FTP Testing: 'Is this gonna' hurt?'
Where do you start with this one?!
We didn't go looking for this, it came to us. Called to us from the depths of social media...in other words, we came across it on young Jake Neale's insta' story looking for participants and being naive, we thought why not?! Our quads are slightly bigger than your average Joe (actually comparing to our brother Joe who is so skinny he has to be weighted down when wind speeds are anything measured over 10mph!) so there must be some wattage in those legs of ours. So, dropped Jake a message, got the lowdown of what was involved which was basically 4 x 20min all out tests with a few measurements taken pre and post ride for his dissertation. These tests were all to be done in different temperatures which would be unknown until you enter the chamber hidden away in the sports unit of St. Mary's University College (our old uni'). Jake did leave out a few details though. The main one being that it was requested that each rider would have to stick a rectal probe up their ass to record core body temperature. Now Sam Hodges was on the same study and mentioned this in passing in our whatsapp group, we thought he was joking and he left it at that...we'll remember that mate!
Test Numero Uno
All the tests were scheduled to take place 5.30pm on a Thursday evening straight after work which meant commuting by bike to the test. I thought this would great for the warm up but Jake told me that a mandatory 10 minute pre-spin was needed to calibrate cadence sensors etc. Walking into the unit itself, the chamber was adjacent to the actual lab itself with the temperature screen covered up, we wasn't to know beforehand what we were walking/riding into. After being re-acquainted with Jake (actually never ridden with him, just met him in passing although he doesn't remember, who doesn't remember us?!), he then dropped the bombshell. It wasn't just a probe, it had a metre long cable attached to it so the temperature could be recorded on Jake's little black box. I was really unsure about sticking this thing up my rectum. A long time ago, someone famous who will always stick with me quoted 'My exit hole will always be my exit hole, not my entry hole!'...god bless Ali G! I was determined to go through with it, if all his other test subjects could get pass this violation of our waste disposal. You might want to skip this bit if you're eating...So Jake sent me off to the changing room to insert this probe. Nervous was an understatement, unless you're checking for your prostate, this is a very unusual procedure. Jake (must be an experienced guinea pig at Simmies!) because he recommended in not tensing up and allowing a smooth passage. It really did catch my breath but I was thinking surely Cavendish and co. don't need to go through this vigorous process when they're in training?!
With the cable dangling out of my bib shorts, Jake needed a pre-weight measurement (we made sure we had a light lunch to impress on the scales but our bubble burst when Jake mentioned he's lighter than a bag of sugar!) and then went on to rip off half my body hair by attaching other temperatures probes on my skin. If you ever seen Flatliners, it felt like I was in the uncut version. Finally all taped up, I opted not to wear a baselayer but with it being through the heart of the late Winter we've been experiencing, I was freezing and the chamber was as cold. For this test, the chamber temperature was set at a cool 8C but I was happy to get to some sweating! Sam had warned me the tests were done in a random order so you were never prepared which what Jake obviously wanted, little interference as possible so he could gather raw data for his study.
I did question Jake as to why he didn't take advantage of the wattbikes at St. Mary's and why we were being made to use our own bikes. His reasoning was that our riding position was already set up on our machines and you'd want to feel comfortable as possible if you're pushing it to the limit for 20mins. The bike was set up on the turbo which was attached to Jake's monitors recording all sorts; VO2, CO2, watts, cadence etc. I couldn't see this and we were not allowed any distractions whatsoever. No fluids were to be consumed either during the tests so hydration was key before the tests. After the cadence sensor was calibrated, Jake directed my attention to some scores on the wall. During the tests, I would have to shout some numbers depending on how much effort I was putting in and how hot I thought it was.
Jake gave us the countdown. We were still chatting away and I don't think he realised how much of a chattabox we can be because even when he told us to put the hammer down, we were asking him had he'd been riding much?! One thing straight away we struggled with was finding a gear to stay in. Our Tarmac is a 9spd (we feel so restricted on it!) and we had put a 32-12 cassette on last year to give us some more range on the hills but the jumps in the middle range of gears were more evident so it was either push a fast cadence with lower speed or a bigger speed at a lower cadence but allowing our legs to push the power and leave room for more. We opted for the latter. First 5 minutes was all about getting into a rhythm and we were still talking. We could see Jake shaking his head wondering if we were taking this seriously?! We was but didn't know what to expect and we didn't like uncomfortable silences! Second 5mins flew by. This was definitely the sweet zone, legs are flying, breathing is controlled, heart working well, you do feel invincible. '10 minutes to go, keep it going', shouts Jake. What? There's another 10 to go?! That's when the legs start to bleed lactate. You start to alternate what muscle groups you focus on pushing those pedals round just to give the others a rest. Then they start to hurt, so you start to rock your body to keep the power constant. Head starts to drop slightly too. You start to change your riding position too to get more comfy. The rectal probe didn't like this because I found out at the end that it actually slipped out! Last 5mins was called and Jake kept dropping they were good numbers showing, not sure at this stage if that was true but it helped. This last phase felt the longest, you're now anticipating the end. The last couple of minutes I was picturing myself commuting home, sounds weird but I know that this would be roughly a mile or so of riding at full pace so I was trying to replicate the feeling of getting home.
Test done. Had I left everything on the bike? In hindsight and you will find out when your read about the other tests, personally I didn't feel I gave everything. I was tired but it could be my makeup (body DNA not eyeliner!) that I recover well. I wasn't gasping for breath but was that because of the cool conditions or did I have more to give?
After Jake took what felt like a litre of blood and post-weight numbers, I was allowed to get ready for the rest of my commute home as I came from work. It felt so weird riding home, legs felt really light and I was getting more speed for my effort. Well that's enough of me rambling on, here's what you came to see:
Test 1 (8°)
- Pre: 81.4kg
- Post: 81.1kg
- Av Power 292W (FTP 277W, 3.4W/kg)
- Av Cadence 98rpm
- Max HR 177bpm
- Av HR 165bpm
- Lactate 7.80mmol/L
Test Numero Dos
So we knew now what to expect. Some things would be measured, some things would be inserted, some things were to hurt! When we released our results to Sam and Chris, I was marginally higher than Sam's which they now use an excuse if I don't pull my weight on any turns on the front! Something I took away from the first test was that I am doing this as an untrained participant. I did used to play semi-pro' football so my level of fitness has been decent but since I hanged up my boots, my body composition has changed. I'm broader carrying extra weight I have always told myself to get rid of but as a result, my legs are a good size (if you don't mind me saying!). The thing I need to keep reminding myself though is that riders like Sam can keep that amount of power going a lot longer than I can. My ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate - I remember my studies!) levels are not great, this is what powers your anaerobic system and the molecules release a higher burst of energy but are in short supply hence they run out quite quickly.
I had an inkling that every test from now on would be a warmer one, well they must be, test number 1 was freezing to in comparison! The bike was set up as usual, I downed enough drink (water!) beforehand so try to get ahead of the dehydration which was about to commence. Sam had popped along early to poke fun at us before he had one of his FTP tests which followed ours. He did mention that as he was watching us, the test seemed longer from observing than it did from performing. The flip side of that I found this time is that your mind begins to try think of things to numb the pain. Discussing this with Jake, he commented on one of his participants who imagined he was racing chasing down a breakaway! What, for 20mins?!!! I did try this tactic by visualising keeping a hold of Sam's and Chris's wheel but that failed when they pulled away!
Once again that sweet zone presented itself after 5mins and you just cross your fingers you can keep it there. Gearing took time again to settle, what I'd give for an 11spd! The climate was definitely warmer and it had a massive effect on the dryness in our mouth, our tongue was actually sticking to our gums! Knowing Sam was watching from the outside, we tried to push a bit harder at the end to really empty ourselves. Breathing became faster, shoulders rocked a little bit more. That was much tougher than the first test.
It was Sam's turn in the chamber and because I had already experienced these conditions, Jake allowed me in to watch and he took me through his screens which resembled the traffic room looking after the m25, screens everywhere! It was interesting seeing someone else punish themselves, I was looking for differences in effort, is this what I should be looking like when on the limit? Sam was pushing a big gear but keeping a very smooth cadence. He was quickly into a sweat but kept himself in the zone despite the distraction from the close ups from my iphone camera! By the end, he didn't have breath to speak. Empty.
I felt a little guilty. Was I taking this seriously? Because when I had finished my tests, I was asking Jake when he's next out on the bike! But it could just our recovery times are different, either way, I had it in my mind to make sure I experience the feeling I had got from Sam, to the limit and more.
Test 2 (25°)
- Pre: 81.4kg
- Post: 81.0kg
- Av Power 273W (FTP 259W, 3.18W/kg)
- Av Cadence 95rpm
- Max HR 180bpm
- Av HR 161bpm
- Lactate 7.05mmol/L
Test Numero Tres
The cold snap had really taken hold of the country and we were actually looking forward to getting warmed up! The guy before us was just finishing up when we rocked up at Simmies and he was sweating a lot, not another hot one is it?! Jake wanted me to pee into a cup this time, did he know about the TUE I was taking?! Crap, thought I had hidden that jiffy bag?! I had the mindset this time to push harder than before, experience the feeling that Sam was showing in the previous test, I wanted to know what it felt like when you're trying to find the energy to breathe let alone push the pedals round. Sounds sadistic but that's what athletes do when they want to find out the limits to their bodies.
It was cooler than the previous test, I knew that would be better for me. Sounds like a silly comparison but on cold commutes, I ride faster, my body appreciates the cooler climate and heat regulation is maintained at a better efficiency. Stick me in an oven of a Summers day, I falter. Headaches quickly appear because I can't keep up with hydration. Throw me in a hurricane of rain, I'd happily sit there churning out a rhythm, think that's just what I respond better to. Again, I had to choose whether to push a high cadence on a lower gear or react to the increase in resistance on a bigger gear. I chose the latter once again and I noticed early on the turbo playing it's own rhythm whilst the wheels were turning in the axle. This helped a lot, I felt in tune with it so focused on keeping that sound going to the beat of my cadence. My perceived effort score was high early on, this wasn't a great thing because you do want to pace yourself so your power graph is just one smooth curve rather than dips or spikes. I was worried I had gone out too hard but suppose if this was Sam's tactic, let's go with it. Last few minutes, our breathing was deep, few grunts were let out, shoulders rocked as usual but still trying to keep a smooth cadence but that last 30 seconds felt 10x longer.
I felt empty. But I didn't feel totally out of it, you know that sick feeling when you're starved of oxygen, that feeling didn't arrive. I still managed to speak asking Jake how much weight I had lost! Maybe this is the way I recover or maybe I could of gone on further to that point of no return...either way, results were strong in this one:
Test 3 (15°)
- Pre: 81.8kg
- Post: 81.5kg
- Av Power 286W (FTP 272W, 3.32W/kg)
- Av Cadence 89rpm
- Max HR 184bpm
- Av HR 168bpm
- Lactate 6.93mmol/L
Test Numero Cuatro
This was it then. I was actually enjoying these tests. I'm a sucker for stats. Love a bit of Strava or checking out mileage data on the Garmin or even going further by downloading my Veloviewer wheel. We were eager to know what numbers we were putting out. Around this time though we had read how David from Dirty Wknd had done from his FTP tests and his numbers were impressive especially his 35C test which we were about to hit.
The skin probes were taped on, that thing was up my rectum and I had pee'd in the cup but Jake reported back that I was quite dehydrated and knowing what was to come, he recommended taking in some more water. I tried but I had that sickly feeling from when your stomach is just too full of liquid so I had just to go in hoping I wouldn't collapse. Although the temperature inside the chamber was ramped up (apparently it goes way beyond 35C!), it felt more comfortable than test no.2, we were in Egypt a few years ago on holiday with Mrs Notinthepeloton and the temperature there was 40C and more. We thought if we survived that floating around in the red sea, we could get through this.
The 10min warm up though was a little moist shall we say. This was going to be a wet one and I had no towel and Jake had run out of tissue. Better get the mop ready then mate! I opted for the bigger gear again just as my legs respond better to a bit of a resistance in the gears rather than spin out but straight away, it felt more sluggish. The rate I was sweating was quite staggering. Every heavy breath I expired sprayed sweat through the face mask we were wearing. The front of the bike was getting a bit of a clean which was fine by us because the Beast from the East had caked the bike in muck so I was killing two birds with one stone here!
As this was the final test, I wanted to give it our all. Mouth was extremely dry, you could feel the power draining away in small doses so I was trying to focus in keeping a consistent rpm. For me, I know I'm pushing hard when I can feel my heart beat echo around my chest. Scary feeling but suppose you're on the cusp of what your body is allowing you to. Sam is right in saying that our bodies never fully let us give everything. Our bodies only goal is survival and it will do everything it can to ensure it continues to work. Our mind's pain receptors are set to our own personal 'limits' and with most athletes, they can overcome these and reset these limiters. For most people, first sign of pain and our body is shouting stop. Elite athletes thrive on this feeling and will continue to argue with their inner chimp to allow them to push further. So who knows how far our bodies can really go?!
Like we said before, we were actually enjoying these tests so when Jake counted down the final minute, we were pushing squares. Grunting became a bit more aggressive (still on the bike here, no innuendo!), heart thumping now, sweat was being sprayed like a garden hose, beard dripping like a wick, chamber was being flooded with my excess water...'and stop'. Over.
Test 4 (35°)
- Pre: 82.0kg
- Post: 81.5kg
- Av Power 265W (FTP 252W, 3.07W/kg)
- Av Cadence 86rpm
- Max HR 184bpm
- Av HR 166bpm
- Lactate 5.83mmol/L
So what was the point of that then?!
Well, we now know what it's like to ride in 35C conditions! Apart from it being Jake's study on the effects of the body when riding in different temperatures, these tests have confirmed a few things and made us realise some others too. First up, it's confirmed that we respond better to cooler temperatures. We kinda knew this as we push harder in cooler weather, our body regulates our core temperature more efficiently and obviously if you're freezing, you wanna' warm up so get the muscles working and heat will be your bi-product. The testing has also confirmed is that we suffer in the heat too. We are a bit heavier than most of the riders we ride with, we are often told we are a great wind blocker because the size of our ass! So you could argue carrying this amount of weight in a warm dry climate, the body is under more stress to deliver a level of performance you're demanding it to.
We've done the odd power tests in the past. We remember popping down to Nuffield Health once to try one of their new Wattbikes and powered out 1100 watts on a 30 sec test. Chris and I recently had a Wattbike race at the London Bike Show where we averaged over 500w over 50secs so there's some wattage there. But it has made us think what we could achieve with a bit of training. We are surrounded by Zwifters these days and everyone throwing their wattage numbers out there. The only thing we have to share each day is how brutal the headwind is around Heathrow on our way home from work!
As for the testing itself, put the pain aside, it's a great feeling afterwards with the endorphins running through your body knowing what your body can do. Your FTP score can set you up for a great training programme if you know how to design one around it or have a coach willing to do it for you. I'd definitely do it again but wouldn't mind putting more prep' into it to see how much further I could go or did I really hit my limit?! One thing is for sure though, I do talk a lot....you still there?!