The benefits of Zwift at this time of the year


In the unlikely event you’ve been living under a rock for the last couple of years, or have never used the internet, then maybe you don’t know what Zwift is. Everyone else will know it’s a computer style ‘game’ that links you and your bike to an imaginary, or semi-imaginary world.

The other day, one of the athletes I coach, who obviously stalks me (!), and who’d apparently been analysing my every move on Strava, asked me, how come I ride on Zwift so much? Why wasn’t I out on the road? How could I be so motivated to ride indoors? And, would it really make me fitter?

I started racing in 1984. At this point in time, home computers were pretty rubbish in comparison to what we have today. At the end of the year, and given where I lived (Manchester, UK, known as a very rainy and wet place), I purchased (or more likely my parents did) a set of rollers to train on. My friends used to come round and share the rollers with me, and we’d have a competition to see how fast we could sprint on them. Obviously I had history with indoor riding…!

Bad weather
Rain, wind, and snow were a frequent occurrence in a Mancunian winter. I tried never to let the weather put me off, but occasionally it did. I wanted to be pro and would suffer through the most vile of weather. Eventually, as it dawned on me that I’d never be pro, and that riding in really abysmal weather led to crashing, and ill health I started to ease up and stop doing it. It was obvious, due to the frequency of the bad weather you’d need to supplement the outdoor riding with something else.

Power, power, power!
Early on I used the turbo as a way of avoiding bad weather. Now, with the advent of power meters I was finding that it was an easy way to control, and manipulate the intensity I could ride at. I started collecting power meter data in circa 1994. But it was sporadic. At university I had to wait until they would lend me one, and riding indoors with a power meter wasn’t telling me everything I’d need to know. Due to the intermittent nature of being lent a power meter for outdoor use (by the university) meant I hadn’t been able to get a handle on the ‘stochastic’ nature of outdoor power data. I didn’t at first understand what was happening. It wasn’t until I purchased my own power meter in ‘98 did it become startlingly obvious (after a couple of days of consecutive outdoor riding).

It was here that I noticed that very minor changes in elevation (especially downhill) could lead to huge drops in power output. Power output would vary drastically, and I could see it was really, really difficult to keep a constant power output. This led me to feel that lots of indoor training at a constant power output would be excellent, and would mean you could accumulate a specific workload in a much faster time. This is definitely true. When I coupled this with the bad weather we often have in the UK, the abysmal driving of motor vehicles, and the terrible state of the roads — I felt this way the way forward! (Perhaps, if I lived in a country with decent roads, better drivers, nice weather and some nice constant climbs I’d have felt differently about this!).

On the other hand, and as I’ve just mentioned in an interview with Cycling Plus Magazine we tend to race outdoors or away from the turbo (yes, I know there’s indoor races on Zwift, etc) and thus, the road does vary in elevation and we have to be able to cope with those changes (whether it’s downhills, easing up and accelerating out of corners, or smacking up a hill). We need to practice both the skills and fitness aspects associated with these changes.

How best to train

The best way of training, in my opinion, therefore, is a mixture of indoor riding — you can focus on some basics, such as working on building your sustainable power, and outdoor riding so you can learn the skills needed from cornering and descending through to applying power on the downhills, and raising your game up hill, as well as shorter power outputs.

For me, though, I’m relatively happy doing up to 90 or 120-mins indoors. I prefer to avoid cold, or wet cycling (especially cold and wet), and my motivation is that with Zwift (other systems work well as well) I can keep working on building my fitness, and getting in occasional outdoor rides when it’s marginally warmer than it is now. I know the training is working, my FTP is up. I can stay, warm (not necessarily dry as I’m soaked in sweat), my bike requires less cleaning, and I’m less likely to have a mechanical (albeit over the years I have had a few punctures indoors).

To erg, or not!

Zwift, has two modes — erg mode, which controls your trainer with a specific workout intensity, or, well, I don’t really no what it’s called. Non-erg mode? Simulation mode? Whatever, you want to call it, in this mode the resistance (if you have a smart turbo trainer) is controlled by Zwift, so as you go up a hill the resistance increases. Downhill it decreases. In erg mode the resistance stays the same but forces you to ride at the power you’ve asked of it.

For longer more endurance based sessions, I prefer to use Zwift in simulator mode. For short intervals, or complex sessions where there’s multiple intervals I prefer erg mode.

Sessions to hate!
There’s a variety of sessions that can be done indoors that most people hate, but ultimately, are great for you. Personally, I find these to be the ones that are shortish, and really hard! Intervals that are between 4 and 15-mins long. That need to be ridden at full gas. Got to be done at times, but they always feel brutal indoors!

What sessions do I use on Zwift?
Zwift comes with quite a few built in training sessions, however, I prefer to use my own RST sessions! For endurance based sessions, such as getting in a 90-min endurance session I’ll just ride on whatever Zwift is offering that day. If my legs feel a little sore, I might choose a flat route, or if i feel good it may include a few hills. One of the most effective sessions is long MIET effort - this is a zone 3 ride, so just below FTP. I’ll often ride this in simulation mode, and to avoid dips in the ‘road’ I’ll choose a mountain circuit such as riding up Alpe du Zwift - which gives me a long effort at the right intensity.

One of my favourite, road racing sessions is our 150%TT90%. I’ll always use this in erg mode. Short zone 3 effort, followed by riding at 150% of that effort, followed by a brief rest and back to it. This constantly changing pattern is great for erg mode. Often I’ll string two of these sessions together, it’s great for road racing and crits! Why not get in touch with me, and I’ll send you a copy of this file so you can use it in Zwift!

My favourite world to ride on Zwift, is Watopia. I think that’s got a great mix of terrains, from the brutalness of Alpe du Zwift, to some of the flat circuits such as the Volcano loop.

Many of our Training Plans come with pre-built Zwift sessions so that you have the option of doing them indoors mode. If you don’t fancy coaching why not try one of these plans and get the sessions plugged into Zwift!

If you’re happy outdoors in the bad weather (and there are lots of people who are), then keep on with it. If you’re like me and happy indoors, then that’s great too. If you can combine the both then you’re likely on a real winner!

Keep riding :)

Richard Stern