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Benchmark testing is an important part of any well-rounded triathlete’s arsenal. Athletes should test in order to establish a benchmark of their fitness and calculate training zones for their workouts. Ideally, testing should be done multiple times throughout the year to gauge fitness level and to monitor progress. For running and swimming, the most commonly used are time trials and benchmark sets (check out these ways to establish zones); but, for cycling, the gold standard to date has been the FTP test.
What is an FTP test?
FTP stands for functional threshold power. This is generally defined as the highest average power a cyclist can sustain for approximately one hour, as measured in watts. The primary use of this training metric is to set zones for workouts and to mark the upper limit of aerobic energy production.
Testing for FTP traditionally involves a one-hour time trial where a cyclist rides at the max power that can be sustained for the full 60 minutes. But, this is extremely taxing on the body and can be very difficult to pace. Also, not everyone has access to a route without stops or traffic, and the key to accurate benchmark testing and results is that the test is repeatable, meaning you need to do the same route, the same way, every time you test.
These complicating factors lead most athletes indoors to do a 20-minute FTP test that will provide an estimate of your FTP. The protocol is relatively simple. After a 10-15 minute warm-up and build, you ride as hard as you can sustain for 20 minutes. Take your average power for the 20-minute section and subtract 5%. That’s approximately your FTP.
Online platforms have now made this process easier than ever with several different ways to benchmark test—and no need to do your own calculations. Zwift has two FTP tests: one that’s an hour and 13 minutes and another that’s only 45 minutes. The only difference between these two tests is the length of the warm-up. Both of these tests start with a warm-up that includes a few ramp-ups and a 5-minute effort to prepare your legs for the main test. The test itself is 20 minutes. If you’re using a smart trainer, ERG mode will be used during the warm up. Once the test begins, Zwift will automatically turn ERG mode off. At the conclusion of the test, your FTP will automatically be calculated as 95% of your average power during the 20-minute test period.
What is a ramp test?
Unique to online platforms, like Zwift, TrainerRoad, and Wahoo’s SYSTM (formerly Sufferfest), is a version of the FTP testing called the Ramp test. This method estimates a rider’s FTP with a progressive build of one-minute intervals until the athlete hits failure and can not hold the effort anymore. On Zwift, the Ramp test begins at 100 watts and increases by 20 watts each minute until you can’t pedal any longer. This is a test to exhaustion, because the program is trying to determine your best one-minute—and extrapolates threshold and training zone calculations based on your effort and failure. Once you get to a point where you can’t pedal any longer, and your legs feel like they’re stuck in quicksand, the program will stop the test and estimate your FTP using their various proprietary algorithms.
For novice riders, those who weigh under 60kg/132 lbs, or have an FTP under 2 watts per/kg, Zwift also has the Ramp Test Lite. This test follows the same protocol as the original version, but it begins at 50 watts and increases by 10 watts each minute, making it easier to build up for smaller riders (who typically have a lower watts threshold) or for beginners (who aren’t yet accustomed to the pacing).
TrainerRoad has three options: a Ramp test, a 20-minute time trial, and an 8-minute test. TrainerRoad’s preferred assessment is the Ramp test, which they argue is the most accurate for the majority of riders using their platform.
The 20-minute test is more of a traditional FTP test; it includes a 30-minute warm up, 20-minute test, and cool-down. The goal of this test is to hold the highest average power you can sustain for the 20 minutes. Just like a traditional FTP test, it can be challenging to pace accurately, so this might be a better option for more seasoned riders. TrainerRoad will calculate your FTP as 95% of your average power for the 20-minute test interval.
The 8-minute test is a little different in that it focuses more on power levels at VO2 Max. The test involves a 28-minute warm-up, two 8-minute intervals with 10 minutes of rest in between, and a cool-down. FTP is determined by taking the average power of the two 8-minute intervals and reducing it by 10%.
Pros and cons of FTP v. ramp
Now that you know more about the testing options available, which should you choose? FTP or Ramp? The answer can based upon factors like your experience level, weight, and goals for testing. Traditional FTP testing, of the one-hour or even 20-minute variety, is difficult to pace and very taxing on the body. These are better suited for more experienced athletes. If you’re a novice, the Ramp test is probably the best option, because there’s less pacing involved. All you need to do is empty the tank until you can’t maintain the one-minute effort. In addition, because Ramp tests are shorter, they produce less fatigue. Quicker recovery time means that you can test more frequently.
However, you should also consider the type of event you compete in. If you primarily do longer, aerobic events like Ironman, your results from a short test, like the Ramp, might overestimate the power that you can reproduce for a much longer duration. With this in mind, a traditional one-hour or 20-minute FTP test will more accurately simulate the longer intervals you will be doing.
On the other hand, if you compete in shorter events, like sprints, that require bursts of power, then the Ramp test might be more applicable. But, if you’re an athlete who excels at holding high power for short periods of time, then the Ramp test might actually over-inflate your FTP calculation.
Regardless, the 20-minute test, when properly paced, is generally considered to be the most accurate.
No matter which test you choose, keep in mind that benchmark testing isn’t a perfect science. It’s highly subject to your performance on a particular day, level of fatigue, training load, stress, fueling, and recovery. That’s why it’s important to do regularly and to consider as part of a number of metrics.
Tips For Successful Testing
Whether you choose to do a regular FTP test or a Ramp test, there are a few general tips for success.
- Preparation: Go into the test rested and adequately fueled to achieve the best results. Have a fan, drink, and towel handy. Also, some motivational music never hurts.
- Pace: Don’t go out too hard, try to build quickly to a steady effort in a controlled manner, and resist the urge to surge at the end, because that may distort results. If you’re able to push too hard at the end of the test, then that likely means you didn’t pace very well. During the last 5 minutes of the test, you should feel like you’re just hanging on.
- Accuracy: Beware of viewing your FTP number as a vanity metric. Trying to trick the test by over-inflating the results will offer no benefit in the long run. If the values don’t accurately represent your current fitness level, then they won’t be relevant for training purposes.
- Cadence: Try to maintain a cadence that feels comfortable for you. If you’re looking for a range, 85-95 rpm is recommended, especially when using a smart trainer with ERG mode during a Ramp test, because this feature is how the trainer controls resistance. As the power rises and the test gets harder, if your cadence drops too low, pedaling will become very difficult.
- Timing: Testing frequently, every 4-6 weeks or 6-12 weeks is the norm, depending on your season builds, and allows you to track your progress. Off-season is a great time to get a benchmark test for the start of the next season.
- Don’t Stress: FTP is an assessment of your current fitness level. No more. No less. It’s just another metric to use, like heart rate or rate of perceived exertion. If the test doesn’t go well, you can always re-test in a few weeks!