FTP & Sweet Spot Training

In 2 years time, I’ve forgotten that I used to eat/sleep/breathe/read/write dragon boat blog material daily, what my password for the blog is, the password for the recovery email this blog is linked to, and (probably) how many sore muscles appear from resuming a sport you haven’t done in that amount of time!

What have I been doing all this time?  Well, for starters, being as good a father as I can be!  This is probably the number one reason I haven’t returned to the sport I still love so dearly.  Without a doubt, there are thousands of great parents in the sport of dragon boat  that balance family life with life on the water.  It was my personal decision to take a leave from the water in order to work on being a new parent and I have no regrets.  As for fitness, I’ve turned to riding road bicycles several times per week.  It’s quicker to get in a workout than paddling (IMO) and just as fun while being supremely challenging.

This brings me to the main topic of FTP or Functional Threshold Power.  It’s a term that has been tossed around greatly among cycling communities for its relevance to cycling performance and fitness; however, it is a relevant metric for any human-powered racing sport.  Basically, it is a guide to how hard somebody can perform an exercise for 1 hour.  It is a measurement that helps guide training and exertion during competition.

You might be saying that paddling hard for 1 hour takes completely different fitness than the ~2 minutes it takes for a 500 meter race and you’d be mostly correct.  While different energy stores and muscle fiber types are emphasized depending on the event at hand, FTP has a wide application to athletic performance in a race.  To quote Nate Wilson from the TrainingPeaks website:

It might not seem like FTP has much bearing on ability to sprint, but it very much does. FTP almost can be thought of as a sponge. The higher this number is, the bigger [the athlete’s] sponge is, and the more efforts they can absorb. Every time a race goes hard, it will take less out of the athlete with the higher FTP, and in return they will have more energy left in the tank for a big selection or for the sprint at the end.”

In cycling, FTP is most accurately calculated using a power meter: a device that measures how many watts you are generating as you ride.  To the best of my knowledge, the only power meter specifically for dragon boat paddlers is the Merlin Excalibur II.  The last time I checked, the Excalibur “v1.0” cost over $1k.  Considering how many paddlers there are in a dragon boat, the effectiveness of testing with a power meter quickly boils down to 1) how long can the team paddle hard together to get a good measure on 1-2 paddlers using the meter or 2) is the entire team willing to shell out the cash for 20 Excaliburs (never mind the issue of paddle lengths)?  The other option is using an erg or similar setup.  The one caveat I can think of is replicating how a full boat feels at race pace.  There are likely coaches out there who know more about settings to use to achieve this than I.

As with cycling, the purchase of a power meter is not essential to proper training to improve FTP.  FTP still exists even when it cannot be directly measured and calculated.  A rough estimate can be made using a simple heart rate monitor.  Here’s  how:

30 Minute Threshold Heart Rate Test
Warmup 10-15 minutes with 2-4 x 30 sec hard intervals; hit “Lap” on the device
20 minute set at steady effort where:
–  first 1/3 feels fairly easy, wait for effort to “come to you”
–  second 1/3 lets you know if you can sustain to end
–  last 1/3 feels VERY VERY hard to maintain power but you can to the end

Check your average heart rate for the last 20 minute of the set to estimate the Lactic Threshold Heart Rate.  Using this number, calculate your heart rate zones using the “Bike Zones” table here.  I am opting to utilize the bike zones over the run zones because biking presents greater resistance per “rep” if you will vs running, which may compare more closely the physicality of paddling.  Please note that variables such as body temp, hydration, caffeine, humidity, altitude, and fatigue can influence HR measurements.

Once you have calculated your zones, you can get into Sweet Spot training, which is exercise somewhere between Zone 3-4.  The benefits of Sweet Spot training have been shown to yield the greatest improvements in FTP over time aka bang for your buck.

What’s a Sweet Spot workout look like?  I’ve read cycling coaches suggest 5-20 minute intervals separated by rest interval of 50% the length of the effort (e.g. for 10 min at effort, rest 5 min till the next set).  Apparently the “gold standard” of FTP workouts is 2×20 min at Zone 4.  As you would expect, beginners or novice athletes should start with shorter sets with fewer reps like 3 x 10 min, while elite paddlers may rep it out like crazy (2x60min!) so long as working in the correct zones.

These workouts can be followed all season long, but scaled to match the fitness and needs of the athletes/team.  As with all types of physiological adaptation, FTP is something that changes slowly.  At 1-2 FTP workouts per week, it can take weeks to months for your investment to see returns, but like strength and other power training, a benefit is a benefit and faster is faster.

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