FTP and fitness

By: Heather Nielson

It seems like the science and technology around training for just about any athletic pursuit has seen a pretty steep upward curve in the last decade or so with heart rate monitors, power meters, nutrition, recovery, oxygen, economy, technique and more.

Power based training for cyclists came after heart rate based training and has turned out to be an arguably far more useful training tool for many reasons. The range of power numbers within any given training zone is far wider and more variable than any heart rate zone (0-2000 watts or so as opposed to 50-200 heart beats). Exerting power into the pedals and the resulting physiological response and neuromuscular recruitment produces a wattage number almost instantaneously whereas heart rate is almost always lagged. For all the above reasons and more, many competitive cyclists prefer training by power rather than by heart rate. This isn’t to say that heart rate isn’t valuable at all. In fact, one of the main measurements of overall fitness is a cyclists’ FTP, or functional threshold power, which is by definition, very closely tied to heart rate.

So what is the relationship between heart rate and power and why pay attention to heart rate at all anymore?

In a former life, I was a scientist and have an education that is based on biochemistry and nutrition. Without getting too scientific, Functional Threshold Power is the power number, or range, that is associated with an individual’s lactate threshold; which is essentially the point at which lactate begins to accumulate in the blood stream. How and why does that happen? You breathe in oxygen, oxygen is what enables your body to create energy from ATP, ATP comes from your food in the form of carbohydrates, lipids and amino acids. Obviously, your body is doing this all the time. However, when you exert yourself, the ‘system’ is churning much faster than at rest and if go as hard as you can until your energy supply to meet the demands don’t match up, then ‘bottlenecks’ are formed in the metabolic pathway and metabolites build up along the way. Think of a water fountain where one bowl empties into the next; but if the water, or energy requirement, flows quicker than the bowl is able to ‘absorb’ or handle, then the water spills over. Some of the excess water, or metabolites cause you pain, make it so the individual muscle fibers can’t contract anymore, create an electrolyte imbalance, create an osmotic imbalance and any other number of side effects that basically cause you to want to STOP. Your heart rate and stroke volume then are one of the main limiters in how quickly your metabolism can churn. 

So if we can’t make our hearts beat 400 beats a minute, how do we get fitter? Fitness is really a question of efficiency. You may have an FTP of 250 at say a heart rate of 175, but how long can you hold that….really? There are many definitions of fitness and one’s ability to hold a maximum effort at or near FTP for longer and longer periods of time is certainly one definition. As you get fitter and stronger then your FTP will probably raise also &/or you will get better at holding that FTP for longer at roughly the same heart rate. In other words: a fairly unfit cyclist may have an FTP of 200 at a heart rate of 175 while a pro tour rider may have an FTP of 350 at the same heart rate. Concurrently, you may also find that you can go harder at a lower heart rate as you get fitter because your system has become that much more efficient. How does your body become more efficient? On the biochemical level, over time, your metabolic system essentially becomes more and more efficient at dealing with higher physical demands by using or creating more mitochondria to deal with more oxygen loads, becoming more efficient at clearing the excess metabolites, becoming more efficient at burning sugar over lipids, or the other way around, and many many other pathways.

Your ability to hold that kind of effort for longer and longer periods of time is one way to measure fitness and training that takes a long time, not just one season or a few one hour bike rides. Consistency is your biggest ally. Realize also, that just because your FTP is 250 one day, does not mean it’s 250 the next! Your threshold is variable depending on your recovery, sickness, motivation, cross training, training program, genetics etc. If you’ve had your FTP tested then you’ve probably been given a power range of 10-20 watts around that number; which is the best way to look at it.It’s just one number and there are many thresholds and many other ways to measure fitness. That being said, your overall level of fitness, efficiency, training level and health is most closely tied to your FTP than any other power number.


What to expect your first season: Part 2

By Heather Nielson

In part 1 of what to expect your first season, I went over the basic logistics of competing that if you don’t plan for, can cost you that big win! In this second part I go over some deeper, more mental and physical aspects of competition.

Expect to ‘lose’

Ok, I admit this is a negative headline, but I want to get across the reality of endurance sports competition. Whether you’re a runner, triathlete, mountain biker, recreational/century cyclist or bike racer, the odds of winning are not 50/50 like in a football or basketball game. I would strongly encourage you before you participate in your event, to write down some very specific goals. It can be one or it can be several (though I suggest limiting your list to three or less).

There are so many things to learn every time you compete that if you are only focused on winning and not on being present in every moment, you will miss out on so many opportunities to get better as an athlete and thereby vastly improving your chances of success in your next competition or even the one you’re in.

For example: let’s say you’re doing your first bike race and you know that you need to work on your bike and pack handling skills. Use that first race to practice moving your bike smoothly around and up in between the group, cornering properly and safely, communicating to those around you, adjusting your position smoothly instead of reacting when there’s a crash or a sudden move around you, getting comfortable riding closely next to and behind other riders, feathering instead of grabbing your brakes. Honestly those skills take years to become proficient at, so don’t get discouraged if you’re not the smoothest, most efficient rider your first race! I’m not saying don’t try to win; of course you want to win! Just remember, if you’re doing all of those things right, you’re setting yourself up for a better chance to win than if you only focused on winning at the end. Be in every moment of the race.

Expect to adjust your goals

The previous subject leads perfectly into this one: adjusting your goals. Learn to adjust your goals all the time; not just after the race! If you are truly being in the moment, recognizing other riders around you, their strengths and weaknesses, dealing with changing weather conditions, crashes, changes in terrain then you should be constantly changing your goal(s). You need to always be asking yourself “am I in the position I need to be in right now for my goal?” If you need to conserve energy, are you drafting in the pack or are you on the front? If you realize early on in a hilly race that there are other riders who may be better climbers, how are you going to position yourself going into that climb? If you realize that there are other riders who are better sprinters than you are, are you going to just give up in the final meters of the race or are you going to race your strengths to make sure you don’t have to sprint against them at the end? After your event I would still do a debrief of some sort. Refer back to your written goals and assess honestly whether you reached them or not, what you would do differently, what you would change and what you need to do for next time. Writing things down is a very powerful, yet I believe a vastly underutilized tool in helping to ‘re-wire’ neural pathways in learning, development and behavioral changes. Do more than just talk about it and do one written review with yourself after you’ve spoken to your coach/DS/team captain, do it within a few days after your event but not necessarily right away to allow for perspective and inflamed emotions to subside, then leave it….in the past. Onward.

Expect to be nervous

I remember my first season of bike racing I would be nervous the entire week before the event. Now I’m nervous….about one hour before; and I try to keep it at the optimum level of nervousness (yes there is such a thing). You don’t want to be too relaxed or over confident and you don’t want to be so nervous that your whole body is shaking on the start line. Looking back, I believe that the main reasons athletes get nervous is because of all the unknowns. I would suggest spending some time the week(s) before your event preparing yourself for what to expect. The more you know about what to expect the less nervous you’ll be, the more realistic you’ll be with your goals and expectations, the less reactive you’ll be in the middle of the race so you can make decisions clearly and at the right times and quite frankly the more you’ll actually enjoy participating! Research the details of the event: time, distance, location, number of participants, level of competition, course profile, when and where on the course are the main ‘feature’ such as climbs, turns, descents etc. Start thinking about how your strengths and weaknesses as an athlete match up to the course and the other competitors and how you need to compete in order to give yourself the best chance at getting a ‘result’. The ‘result’ that you want is again, up to you and a goal that you need to set before hand.

I hope both these posts help you stay positive and focused during your first season and remember, there is always something to learn, always someone faster and always another goal to reach. Learn to enjoy the journey without getting obsessed with the ‘end’ because competition in sports and life doesn’t end after the finish line, it ends when you quit.


What to expect your first season: Part 1

By: Heather Nielson

I get asked by a lot of athletes participating in their first season of competition what pieces of advice I would give them and what to expect. I find that the subjects below apply to all endurance sports (most of which I’ve participated in) and I hope that it helps you.

In this first part, I talk about basic logistics that if not handled properly can ruin your race before you even get to the start line!

Expect to forget something!

I remember very distinctly the morning of a race in late summer in Northern California showing up plenty early (as I’ve learned to do!) and realizing I’d forgotten my cycling shoes. This is no small thing to forget. It’s not like I forgot my socks or even sunglasses. I could not race without my shoes. Fortunately, I didn’t live that far away, and the race was running behind (#longliveVeloPromo) and since I’d arrived early, I quickly did the math in my head and realized that if I drove fast (I’ll neither confirm nor deny the breaking of any speed limit rules), all the way home and back, I might…just might make it back in time. I did, in fact, arrive back 15 minutes before the start time. I’ve also never forgotten my shoes since.

Over the past 10 years of bike racing, I’ve curated a racing checklist that also includes an overnight section and bad weather section. All I need to do the day before and the morning of while packing for a race is go through that checklist and I know I’ll have everything I need. If you need any ideas or a starting point, I’ll provide my personal list below. One of the items listed below is ‘baggies for separate stuff’. I have found that in the chaos that is bike racing, things can get lost/mixed up/in a heap in a hurry; and if you’re carpooling with others this idea can be a stress saver. I put categories of items in separate bags and all those bags in ONE bike racing bag. For example: I’ll have my jersey, bibs, baselayer(s) in one bag and gloves, socks, arm and knee warmers in another bag, nutrition in another bag, chamois cream, baby wipes, sunscreen, sunglasses in another bag; you get the idea. If you always keep those same items in the same bags, preparation and clean-up afterwards is far less stressful. This may not seem like a big deal but you’ll find that any amount of extra/unnecessary stress before competition will tax you during your event.


  • Bike (seems obvious I know but……)
  • Helmet
  • Wheels
  • Spare wheels/wheel bags
  • Bags for separate stuff
  • Shoes
  • Toe cover/shoe covers
  • Socks (extra socks!)
  • Gloves
  • Arm warmers
  • Knee/leg warmers
  • Jersey
  • Shorts
  • Podium hat/cap
  • Pump
  • Tool kit
  • Spare cleats
  • Chamois cream
  • Sunscreen
  • Baby wipes
  • Dirty clothes bag (to keep your clean clothes separate from your dirty ones)
  • Clothes to change in to afterwards
  • Changing skirt/towel
  • Water bottles
  • Race & recovery food
  • Trainer
  • Racing license/bib numbers
  • Power meter computer/watch

Overnight/stage races:

  • Cards to pin race/bib #’s to wheel bags for support vehicles & a sharpie pen
  • Plastic utensils (you’ll be grateful for this on the road)
  • Tool box
  • Extra tubes & tires
  • Spare wheels
  • Multitool
  • Extra cassette
  • Extra cleats
  • Overnight clothes

If you’re flying:

  • Zip ties
  • Multi-tool
  • Plastic gloves
  • Electrical tape
  • Pedal wrench
  • Scissors
  • Cleaning rags
  • Bike measurements
  • Measuring tape

Severe weather gear:

  • Panty hose for ice cubes
  • Multiple gloves
  • Multiple shoe covers
  • Multiple socks
  • Towel
  • Newspaper (not for reading material while racing silly, to soak up water from your shoes after racing in the rain!)
  • Rain cape
  • Plastic bags
  • Sunscreen
  • Multiple sunglasses lenses
  • Multiple cycling caps/head covers
  • Extra arm warmers
  • Extra leg/knee warmers

Expect to get lost

Actually, this one is probably far less likely for you than it is for me. If there is ONE thing I am professional at, it’s getting lost. By foot, car, bus, bike…you name it.  My biggest pieces of advice when traveling to your event: allow for extra time, check your maps (multiple times), make sure you know of alternative routes and use the ‘show traffic’ option on your handy google map ap to account for bad traffic/crashes. Or you can do what I do, carpool as much as you can and have someone else drive and split the gas because 9 times out of 10, they’ll get there faster and without getting lost better than I ever will.

In part 2, I talk more about the mental and physical parts of preparing yourself for your first season.


Spring Vegetable Salad recipe

By: Heather Nielson

Do you find yourself changing the foods you eat or crave with the weather or seasons? I do, with of course a few exceptions. I’ll eat chocolate, meat and all things pumpkin year-round. In the fall and winter I love hot soups and tea and when spring and summer start to come around with the longer daylight hours and blossoms I like colorful salads instead of soups. I think that we can all get into ruts with our food habits where we end up eating the same things all the time; and even if those things that we are eating all the time are healthy, our overall long term health may suffer a little if we don’t add more variety. This salad includes many familiar ingredients you may consume on a regular basis with one ingredient you may not consume very often: Jicama! Jicama, or Mexican turnip that although white and maybe plain looking is very high in fiber; which is a great addition when you want to add a crispy texture to your recipe. It’s also a good source of potassium and Vitamin C.


  • 1 english cucumber sliced thin
  • 2 large tomatoes chopped
  • 2 green onions chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper chopped
  • 1 medium jicama pealed and chopped
  • 1 glove garlic minced
  • 1 1/2 Tbl lemon juice
  • 2 Tbl Olive oil
  • Pepper to taste
  • Fresh basil
  1. In a large bowl, mix all the vegetables
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining ingredients
  3. Toss the juice mixture with the salad until it’s evenly coated
  4. Refrigerate for at least an hour before serving

Climbing: the short and long of it

By: Heather Nielson

To become a better climber; that is always the question! I get asked about how to become a better climber from clients, friends and cyclists of all abilities more than any other topic. I find this ironic because I used to be a terrible climber. Reflecting back on why I can say that the main reasons were mostly a general lack of fitness as a beginner cyclist but also my mental attitude toward climbing. Anytime the grade went above 5% I immediately accepted my fate as the last one to arrive to the top; and believed I always would be. Why would that always be the case? Believing in yourself is a huge part of your success in life and if you tell yourself a story over and over again, you’ll do more than believe it, you will live it and act it out. If you want to get better at anything, you first have to change the narrative you tell yourself so that you can believe in yourself and then start acting as if you are successful at that one thing you want to get better at.

There’s a whole mental aspect to climbing, which I won’t get into here as I would prefer to focus on the technical parts of training to help you become a better climber. First, you have to get very clear about what types of climbs you want to be better at and why. When I first decided I wanted to be a better climber, my only reference was what I saw on TV in the Tour de France and the few races I’d done as a Cat 4; and both experiences told me that I needed to be able to do  long, hard epic mountain pass climbs; climbs that took you over 15 minutes and up to an hour to complete.

However, training for long climbs is very different than training for short climbs and as I went through season after season I slowly learned that just because I could climb for an hour didn’t mean I was going to win a race that had climbs 10 minutes or shorter; and how could that be?

The effort and training required to complete long climbs is different from short climbs. In a race-like situation, if the climb is 10 minutes or less, you will need to be able to climb well above your threshold, then go back to tempo and recover quickly for the remainder of the race. For climbs that were 20 minutes to an hour long, you needed to be able to pace yourself very near your threshold in order to not ‘blow up’ before the end, as there is no recovery going up hill! You also needed to be able to respond to surges and attacks in the middle of a long climb, then go back to riding ‘on the rivet’. The training demands for both of those climbs are quite different and therefore you need to train specifically for different types of climbs depending your race, adventure or century ride demands.

First: Map out your race or ride. How long is the climb? What kind of grade is it? How far into the ride or race is it? Start training for those types of climbs at least 6-8 weeks before your main event.

For shorter climbs lasting 10 minutes or less, I would suggest doing repeats at your threshold and up to 110% of your threshold. Build your time and intensity over the next few months and depending on your event or race demands, you may need to be able to do several repeats. I would do a hard hill repeat session like this once to twice a week.

For longer climbs lasting 15 minutes to an hour, I would suggest building a base of threshold/sub threshold efforts on flats first several months before. Start with 2-3 x 15 minute tempo (85-93% of your threshold) with 10 minutes rest between each interval. Build up to 4×20 minute sets and if you can, a whole hour altogether! A few months before your main event start putting that effort onto long climbs lasting at least 15 minutes; and depending on your race/event demands do several repeats; or find one long climb lasting up to an hour and make an adventure out of it!

Training for short and long climbs takes different time and energy system demands and that doesn’t meant you can’t train for both just make sure you are getting proper recovery between hard days. Lastly, I am a big proponent of strength training and wrote more about that here.

Anyone can become a better climber but you have to first choose to become one first, then get specific about why and when and then figure out, or ask a coach how. Just like getting to the top of a mountain one pedal stroke at a time, reaching your goals also have to be broken down into single steps. Focus on one step at a time and don’t forget to recognize all your achievements along the way to help keep you motivated and positive and lastly….enjoy the whole journey or you won’t appreciate the view from the top!