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A Tale of Three FTP Tests

FTP Test #1: February 24, 2021

I am taking the FTP—Functional Threshold Power—test prior to starting training for The Long Course Aquabike National Championships this fall. Numbers form the basis for all endurance sports, and cycling is no different. This 20-minute, everything-you’ve-got sufferfest offers up guidelines for heart rate and power zones, useful when my official training with Coaches Jen + Liz starts on March 1.

While I did one all-out test prior to starting Ironman training in 2014, the last time I really paid attention to numbers on the bike was when Grey’s Anatomy was the new hit show. (I remember because I rushed home from the Thursday night cycling classes so I wouldn't miss a minute of McDreamy.)

So perhaps I should have done more mental work going into this test than simply writing in my journal, “Stay here. Stay here. Do the work.”

An average of 200 watts for 20 minutes is my goal, which comes from…a hazy memory of that cycling class over 15 years ago. Not super helpful. More accurate: it comes from the fact that it’s a crisp, round number that starts with a 2. I like that.

“When you think you can’t get through the whole thing, just take it one four-minute piece at a time,” says a cyclist on a reddit page I stumble across when I Google "FTP Advice."

Ok, stay here, four-minute chunks, and 200 average watts. Here we go.

I start waaaaay too hard. I try to settle in, but the Zwift display has me all kinds of discombobulated. My watts jump from 175 to 245, even though it feels like I have the exact same pressure on the pedals. 177 to 219 to 163 to 276. As my real-time watts bob around I fixate on my average watts. They are like watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve: at the end of the night, there’s only one direction they’re going.

About six minutes into the test, my legs clunk. Full stop. My immediate thought it not stay here or just finish this four-minute chunk, but to quit.

Quit as in stop pedaling, delete the workout, pretend it didn’t happen, and try again on Friday or Sunday or another time when riding at maximum effort for 20 minutes won’t feel like 20 minutes of all out riding.  

I empty my nose into my right hand, and wipe it on my shorts, just to have something else to do besides quit. As the seconds tick down at a glacial pace, I realize this is my default athletic mentality: Whenever anything gets hard, I fight thoughts of quitting by just holding on. I did it in rowing, I did it while running.

Don't get me wrong: I am naturally strong and good at working hard, but I’m not so skilled at working mindfully or purposefully when I'm wearing a sports bra. (That said, I am mindful enough that quitting on the first test before training even starts is not a good start.)

My goal with this training cycle and race is to be able to actually stay there, do the work mindfully and purposefully, to lean into the process and see how that influences the outcome.

My 200 watt mandate has deflated like a pen poking through Saran Wrap. I wish them to stay about 195 (nope) or (come on, Dimity!) 190. I end at 188, for an FTP of 179. (To calculate FTP, you take 5% off your test score.)

 “I didn’t quit,” I wrote to Coaches Jen and Liz after I finished. “That’s the best thing about this test.”

FTP Test #2: April 8, 2021

I’ve had five solid weeks of training since my first FTP test, and a few of cycling workouts were outliers. As I stayed in the prescribed heart rate zones, my power was significantly higher than the associated, correlated power.

Translation: My FTP test likely wasn’t super accurate. (Yeah, probably because Icarus-ed it.)

I have a laundry list of reasons why this test is going to go so much better: I’ve spent much more time in Zwift, especially with the erg mode off (the erg mode is what smooths your power; when it’s off, it’s the disorienting, jagged line of an EKG machine); I have an idea of where I should start, and how I should build; I have only missed one workout in the past five weeks, so I feel significantly fitter and stronger.

Mostly, though, I just want it to go better.

This time my race plan is not in four-minute chunks, but songs. With each song about four-minutes, five-ish songs will get me to FTP glory.

First song: Roll into it. Watts: aim for 190.

Second song: Think of effort as easy+. Watts: stay at 190.

Third song: Keep your shoulders down and stay smooth. Go a little harder.

Fourth song: Embrace the suffering. That means you’re doing the work. Don’t let up.

Fifth song: Break it up into small bits: chorus/verses, or just 30-second chunks. Push and push.

The test starts, the plan starts. I’m rolling into it. And my watts are consistently above 200 without an immense effort. Easy, easy, Dimity, I tell myself, do not fly and die again. My heart rate indicates I’m not working too hard though. On my first test, my heart rate was over 160 within the first two minutes, and on this one, within six or seven minutes, I’m having a hard time even getting it over 155.

Yay for fitness gains. This is more like it, I tell myself, flying through fake desert terrain at 23 virtual mph. The average watts bottom out at 213 and climb from there. Woohoo! Wait until the Coaches see this!

As Elle King sings she's not America’s Sweetheart (the third song), I’m working hard, but not suffering. My muscles feel capable, and my mind channels Greg Lemond: It doesn’t get any easier, you just go faster. My average watts continue to climb: 220, 223, 227. I’m flowing and flying at the same time.

FTP tests
Glory! Or maybe not.

The last 30 seconds, my watts flicker between 229 and 230, and I pull my shoulders down to cement the 230. I take a blurry picture of my FTP at 221—a 40 watt increase in power in five weeks!—and send it to Grant, and start to cool down.

As I dismount, my legs don’t feel that worked. My sports bra is more dry than sweaty. A little doubt creeps in, but I really don’t know what could've gone wrong; I calibrated the smart trainer just like I always have.

I walk to the back of the trainer to loosen the resistance knob on the tire. It’s much easier to turn than usual, and the wheel doesn’t look like it’s spinning symmetrically.

I touch the tire. It’s flat.

Coach Jen confirms what I already suspected to be true: 
Dimity: you are not going to like my answer at all. 🙁 When we get a flat on the trainer (and I know you had no clue) - the watts read high and the tire pressure/calibration is off, so the data is not accurate. Hence, it is too easy.

Dang it. I wanted that shift in mentality to be real. For the the difficulty of the test to excite, not deflate me; for me to have landed in a Wonka-land place where I pace myself so efficiently my watts naturally climb incrementally.

That shift may come—in fact, I’m counting on it—but getting there in five weeks? Um, yeah. I know: keep dreaming.

FTP Test #3: April 16, 2021

Back at it. I tell myself the third time is the charm to get accurate numbers. Test well, Dimity, and you won’t have to do this again for months—or maybe longer. Still, I’m 100% dread, 0% excitement for FTP’ing again.

FTP Tests
GU multitasking as a curtain over the heart rate.

It’s Friday morning, and the cumulative fatigue of a normal, ease-out-pandemic week hangs heavy under my eyes, in my quads. During the warm-up, my heart rate is drifting higher than does normally, so I cover part of the display up with a GU. If I see 165 bpm pop up too quickly, I’ll easily convince myself I’m too exhausted to push.

And we're off. Again. For the first ten minutes, I am steady. I keep the watts in the 190-200 range—not easy, but not impossible either. Around 11 minutes, though, I slam into a barrier.

Not sure if my head or my legs—or some combo—created it, but it feels thick and concrete and insurmountable. I’m at a loss to summon any spark to fight for the steadiness of the first half. I realize, though, I haven't thought about quitting. I don't want to quit.

I know I can hang on. I set small goals: get to end of this minute, the end of this verse, count 20 pedals on the left, 20 pedals on the right. I end up with 190 average, 182 FTP.

 The numbers are disappointing and frustrating, so I shed a few tears as I fill out my training log. Coach Liz's response is both comforting and realistic. You picked up a few watts - you're going to have to work for each stinkin' watt.

And that, as you likely already know, is both the frustration and beauty and appeal of endurance sports. You do have to fight for each stinkin' watt, second, stroke.

Massive gains in minimal time is not the reason we show up again and again; we show up to fight and to learn something about ourselves along the way.

In about eight weeks of concentrated training, I learned that quitting isn't as interesting to me as it used to be. If I can trust myself to hang in as I ride nowhere in the basement, solo, on Friday morning in April, I can count on myself to maybe even push when I actually have people around me to race.

That's a mental win. Granted, I wish it came tied up with a 200-average-watt bow, but I'll take it for now.

8 responses to “A Tale of Three FTP Tests

  1. I am an old mother runner (65). We got a Peloton bike back in 2018. I use it along with my outdoor runs and walks to keep my sanity. Lol. I have not PR’d or upped my PZT in awhile. At first I was bummed out. But I am done with numbers ha ha! I ride hard at times and I run hard too. I go by how I feel. Keep going!

  2. I have been putting the FTP test off again and again but maybe reading this is what I need to kick my butt into gear!

  3. Totally adding “You have to fight for each stinkin’ second” to my list of mantras and encouragements. I’m currently doing HR training and am struggling with my SLOW pace….but this (along with Stay in Your Zone and Patience and Persistence) will help me stay strong!

  4. Might I recommend doing these up Lookout? I swear it’s easier to work hard in a place that seems like it should be hard.

    1. Good idea, Jodi! I actually read that on one of the tip boards for FTP test: doing it outside is so much easier than inside. I don’t have a power meter for my bike, though, so that’s a little bit of a hurdle–or expense. 🙂

  5. I LOVED this–what a great set of snapshots of the dreaded FTP test. I love how they show your progress. You may have “only” gained a few watts, but you’ve clearly gained much more along the way!

  6. The mental challenge is so much harder to deal with! Way to stay in it, though!! And, dang!! That FTP is a pipe dream for me….one day!

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