Perhaps this is the most frequently asked question that we, as cycling trainers, get asked. In this article we give an indication, with the necessary reservations, of how much you probably can still improve.
Improve on what?
In cycling, you can improve in several areas. Improving on your sprint or short intensive efforts is very different from being able to ride longer or several days in a row. In general, the FTP, or the power that you (theoretically) can sustain for a maximum of one hour, is often taken as a reference of how good someone is. Improving on your FTP is also an excellent goal for most recreational cyclists to hold out longer and better digest intensive efforts (such as climbs).
The FTP can be measured with an exercise test or (slightly less accurate) with a 20-minute test. The idea is then to go full out for 20 minutes as a time trial that lasts a for 20 minutes. The 95% of the average power over these 20 minutes is a nice measure for the FTP.
How good are pros?
To make a good comparison between individuals we divide the FTP by the body weight. This way we get the power per kilogram on the FTP and eliminate the absolute power difference between heavy and light cyclists. So if you can lose a few pounds plus you manage to get your FTP up then the wattage per kilogram on the FTP goes up twice.
A Tour de France pro has approximately an FTP between 5.5 w/kg and 6.5 w/kg (for the classification winner). An untrained person is usually between 1.5 to 2 w/kg in men and 1.3 to 1.7 w/kg in women.
Although very short intensive efforts such as sprinting become less so at a younger age, a cyclist should be able to continue to improve FTP until the age of 40 to 45. Here we assume that someone is maximally trained. It is true that a forty year old may need more training than a 25 year old. After about the age of 45, the challenge is actually not to deteriorate. In practice, however, we often see enough fit fifty-year-olds who are much healthier and more vital than when they were thirty.
Short and long-term improvement
In practice, we actually also see that most recreational cyclists do not improve at all year on year. What is carefully built up over 9 months is completely undone with a 3-month rest period in the winter. In about 3 months, the VO2max decreases by 15 to 20% to achieve such training progression you will be working much longer than three months to regain it. Therefore, continuing to train, even if it is a bit less at some periods of the year, is very important. Taking longer rests than two weeks is actually never desirable. Also, make sure you do a little more each year if you want to keep improving. The training volumes should increase a little each year so as not to reach a plateau in your training progress. Keep training and doing a little more each year is therefore essential to keep improving.
Nature or nurture
So training is important to keep improving, but ultimately everyone has his or her ceiling. This ceiling depends on the genes you have inherited from your parents, or talent. Ultimately, the Tour de France winners are freaks of nature who have reached an exceptional level with many years of training and dedication. Without this talent and with only training, not only would they never have won the Tour, but even turning pro would have been out of the question.
However in a general, any healthy man or woman without periods of very unhealthy lifestyle should be able to improve to at least 3-3.5 w/kg and 2.5-3 w/kg until the age of 40-45. After that age becomes a complicating factor.
We can summarize the above in a table. It becomes clear that the extent to which someone can improve is a complex calculation of many variables. The starting point, age, talent and over which period improvement can be expected are essential to begin with. Especially the degree of talent is impossible to predict perfectly. For example, it is actually not even age that is important, but rather what those years before were like in terms of lifestyle.
Until you are 45
|In 3 months||In 1 year||Long term|
|Above 3 w/kg||?||?||?|
This table is therefore purely indicative and mainly to give an idea of what factors are important. With the wide ranges we try to indicate that ultimately predicting the degree of improvement is more something for fortune tellers and not for cycling trainers.
Now you know how much you can improve the only question remains is how to do it. We recommend you to take a look at our training plan application JOIN cycling. It provides you with a dynamic training plan that adapts to how much time you have and what you do. It’s like working with a personal coach for a fraction of the costs.