There’s been a lot of talk about the death of the 20-minute test. For a long time, this has been the staple for many athletes to set their Functional Threshold Power (FTP), an indicator of what sort of power output you may be able to hold for a duration around an hour. While this might not be overly significant to your targets, if you use a system like TrainingPeaks, an accurate FTP value is essential to having accurate data.
Let’s just start at the basics, what makes a good test? Firstly, it has to be repeatable. This means that, when you retest you can replicate as much as possible down to every minute detail. Not easy if you like to be outdoors.
Somewhat conversely to my point, it should be relevant, which can be two-fold. If you ride 100% of the time outdoors, how relevant is an indoor test? Especially given the vast majority of people do have some degree of difference when conducting almost identical tests, with the key variation being indoors or outside. If you ride all the time outside, you might reconsider your indoor testing. Similarly, and the other point to relevance; would you need to do a full 20-minute test if your targets are a short hill climb? Maybe not, especially if you can still estimate your FTP via shorter testing, which I’ll go into in a bit.
There are a few other factors that make a good test, but, the last important one for me is accuracy. Accuracy plays a big role in testing, however, don’t be too hung up if you know your power meter is inaccurate, as long as it is consistent, and you’re not trying to compare yourself against others, it’s not the end of the world. Just be aware that if you use different power meters or eventually get a new one, you will need to make some reasonable adjustment to your old data, to make it comparable.
One of the main factors for you choosing a test might come down to what platform you use to analyse your data. Some apps now have specific testing routines built into them, for example The Sufferfest, which means you have all the necessary data points to be able to use the app efficiently. You should check with your chosen platform what they use, if this is none specifically, then you can follow some of my suggestions below.
If you are a Sprinter:
If you are a sprinter, or you want to sprint, or even if you plan to do some sprint training as a fun change from the norm, you might consider testing your sprint power. This can be something as simple as a test to determine your 5-second peak power, which will also find your absolute peak, which is somewhat less relevant but perhaps still useful.
It might be performed over 6-7 seconds to ensure you have enough data. You can take this one step further by calculating an average sprint duration of the event you are targeting, a 5-second sprint is fairly short, and then testing what you can hold for that. While not necessarily as comparable as the standard 5-second, knowing where you are will enable you to monitor progress.
If you are a Hill Climber or Break-Away Specialist:
If you are planning on doing a shorter hill climb effort or you are even a break-away specialist, you might consider doing something like a 3-minute test. You can also take 70% of this as your FTP – before I get any negative emails, it’s no different than taking 95% of 20-minutes as FTP. A three-minute effort can be modified slightly depending on your goals, a longer or shorter effort might be more relevant to your targets.
If you are a Tester:
If you are planning on doing time trials, I strongly recommend you stick to the 20-minute test. Many people tell me they hate doing the 20-minute test and that they crack at some point during it. While there are other ways you can estimate FTP, if you are a tester (TT specialist) it is very similar to your chosen race.
If you can’t mentally stand an FTP test, you are at a serious disadvantage against the competitor who has trained themselves to withstand it. If you’re reading this and slightly disappointed, I’d recommend some form of meditation. Every athlete I’ve introduced to meditation has reported a 20-minute test to feel somewhat easier. Unsure where to start? Try the app Headspace and thank me later.
If you are an Endurance Artist:
If you are doing a long event, for example a century, you’re probably already aware of your performance figures… think about how long you can currently sustain a certain power or speed (the former is more of a better measure, I’m just very aware that some readers may not be using power yet). If you’re starting out and need to ride 100 miles, you might only be able to ride 20. Your most relevant test is in itself the distance which you can actually ride. FTP might play very little role in determining success in your event, whereas endurance most certainly will.
If you’re anything else:
What if your targets don’t fall into any of the above categories? Well your testing might need some thought as to how to make it relevant to you. A professional coach will most certainly be able to help. If you need something to test FTP, you don’t like either the 3 or 20-minute tests, I would suggest an incremental ramp test. Simply start at a comfortable power and increase around 20 watts per minute to exhaustion (try to time it so the test is around 10 minutes long). The average power from the final completed minute forms approximately the same figure as you would with the 3-minute test noted above and you simply take 70% of this as your FTP. Again, it’s all approximations, but, that is what we have to work with within the confines of the human body.
Do yourself a favour and get tested… just make sure it serves you well!