The dreaded FTP test…. A test where you are asked to ride your bike as hard as you can for twenty minutes straight. Most would think this test strictly evaluates your strength as a cyclist. However, in order for this test to be accurate, you need to have the mental fortitude to push yourself as hard as you can for twenty LONG minutes. From my perspective this sort of test is as much a test of mental strength as it is a test of physical strength. Twenty minutes is a long time to push yourself as hard as you can! And how do you really know if your effort is at its maximum? Honestly, you don’t! And you probably can always push yourself a little bit harder as 99.9% of the time, your mind gives up before your body does. These sorts of prolonged “best effort” tests, such as an FTP test, a 6-minute run test, or any sustained max-effort interval, can be quite daunting for many athletes. Below are some mental strategies that I have found to be effective in helping survive and even thrive in these sorts of max effort intervals.
1) Break up the interval
Take your interval and divide it up into 3-4 subintervals. So for a 20-minute FTP test, break the test into 4 x 5 minute intervals. Even for 1-minute HARD efforts, I usually break the interval up into 3 x 20 second intervals. Take it one subinterval at a time, as shorter intervals are much more manageable to tackle mentally than long ones. I often come up with a theme or mantra for each interval, such as 1) “settle in” 2) “stay relaxed and consistent” 3) “focus on good form – keep pushing!” and 4) “push it all the way to the end – almost there!”
2) Change your focus of attention
You will drive yourself crazy if you stare at the power numbers or the elapsed time for the duration of the interval. I recommend continuously changing your focus. Look at your power numbers to see if you are on target, watch your cadence for a while, check your HR, check the time, think about your form and watch your knee alignment, etc. Every 5-10 seconds shift your focus to something different. The time will pass much more quickly if your attention moves around.
3) Focus on inputs rather than outputs
Focus on what you can control rather than thinking about the outcome of the test. I would recommend not fixating on a power target or a pace target for a test such as this one. Instead, focus on what you can control. I like to use cadence for example. If you can match your power target with a specific cadence, focus your attention on matching the cadence target. It’s easier to tell yourself to “pedal faster” and pick up your cadence than to produce more power. Similarly in a run test, focus on good technique and quick turnover versus telling yourself to “run faster”. Focus specifically on what you can control; then look at the results at the end of the test!
You will hit a point where you get tired and wonder if you can continue to push at this level of exertion. This usually occurs for me during the last ¼ of the test. I always resort to counting to get myself through those difficult moments where I just want to back off and ease up. Count to twenty, check your numbers, check the time, reset, count to twenty again, repeat, repeat, repeat, a few more times… And then you are done! It’s amazing how the mindless task of counting to twenty can take your mind OFF the discomfort and keep you going until the end.
5) Evaluate your effort objectively and move forward
When you are finished, evaluate your effort. If you felt like you gave it your best effort and did not hold back, you should feel satisfied. If you were able to increase your effort throughout the interval, realize that next time you can start off a bit harder. If you didn’t meet your targets, think about the situation objectively. Maybe you weren’t well rested, maybe you were fatigued from previous workouts, maybe you haven’t been fueling well, or maybe your training has been erratic. Don’t take these tests personally. Think objectively; learn from the experience, all in an effort to make yourself a better athlete moving forward.
So rather than dreading your next FTP test, I hope after reading this blog post, you will welcome it with open arms. Remember that the physical piece comes with training. But the mental piece is entirely within your control.