If you missed the Beginner's Guide to Power, Part 1 of this series of articles, it would be a good idea to go back and read it.  Go ahead, I'll wait…

Done reading?  Good, let's take a look at some more power based metrics, specifically power training levels.  You may recall the definition from my last article:

Power Training Levels: Along with FTP, these dictate (roughly) the energy systems used at certain power levels and allow a rider to train specific systems for specific gains.

We'll discuss what each level is, what energy systems it uses and how long it is sustainable below:

Power ZonesPower Training Levels

Knowing FTP is key to being able to define power training levels.  If we know what 100% effort is, we will be able to train based upon that metric.  That being said, power training levels (as researched and defined by Andy Coggan) are outlined below.

  • Level 1: up to 55% of FTP: This pace could theoretically be sustained indefinitely.  It is often considered to be "recovery" pace.
  • Level 2: 56-75% of FTP: Typically referred to as "endurance" pace, this is a slightly tougher pace than recovery.  It is theoretically sustainable for several weeks, but this is arbitrary.  Assuming the rider is properly fueled, this power training level offers little taxation on the body and they can go for extremely long periods.
  • Level 3: 76-90% of FTP: Tempo pace.  The upper range of Level 3 is also considered the "sweet spot" of Sweet Spot Training fame.  Most of our training actually occurs here, especially in group rides, crits, mountain bike races, road races, etc.  Professional road racers can typically ride up to 7 hours at Level 3, but  upper limits of a few hours is typical for most amateur athletes.  (30 min to 7 hours)
  • Level 4: 91-105% of FTP: FTP.  Threshold.  Lactate Threshold.  Anaerobic Threshold.  Whatever you wish to call it, it is the mark of your capacity as a cyclist. (10-60 minutes)
  • Level 5: 106-120% of FTP: Level 5 represents your VO2max system.  Your VO2max is reached when workload continues to increase while oxygen consumption plateaus.  Oxygen is being used but the demands for energy outstrip the cardiovascular system's ability to provide it and the mitochondria to process it.  This metric is typically genetically based, but is highly trainable, and the easiest way to increase VO2max is to decrease body weight while increasing power. (3-8 minutes)
  • Level 6: 121-150% of FTP: At this point the body is exceeding FTP and VO2max, moving into Anaerobic Capacity.  This is a condition in which the body produces energy without utilizing aerobic (oxygen dependent) pathways.  Glucose/glycogen stores are the primary fuel and lactate is the primary byproduct.  The fuel can not be replenished fast enough and the waste products can't be cleared quickly enough, so performance in this zone is limited to a couple of minutes at best. (30 seconds to 3 minutes)
  • Level 7: 150+% of FTP: Neuromuscular Power. This is the absolute hardest, biggest effort you can give, and typically lasts about 20 seconds max.  Neuromuscular force and creatine phosphate play a role in this pathway, making it extremely short lived. (up to 30 seconds)


Real World Capability

It's important to note that these power levels represent real world capabilities, and that means that the durations above are not hard and fast rules.  Certainly there are times when athletes can push beyond the normal ranges due to various motivations, ability to suffer etc.  Some athletes excel in different areas more than others through genetic variance alone, and some are able to train their weaknesses to match their strengths.  Sometimes, though, it is simply not worth battling to build one skill if you have little to no genetic talent for it.

It's also important to note that there is no absolute delineation between power systems. As you surpass the effort of FTP and cross into VO2max, remember that it's not like flipping a switch: FTP and VO2max blend into each other as you move up the scale.  All these systems work synergistically in assisting each other, which means that training one often has an effect on another.  For example, training VO2max will increase FTP.  Increasing FTP will increase Tempo output. And so on and so forth.

Now that we have a concept of power training levels, question becomes how do you know which of those metrics are you gifted in and which do you need to train?  We'll examine that in the power profile and fatigue resistance profile next time, in the Beginner's Guide to Power, Part 3.


Questions?  Comments?  Start discussing things below.