monotony is often caused by a lack of variation in both training intensity and the average duration of the session. Incorporating shorter, high-intensity sessions into your training will provide variety, allowing you to hit those longer endurance sessions with renewed zeal.
The bottom line is to have some fun with your training and mix it up. Riding at a steady pace and effort is all well and good as part of a balanced training program, but it’s a lot more fun, the time will pass a lot quicker, and you’ll get faster if you pepper in higher-intensity sessions that target your MAP, AC, and NM power.
Specific high-intensity interval sessions will also allow you to get in more quality training, which is especially critical for time-crunched athletes. This leaves more time for recovery while also giving you the flexibility to add additional training sessions to target areas like your swimming technique.
Focusing on steady-state FTP workouts is not the most effective way to improve your finishing time on the bike. Contrary to popular belief, the demands of a bike leg in a triathlon require all of your energy systems. Not only will you be able to recover more quickly from the supra-threshold efforts, but raising your MAP will allow you to increase your FTP. Lastly, incorporating higher-intensity workouts into your training will help add variety and help you avoid overtraining or burnout. Don't be afraid to go hard. Your bike split will thank you.
With over 25 years of experience coaching endurance athletes, Neal Henderson is head of The Sufferfest Sports Science Division and founder / CEO of APEX Coaching and Consulting in Boulder, Colorado. He served as the Director of the Sports Science Department at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine (BCSM), during which time he worked with hundreds of elite athletes to develop cutting-edge training and testing methods.
A former professional triathlete, Neal is an Elite USA Triathlon and USA Cycling certified coach with numerous awards to his name. Most recently, he was named the 2017 USA Triathlon Coach of Year.
Neal served on multiple coaching committees for both USA Cycling and USA Triathlon and has coached some of the biggest names in endurance sports, including Taylor Phinney, Flora Duffy, Cameron Dye and Taylor Knibb. He is the only coach in history to have ever trained athletes to the World Hour Record for both elite Men (Rohan Dennis) and elite women (Evelyn Stevens).