Simplifying Cycling Progress: Monitoring and Testing

Simplifying Cycling Progress: Monitoring and Testing

Every cyclist knows that to improve we have to stress our bodies on the bike and then allow recovery so that the body can rebuild and adapt to that stress or stimulus. Generally, we are all driven, A-type personalities who can push ourselves probably a little too hard. So, it is important to constantly monitor how our bodies are handling the work that we are giving them. Are we recovering sufficiently and are we progressing?

Our FTP, functional threshold power or, more simply put, the maximum average power that we can sustain for an hour, is our best indicator of current form. Testing this on a regular basis will then also give us comparable results in order to track our improvement. The problem with conducting a regular FTP test is that it is a very intense session, which will require recovery afterwards and a few days of recovery before, in order for the results to be accurate. Therefore, a full-blown FTP test should be done no more frequently than every 6-8 weeks. In a period that long, a lot can go wrong as far as too much build up of fatigue, so we want to be able to monitor this more frequently in order to quickly correct mistakes we could be making in the shorter term.

With power meter and heart rate monitor technology being what it is, we have enormous amounts of data and feedback from every session we do. Cyclists with experienced coaches will have the benefit of an objective eye, who can monitor and compare heart rate and power numbers and how they relate to each other. This is always a good way to gauge improvement and recovery. The more experienced among us can also probably analyse our own numbers and draw conclusions across weeks of training but we really need a simpler way.

This is where the ‘Submaximal Fatigue Test’ (SFT) comes in. This is a short, three minute test that can be done every week to make sure that we are striking the correct balance between workload and recovery and will also allow us to make small adjustments to the power numbers that we use in training, in between the big, milestone tests like an FTP test.

The test is simple – After a short warm up we ride three minutes at our current FTP. No higher, no lower. We are not looking to see how high we can push our average power during the three minutes, we simply want three minutes at FTP. We then look at the heart rate numbers during those three minutes and also self-assess how the effort felt on a scale of 1-20. Because an FTP effort is our maximum sustainable for an hour, holding it for only three minutes should feel hard but not terribly difficult. So, around 16-17/20. 

Then we look at the heart rate for the effort. If the heart rate is the same as previous tests, it indicates that we are adapting to our training load. If it is higher, this means the same, but also that we are recovered well. When we are recovered and fresh, our heart rate is more responsive to effort and when fatigued, more sluggish. So, if the heart rate is lower in the three minutes at FTP, it is an indication that the body is falling slightly behind and that the workload of the last week may have been a bit higher than the body was able to assimilate and recover from.

Finally we need to ask ourselves, “how long could I have held that effort for?” FTP is our maximum sustainable power for an hour. If we felt like we could have comfortably maintained our effort for that long and the effort felt like it was less than a 16/20, we have probably made some good progress and can nudge our FTP up slightly for the coming sessions. This will then move all the different training zone power numbers up slightly and will facilitate continued training stimulus and improvements.

Obviously the opposite is true. If our perceived effort for the three minutes was more than 17/20, our heart rate was lower than previous tests at the same power and our perception was that we would have battled to hold that effort for a full hour, we probably should add a little more recovery into the coming week. In this case, we do not need to adjust our FTP number down. We have been training hard and there is no likelihood that our threshold power has dropped. What is indicated is that the body is not fresh enough to be able to sustain that level of effort and that just requires a bit more recovery to bring us back onto an even keel.

That right there is the best testimony for performing this short test on a weekly basis. It can mean the difference between picking up a bit of fatigue in the short term, allowing a small adjustment to the training program. Whereas, if we were to wait for 6-8 weeks in order to perform full blown testing, we may have pushed ourselves down a hole, which requires much more radical changes to our overall training plan.

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