Maximizing your speed is the outcome of your ability to produce power, the economy of your bicycle, and the efficiency of your bicycle. Ultimately, as we all know, our goal as cyclists is to go faster. For the bicycle’s side of the equation, make sure you have an aerodynamic bike with aero wheels and that your bike is as light as possible, though it should at the same time be stiff enough to maximize energy transfer from you to the rear wheel, which is where efficiency comes in (along with lubing your chain!).
Once you have the most economical and efficient bike your wallet can handle, you have to focus on creating more watts. Unfortunately this is the harder side of the equation. It involves work, which is expressed in kilojoules (kJ), more commonly known as sweat. As a coach, my job is to make sure your hard work is efficient and effective in moving toward achieving your goal (more speed).
Let’s look at a couple of ways that you can directly increase your speed on the bicycle through smart training using wattage as the measuring stick.
I was chatting with some newer coaches at a seminar I taught when one of them asked me a great question: “What is the most important thing we should train our beginner or lower category racers in order to go faster?” The answer is FTP (functional threshold power). This is the most important single factor that can be improved to make an athlete faster. As Dr. Andrew Coggan always says in our seminars together, “It’s an aerobic sport, dammit,” by which he means that since nearly 90% of our success is based on our aerobic capacity (the ability to take in oxygen, combine it with fuel, and get it to our muscles to create force - we are essentially big air and water pumps!), it makes the most sense to improve your ability to pump air and water. Before you do anything else, you have to increase your FTP. And in order to do that, you need to work at close to your threshold and create stress, which your body will absorb and adapt to in order to become stronger. This in turn allows you to produce more watts and go faster.
Before you can improve your FTP, you need to know your FTP. So do an FTP test. This is either a flat-out 60-minute time trial or a 20-minute time trial. If you choose to “man up” and do the 60-minute test, your average watts from that will be your FTP. If you take the “easy” way out, subtract 5% from your average watts in the 20-minute test to get a close approximation of your FTP.
Once you know your FTP, you can begin designing workouts around it in order to improve it. Think of your FTP as the height of a tabletop above the floor. When you first begin cycling, your table will be low, close to the floor, but as you train more and more, the legs on your table get longer and the height of the tabletop increases until it eventually reaches the ceiling.
What’s the easiest way to pick up a table and move it? You get a buddy to grab one end of the table while you grab the other, both of you put your hands just under the tabletop, and you lift it up! Right? You can’t pretend you’re Spiderman with sticker fingers and just stick your fingers to the top of the table to lift it (though that would be handy!).
To transfer this analogy to your training, I suggest doing workouts just below your threshold in order to lift the threshold up. One of my favorite workouts actually picks up the table and puts it back down again, so to speak, and I’m going to share it with you: FTP crisscross intervals. I recommend doing this workout at least twice a week in the early season and then once a week later in the season. It addresses your FTP in the first hour and then in the second hour addresses both your FTP and your muscular strength, plus giving your neuromuscular power a shot in the leg with a few sprints.
Workout 1: FTP Crisscross IntervalsWarm-Up: 15 minute warmup with one 3-minute effort at 100% of your FTP watts to shock the system and prepare you for the next hour. Ride easy for 5 minutes and then begin your main set of work.
Main Set: Nail it at 88-95% of FTP for 60 minutes, with 20 bursts (one every 3 minutes!) to 150% of your FTP, holding for 10 seconds and then returning back to 88-95%. After completing the hour, ride easy for 10 minutes at less than 56% of your FTP.
Begin the second block of sub-threshold work by riding for 20-30 minutes at 88-95% of your FTP, but this time do big-gear intervals (53:13 - 50 rpm from 12 mph to 31 mph) every 2 minutes, 10-15 total. In other words, slow down, stick it in the 53:12, stay seated, and use strength to turn the big gear over until you reach 85-90 rpm or 30seconds, whichever happens first, and then return to your previous sub-threshold pace. Ride easy for 10 minutes to recover, at less than 56% of your FTP.
Finish the workout with 5 hard sprints. Your gearing should be around 53:16 for these, starting from 20 mph and sprinting for 250 meters each. Make sure to rest for about 5 minutes between each sprint.
Cool-Down: 10 minutes easy spinning at less than 56% of FTP.
The next workout to improve your FTP is to ride right at your FTP. This is a little more difficult than the crisscross intervals, but it’s also very effective. I suggest doing these about 4 weeks before your first race of the year and then at least once a week during your racing season, thus giving you two days of threshold work a week. Doesn’t sound like fun? Hey, this is the number one thing that is going to make you better; let’s get on with it! Start out with 15-minute intervals at your FTP in the beginning and progress toward longer efforts until you reach 45-60 minutes straight at FTP.
Workout 2: Tabletop Edge Threshold EffortsWarm-Up: Ride for a nice 15-minute warm-up with watts under 76% of your FTP. Get ready for your main set of work with 1 blowout effort at FTP for 3 minutes, recovering for 5 minutes at endurance pace.
Main Set: Start out with 2 x 15 minutes at FTP (100-105%), giving yourself a little rest for 5 minutes between each. At the end of those intervals, you could do another one or continue to improve your endurance with 90 more minutes after the second effort with watts at the upper end of endurance pace, which would be from 80-88% of your FTP.
Cool-Down: 15 minutes easy spinning at less than 56% of your FTP.
The final way to improve your FTP (increase the height of your table) is through VO2Max. This is like screwing a self-drilling hook down into the top of your tabletop to lift it up from above. If you do it too often, you’ll leave your tabletop with holes in it, and eventually it will collapse on itself, but on occasion (like when you’re in the final stages of building for a peak of fitness, or when you’re in a slump) some really focused work on your Vo2Max will bring up your FTP. Doing Vo2Max work means doing intervals at 106-115% of your FTP from three to eight minutes at a time. These are super hard efforts; your respiration rate will be very high (over 50 times a minute), you’ll be in pain, and you’ll have to push really hard to stick with the wattages needed to elicit a response. Improving your absolute Vo2Max is impossible after a certain point of development (you’re born with a certain size of lungs, and this can’t be changed), but the efficient transfer of oxygen from your lungs into your heart and bloodstream can be improved. You can also improve your velocity (there’s that speed thing again) at Vo2Max by doing intervals at Vo2Max, which is incredibly helpful in races.
I recommend one or two Vo2Max workouts per week during the period in which you need to be doing this intensity. Do limit this work, as you don’t want your tabletop to collapse, but go ahead and give this workout a shot; it’s designed to increase your cadence and also teach you to use cadence to increase your watts when you’re suffering and someone attacks, or when you’re on form and feel so amazing that you want to attack after doing 5 minutes at Vo2Max.
Workout 3: Vo2Max OverdriversWarm Up: 15-minute easy spin, followed by 30 seconds in the easiest gear with the fastest cadence possible without bouncing. Recover for 30 seconds and repeat three more times. Now do 20 seconds at a cadence 5 rpm faster than before with 20 seconds of recovery; repeat three more times. Do a 1-minute fast pedaling effort at a cadence 5 rpm slower than the first sets, with 1 minute recovery; repeat three times. Relax for 5-10 minutes of endurance riding while mentally psyching yourself up for the overdrivers.
Main Set: Begin on a hill or into the wind and do 5 x 5-minute intervals at a cadence 10 rpm slower than your typical self-selected cadence. Each interval should be at 110-115% of your FTP in order to guarantee you’re stressing your Vo2Max system. The “overdriver” part comes at the end of the interval: do a final 30-second hard burst, changing to three gears easier (or the easiest gear you have) for 30 seconds, spinning faster and pushing harder to really fatigue the muscles and increase the respiration rate just a little higher. Recover for 5 minutes between each interval at your endurance pace (56-75% of FTP).
Cool-Down: 15 minutes easy spinning at less than 56% of your FTP.
So now we’ve learned that improving our FTP and Vo2Max are the foundations of increasing speed on the bicycle. While it’s great to buy new, faster stuff (yes, you can buy speed!), eventually you have to work on your engine if you want to go faster. Pushing that tabletop higher and higher will eventually get it to the ceiling, and making sure you’re approaching and close to that ceiling is the best thing you can do for more speed. Keep in mind that your training first begins on the aerobic system, and the higher your FTP is, the faster you’ll be. Period. However, while FTP is king, you can’t neglect the smaller contributions of the energy systems; they all play a role in winning. Spend most of your time on the three workouts above and then get in some shorter anaerobic intervals, along with some sprinting. Throw in a bunch of long endurance rides, as well. And then share a picture on Facebook with your new best speed!
Want more tips and help going faster on the bike? Find out more about our coaching programs or schedule a consulting session with one of our expert coaches. With power training, we get powerful results.
Training and Racing with a Power Meter and Cutting-Edge Cycling, co-developer of TrainingPeaks’ WKO software, and CEO and founder of Peaks Coaching Group. He and his coaches create custom training plans for all levels of athletes. Hunter can be contacted directly through PeaksCoachingGroup.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Image: PCG Coach/President Tim Cusick rides at our training camp in Mallorca, Spain.