Proving interval training delivers results, completing a full Sufferfest training plan saw the author make a 10% gain in FTP and increase endurance over longer rides.
While it doesn’t necessary always put you in a place of suffering as the name would suggest, you’ll most definitely experience discomfort but also likely improvements in your performance & power output across the board. Following a 10 week Sufferfest training plan delivered a 10% improvement in my FTP but also gains in the other 3 metrics the Sufferfest’s 4DP approach works to.
The Sufferfest have been around since before the Smart Trainer was even invented. Back in the bad old days of dumb turbo trainers which were incredibly dull to use, the Sufferfest was an early mover in structured workouts that also entertained you. Originally videos with workouts featuring race footage and music to help you work hard, you’d ride to perceived effort and videos were bought individually (I still have one) that you could then use to build a library and potentially work to a training plan (which came later).
With the arrival of smart trainers and apps like Zwift and Trainerroad, the Sufferfest arguably fell out of the limelight a little. However, the Sufferfest team wisely developed an app available on subscription like their competitors that brought the Sufferfest back squarely into the indoor training fight.
I’ve now completed over 80 sessions using the Sufferfest app including a 10 week Intermediate level training plan (& half an advanced plan) using the Sufferfest app and it’s time to report on how I got on and how I found the app to use in train with.
The short answer is I added 20 Watts to my FTP score using the 10 week plan, which is nearly a 10% gain, so I’m very pleased. So pleased in fact, I started a new harder “advanced” plan that I followed until the heatwave and the temperature in my garage rose to over 30 degrees celsius! However, life and work got in the way and I’ve not completed the second plan and have recently been cherry-picking workouts to help with cyclocross training (more on that in another post).
For my own experience with the intermediate training plan, it might be helpful to give a little more context. My previous best recorded FTP was 246W (for my 69kgs weight). This was achieved during a Wattbike winter training plan back in November 2015. Skipping forward to 2017 and I injured my back which took me off my bike for 6 months. So I lost all fitness and dropped a big chunk in FTP. 43 Watts to be exact. I know this from the test prior to starting the plan in late February, which was after I’d be been back riding on Zwift for a couple of months (meaning it was likely even worse).
I do need to talk about the test, which is called Full Frontal for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s probably the most challenging hour I’ve ever spent on a bike (twice so far) and this is because of how the Sufferfest structure their training approach. Rather than simply focusing on FTP like most other training plans, the Sufferfest uses what they call 4DP. Their pitch is that as there is more kinds of cycling than just putting out long efforts, so basically FTP is flawed as an overall measure. So the 4DP test, tests for 4 different kinds of riding. These are Sprints (5 sec maximum power efforts) referred to as NM – Neuromuscular Power, 1 minute anaerobic efforts called AC (short for Anaerobic Capacity), 5 minutes of Maximum Aerobic Power (MAP) and then the traditional 20 min FTP test.
During Full Frontal you do a warm then attack your sprints (2x in case you don’t ace the first one), then you ride the 5 minute MAP, followed by the 20 minute FTP with a full on 1 minute maximum to finish with. This is all in an hour and it’s really, really hard and unpleasant. But then you have your 4 scores that the Sufferfest training plan adjusts your levels against and you ride your training plan using all 4 measures. The Sufferfest app also creates training zones for both heart rate and power too (as long as you do your test with a Heart Rate monitor), which is also helpful for your training.
It’s worth watching the Sufferfest explanation of 4DP here:
I have felt FTP is a bit of a blunt instrument and this recent video from GCN covers this too:
However for road riding, we do spend quite a lot of time putting out long efforts, so FTP has a place and it’s a consistent measure that you can use across almost all training situations.
The Sufferfest 4DP approach is also interesting in that depending on your performance during the test you get allocated a rider type. Mine has come out as an Attacker both times. It’s interesting for me in that I can seem to put out short hard efforts better than maintaining effort over time. So I agree with the Sufferfest assessement of my personal weakness, which is putting out sustained power over time (FTP).
Once you have your weakness you can choose a Sufferfest plan on Training Peaks (or Final Surge) and there are around 100 to pick from at this point in time. These are broadly categorised by the area of weakness, matched to a series of goals such as training for a century ride, a mountainous sportive, a Triathlon, Cyclocross racing or XC mountain biking etc. Then usually there is an intermediate or advanced plan to choose between. For Training Peaks you only need a free account and once you add your Sufferfest plan to your Training Peaks account you’ll get daily emails telling you which session you need to complete (you can also follow your plan on your phone using the Training Peaks app). One nice touch is that when you complete your workout (you need to link the Sufferfest app to your Training Peaks account first … and you can also link it to Strava, Garmin Connect, Final Surge and Today’s plan to have your sessions automatically upload to any of those platforms too).
With respect to training plans, there is pretty much something for everyone and they all use a selection of videos from the Sufferfest video library that you have full access to with your subscription. You don’t need to follow a plan but I think that for most of us, you’ll get better results if you do. If you’re between plans, your rider description on your profile in the app will have several suggested workouts to help improve on your weakness.
If you’ve not used Sufferfest videos before, they’re typically a structured training session with intervals using racing or riding footage along with a music background that matches the intensity. On the screen you have a series of cues to tell you what’s happening in the workout from the basics of elapsed time and time to go but more importantly your power target, cadence target, your heart rate (and Zone) and timers for how long to go in the section of the workout your in.
Overlaying all of this is the Sufferfest commentary of you being a fictitious racer from the make-believe land of Sufferlandria where you’re working to become a pro cyclist. It’s quite tongue in cheek, which is a good thing because at the beginning watching me supposedly race with pro’s and attacking the leaders whilst riding under 200W seemed completely ridiculous. What the commentary does do is bring a touch of levity or lightness to what can be very challenging workouts.
From using the app for a few months, it’s clear that the Sufferfest principles are no pain no gain. Now that might work for racers but it might also work for other MAMILs like myself who want to improve. I don’t mind working hard to improve but I don’t ride to suffer. I ride to be fit, have fun and enjoy myself. However as I’ve got older, I have had to work a bit harder to both get and keep fitness. Certainly during the Intermediate plan I didn’t feel I did a lot of suffering but rather placed my self into discomfort … or at least … out of my comfort zone. When I did get a gain and stepped up to the Advanced plan I certainly was doing a lot more suffering as the workout schedule and training load on the advanced plan was noticeably harder.
A few years ago I read Fast after Fifty by Joe Friel (link https://amzn.to/2IMXGYk) and the key take away is that you can continue to improve well beyond 50 particularly if you keep training with intensity and the Sufferfest app most definitely delivers. This means that you need to push yourself hard to improve and this fits exactly with the Sufferfest – if you’re prepared to put in the effort, they’ll help you deliver results. I’m a big believer in structured training plans after spending nearly 2 years with a Wattbike on long term review (Here’s an example of what I learn’t from that: https://girodilento.com/learnt-2000km-wattbike/).
A downside of the Sufferfest video library is that it’s relatively limited in quantity compared to it’s key competitor Trainerroad which has over 1,000 workouts. In practice this means that you’ll have sessions that are repeated during your training plan and for me that mostly happened on rest weeks where I seemed guaranteed to do the “Cadence Builds” sessions which wasn’t one that I ever looked forward to. Some of the videos are pretty old now but in fairness a number have been updated since I’ve been using the app. The ERG mode power shifts occasionally don’t quite match up … but that may be a deliberate ruse to keep you working hard for an extra few seconds 😊
The App works on both Ant+ and Bluetooth connections. I mainly used on my PC in the garage and it worked well. The look of the app is a bit less slick than say Trainerroad but it worked well for me. I also used the app on an iPad and found that it looked more slick and worked fine for me with Bluetooth. I used the app with both a Tacx Neo and a 2018 Wahoo Kickr and neither had any issues with the app.
If you’re looking at a training app to subscribe to, the main alternative is probably Trainerroad. Like the Sufferfest, Trainerroad has training plans developed by expert coaches for a variety of purposes. It has a huge number of workouts but they’re graphics on your screen and not nearly as engaging as the Sufferfests, videos with cheesy commentary about your fictitious training & racing career. Whilst you can also use Zwift to train on, I don’t think it’s as serious a platform for training as either the Sufferfest or Traineroad. I love Zwift but it’s not close to being my first choice for structured training.
Recent price changes have improved things for Sufferfest fans. Both apps have changed pricing but now Trainerroad is more expensive at $15 per month or $129 per year, while the Sufferfest is $12.99 per month or still $99 per year, which I think is good value for the app and all it offers.
Leaving aside pricing, I’ve used the two platforms fairly extensively and have completed training plans on both. The bottom line for me is that I saw a 10% gain in FTP using the Sufferfest and didn’t make gains using Trainerroad (with a base training plan).
To help you make up your own mind, the Sufferfest App is free to try for 7 days & the company helpfully has an excellent list of suggestions on what to do on your trial and I agree with the suggestions
If you do jump on board with the Sufferfest, you will need to do the fearsome Full Frontal fitness test to set your 4DP levels and it’s so challenging there is a weekly training plan for it. I fully recommend you follow it too, it won’t make it any easier but it’ll give you a chance of making the most of it: https://thesufferfest.com/blogs/training-resources/how-to-get-the-most-out-of-full-frontal
As well as the training plans, the Sufferfest also has video Yoga sessions for free as part of your subscription. There is also some mental toughness training sessions if they’re helpful – not to me as a MAMIL but much, much more interestingly they’ve just added a body weight strength training element to the app, which I think is a fantastic new move.
This new strength training is designed specifically to help cyclists get better and I’m excited about trying this as you can now choose to have a plan that incorporates strength training sessions. I’m excited about this as I’ve been conscious that cycling in many ways is quite one dimensional in terms of how we get strong – it’s all about the legs. Just look at our physiques as cyclists, many of us have powerful legs and a more spindly upper body – hopefully this strength training will help balance this out a touch and of course, if we can get stronger, we’ll ride better too. Learn more about this new addition to the Sufferfest here:
You can hopefully see the plans here: https://thesufferfest.com/pages/learn-more-the-science-of-suffering#IGEN
The Bottom Line:
I’ve been hugely impressed by the experience of the Sufferfest. As a MAMIL who rides for fun rather than to suffer, it wasn’t necessarily what I would have expected to choose for my training – the name is a bit of an issue but my experience of using the app and following the training plans has worked, been challenging but delivered demonstrable gains & a very positive experience. The recent price changes have made being an annual member strong value – especially if you’re prepared to train most of the year (as I am). Buying a subscription to the Sufferfest is much cheaper than hiring a coach (which seems to run at around £150 per month) where I am and if you don’t need specialist advice or tightly tailored plans and input and own a smart trainer, this could be all you need to get faster. The Sufferfest is a great choice – even for MAMILs.
Get your free week or find out more here: https://thesufferfest.com/
Thanks for reading!