In January I caught covid19 for the 2nd time and needed a week’s break from training. This was relatively short compared with the 4 weeks off first time around. But what surprised me was how demoralized I felt seeing my FTP fall off a cliff.
As I watched my numbers nose dive, I couldn’t face getting back on the bike. Every effort was a reminder how bad things had become. My previously PR/PB FTP of 280 seemed so distant that it might as well have been set by a different athlete. Only once it was lost, did I realise how good 280w for 60mins actually is.
But the problem was much confounded by a fear of failure, or rather a fear of another low performance number. This was a vicious circle in which I had become terrorized by my own FTP. What little motivation I had, all but evaporated as I resigned myself to a sick role, in which I would forever be a shadow of my former self.
This problem is well known in medicine as patients take on a sick role, in which self-identify becomes increasing reinforced by behaviours related to being ill rather than being well.
Now there is no denying that my illness caused a big fall in FTP, but it is important to realize in almost all cases this is reversible. Looking at the graph again, we can see that there was an additional fall in FTP, starting mid January) related to demoralization and this extended the decline by about a month!
An interesting observation is that this process can also occur after an injury, after a winter break, after a vacation, or even after a change of turbo trainer! Yes, I have seen athletes lose heart after a recalibration of their trainer when their previous FTP mysteriously falls from 315 to 290w. Nothing had actually changed physiologically, but now when they see the low values they feel lethargic and unmotivated. As a result they reduce training, and gradually the prophecy of a dip in FTP comes true!
This is a classic case of being terrorized by your own FTP. If you ride purely to see big numbers on the screen, or only to set a PR/PR then you are at risk of “FTP demoralization syndrome”. This is especially the case if you are riding mostly hard sessions eg always threshold or always HIT or always short zwift races. It’s fun whilst numbers are going up early on, but it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain…..until you are hanging on by a thread. When it snaps you might never go back to this level of effort. And that guys is why periodization of training exists……training styles such as POLARIZED help by focussing on easier z2 rides which help cement those gains from high intensity z4,z5,z6 efforts.
Also it is important to say that as an athlete you should have broader goals than just improving your power; for example completing a certain event, keeping a good routine and not forgetting staying healthy in general!
OK, enough with the problems, let’s look at some solutions
What to do when power numbers look low
If your power numbers look low and you do not know why you can trouble shoot by testing under controlled conditions such as an 8min tempo ride on the turbo training on a known flat course; measuring average HR; average watts; and average speed. Ideally do this more than once, with a recovery day in between.
If your power is low whilst your heart rate is *high* this means you biological efficiency has fallen and this usually translates into a slower time on a known course. When these three indicators line up, then post-race fatigue or illness are the most likely causes. It should be pretty obvious if you feeling unwell compared to just completing a block of hard training. In any case the answer is to take good rest period and build slowly from less than your peak FTP.
If your power is low whilst your heart rate is *low* it is true that this can happen with acute illness as well but if you are not feeling unwell it could be early signs of over-training (burn-out) or it could be demoralization as discussed above. To distinguish between the two, ride your best effort with power and heart rate data hidden (again more than once). If the blind test corrects the data, I would say FTP demoralization is the cause. If the blind test corrects only the speed data see below.
If your power is low and HR high but speed also high; this suggests a power meter issue. Power meter drift, miscalibration and errors are very common….for example even the temp of the room used to play havoc with my powertab hub. It is possible to work out power from a steep climb to check your power meter IRL but if it an indoor issue I would test once more, and if not solved simply reset your FTP lower and swallow your pride! Unless you can do hanging weights or triangulate, who knows the true value!?!
If your power is low and HR relatively low but speed appears to be normal or high (under controlled conditions) then maybe your turbo-trainer is miscalibrated. I have had this issue a number of times, notably when I first tried Favero power pedals and again when I swapped to a kickr snap. If however this is outdoors, then the usual explanation is favourable environmental conditions such as a strong tail-wind or subtle downhill gradient.
How to Recover from FTP Demoralization
In a nutshell you need to break the link between riding satisfaction and seeing a big number on screen!
Ride without data
Ride to a new target
Ride a different event or bike
It is excellent training experience to ride without data occasionally in order to learn how it feels to ride z2,z3,z4,z5.
Schedule new targets for yourself which are not based on FTP alone, even complete 50km ride or complete a sportive.
If you still feel stuck, commit to wiping the slate clean and reset your FTP to a unrealistically low number (eg you were FTP300 but you resent it at FTP200) (👀). Intervals.icu and strava and zwift allow a manual override. This will disturb your training zones of course, but only for a short time, and in that time you will set new PR/PBs regularly until you settle on a new FTP. Remember FTP is not static or your best ever result, it is extremely dynamic (see my blog here) and sometimes it naturally goes down, there is no shame in that at all. Well almost 😂
Image Credit: cyclist.co.uk