Cycling for weight loss: 5 terms every cyclist should know

Fitness terms that will help you achieve your cycling goals


By Clint Latham – Get FREE updates on new posts here

You’re sitting down at your favorite cafe and the local racer comes up to you. “Hey man, I see you’ve been riding a lot. What’s your FTP?” You then ask, “What the heck is FTP!”

Well if you’ve been following me for any amount of time you know that there is little to no training information available for the recreational cyclist. It’s all based off racing. While training like a racer will get you faster; it will also take the soul out of cycling for most people. This is the main reason I created Ride to 75. I felt you should have the right tools to lose weight, feel great and have fun all at the same time. If you haven’t downloaded Ride to 75 you can download it now for FREE.

Dr. Andy Coggan

However, there are some key terms from the racing world that we should be familiar with. Dr. Andy Coggan has created a series of terms that have been the staple in the cycling community. Coggan is an internationally-recognized exercise physiologist. He has published numerous scientific articles on a diverse range of topics, ranging from the physiological adaptations to endurance training in healthy young and older persons to the effects of nutritional interventions on cardiac and skeletal muscle function in patients with diabetes or cardiovascular disease.

So lets break down each term and how you can apply them to get faster.


FTP- Functional Threshold power

ftpFTP is the maximum average power you can hold for one hour. For example if you could sustain 200 watts for 1 hour that would be your FTP.  FTP has become the principle marker to determine your fitness level. The higher your FTP the stronger and faster you are. There are two ways to measure your FTP rather than performing an all out 1 hour effort. A 20 min TT test and an 8 min TT test. You then take the average power output for both of those tests and multiply them by .90. This gives you a good measure of your FTP. This is the standard measure of fitness in the cycling world.


LTHR – Lactate Threshold Heart Rate.

lthrI wrote another article all about the benefits of LTHR here, “To Power or not to Power. That is the question”. Be sure to read this because you may be tempted to purchase a power meter after reading this article. And if you are, read “To Power or not to Power” first.

LTHR is the maximum average heart rate you can hold for one hour. Thus if your average heart rate for your all out 60 min effort is 175bpm. 175 bpm would be your LTHR. LTHR is very similar to FTP. It can give us a good bench mark of our current level of fitness. However there are a couple downsides to using LTHR over FTP.

Your heart rate can fluctuate based on different contributing factors such as riding conditions, weather, stress and a number of other external factors. Where your FTP will remain the same even though for the same FTP your heart rate may be higher or lower for a given effort. With LTHR you use a 20 min TT test to determine this number. To get a more accurate indicator of LTHR it is better to perform multiple different tests in different conditions. Then take the average of all the tests. 3 to 5 test average will give you a pretty accurate LTHR.

NP- Normalized Power

npNP gives you an average power number if you would have ridden at a constant power output for the entire duration of the ride. For example your local route may have a lot of hills where you are exerting a lot of power going up and then coasting with no power down. NP normalizes this to give you an average power out put over the entire duration of the ride. Thus on one ride you may have a NP of 200 and another at 225. Therefor on the 2nd ride you had a higher effort as you output more power at 225 watts. This helps to gauge efforts between rides.


IF – Intensity Factor

IFSimply put; how intense was the ride? A ride with an IF of 1.0 would be an all out effort\suffer fest. If you had an IF of .65 that means you were riding at 65% effort. Using IF in conjunction with average heart rate is a great way to gauge your total workout for a given ride. Especially if you know your LTHR. Referencing both of these numbers over a longer period of time will help you develop a better understanding of your fitness level and progress.



TSS – Training Stress Score

tssTSS is the amount of stress the body was put under for each ride. The higher this number the more potential fitness you may garner form a given ride. This however does not mean that if the ride has a high IF of 1.0 will automatically mean a higher TSS. A ride lasting 2 hours at an IF of .80 can generate a higher TSS than a 30 min ride at an IF of .92. The calculation for TSS is quite complex but here it is for reference.

(sec x NP x IF)/(FTP x 3600) x 100 = TSS

Why would you want to know any of this?

As with most people I have known or worked with. The more time they spend on their bike the more their goals shift. This shifting leads to specific training. For example you may want to conquer a big ride like The Triple Bypass, the Copper Triangle or ride The Whole Enchilada. As you begin a structured training plan these terms become more important in helping you reach your specific goals.

However, they can also be helpful now. The most important terms for you to be familiar with would be LTHR and IF. Knowing these numbers will help you gauge your rides and more accurately. Also because you can obtain a HR monitor for a 1/10 of the price of a power meter. I’ve got nothing against the power meter. In fact I love them. For numbers & science driven people like myself. Well they give us a lot of data to measure and drool over. But they are NOT a requirement by any means and are more of a luxury. Eddy Merckx and Greg Lemond didn’t have power meters and they were fast! You too can get fast without one. By knowing your LTHR and IF for each ride you can more acuratley Ride to 75.

Finding your FTP without a power meter

Thats right it can be done. You don’t need to purchase a power meter in order to find your FTP.  How do you do it?

Most of us have a gym membership. You know that $10 a month that comes out of your bank account every month. Most gyms these days have spin classes and the bikes have power meters on them. I’ve never been to a gym, especially a big box gym that will not let you use the spin bikes outside of the spin classes. Now you can run your FTP test on the spin bike and then come back 8 weeks later to retest and assess your fitness progress. I would also take note of your LTHR as well. This will help you gauge your heart rate levels that you can use during your workouts and rides later on.




How to test FTP – The 20 min time trail

A time trial is you against the clock. How fast can you go in a given amount of time. That is why it is a perfect indicator of our fitness and is the industry standard. Lets look at how to test our fitness.

The test will last 60 mins including warm up and cool down. You will need your HR monitor and a clock. The spin bikes should have a clock on them. Because you don’t know your FTP or LTHR you are going to base each effort in the test off of intensity.

Note: This is intensity based on your current level of fitness. NOT IF as described above. The IF of a 20 min TT test would be around .85. The idea is to run the 20 min TT portion just above your current level of fitness. As we should be able to go harder for 20 mins as opposed to a full 60. Remember FTP is the power you can output over a 60 min effort. But we are only testing in 20 mins.

100% intensity is the point at which your legs start to burn and your muscles can flush out the lactic acid. However, any harder and the legs will start to burn. There will be points in the test you will want to back off or quite, but don’t!

  1. You will warm up for 10 mins gradually building up the intensity & power
  2. At 11 mins you will do a hard 1 min effort. This is to help get the legs firing on all cylinders.
  3. At 13 mins you will do another hard 1 min effort. Increasing the intensity to 105%
  4. At 15 mins you will do another hard 2 min effort. Increasing the intensity to 110%
  5. From mins 16-20 you will rest and clear the legs from the 3 short bursts. Reducing your effort to 65%
  6. Five min time trial – At min 20 you will perform a 5 min effort at 110% for the entire effort. This is to help you gauge how hard you can go for the up coming 20 min time trail. This means by the end of the 5 min interval our legs should be on fire from the lactic acid build up. You may also want to hit the lap button on the bike’s power meter so that you can get an average power for that 5 min test.
  7. For the next 5 mins you are going to rest and clear the legs and prepare yourself for the 20 min TT. Effort should be around 50%
  8. At min 30 mins begin your 20 min TT and hit the lap button on both your HR monitor and the power meter. Be sure not to go to hard right out of the gate. This is the biggest mistake most cyclists make. Build up to that 20 min TT power over a min or two and try to hold it. Think of the power you were maintaining in the five min test towards the last two mins and start there. Your effort should be about 125%. Its hard and the legs are burning. But not hard enough that you can finish the full 20 mins. It will be painful at the end of the 20 mins you will be glad its over.
  9. Then cool down. Your legs and lungs should be on fire! Make sure to cool down and spin easy for the last 10 mins to help your body flush out all that lactic acid.


20 min TT

Make sure to write down your average power for your 20 min TT. If your spin bike doesn’t have a lap function. What was the power you were able to sustain for the longest stretch in your 20 min TT. For example lets say I was fluctuating around 275 watts. I would take that 275 x .90 = 247 FTP. The same with our HR. Lets say our average HR for the test was 165 bpm. 165 x .90 = 148 LTHR.

Testing your FTP and LTHR is a great way to measure your fitness. Because we don’t have a power meter we can come back to the gym and re-test 8 weeks later to see how much our fitness has progressed. Now we also have another powerful too, our LTHR. But don’t purchase a power meter just yet.  Rowe & King, (the coaching company set up by pro cyclists Luke Rowe and Dani King.) sees clients “massively improve” their power (by around 50W over 16-20 weeks) using only heart rate training, with power feedback only coming during subsequent tests.

Elliot Lipski, physiologist and cycling coach at trainSharp states, “If you’re training to just heart rate, you should still make significant improvements. It’s dependent on the sessions you complete and the rider-coach relationship to ensure that the training is progressing in the right direction with the correct management of fatigue.” Thus you can stick with your HR monitor and periodically re-check your fitness in the gym.

The Takeaway

Ok we talked about 5 key terms every cyclist should know and how they impact your training. We’ve talked about the two most important terms to know if your training with just heart rate, LTHR and IF. And finally we talked about the most important term in cycling FTP. Why is it important to know these terms? Simply put this is how you measure your fitness in cycling. It would be like a bodybuilding walking into a gym and not knowing what a squat or a bench press is. They are the foundations of fitness assessment in the cycling world. Do you want to be able to hammer the climbs on your next group ride to impress your friends? Then watch them all look at you with amazement when you tell them that you’ve increased your FTP by 25 watts. Understanding the structure of cycling training becomes more and more important as our goals change. When we first walk into the gym we know the basic lifts but are not to concerned about our 1 rep max on each. We are more focused on basic fitness. But as we shift our focus to a more specific goal these numbers become more important. The same goes for cycling.


Have you ever tested your cycling fitness? Or are you still just searching for the basic level of fitness and not concerned with numbers just yet?

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