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Going Beyond Functional Threshold Power, Part 1: Versatility

While functional threshold power (FTP) is a crucial metric for assessing a cyclist's performance, focusing solely on FTP can be limiting. True cycling excellence requires a combination of three things:

  1. Versatility (the ability to adapt and excel across varying terrains and racing scenarios) is indispensable for tackling the diverse challenges of competitive cycling.

  2. Durability enables cyclists to maintain performance over long distances and through demanding conditions, essential for endurance events.

  3. Resiliency is critical for recovery, allowing cyclists to perform consistently across multiple stages or after intense efforts.

Together, these attributes create a well-rounded cyclist capable of succeeding beyond the confines of raw power measurements. This article is the first of a series of three that are designed to give deeper insight into why we need these attributes and some tips on how to improve them.

Why we need versatility

The dynamic power demands of cycling underscore the multifaceted nature of the sport, requiring cyclists to harness a spectrum of power outputs tailored to the demands of the terrain and race/event scenarios. Whether ascending steep climbs, sprinting for the finish line, or perfectly executing the power pacing of a long climb, cyclists must seamlessly modulate their power output to optimize performance. Moreover, the unpredictable nature of racing and events introduces variables such as wind resistance, drafting opportunities, and tactical maneuvers, further accentuating the need to dynamically adjust power output to capitalize on strategic advantages. In this interplay among power production, race tactics, and terrain dynamics, cyclists must be capable of producing power in a range of situations. This suggests that performance success goes beyond just power; we also need power versatility.

Let's look at two crucial types of versatility: metabolic and neuromuscular.

Metabolic versatility

Training metabolic versatility in cycling involves developing all three primary energy systems: aerobic, anaerobic, and phosphocreatine. For overall training, we often work these systems separately and in some periodized format, often focusing on our aerobic system in the early base phase and moving toward our anaerobic and phosphocreatine systems in the build and peak phases. This is not a bad approach, but does it do enough to prepare our system for the true dynamic metabolic demand of competing in events? Maybe not.

So what can we do to help improve our metabolic diversity and enhance our event performance? Build versatility workouts.

Versatility workouts engage multiple energy systems in a dynamic format that simulates event demand. This concept is not new; running has long embraced the idea of fartlek training due to its dynamic and multi-system approach, but we want to formalize the fartlek a little with Dynamic Race Simulation (DRS) workouts. This format engages each of the energy systems in a way that stimulates the demand of event performance in a more controlled, interval-based fashion. DRS workouts have some aerobic work (Endurance, Tempo, Sweet Spot), some anaerobic work (above-FTP intervals), and some phosphocreatine work (sprints), all in a single workout. These workouts are tough and result in a high TSS per hour; because of this, they should only be completed once every 7-10 days.

One caveat here: The development of metabolic versatility is multifaceted and dynamic. The introduction of workouts with a range of metabolic demands is just one part of the overall development of this important aspect of performance.

Neuromuscular versatility

Many cyclists have a self-selected cadence. This self selection is natural but actually can be a real limiter to performance. Why? Let's think about the dynamic demand of events. As we negotiate hills and descents while racing/performing against other riders and attempting to execute drafting and other race tactics, we're forced into a wide range of cadence demands. Many athletes spend 95%+ of their time training at a self-selected cadence, but this teaches our bodies how to be efficient at making power only in a tight range of cadence. For success at events, we need to make efficient power in a range of cadences on a range of terrains, which means our training needs to include the same, but this type of workout is often ignored or skipped.

Neuromuscular versatility workouts target a range of cadences on a range of terrains. For example, let's look at a workout with 2 x 20-minute Sweet Spot intervals. This is a very commonly-prescribed workout, which the athlete executes by heading to the local hill and knocking them out in the same tight cadence range, really focused on power output as the key indicator of success. To tweak this workout for building neuromuscular versatility, set both a cadence and terrain target. For example, execute the first 20-minute effort on a climb at 65-75 rpm and the second on a flat or rolling road at 90-100 rpm. This change in terrain and cadence will expand your ability to make power at a wider range of cadences and terrains.

Training for versatility is indispensable for cyclists aiming to excel across a wide range of conditions and competitions. By developing a broad fitness, we can adapt to any racing scenario, whether it involves steep climbs, technical descents, or fast sprints. This adaptability not only enhances our competitiveness but also increases our enjoyment and engagement with the sport.


I follow Joe Friel's advice in designing Ironman workouts for older athletes, with a goal of one anaerobic capacity workout and one lactate threshold per week. But, older age groupers have limited training time, so to fit in enough aerobic threshold work and cover three disciplines, something has to give. You have inspired me to try combining the HIIT workouts into a single session. The AC sessions are short, while the LT sessions can go well past thirty minutes. But if I mix it up, I think the a little less LT will not be missed. Thank you!

Gary Dunn

Wind of Hawi
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