FTP is the metric by which almost all cyclists judge themselves. But what happens when our FTP won’t budge any higher, no matter how much we train? If you feel as stuck as your FTP, then here’s what you need to know about breaking through the FTP plateau towards the outer reaches of your genetic potential.
WHAT IS AN FTP PLATEAU?
No matter how effectively we train, every cyclist will eventually hit their genetic ceiling in terms of FTP. Sadly though, the vast majority of amateurs never truly reach their potential. Instead, they flatten out on a performance plateau from which they find difficult to ever improve upon.
FTP plateaus occur in one of two scenarios. The most common reason is that our bodies become accustomed to a consistent training stress and no longer adapt to new stresses. The second scenario is much more serious and comes about when our bodies are fatigued through overtraining and a lack of recovery. In such cases, cyclists have trouble completing workouts and hitting the higher power numbers in high-intensity intervals.
FOUR WAYS TO OVERCOME THE OK PLATEAU
Plateauing is disheartening, and its root cause isn’t always easy to understand. Whether it’s your training plan or your nutrition plan, or your training stress or just the stress of life, there are several reasons why you may be rolling along on that flat plateau with no hope of getting off.
1) TRAINING STRESS IS THE KEY TO SUCCESS
For those stuck on a fitness plateau, the first port of call is to analyse your training stress. For FTP to continually rise to its natural ceiling, training must be both regular and challenging. Without consistency, our fitness levels won’t progress as they should, while without a sufficient challenge, we never stress our bodies enough to bring about the required adaptations that lead to FTP improvements.
Finding the optimal combination between both is the eternal challenge for any cyclist who seeks continual improvement. Ideally, our training loads should be challenging enough while also being maintainable across time.
Training at low intensities or low volumes will only bring about improvements up to a certain point. Anyone wishing to raise their FTP will have to spend considerable time training in the vicinity of their current FTP. Sweet spot intervals are one of the most popular ways to raise FTP, as is riding at threshold for short periods of time.
Training at intensity clocks up huge amounts of training stress. And to ensure that you don’t overdo it, TSS is the most useful metric used to quantify the training stress that we subject our bodies to. By analysing TSS across time, it allows us to quickly see if suboptimal levels of training stress are responsible for our plateau.
2) OPT FOR SPECIFICITY OVER SIMPLICITY
If your training lacks structure, then your body will quickly adapt and you’ll soon find yourself on a fitness plateau where you seem to get no faster no matter how many hours you put in.
Many cyclists fall victim to what are often termed junk miles. Long rides that are neither easy enough to promote recovery nor hard enough to illicit beneficial changes are the bane of many cyclist’s lives. Junk miles are one sure way to end up on a fitness plateau, and the only way off it is to add specificity to your training.
Specificity generally means intensity, pain, and discomfort. It means pushing your boundaries and continually stressing the body while allowing for optimal recovery between efforts. Custom training plans are a great way to achieve this, but remember, if the plan isn’t specially tailored to you and your goals, then you may soon find yourself back on a plateau once the body adapts to new stresses.
3) DISCOVERING THE ART OF RECOVERY
Undertraining is one sure way to undercook your FTP, but by overtraining, you run the risk of overcooking yourself — and that’s something that’s infinitely more dangerous.
Many of us who have had the experience of overreaching in training know that it leads to nowhere but a downward-sloping plateau and eventual health issues. No matter how hard we push, without sufficient recovery, we won’t see longterm improvements in FTP.
Warning signs include struggling to complete your assigned workouts on the smart trainer or finding yourself fatigued in life in general. In such cases, a lack of recovery is likely responsible for your fitness plateau. The body can only take so much stress before it requires a recovery period if we want to see continual improvement.
Everyone is different when it comes to recovery. Some cyclists will soon bounce back after a couple of days off the bike, but those who find themselves in a real hole may require a week or more off the bike. This is especially common in cyclists who have skipped rest weeks, ignored warning signs in their body, and constantly pushed their bodies to the limit.
One useful metric for gauging recovery is heart rate variability (HRV). By analysing the time between successive heartbeats, HRV provides incredible insight into the state of our nervous system and our current recovery state. And what’s more, it only requires a heart rate strap and a phone app.
If you do require time off the bike due to excessive fatigue, then try and make it count. Be good to yourself. Yoga, meditation, cold dips, quality sleep, and a proper nutritional plan will all help heal and nourish the body mind and spirit and prime you for eventual FTP improvements once training resumes.
4) NUTRITION AND MEETING THE BODY’S NEEDS
Repeatedly training hard without a proper nutrition strategy is one sure way to hit the plateau. The harder you train, the more cognisant you must be of your nutritional plan.
When we repeatedly push the body to its limits, we must provide it with the fuel required. High-intensity workouts demand increased levels of carbohydrate, but perhaps more important is what we take onboard post-workout. Without providing our body with the amino acids, vitamins, and minerals required to recover, rebuild, and optimise hormonal regulation for good health, we can potentially run ourselves into the ground with heavy training.
ONWARD AND UPWARD!
Whether it’s in life, love or sport, we all run into problems and plateaus now and again. No matter what sort of plateau you find yourself stranded upon at this juncture, rest safe in the knowledge that there’s always a way off it!