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THE TEST : Fear & Loathing In 20 Minutes

The email comes in from Training Peaks telling of it's imminent presence. The calendar already said it was coming: THE TEST.

What is it sorry?

Possibly before we discuss it I should explain the purpose and objectives of a 20 minute Functional Threshold Power test.

A 20 minute FTP test is a controlled test where a rider will carry a best effort for the specified time, in order to achieve an average watts or heart rate for that time.

The primary role of the test is to give a 20-minute critical power or heart rate to use as a baseline for setting zones to train around accurately. Your zones will change through the course of the year in the different phases of the season as you become fitter and more conditioned in different areas. The calculated FTP is representative of your one-hour sustainable power and is as accurate as you will get to the anaerobic threshold without lactate testing. This is of great benefit to the economy of effort with regards glycogen usage.

The secondary role is one of performance monitoring, the progression of this critical power is a good guide as to improving fitness, but can't be seen on its own or indeed only in THE TEST. Critical power's for shorter times are just as relevant: the 20-minute's correspondence to anaerobic threshold is what puts it apart at times.

It has been referred to as the gold standard in the past but it's simply... THE TEST.

Three of us were discussing THE TEST whilst climbing an Alp one day. During the discussion focus turned on an absent rider who, it turns out, has never actually completed THE TEST. He talks about it a lot, he even makes fake news about it. But he has never actually ridden on the limit for the full 20 minute FTP test. This anonymous rider has instead ‘a number’ for something like 18mins and 29 seconds.

Rather than mocking, a bit of empathy can quickly help us identify the anxiety that surrounds THE TEST. It’s the time for answers, and like all tests, we usually fear failure.

It could be that we fear the worst – it’s November, training and diet have been, for want of a better word, ‘loose’. Those 20 minutes are really going to hurt and will still probably produce a number substantially below the one recorded in mid-August.

Or it’s the fear that two months of work will not have produced the number we want. Hopes are high, muscles are taught, and power meters are re-calibrated. Pressure is on.

Perhaps it’s fear of getting it wrong having shaped an entire week, or maybe two, of training around one session. There have been ten minute sweet spot efforts, intense short sprints but it’s been a while since you’ve done 20 minutes on the limit.

The session is set. Usual warm-up, then some short intense efforts to trigger the muscles, and open the valves. You approach the designated section of road where THE TEST will begin. But you need to nature break. It’s like pre-race nerves. This is ridiculous, it’s just you and the road.

Back on the bike, rolling smooth, hit lap on the Garmin and go.

No, that’s 50w too many. Calm down we’re not even at two minutes yet. Knock it back, find the biting point. No, just below it. Don’t look at time, only power for the first half.

Hello legs. Yes, we are going to be doing this for a good bit longer. Trust me though, you are both capable. Ok, let’s check the time. 10:48. That’s good, past half way and there is a good bit of consistent gradient coming up to squeeze the watts out.

Sweat and hard breathing. Here it comes. The pain, the burning, the resistance to the watts. 4minutes 36 seconds left. You’ve already done harder 5 minute sessions last week. Rationalise – 75% there, just keep it going. Focus.

Ouch. That was too hard on those last two minutes, surely. But only two and a bit to go. Move forward again on the saddle. On. The. Rivet. Ah ha, there are some muscles that have a bit more left. Spin it up into Z6, see if you can hold it.

Welcome to deep VO2 max. Vision closes in, but legs are still spinning. Start the countdown from 30 or 15 ? There it is 19:45. Fifteen…. Breathing too hard to count every second…. Nine, eight, seven…I’m a crazy man….three, two, one…. Quick, hit the lap button….

THE TEST is done. Quickly scroll to see the lap average. Was it what you wanted ?

It doesn’t matter in a way. That experience stands you in good stead. It’s one of the hardest intervals you’ll ever do so either way it’s great training. You have no doubt just learned some good lessons on how to pace it (at least on that particular piece of road). And you’ve won a mental battle.

And whether the number is higher or lower than expected or desired, the fact remains that it is a number. It is not pass or fail, rather it is an examination of current form. Something to work with over the coming weeks. It’s a line in the sand and you can be proud to have made it and you can be sure that it will help. Just ask your coach.

THE TEST is a hugely indivdual experience but there are always common experiences that can help you make the next one better:

  • Scheduling witihin your training calendar is the first important step, and should be done with good communication between you and your coach so that you are relatively fresh going into it;

  • Picking the right road. A steady incline will always help. Remember it’s only 20 minutes so you don’t need an Alp. You just need a big enough hill to complete the duration. If needed, start on the flat into a headwind if possible;

  • Always back it off within the two to five minutes. So many of us get excited and start too strong. It is best to visualise the ramp up in power and keep your best for last.

  • Watch the watts or the BPM– they are the best way to pace throughout the effort

  • Repeat. Your first one will never be your best (unless you are a born time-trialler). It takes two or three TESTS to find your technique and your limits (which should of course be elevated each time with consistency and accuracy in your training).

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