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When it comes to a challenging test on the bike, a good pacing strategy can be the difference between an OK result and an excellent one, regardless of your physical ability, writes Kath Bicknell.
Cycling Central
5 Oct 2017 - 8:43 AM 

This series looks at the many different ways riders can scaffold the fitness they have. A good pacing strategy is something I thought would come up further down the track, but as it turns out, it’s never too soon to start becoming familiar with how your body responds to a challenging task. And when said task sounds so painful you nearly vomit at the thought of it, ways of making the effort seem more achievable becomes as important as the test itself.

Last week I chatted with Matt Borg from MLB Coaching about finding a coach and made a commitment to doing some structured training in the lead-up to L’Etape Australia and beyond. The first step in kicking things off was collecting some data. 

in case you missed it
Finding form: choosing a coach
Form comes in lots of places, which means there are lots of places you can find it. This is the second in a series of posts by Kath Bicknell about how to build your fitness to a point where you can swap the bad pain for the good pain, or ride in the name of a goal while being fit enough to have fun.

The FTP test, or Functional Threshold Power test, is a measure of how much power you push through the pedals over a specified period. I did the 20-minute test, which is a good one for athletes with endurance cycling in mind. If an FTP test isn’t for you, for the purposes of this article replace all future references to this painful acronym with a challenge of your own. A hill climb you like to test yourself on now and then, a ride to work PB or even ten fast laps of the pool.

I’ve never done a test like this one before, but the word ‘test’ made it sound like a pretty painful thing to subject yourself to voluntarily. It also made me wonder how experience may play a part and how this could be fast-tracked to get the most out of early attempts. 

I wasn’t worried about the pain of pushing that hard for that long. I was more worried I wouldn’t have the mental ability to stay motivated to keep pushing or to push as hard as I could.

“The test is as much about physical fitness as mental fitness,” Borg explained. I instantly felt better.

I quickly became curious about how factors such as a good pacing strategy could impact the result. I contacted Imogen Smith (Subaru-MarathonMTB.com), a Brisbane-based mountain biker, coach, friend, and the only cycling journalist I know with a PhD in Australian literature.

In addition to the suitcase of talent she carries with her, Smith trained hard enough to finish 20th at the MTB marathon world championships in 2016. More recently, she has been rebuilding strength around her pelvis and shoulder after a nasty crash in a road criterium. Smith knows a thing or two about FTP tests and has been able to use the data to monitor her progress in training and racing, and to keep an objective sense of how her physical form is going in response to the different challenges life has thrown up. 

Imogen, from a rider's point of view, what is the goal of an FTP test?

"Pretty straightforward really. It's about mapping progress and making sure you’re training to the right level of intensity."

Can you explain how a good pacing strategy helps with that?

"Going out too hard and blowing up just won't give an accurate picture of your aerobic ability...or anything for that matter! You have to choose an intensity you can maintain for the test duration."

What are your tips for pacing yourself through a 20-minute test? 

"I like to go out a little conservatively and use the first five minutes to find a rhythm. The next 10 are about building my average power if I can, or holding if I can't. From five to go until the finish, I'm trying to build and build, to empty the tank entirely. You should be a foaming mess at the end with nothing left to give." 

Is there a way to cheat and still get a reasonable starting point?

"Well you could give less than you've got, but it makes no sense to do that. My impression is that someone would only put themselves through an FTP test if they were looking for performance gains through structured training. If you end up with your power profile all wrong because of a half-hearted effort, those gains will take longer. Short answer is no!"


Hmmm. No cheating. But I liked the idea of a primary goal (building power output throughout) and a back up one (maintaining it) if the primary one doesn’t work. With Smith’s insights in mind, I built a personal strategy based on figures I found meaningful.

I’ve previously trained with heart rate data rather than with power, so I kept an eye on three sets of numbers as I gave the test a crack: my heart rate as a percentage of my maximum as it was familiar, the number of watts I was pushing through the pedals so I could start to learn about this new and sexy metric, and [insert poetic metaphor here] time. This helped me monitor my pace, stick to my goals, stay focused throughout, provided a distraction from the physical experience of the effort and motivated me to push harder than I sometimes wanted to, knowing objectively that I could. My heart rate was generally higher than I expected, the watts delivered a quick lesson in how much they can vary in relation to heart rate, and the time disappeared in five-minute, task-oriented chunks. 

Once I started the test I found it a lot more enjoyable than I expected. It was nice pedalling that hard, feeling the muscles work under load and hearing my breathing take on a rhythm I hadn’t heard in a while.

related reading
Finding form: being grateful for your starting point
Form comes from lots of places, which means there are lots of places you can find it. This is the first in a series of posts by Kath Bicknell about how to build your fitness to a point where you can swap the bad pain for the good pain, or ride in the name of a goal while being fit enough to have fun.

I discovered that, as I recover from a lengthy injury, I don’t have the muscle control yet to get to the foaming mess point that Smith mentioned, but I have a starting point. It’s far from perfect, but its one that can be used as a guide the very early stages of a training program, something to look back on as I improve, and something to continue to learn from going forward. 

The punchy ending to this article is simply to write, “Test done, baseline achieved. Time to start training.” But this experience is also a lesson about pacing and the varied strategies we can call on to support our mental fitness during a tough physical effort. That might be relying on some hard numbers, using wavering ones as a carrot, phoning another rider for advice, having an ideal goal and a back up one, or reducing the pressure of one particular test by seeing it as part of a bigger picture.

If you have your own big test coming up, whether that’s a long ride, a climb, an event, or an FTP test of your own experiment with different pacing strategies and see what works for you. Hopefully, it will help you get a result that you’re pleased with too.