Many athletes have heard of Sweet Spot Training, but not all have implemented this tool into their training programs efficiently. When used properly, sweet spot training can help to improve your functional threshold power and your ability to conquer mentally difficult efforts.
What is Sweet Spot Training?
Simply put, sweet spot training is efforts that range around 86-95% of your current Functional Threshold Power (FTP) on the bike. You may also like to think of these efforts as “slightly harder” tempo efforts. These efforts are difficult and require effort and focus, but are manageable for longer periods of time. Think of pro cyclists who function as domestiques for a team, they sit on the front of the peloton for hours on end controlling the pace and effort of the peloton. These folks have mastered grinding high power for long hours in the saddle. They’re not pushing their threshold all day, they’re sitting in their “sweet spot.”
While winter months typically constitute an athlete’s base season, most of us do not have the time to put in the number of hours necessary to accrue the physiological adaptations off of easy base miles. In order to achieve the “base season” physiological adaptations of riding in Zone 1 and 2, you would need to be riding upwards of 16-25 hours per week for results. Most of us, aside from professional athletes, do not have this time available to us. Many of us have a limited allowance of hours per week that we are able to devote to a training program, and the good news is that you can get better even if time-crunched.
Base season miles typically are around 55-75% of your FTP. This percentage range is where most general endurance rides should take place. Rides that average under 50% of FTP would be categorized as recovery rides, which always have a place in training programs, but they won’t be helping to build your threshold, just helping to recover from big day efforts. Rides that occur above 75% of FTP will start to loom into tempo efforts, and this is where most long repeated efforts will range. Sweet Spot training ranges from around 86-95% of your FTP, and therefore these efforts are hard but they are manageable and can be repeated. Do not be fooled by the name, sweet spot training intervals will not feel easy and nor should they.
Why Sweet Spot Training?
Most of us are time-crunched and need training sessions that can give us the best bang for our buck. This is where Sweet Spot excels. If you are pressed for time and are able to get in 60 minutes on your Kickr, then interval efforts such as a classic 2×20 minute session at sweet spot can not only put you through the paces but can improve physiological adaptations such as mitochondrial density increases.
Mitochondria are located within our body’s cells and are commonly called, “the powerhouse of our cells.” The mitochondria in our muscles is the site for ATP resynthesis. ATP (Adenosine Triphosphate) is what is used as energy for our working muscles. Increasing your mitochondrial density will help to develop a larger aerobic engine for endurance athletes due to the ability to transfer more oxygen from your bloodstream to your working muscles.
Sweet Spot training also helps to build mental stamina. Longer intervals at sweet spot effort ranges will be uncomfortable, but once you push through the discomfort you can build resilience in resisting fatigue.
This specific type of training helps the balance between intensity and volume for athletes. Sweet spot training simply allows you to get in quality work without sacrificing time.
How to Determine Your Individual Sweet Spot Training Zones
Unsure of what your Sweet Spot zones are? The best way to start is by determining your Functional Threshold Power (FTP).
There are many different FTP tests available to athletes, but if looking for a complete picture of where your fitness currently sits check out The Sufferfest’s 4DP Power Profile test. Functional Threshold Power is ultimately broken down as the power you can sustain for a 60-minute effort. While many of us will not be performing a singular hour of power (you could if you want!) simply performing a standard 20-minute all-out test and taking 100% of the power produced will not be an accurate number for setting your threshold. The 4DP fitness test enables you to not only determine your FTP but also assess your weakness and identifies your current strengths as a rider. The test includes 2 x 5-second sprints, a 5-minute test, followed by a 20-minute test effort, and finally wraps up with a 1-minute test effort all completed within an hour. All of these efforts serve a purpose to see your sprint ability, anaerobic power, aerobic power, and finally your ability to recover from efforts. Sounds grueling, but gives the most accurate picture of where your current fitness levels are at.
Cons to Sweet Spot Training
For most of us, we aren’t leading pro pelotons through winding roads in Europe and therefore do not need to train our bodies to grind through 5-7 hours of tempo effort. In fact, this type of training can hinder your performance!
Training 100% of the time in your Sweet Spot may sound like a good idea, but beware it is not meant for every workout.
Sweet Spot training is to be used as interval training sessions. Doing entire sessions at 85-95% of your FTP will make you very strong at riding at this effort, but it will not help to make you faster. When the time comes in a race where a breakaway occurs, you need to have the tools in your arsenal to be able to produce efforts above your threshold in order to catch the riders ahead. If you solely focus on sweet spot efforts, your body will not have the ability to produce efforts above threshold since you have not trained for it.
Using sweet spot intervals during the base season will help build an aerobic engine. When race season comes around, your training plan should reflect efforts that you can expect to experience in a race: sprints, attacks, VO2 max work, etc.
More is not always more, in fact, less can be more. Use sweet spot training wisely.
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Mac Cassin is the Chief Cycling Physiologist at Wahoo Sports Science. He holds a degree in Integrative Physiology from the University of Colorado-Boulder and has won multiple National Championships. The experience of juggling athletic goals with collegiate and career responsibilities has taught Mac that peak performance is achievable even for those who cannot focus exclusively on training. While concentrating on exercise physiology in an academic setting, Mac competed at the World Championships, Pan American Championships, and World Cups on both the road and track.