It’s all well and good to put in consistent training miles each week, but if we don’t quantify our improvements, then we’re missing out on something important. What gets measured gets managed, and whether you train with power or heart rate, then here are four popular fitness tests you can perform on an indoor trainer to quantify your fitness levels.

FTP: the litmus test for cycling fitness

It may be the test many detest, but the most common form of FTP testing involves riding for 20 minutes at the highest intensity possible. A riders FTP equates to 95% of the average 20-minute power and becomes the reference for all power zones.

FTP tests are hard on the legs and the mind. They require psychological discipline and a solid pacing strategy in order to complete them correctly.

FTP test protocol:
  • Warm-up for 20 minutes prior to the test in zone 2 with several anaerobic efforts thrown in.
  • Begin the 20-minute test by riding at the highest intensity you can sustain for the period. Ensure you pace the effort and maintain a largely consistent effort that doesn’t taper off.
  • After 20 minutes, take the average power and multiply it by 0.95 to calculate your FTP.

Ramp test: ramp the intensity until breakdown

A ramp test offers several advantages over traditional FTP tests. It hurt less, requires less time to complete, provides a reasonably accurate estimation of FTP, and it removes pacing from the testing equation.

Ramp tests use gradual increases in power over a short period to estimate FTP. Riders gradually increase their power output every minute by 15 watts until they get to the point where they can’t sustain the target power.

The beauty of a ramp test is the avoidance of the pain associated with traditional FTP testing. Ramp testing only involves 2-3 minutes of real hurt. This places less stress on the body, requires minimal recovery, and makes athletes more likely to willingly repeat the test more frequently.

Ramp test protocol:
  • Easy 5-minute warm-up in zone 2
  • Begin the ramp test just above zone 2
  • Increase power output by 15 watts every minute
  • End the test and cool down when you can’t sustain the required power.

The calculation of your FTP from a ramp test involves calculating 75% of the average power from the last minute of the test.

Like any form of testing, ramp testing should be repeated every 4 to 6 weeks to ensure that power zones don’t become skewed through changes in FTP.

Critical power: the most intense test you’ll ever do

In critical power testing, riders undergo an all-out effort with no pacing for 3 minutes of sheer pain. The underlying idea of critical power testing is that you can deplete your anaerobic capacity (W’) with all-out efforts that exceed 150 seconds. The power output that can be sustained after that point refers to critical power, and the power that a rider can theoretically hold for 30-60 minutes.

Critical power test protocol:
  • Warm-up for 15-20 minutes and include some hard anaerobic efforts.
  • Shift into the gear that allows you to produce the highest power output.
  • Ride all-out for 3 minutes and empty the tank entirely.
  • The average power for the last 30 seconds of the test represents your critical power.

One of the criticisms of the 3-minute test is that it’s specific to one type of rider, those who are naturally more explosive. A more complete method of testing involves completing 3-5 tests that range in time from 3-15 minutes. When the results are plotted, such tests provide a more complete representation of peak power for all periods from one second to 60 minutes. This approach requires multiple days of testing and much more effort and discipline.

In terms of the time and effort required, the 3-minute critical power test is still very valuable.

Lactate threshold heart rate

For those who don’t ride to power, lactate threshold heart rate (LTHR) provides a way to quantify fitness using heart rate. Like with FTP, Knowing your LTHR allows you to tailor your training zones and maximise the training returns.

Lactate threshold refers to the exertion level beyond which your body no longer produces energy aerobically. A higher lactate threshold means you can produce more power at a comfortable heart rate, something that improves overall performance across the board.

Lactate threshold is partially genetic, and individual results aren’t directly comparable like power numbers are.

Lactate threshold heart rate test protocol:
  • Warm-up for 20 minutes with some hard above threshold efforts thrown in.
  • Ride for 30 minutes at the highest consistent intensity you can maintain, full time trial mode.
  • Take your average heart rate over the last 20 minutes of the test. This represents your LTHR.

Testing: a necessary evil

Testing your cycling fitness is rarely enjoyable, but absolutely necessary if you’re building towards a goal. If your results fall below your expectations, then see it as an early warning sign. Are you doing too many junk miles, too much endurance work, and not enough threshold work? What does this say about your current training plan? And what will that mean when your target event rolls around? Everyone has different goals, and there are many ways to turn it around. From sweet spot training to specific training for that race-winning move, there are no shortage of ways to mix it up before your next fitness test!