Virtual racing is enjoying a moment in the spotlight, particularly in the cycling and triathlon world. The SuperLeague Triathlon Series even hosted the Arena Games, in which competitors swam in a pool and then cycled and ran in Zwift’s “Watopia.”
But where does Zwift racing fit into winter training for us mortals? Is it possible to incorporate Zwift racing into your off-season training plan and see an overall improvement in your fitness? There are pros, cons, and things to consider, but the short answer is yes! It is possible to leverage the fun and competition of Zwift e-racing for off-season gains.
The “Pros” of Zwift Racing
Zwift racing certainly offers many benefits to athletes training through the winter months. While these benefits vary for each athlete, here are a few “pros” to consider.
Intensity: Zwift racing is fast, intense, and sometimes painful. Many races will have you chewing your stem and pushing harder than you might otherwise.
From a short sprint race to multi-hour racing, many athletes find it more fun to endure the intensity of threshold power when race results and pride are at stake. That racing intensity will have you training at higher power and heart rate than you might otherwise reach when training solo.
Racing Strategy: While Zwift racing tends to be more of an “all out” effort than in-person events, there are some elements of racing strategy that you can practice in the off-season. Following attacks, keeping up with the peloton through climbs and descents, and adapting to sudden changes in the effort are all critical racing skills in Zwift that can translate to live racing.
Motivation during the off-season: Sometimes, it can be tough to get motivated to put in hard efforts alone in the off-season when racing opportunities feel like a lifetime away. Zwift racing keeps things exciting and helps keep athletes motivated through the long off-season months.
Convenience: Unlike real-life racing, Zwift races happen practically every hour of every day! You can easily find a race time and distance that fits your schedule. This convenience is a double-edged sword, but it is a handy way to stay motivated and engaged when it feels like winter is dragging on.
Plan Zwift Racing Cautiously
While there are some notable advantages to adding Zwift racing to your winter training, there are some things to be cautious about.
Be aware of over-training: On the one hand, having Zwift racing available 24-7 is convenient for scheduling. Since Zwift racing usually requires hard, sustained effort, it’s pretty easy to over-train or develop an injury with too much Zwift fun. And with no pre-defined seasons or built-in precautions, it’s easy to accidentally overdo it, which can negatively impact your next racing season.
Planning ahead is key to effectively adding Zwift racing to your off-season training. Rather than choosing races on the spur of the moment, Pick one race series at a time. Look at the racing calendar and choose races that suit your training needs and abilities.
Plan rest weeks and harder training blocks: Staying healthy and making progress through the off-season usually requires scheduling rest weeks and hard training weeks. An experienced coach can help you plan out a fun Zwift racing schedule that provides training benefits and helps avoid burnout or overtraining.
Don’t race Zwift group rides: Zwift group rides are fun ways to ride with fellow athletes and make long turbo rides more tolerable. Many groups even add Zoom so they can chat during the group ride.
It’s tempting to let group rides turn into spontaneous races. Set a pre-planned average power or heart rate for yourself when you join group rides. This ensures you go easy on the easy days and save the hard work for the hard days.
Don’t replace all your interval sessions with Zwift racing: Interval training can increase your overall fitness. Short VO2 max intervals of 3 to 8 minutes help you prepare for attacking, bridging gaps or tackling short climbs. Max effort intervals of just a few seconds or minutes are all-out efforts designed to help build your sprint strength.
Zwift racing tends to be more like a time trial where you commit to your hardest pace for the entire race.
Athletes need time-trialing and interval sessions to build strength, speed, and steady effort. Zwift racing can help athletes build strength and improve at keeping very hard and steady paces for longer periods. Still, they are not always appropriate replacements for interval sessions.
Don’t skip the base training: Racing does help keep your fitness up, but it’s no substitute for base training. Plan for some periods where you’ll focus on long, steady miles rather than short, hard efforts. Taking a break from Zwift racing during those periods can benefit many athletes.
The Bottom Line: Zwift Racing is a great tool when used properly
The bottom line is that Zwift racing is an excellent tool for many athletes and a fun way to keep (and even build) fitness during the off-season. But like any tool, you must use it the right way. You’ll only improve your fitness when you’re intentional with your Zwift racing. Schedule races strategically, stick to your goals, and work with a coach to ensure you’re seeing progress.
Gregg Edelstein is a certified USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach, an IRONMAN University Certified Coach, and a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach based in the greater Boston area. Gregg offers his athletes insight on the principles of exercise, nutrition, sports psychology, and injury prevention, working to make them well-rounded and engaged athletes that share his passion for sport. Gregg can be reached at gregg@TeamMPI.com.