Triathletes spend a lot of time on the bike. Most race distances include a high proportion of cycling and a smart bike leads to a strong run. But do you know how to set your training zones? Just as we talked about the importance of setting your personal training paces for running, you should use a FTP test to set your cycling training zones.
This article is intended as a guide to help walk you through the process of setting your cycling zones by determining your FTP. Although you could jump straight to the test instructions, my goal is to walk you through the process from start to finish, so you can set yourself up for a great test (and most accurate result).
What is FTP?
FTP is the acronym for Functional Threshold Power. This is the measure of the maximum power you can sustain for a one hour effort. This measure is widely used as the basis for training in cycling and triathlon – it is the key metric I use with athletes in my coaching programs to determine training paces.
Power or Heart Rate?
There are two ways to use your FTP in cycling, depending on the technology you have available. The most accurate way to use your FTP is with a power meter, as you can test and track your power while riding. This is a more expensive tool, so it’s not something everyone has access to.
Your other option is to use a heart rate monitor to measure your FTHR (or functional threshold heart rate). You can substitute that metric anywhere you see FTP, as it’s an equivalent approximation and will work well until you decide to invest in a power meter.
How To Set Your Cycling Training Zones
The FTP test is just part of the equation – although it’s the hardest part. It’s not an easy effort, so let’s make sure you get the most accurate result by getting your body ready. Once the test is complete, you’ll need to translate that result into your training paces. I’ve created an FTP Training Zone Calculator (excel template) that will calculate your training zones based on your test results – including bonus target paces for common triathlon race distances. You can download your free copy using the form below.
1. Focus on Hydration & Nutrition
Place extra focus on hydration for 24 hour leading up to the test, you don’t want to test in a dehydrated state. A good baseline for water intake is your bodyweight divided by 2 – that’s your target in ounces. That’s the minimum you should be drinking each day, before adding in exercise.
Also focus on good nutrition, so you are fueling up and ready to rock the test. We don’t want you depleted in nutrients at the start of this test or your results may be lackluster, as well.
2. Choose Test Location
The course you choose for the test can greatly impact the outcome. And ideal location would be a flat, continuous road with no stoplights or stop signs and no traffic. Look for a location near you that comes as close as possible, it’s rare to find a perfect spot. If you’ll be doing most of your training outside, you want to try to test outside to get the best results.
If you’re training mostly indoors right now and are months away from a key race, the trainer is an alternative location for the test. I rarely see an athlete who can replicate the same results indoors & outside, but they should be close!
3. Pretend it’s a Race!
Now it’s the hard part – it’s time for the test. This is a tough workout, because the effort is very high and it takes a lot of focus to sustain. That level of focus is hard to sustain outside of a race, but you CAN do it!
There are several testing protocols available, but I prefer to use a 20-minute time trial effort. The goal is to estimate the effort you could sustain for a full 60 minutes, but that time makes it unrealistic for repeated testing. I use Allen & Coggan’s protocol for testing with my athletes, which you can find detailed here (scroll down to the “Try it For Yourself” section). This isn’t a workout I created or have permission to publish, which is why I am not sharing the full details here.
Remember to go do the full workout as written. Go HARD when it says all out, even outside of the 20 minute test, for the best results.
4. Calculate your Training Zones
Once you finish the test, note the average power (or average heart rate) from the 20 minute test interval. Discount this result by 5% (or multiply by 95%) to get your baseline FTP. Use this number to create training paces based on your training zones of choice. I tend to stick with Allen & Coggan for these zones, as well, as they wrote the book on training with power. No literally – check out Training and Racing with a Power Meter (affiliate link) if you want to learn more about this topic.
I created this FTP Training Zone Calculator (excel template) to make setting these zones super easy. Fill out the form below to download your free copy.
Or you can use the zones detailed here to set them yourself!
5. Rinse & Repeat (6+ Weeks Later)
This is a tough test, so you don’t want to repeat this too often in training. You also want to leave enough time between tests that your body has time to absorb the training and improve. I recommend at least 6 weeks between tests – or until your training with the current zones feel easier. Then repeat the 4 steps above and aim for an improved FTP. Really focus on that time and race yourself!
[Tweet “Follow these steps to set your cycling training zones. #triathlon”]
Now you’re ready to get to work on your bike and start getting faster!