Question: I am 59 years old and I been cycling for 12 years. Each winter of the last 10 years I have been looking for a training plan to improve. My FTP hovers around 225 watts after winter training and reaches around 240 watts by the end of the outdoor cycling season in Southern Ontario. I am curious if there is a physical test one can do to determine one’s potential FTP? —Luc Gadbois
Coach John Hughes Replies: Luc, you are asking a good question. My clients often ask similar questions about expectations and cababilities: “How fast should I be able to ride, given my age and how long I’ve been riding?” Or, “What should my Lactate Threshold be?” Or “What should my max heart rate be?” Or “What should my Functional Threshold Power (FTP) be?”
The answer is that there’s no way to establish what a rider’s potential is. How much power a roadie can produce and how fast the rider can time trial depends on (at least) three variables:
- The ratio of fast- and slow-twitch muscles. Fast-twitch muscles produce more power but have less endurance than slow-twitch muscles. (Fast- and slow-twitch refer to how rapidly the muscle fibers contract, not how fast you’re spinning.)
- VO2 max (also known as aerobic capacity). VO2 max is the maximum amount of oxygen that an individual can utilize during maximal exercise.
- Current fitness.
No Such Thing as ‘Normal’ or ‘Average’ For a Specific Age
Genetics play a big role in determining both the proportion of your fast-twitch muscles and your VO2 max. There’s no such thing as “normal” or “average” for a roadie of a specific age. So there’s no way for me to test you to determine your potential FTP or to answer any of my clients’ “What should I be able to do…” questions.
I ask each new client to do a baseline time trial to gauge the rider’s current fitness. I tell each rider before the TT that, “Your performance (time, LT, FTP) doesn’t matter. There’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ result. I just need to know what you can do now.” I use the baseline time trial in three ways, to:
1. Establish training zones based on LT or FTP. Because LT and FTP are determined by the current level of fitness given the individual’s genetics, it’s very important to base the training zones on the current LT or FTP.
2. Measure improvement. Periodically, the client repeats the exact same time trial: same amount of riding the week before, same course, same conditions (temperature, wind, etc.), same time of day. If the training program is working, then the rider should be able to go faster. A rider’s FTP should increase, in which case I recalculate the training zones. A rider’s LT may or may not change. If the roadie is becoming more economical, then the rider can produce more power at the same LT.
3. Avoid overtraining. A decline in performance is the key indicator of (potential) overtraining. There may be other reasons for a slower TT, e.g., not being as motivated, or just not having a good day. A slower TT is only one data point. If a rider is also slower on endurance rides and can’t handle the same intensity workouts, then the client takes a week off! We sometimes argue about this. “I’m slower, I need to train more!” “No” I say. “You need to recover more.”
Progressive Improvement Through the Season
A client recently had what he called “disappointing results” on his TT; he was only a little faster. A week later he had the flu, with very congested lungs and a bad cough. The weeks before the TT the client was handling progressively longer training rides without a problem, so I didn’t see any real decline in performance. He was probably starting to get sick when he did his TT.
A new client may do a TT in January, a faster one in April at the end of base training, an even faster one in June after intensity workouts, and faster still in August. Then we do another TT the next January, and the client is bummed because he or she isn’t as fast as in August. Of course not! It’s the off-season. But, the client should be faster than the previous January.
If a rider trains by heart rate or power, then periodic time trials are essential to establish the current training zones. If a roadie just rides, then there’s no point in suffering through a TT! However, every roadie should be on the lookout for declines in performance over multiple days, a signal of potential overtraining!
Luc, your FTP is about 225 watts after winter training and about 240 watts at the end of the outdoor season. With proper training you could be able to improve those values.
A word of caution, though: You’re also 59 years old. Unfortunately, starting in our 50s performance declines, even if you follow the same training program year by year. If 225 watts in the winter and 240 watts in the summer isn’t your personal max performance, then your power could increase. However, if those values are already the best possible for you, they may decline a bit this winter and next summer.
My eArticle Cycling Past 50, 60 and Beyond: Peak Fitness describes how to use perceived exertion, heart rate or power to improve performance. The article contains different 8-week programs for improvement in each of the following ways:
- Cruising Speed
- Greater Aerobic Capacity
The 41-page eArticle, packed with current information, is available for only $4.99 ($4.24 for Premium Members after their 15% discount).
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John’s full bio.