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How to use FTP to get the most out of your steady-state rides

Varying the distance and intensity of your long, steady rides can help get the most out of your training

Photo by: Jackie Larouche

For much of my competitive cycling career, my life centred around power numbers. How much power could I maintain for a minute, for 20 minutes and, my favourite test – an hour. On the national cycling team, much of our training was centered around power – the watts we produced for a given interval, which was then divided by your weight in kilograms, which provided a “watts per kilogram” number. (Those who have used Zwift will be familiar with this metric.)

From those numbers my coaches would come up with my Functional Threshold Power (FTP) and create a number of training zones based on that number. When I was racing and weighed 75 kg, my steady state riding was between 240 and 300 watts on the flats, and I had to stay under 400 watts when I was climbing. Basically, during my steady-state rides I was not supposed to ever exceed 85 per cent of my FTP. I enjoyed these rides as it opened up some pretty epic ride opportunities, especially during training camps in the mountains where I’d chase 3,500 m of climbing during these efforts.

While we’d have a variety of different tests to come up with my power numbers, most triathletes are well served by doing a 20-minute test (take your average power for that 20 minutes and multiply it by .95 to get your FTP), or getting the info from a hard 20-minute effort during a ride. (When you load workouts into TrainingPeaks, it will often provide that information for you.)

Related: Get the most out of your training through long, aerobic workouts

Steady-state rides should be a staple in any triathlete’s training program, using a percentage of that FTP as your guide for the effort. Here are a few different ways I like to incorporate those workouts into my training:

Destinations have always been my go-to for longer steady-state rides at between 70 and 80 per cent of my FTP. That could be a lunch a few hours away, even stringing together a few great climbs or nice roads to maximize your cycling time. I also look back fondly to the many times I tucked my essentials into a sling bag and headed out on the bike to a different city for the night or day. Our lack of a season for most of 2020 showed me how much I missed those destination rides.

Going the distance was an expression I used to resort to while doing very long, steady rides. These rides would require getting out for much longer than our race distance at a controlled pace. One great moment of my European racing days was when a few of my teammates who weren’t competing in the weekend race were sent from Belgium to the border of Luxembourg some 200 kilometers away. They were expected to ride down Friday, train Saturday and return back to meet those of us who were racing on Sunday. The crew sent on that “training camp” got over 500 km of riding in over three days, carrying their gear on their backs for the weekend. I remember being a bit jealous of my teammates as I “only” clocked 320 km over those three days.

These are long, hard efforts, for sure, and they can be boring, repetitive and mind-numbing. You can mitigate that, though, by incorporating a fun stop or two along the way.

Related: Big gears to faster bike splits

Making the workouts work for you is essential for any kind of steady-state riding, especially for those who aren’t full-time athletes who are crunched for time. Rides longer than the bike leg of an upcoming race should be tackled at slower than race pace, but if you don’t have the time for such long efforts, shorter rides within 10 to 20 percent of your race pace (measured by power or heart rate) are beneficial, too.

A steady-state workout can be done in a number of different ways. I was often guilty of pushing the limits of my steady-state rides, which probably wasn’t a great plan for over-distance efforts, but would be very helpful for rides that are shorter than your race distance.

That’s why you’ll see lots of successful triathletes and cyclists who rarely, if ever, train as far as their race distances, yet are still competitive. If you can come up with ways to bump up the intensity, you don’t always have to go as far.

This story originally appeared in the March, 2021 issue of Triathlon Magazine Canada.

Sean Mackinnon is a former member of the Canadian national cycling team. He won two bronze medals at the Pan Am Games in 2015.