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How to Increase Power on the Bike

by Taren Gesell

Blog ▸ How to Increase Power on the Bike

In many triathlon circles, you’ll hear people talking about their “FTP.” They’re referring to their “functional threshold power,” which is the theoretical amount of MAXIMUM power you can hold for 60 minutes of riding. 

Will a higher FTP result in better race performance? Yes, however, following an FTP building plan, which I’ll share below, will not improve your race performance directly. 

That’s not to say FTP isn’t useful. It most certainly is. Your FTP will be a great way to build structured workouts around that number to improve your bike strength.

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What functional threshold power is;
  • The three types of workouts that help increase your FTP; and
  • How to wrap it all up into a training plan so that you can become a more powerful cyclist for triathlon.

What is Functional Threshold Power?

An article on functional threshold power must start first with a definition of what FTP even is. If you haven’t gathered this by now, FTP stands for Functional Threshold Power and is a measure of the power you can hold for an hour, measured in watts. It’s most popularly used as a measure of cycling fitness.

When combined with heart rate data, these two components paint a pretty clear picture of your current fitness level over time. The ideal scenario is that your power output increases while the heart rate required to produce the same amount of power decreases or stays the same.

While your FTP is the theoretical amount of power you can hold for 60 minutes, you’ll also want to pay attention to a few other power figures. Your 5-second, 1-minute, 5-minute, and 20-minute power outputs can show fitness improvements over time, in addition to your main FTP figure.

How to Determine your FTP

To find out your functional threshold power (FTP), you need a power meter and to do an FTP test. Beginner triathletes likely don’t own a power meter, and I don’t think you should feel pressured to buy one for your first triathlon (especially since you can also use the RPE method for creating pacing strategies!).

But, in a nutshell, if you have a power meter, you need to do your FTP test to find your functional threshold power. We recommend the Zwift ramp test to find your FTP first and explain exactly how to do it in our article: What is a Training Zone?

Do your FTP test 3-4 months before race day so that you can work with it during all your bike workouts and become familiar with how it feels.

Workouts to Increase Power FTP on the Bike

There are three main types of workouts involved in increasing FTP. The first is a power session, the second is a VO2 Max workout, and the third is a long, easy ride.

Before getting into the workouts we need to understand really what we’re doing to increase FTP.

Vo2 Max is the maximum amount of oxygen our body can process each minute, it’s our maximal aerobic capacity and can be thought of as a ceiling for performance. So to perform harder, faster, or longer in any aerobic endeavour a higher Vo2 Max will help.

FTP is raw power, and you can think of it like pushing up to the Vo2 Max ceiling.

So to increase FTP we need to either raise our Vo2 Max, or the power we can hold.

Power Bike Workout

The very best way to increase your FTP according to this study is to perform short, very powerful bike intervals in the 30 second to 2 minute range. These intervals are above your FTP with enough rest between intervals to perform them over and over.

An example workout would be something like 12x60sec FAST above FTP, 2 minutes easy spinning between.

These short intervals have been shown over many studies to be the best way to increase your FTP. However, the FTP gains will taper off over several months because the FTP number is “bumping up” to your Vo2 Max; at which point it’s time to increase your FTP by increasing your Vo2 Max.

 Vo2 Max Bike Workout

While the power bike sessions serve the purpose of pushing up your FTP, the Vo2 Max workouts effectively pull up the top end of your functional threshold power. This is a really intense workout each week. 

An example Vo2 Max session looks like this: 8 sets of four minutes on, two minutes off. This study found that intervals in the 2-5 minute range were best for increasing Vo2 Max.

While the power workouts “push up” your FTP, the Vo2 Max sessions “pull up” your FTP.

Long Easy Bike

The key bike workout I recommend is the long, easy bike. Now, understand that long and easy is relative and means different things to different people. A couple of ways to ensure you’re going easy, whatever that means for you, is being able to breathe through your nose and keep a conversation during the ride without gasping for air.

This ride should be about 60 minutes for sprint distance triathletes, and for an Ironman athlete, this ride should be upwards of four hours. 

Vo2 Max can be increased by the long easy bike because this type of ride increases the density of mitochondria in your body, while the Vo2 Max ride itself makes those mitochondria function better. So it’s important to do both types of rides.

How to structure an FTP building training block

When it comes to sectioning off time in your year to build your FTP, you’ll want to give yourself 12 weeks where your bike workouts are specifically designed for this purpose. We can build that out using the above workouts as examples.

Week one is where you’ll adapt to the workouts above. During week two, you’ll repeat the same workouts but attempt to complete them with a slightly harder consistent effort or at a heart rate that’s a bit lower than the first week. That’s how we adapt in week one and build in week two.

Week three is your recovery week, where you’ll repeat the same workout but at only 50-60% of the previous week. For example, the power bike workout might have 12 minutes of intervals. You can reduce the number of sets from 24 to 12 or 15 or drop the duration of each interval from 60 seconds to 30.

Following this template for the remaining rest weeks (weeks 6 and 12) allows you to absorb all of the training. The next key is building upon the two hard weeks to continue to progress your training and increase your FTP. 

In the first week, the power workout is 10x20sec FAST above FTP with 2 minutes rest between hard efforts. Over the course of the 12 week FTP building block of training you’ll increase these intervals up to 2 minutes while reducing the work-to-rest ratio. For the Vo2 Max workout in week one, you’ll do 6 sets of six minutes on, 2 minutes off. Again, as you progress you’ll want to increase the length of the intervals while reducing the work-to-rest ratio.

12 Week FTP Building Plan

12-week ftp building planVo2 Max BikePower BikeLong Easy Ride
Week 16x6mins at 10% under FTP with 2 mins rest 60-70rpm3 rounds of 10x20s on 10% over FTP with 40s off.60 mins –
up to 4 hrs
Week 26x6mins at 10% under FTP with 2 mins rest 60-70rpm3 rounds of 10x20s on 10% over FTP with 40s off.60 mins –
up to 4 hrs
Week 3 – restRepeat same workout but only 50-60% of the previous weekRepeat same workout but only 50-60% of the previous weekLong easy bike
week 45x8mins at 10% under FTP with 2 mins rest 60-70rpm3 rounds of 10x30s on 10% over FTP with 30s off.60 mins –
up to 4 hrs
week 55x8mins at 10% under FTP with 2 mins rest 60-70rpm3 rounds of 10x30s on 10% over FTP with 30s off.60 mins –
up to 4 hrs
week 6 – restRepeat same workout but only 50-60% of the previous weekRepeat same workout but only 50-60% of the previous weekLong easy bike
week 77x6mins at 10% under FTP with 2 mins rest 60-70rpm3 rounds of 10x40s on 10% over FTP with 20s off.60 mins –
up to 4 hrs
week 87x6mins at 10% under FTP with 2 mins rest 60-70rpm3 rounds of 10x40s on 10% over FTP with 20s off.60 mins –
up to 4 hrs
week 9 – restRepeat same workout but only 50-60% of the previous weekRepeat same workout but only 50-60% of the previous weekLong easy bike
week 109x5mins at 10% under FTP with 1 min rest 60-70rpm3 rounds of 10x30s on 15% over FTP with 30s off.60 mins –
up to 4 hrs
week 119x5mins at 10% under FTP with 1 min rest 60-70rpm3 rounds of 10x30s on 15% over FTP with 30s off.60 mins –
up to 4 hrs
week 12 – restRepeat same workout but only 50-60% of the previous weekRepeat same workout but only 50-60% of the previous weekFTP TEST
Good luck!

Over 12 weeks, you’ve gradually increased the duration that you’re spending at intensity while the rest has gradually decreased. This type of structured training forces your body to learn how to stay at or around FTP for longer periods of time. 

Keep in mind, too, that you should also be swimming and running at this time. It’s best to keep the intensity of those workouts fairly low. Space these bike rides out throughout the week on Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays for example.

At the end of week 12, after you’ve taken the last recovery week, go through another FTP test. If you’ve followed the training plan, you should experience an improved result. 

If you’d like an entire training plan along with swim and run workouts, check out our complete guides to training for all the various triathlon distances (Sprint, Olympic, 70.3, Ironman).

When to build FTP during the year

As I mentioned at the beginning, FTP isn’t the be-all, end-all, as it has some limitations. The main one is the timeframe in which you focus on a specific block of FTP-building training. 

The time you want to do a specific FTP-building plan is when you aren’t building towards a specific race. That could be as much as six months out from a race. That gives you time to focus on building your FTP with time on the backend to devote at least three months solely to race-specific training.

If you’re racing in the northern hemisphere where the race season is roughly May to September and the off-season is roughly October to December, January to March is a great time for an FTP focus.

Caveats to FTP for Triathletes

Now, FTP isn’t the be- all, end- all measurement of cycling prowess in triathlon because it’s not an exact determinant of how you’ll perform on race day. For that, you’ll need race- specific training rather than FTP- specific training. 

It’s important, too, to mention that FTP isn’t entirely accurate. Your FTP number is intended to approximate your anaerobic threshold, but when you compare FTP to athletes actual anaerobic thresholds in a lab FTP can be off by as much as 20%. So your training designed around FTP isn’t 100% bang on to your actual physiology.

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