Training

How to improve your FTP on a low-volume training plan

How to improve your fitness on six to eight hours of riding per week.

It’s the question we’ve been asking for decades – millions of us amateur riders don’t have time to train like the pros who pedal for 25 hours a week up in the mountains. We have jobs, families, and obligations that take away from our training time. We might be able to squeeze 30 to 60-minute rides in during the week, and maybe even ride for a couple of hours over the weekend. But 10+ hours a week is not an option.

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All in all, many of us have less than a full workday to ride our bikes each week. So how do you improve your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) with so little training time? Stagnation seems certain. The plateau seems inevitable, but it’s not. With a well-written training plan, a commitment to consistency, and a focus on high-quality intervals, you can make some serious FTP gains in less than 10 hours of training per week.

Training calendar

Athletes who follow a structured training plan are more likely to achieve their goals in sport and see greater fitness gains than a variety of other training protocols. Setting goals will also help you cut out the fluff and focus on what is most important to your life and training.

Without a structured plan or a set of goals, the thought of training can be daunting, stressful, and overwhelming. Of course, many of us love to ride simply because we love to ride, but training, racing, and high-intensity training put a different set of stressors on the mind and the body. Being forced into a low-volume training plan can leave you feeling helpless, as if there will never be enough time to train and get fit enough to reach your goals. With the help of a coach, you can begin mapping out a structured training plan that will put you on the path towards reaching your goals.

Goal-setting is one of the most important psychological tools we have as athletes, and can often be the difference between success and failure in sport. A paper from the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology examined a plethora of studies related to goal-setting across sports, and concluded that “goal setting is an important and valuable process which can help athletes enhance their performance and experience within sport”.

Once you have your plan and your goals written out, it’s time to train.

Consistency is key

When it comes to fitness goals, weight loss, and a number of other lifestyle changes, it’s all about consistency. One bad day will not derail your diet or training program, but falling off the horse for a week or more will certainly do some damage.

Athletes can maintain peak levels of fitness on a low-volume training plan as compared to a high-volume plan by using a bit of planning and consistency. A 2014 study followed two groups of trained cyclists through an 8-week, low-volume training period in which they completed just seven hours of training per week. One group performed “one high-intensity endurance training (HIT) session every 7-10 days”, while the other group took the more traditional off-season approach, and stuck to low-intensity training (LIT) only. After the 8-week trial period, the HIT training group had a significantly higher lactate threshold power (~12 percent) compared to the LIT.

But what is even more interesting is that after the initial 8-week training period, both the HIT and LIT groups completed 16 weeks of identical training in preparation for the following season. And in the end, the LIT group never caught up with the HIT when it came to performance at lactate threshold.

From this study and others, we can see that maintaining high-intensity training throughout our training program can lead to greater gains than taking a break from consistency and letting our fitness drop during a low-intensity training period.

There is a lot to be said about macro and micro-periodization, fatigue, overtraining, and burnout, but when you look at the details of this study – the HIT group was performing just one high-intensity training session every 7-10 days – we can see how simple it is to incorporate just one hard interval session into our low-volume training program every one or two weeks.

High-quality interval training

With just one high-intensity interval session per week, the pressure is on to pick the perfect workout. But, it’s not as complicated as you think. The goal of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is to get your heart rate up, increase the levels of lactate in your legs, and get a good workout in under 60 minutes. There are hundreds — maybe even thousands — of HIIT protocols that you can try, but when it comes to improving your fitness on a low-volume training plan, it is the quality of each workout that matters far more than the quantity.

Dr. Stephen Seiler has been a massive voice in the exercise physiology community in recent years, and his surfeit of studies in cycling has garnered the attention of millions from around the world. One fascinating study that he worked on examined high-intensity intervals of varying intensity and duration over a 12-week training program.

The study followed 63 cyclists through a variety of structured HIIT sessions including 4×4 minutes, 4×8 minutes, and 4×16 minutes, with rest periods of just two minutes between each high-intensity interval. Whether the interval was four, eight, or 16 minutes, two minutes was enough time for the cyclists to fully recover to the point where they could maintain their performance level through each and every interval, and see improvements of “five to ten percent in mean power during a 40-min all-out trial, peak power output, and VO2peak post-intervention” after a 12-week training period.

Especially on a low-volume training plan, the details of each workout are not as important as your commitment to the training, the execution of each interval, and your consistency over a multi-month span.

Talk with your coach and analyze past performances to figure out what intensity (e.g. wattage, percentage of maximum heart rate) you should target during each interval. Go after those numbers, and keep it consistent through each and every interval. You don’t need to hit your maximum heart rate to get the most out of a high-intensity interval session, and you don’t need to be crushing yourself with three HIIT sessions a week in order to maintain – or even improve – your overall fitness.

Have a plan, stick to it, and focus on high-quality interval sessions once per week to get fit on a low-volume training plan.


Sources

Stöggl, Thomas, and Billy Sperlich. “Polarized training has greater impact on key endurance variables than threshold, high intensity, or high volume training.” Frontiers in Physiology vol. 5 33. 4 Feb. 2014.

Kyllo, L. B., & Landers, D. M. (1995). Goal setting in sport and exercise: A research synthesis to resolve the controversy. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 17(2), 117–137.

Raysmith BP, Drew MK. “Performance success or failure is influenced by weeks lost to injury and illness in elite Australian track and field athletes: A 5-year prospective study.” J Sci Med Sport. 2016 Oct; 19(10):778-83.

Seiler S., “What is best practice for training intensity and duration distribution in endurance athletes?” Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2010 Sep; 5(3):276-91.

Healy, et al., “Goal Setting in Sport and Performance.” Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Psychology, 2018.

Rønnestad BR et al. “HIT maintains performance during the transition period and improves next season performance in well-trained cyclists”. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 2014; 114:1831-1839

Sylta Ø, Tønnessen E, Hammarström D, Danielsen J, Skovereng K, Ravn T, Rønnestad BR, Sandbakk Ø, Seiler S. “The Effect of Different High-Intensity Periodization Models on Endurance Adaptations.” Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2016 Nov; 48(11):2165-2174.