I wanted to provide a bit of perspective on this week's assessments.
Benchmarks and threshold assessments play a strange role in overall athletic development.
Coaches like to leverage assessments as a single snapshot and gauge of current rider profile, because it provides a framework which can help them prescribe best training intensity in sessions over the following weeks and months.
Athletes tend to view the assessment through a vastly different lens, greeting them as a pass/fail, black-and-white test of performance improvement (or decline). It is understandable that an athlete would want validation on whether the training is working and if they are improving, but the truth is that a single assessment (especially FTP) is not going to provide a complete answer to that question.
So can assessments be useful and irrelevant at the same time? Yes.
If we focus on cycling, let’s first consider the most basic elements that can contribute to performance improvement:
- Improved ‘engine’ (VO2 max): raising the physiological ceiling of performance
- Ability to maintain maximal sustained effort at a high output as possible (your functional threshold - or FTP)
- Economy and riding efficiency: If you use the metaphor of a vehicle, this would be your miles per gallon, a key contributor in endurance performance
- Bike position, posture and pedaling mechanics
- Improvement in ability to navigate varying terrain and wind conditions to yield best speed return
- Improvement in equipment choices for bike and clothing
Let’s further simplify this by combining any physiological improvements under a single banner, to keep things simple for this discussion.
A twenty minute time trial assessment, as well as the ramping protocol we also utilize, both seek to estimate your functional threshold - commonly referred to as FTP. This is the most common method coaches leverage to determine best training intensity for athletes. Ironically, it isn’t even a ‘best in class’ methodology to establish training intensity. Various other protocols provide greater insights and specificity. But it’s used because it still has a lot going in its favor: it is simple to measure, with a single number outcome, and is the most commonly understood and utilized metric out there. It serves its purpose, helps everyone play on the same field with the same vocabulary, and is highly accessible to all. The key is that it is accurate enough to enable YOU - at home - to build a framework of training intensity accuracy and insights.
This doesn’t mean you should ever expect your FTP to rise in correlation to your training efforts. Novice riders will typically experience very large and rapid improvements in FTP, due to a low entry point with fitness and specific riding muscular adaptations. Untrained athletes, no matter experience, will also see their FTP rise as fitness is regained, common following a break at the end of the training and racing season. Beyond this, shifts in FTP can be variable dependent on individual athlete, types of training focus, levels of fatigue and more. The key is that any assessment is not a pass/fail test. It is one piece of information gathered to guide future training intensity. It also helps the athlete and coaches raise questions and perspective on past training completed.
As an analogy, we can consider the role of SAT and ACT assessments in education. While it is true that very smart students will nearly always score high on SAT/ACT scores, no different than an elite athlete always holding a high FTP relative to their weight, the test scores are not a great determination of employment success. Much more goes into making a great employee. In sport, we leverage FTP at the right time of the season to refine training intensity –not to decide if you are good or bad at riding, nor if you are improving overall.
So when do we best execute the assessments?
The fall and early spring are the optimal periods for most riders to execute assessments. This is simply anchored around the practicalities of training life:
Fall: this tends to be a part of the year when racing is winding down, and most riders are taking small season breaks while shifting most of their riding time to inside trainer-based sessions. With the rigors of harder training and racing in the rear view mirror, and days getting shorter, colder and darker, it is valuable to establish a gauge of training intensity for the months ahead.
Winter/Spring: With varying success of training consistency that often occurs through the holidays and winter months, an additional assessment can capture additional shifts that may occur up or down in FTP. Depending on the athlete, a variety of shifts can occur, and these insights can be useful. Again, they aren’t a marker of overall performance improvements/declines.
If we fast forward to mid season, when the weather is warm and the training is ramped to a full level, most experienced and established athletes lean much less onto this specific number. There tends to be more outside riding, but any single session is more likely to be influenced by training load and fatigue from sessions around it. The best athletes retain a lens on their metrics, but double down on a feeling of self-management and execution of effort relative to how they feel on that day (this is part of why VOD sessions and their self-managed power are so high value). To illustrate: at a recent camp that included our more elite amateur athletes, we asked them to execute intervals at a strong and then a very strong effort. Not a single athlete asked what zone to be in, or what percentage of FTP. They simply produced the best effort possible relative to the resources they had in that moment, on that course, on that day.
Numbers matter, but are not critical yardsticks of training success.
As we venture toward an indoor trainer-based focus in our weekly training, it is worth dialing in training intensity and gaining a little perspective of your current profile. Just don’t treat it like an entrance examination to theUniversity of Performance.