The dreaded 20 min FTP. Subject of many a discussion: is it necessary? Is it useful? Is it for everyone? My riders are not outdoor cyclists, so what is the point? Wouldn’t it scare new people away? This article will answer the most common questions you will hear from your riders before and after the FTP session. It doesn’t focus on how to coach the session itself in detail but on the preparation and what happens next.
Who will benefit from a 20 min FTP test?
Let’s start from the WHY. Why would we do the 20 min FTP in a mainstream gym or a studio? For whose benefit? My answer is everyone’s, even though they would benefit in different ways, or more specifically, they may take away different things from the experience.
The serious outdoor cyclists doing races or competing in triathlons, particularly if they ride with a power meter outside, will analyse all the data from the test and incorporate it into their training programme understanding that indoors and outdoors 20 min maximum sustainable efforts may differ quite a bit.
People who ride a lot outside and maybe take part in charity rides etc but do aim to win or finish in the top 10 of anything in particular or your devoted indoor cyclists will gain a better understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, they will be able to adjust their current FTP values used to establish their power zones for when they ride indoors.
The rest, being your average once a week spinner or a total beginner will most probably aim at simply completing a 20 min stretch in the saddle that may seem like an impossible task to them. They will gain confidence and appreciation for hard efforts that last longer than a minute or two. If guided the right way they may leave the room proud even though they had no idea what was in stock when they entered.
Why do we do this (to ourselves)?
FTP is a snapshot of your fitness, in terms of riding an indoor bike, at this moment. 20-minute test will help you learn what areas you would want to or need to work on: faster legs, higher intensity, stamina etc. Is it cardio or strength aspect that are letting you down? If the test is done right (as hard effort as possible) and then repeated again a few months later, you can actually see the progress, if any, of your fitness journey. Particularly, if you put in work to improve specific skills between the FTP sessions.
My experience with riding and teaching 20 min FTP
I first came across the concept of FTP when I started teaching with power on IC7 bikes a good few years ago, which back then had only a ramp test built in. I read up a lot on the subject and rode the 20 min test just by myself to experience the nature of the beast.
It was really something. It was indeed the hardest thing I had ever done on an indoor bike. I could not fathom putting a random group of riders in my classes through that. I also realised the challenge of making an average spinner enter the pain cave. However the idea of riding riding a ramp test in a class of 40 riders where some may be finishing after 20 min while others may need 45 min to complete the test, seemed even more far-fetched when it came to the logistics of execution.
Then I did some CPD training with Stages and was introduced to the FTP preparation programme where you get your riders used to riding multiple long (10 minutes) intervals in the 6 classes leading to the FTP session. Each session the intensity of each interval is ramped up. I loved the concept so I adapted it and decided to run the final session before the test as 2 x 15 min.
The reasoning behind this programme is simple. These days riding long intervals of more than 10 min is still not a norm in an indoor cycling class. If your riders only ever sat (at any intensity) for 5 min, and now you ask them for 20, their brains will automatically reject the idea and they will build an arsenal of excuses setting themselves up for a failure.
Let me explain what I mean using a couple of examples from my own experience.
When I was first told of the concept of 5:2 diet (where you severely restrict calories for two days of the week, then eat normally for the other five) my reaction was: “NOT FOR ME. What if I teach 3 classes on the fasting day? What if I get dizzy due to lack of energy and faint? I can’t do it. I cannot do it!”. By that point I have not even attempted the diet. Not even on a day when I was not teaching. It was an automatic defence mechanism run by my brain. However, when I read the book, got used to the idea, understood why it would be beneficial and gave it a go, it turned out it was possible and I did not collapse from hunger on fasting days…
When a good 10 years ago I decided to run a marathon and joined a running club, I got one piece of advice from a girl who was trialling for world championships and was a member of the club: before your actual race, make sure that whatever finishing time you have in mind in terms of hours, go out and spend that amount of time running/walking/jogging at least once. The distance is inconsequential. It’s about the muscle memory.
And it turned out to be true. I never managed to stay out for 6 hours (haha!) but until I reached the time on the road that I had experienced before, I was doing great. Once we ventured into the unknown territory my body seemed to say: and what exactly do you think you are doing now? We have never done this before. This will end up badly. I don’t like it. I think we should stop.
Going back to your indoor cycling classes, if you as an instructor have a group of regulars, this type of preparation where you build the duration of the intervals and increase their intensity without ever peaking before the test itself, can make all the difference.
Pacing during a 20 min FTP is crucial and is the main reason for riders’ frustration with the end results, but at least their brains will not question whether they can last the duration.
I have just mentioned pacing which is the combination of cadence and resistance. In other words, it is managing the intensity over the prescribed duration.
In the weeks leading to FTP I reiterate the importance of paying attention to cadence and working out at what RPM you are most efficient. I urge the riders to listen to their bodies more and bother about what other people are riding at less.
Sometimes after a good warm up, it is best to close your eyes (or cover the data console) and just ride for a few minutes. When you settle into a rhythm, look at the display. This is your natural RPM. You then maintain it and steadily increase the intensity.
Making the riders responsible for their own ride, their own choices, is very liberating both for them and you as an instructor.
Chosen cadence will often make or break the rider. My guidelines are to aim for 80-100 RPM (general guidelines for FTP) but if you know you are much more efficient at 72-75 RPM the world is not going to end. Knowing that the cadence is right FOR YOU, means that you can simply focus on the intensity. If you are fighting the cadence trying to achieve something your legs are not ready for AND trying to do it at the hardest intensity sustainable, it may be a battle too much.
Your riders are less likely to give up if they are not forced to ride at cadence unsustainable to them.
At the same time, I do not let them run riot and I explain that riding at 60 RPM may feel good for a couple of minutes but they will not be able to ride as hard as possible for 20 min at that cadence without a detrimental effect on their technique and putting a substantial strain on their knees and backs.
Should we call it a test?
You have done all the preparation, the date is set, the air is thick with anticipation. Should you call it a TEST? Wouldn’t it bring unnecessary stress into the studio? A fear of failure?
Each to their own but I still call it a fitness test. I ask them the class before to get a good night sleep if possible, pay attention to their nutrition, bring an extra bottle of fluid and maybe a banana and warn them against doing a leg day the day before.
In the weeks before and on the day of FTP I emphasise again that what the results will show is the picture of their fitness on the day. It will be a super hard ride but all they need to focus on is themselves. They are not competing with anyone else (still many riders, me included, perform better when doing FTP in a group environment).
In the next section you will find the most common questions you will hear as an instructor before and after a 20 min FTP test.
How many watts should I aim for?
Yeah, my favourite question. Numbers are great if they help you focus but your main priority is to ride as hard as you can so with the final 2-3 minutes to go the fear of failure is imminent. You aim to have nothing left at the end.
Yeah, but how many watts should I be on?!
Those riders who need a number to chase will always want one. My advice is that if they have been using FTP (actual or predicted) then they should be able to hold around 100-105% of that or more for the 20 min. I warn them however of an expectation of a specific number standing in their way of the best performance on the day.
Do not think that as long as you hit that value, it’s enough, even though it feels like you could push slightly harder. Don’t hold yourself back!
Should I put coach by colour on? (on IC6 or IC7 Life Fitness bikes)
If it helps you focus, then yes. Some people find the right cadence, get into the right colour zone and then put a towel over the numbers while still being able to see the colour. This means they know if their power output drops significantly as the colour will change, yet they are not fixated on holding specific numbers.
Others, especially those with experience and discipline just leave the basic screen on that shows just RPM and power output, find their rhythm then cover their console fully for the duration.
Why can’t I stand up?
In the weeks leading to FTP I repeatedly explain that the test is 20 min maximum sustainable effort in the saddle. The reason for staying seated is that the test should be a steady power output and when riding at 80-100 RPM most people will see a drop in cadence if they try to stand up. Unless they adjust resistance prior to standing, their power output will drop. If that happens a few times and the drops are significant, it’s not what is considered a valid FTP test. Those who ride slower, at around 75 RPM are more likely to keep their cadence and consequently power output constant, without adjusting resistance even if they stand for a few seconds.
If I have to slow down and stand up, does it mean my effort up to that point has been pointless and I should abandon the test?
Definitely not. Learn from it. Is it just a few seconds reprieve that you seek and then you are back on track? Then keep going. We are hardly an Olympic training facility! You are not attached to an oxygen mask or other contraptions. This is your own personal challenge. You set your own limits. If you know that 10 seconds off is going to allow you to continue then go for it.
What if I had gone off too hard and it’s all over after 10 min as I am all burnt out?
Take the foot off the gas and finish it as an endurance ride. Do not get off feeling like a failure and leave the room. LEARN FROM IT. What went wrong? Was it too high or too low RPM? Was it the resistance? What gave up first, your legs or your lungs? Or was it the voice in your head telling you it’s too much? Did you feel like there was something wrong with the bike set up that was holding you back or causing you serious discomfort? Make mental notes. Remember how you felt. Discuss it with the instructor at the end of the session.
Techniques to help you deal with the challenge.
Riding FTP is like writing any school or university exam. It’s not necessarily the best and most clever students who get the best marks but those who have the best technique:
- do the questions you are 100% sure you know the answers to first, to boost your confidence. In an FTP, ride your preferred cadence.
- Assign a certain number of minutes to each of the longer questions and move on when you reach it. In FTP, think about the test as 4 x 5 min segments. Just reach the end of each then move onto the next. If someone is doing it for the first time, I ask them to reassess their mental state and body responses after each 5min: can I continue at this intensity? Have I gone off to hard? Will I feel like I have more to give at the end? According to how they feel they can increase or decrease their resistance slightly. I am talking a difference of single digits watts output. Should they feel they are doing great, they do not need to make any adjustments.
Oh! I didn’t know there was a test today!? Should I leave? I will fail!
No. Anyone can do the FTP at any fitness level. If you have never done it nor attended any of the prep sessions, you are still more than welcome to do it but put no pressure on yourself. You may surprise yourself! If you just want to make it an endurance type of a ride, as long as you challenge yourself enough not to be bored, do it.
You cannot FAIL at an FTP test. It’s not that kind of test. It’s a picture of your fitness on the day. It may be lower or higher than you thought. If you are unable to complete it, you just keep riding at your chosen pace for the duration and put it down to experience. That’s it. It’s not a disaster. It’s not the end of the world. If you couldn’t complete it despite the best intentions, learn from it. You have probably rode the hardest ever for the duration you managed to complete. It is not easy. Far from it. There is a reason we don’t schedule it every week.
Hi. This is my first class ever.
This happens in 99% of my 20 min FTP sessions. With the total beginners, I follow the usual process of set up, explanations etc then I tell them what the session will be about. I then assure them that I will keep an eye on them. That they are welcome to take breaks whenever they need them and if it gets too much it is OK to just wave at me and leave early. You would be surprised how few ever take me up on that offer.
How do I read the results?
I teach mainly on IC7s so when we do 20 min test you can see your max and average watts over the duration then you should take 95% of the average power over 20 min as your new FTP. After years of doing these sessions in mainstream gyms, I now say that if you feel slightly nauseous and you know you could not have gone for another 15 sec, you take 95% of that number. If however you feel that due to lack of experience or bad pacing you have something left in the tank, you take the full number as it is.
Those who use Stages Flight get their calculation done for them and can see it on the screen at the end.
Is my number good?
I always drum into my riders that number of watts on its own means nothing and it’s all about watts/kg. As I have quite a few triathletes and iron men competitors as well as avid cyclist amongst my regulars, I put up a little table showing what value in terms of watts/kg over 20 min would put them in which of 3 simple and broad categories in the cycling world: recreational, amateur & professional. I put these on the mirror in the studio then send a more detailed table to those who are interested.
But the predicted FTP that I have been using in all my classes is so much higher than my test results! Should I lower that number in my classes?
This is a very important question that I now raise at the end of each test. My advice is that as riding 20 min FTP is a skill which requires courage, you need to look around the other riders and see if there is anyone looking worse for wear than you. If there is one, what stopped you from going into that place? Too many things on your mind? Stress at work? have you recently had a cold/illness? Do you think you could perform better if you did it at 6:30 pm rather than 6:30 am?
Finally, does the value you have been using in classes work well? Do you feel the way you should feel when reaching each intensity zone? If yes, then keep using the same number you have been using but remember the test result and let’s see if we can improve it next time.
Do we have to wait 3 months?!
In a gym where I teach 5 weekly sessions, I spread the FTP test over 2 or 3 weeks so people can try different times of day and also have a chance to try again only a week later rather than having to wait for a few months. Those of us who really pushed in a 20-min FTP session would never ask that question, but I do not look down at those who are not ready or willing to push that hard. It’s not for fainthearted.
Overall, people love the challenge that is the 20 min FTP. It’s always the riders reminding me that a quarter has gone by and asking me for the next date.
The few times I rode the test with Master Instructors during training, they always rode with us. Whether they actually were at their FTP or at a lower intensity, I do not know and honestly, I could not care less as I was focusing on not dying.
I coach FTP sessions of any duration off the floor as this is my preferred style. Especially the 20 min or 60 min which I have also done in the past. I focus on individual attention, motivating those who do not seem to be aware that they are not really going at the intensity we are talking about. You can see it in their faces and body response but if they are in row 12 at the back you won’t spot it unless you make your way to them. I distribute bananas if needed (always bring a couple of emergency ones to my late evening classes) and I encourage people to signal to me if they are running out of water so I can refill their bottles.
I see no issues with instructors coaching FTP test from their bikes though.
All in all, both me and my riders always look forward to these sessions. And the look of awe & pride at their accomplishment at the end is what makes me love what I do.