Since there is currently no possibility to ride road races, the virtual racing on Zwift (and other platforms) is on the rise. In this article we try to give you the best tips and tricks so you can go for the best result. We cover power supply, thermoregulation, warming-up and the difference between the power you can pedal indoors and outdoors. Of course we assume that you don’t cheat by setting your weight lower than you actually weigh!
The course on Zwift is characterized by its extreme character, especially the start is incredibly heavy. The first few minutes you will ride (far) above your FTP, so it is important to be prepared for this when you decide to ride a virtual race. Think of it as a cyclocross start: full tank from the start away! After this it is often more just below the tipping point to continue with some climbs/decisive parts above FTP. Luckily most races are not very long and usually last around 40-60 minutes. The finals are hard, often the result is decided in a sprint. However, this sprint is longer than on the road as the last kilometers are really fast. However, keep in mind that you never have your legs still and you always have pressure on the legs, all in all super heavy! See for example the heartbeat and power graph of a course below. Clear to see that you never ride quietly, and especially above the turning point (dotted line).
So races on Zwift are extremely heavy and the power will always be close to your FTP, so you will burn muscle glycogen (sugars stored in your muscles) throughout the race. This is not bad, as long as this supply of glycogen is full when you start, otherwise you run the risk of getting hungry right away. So beforehand it’s important to have eaten really good and rich in carbohydrates. Depending on the time you start racing, try to eat your last meal at least 2 hours in advance. During the warm ride you can eat some small food (e.g. a banana or sports bar) so that the sugars are fully available during your race.
Because Zwift courses are generally a bit shorter, you might be inclined not to take extra food during a course. However, with a good warm-up and cooling-down you’ll soon spend an hour and a half. Below you’ll find some general guidelines, so be aware of how long you expect to be busy.
After driving a Zwift course it is especially important to replenish your muscle glycogen immediately, this is done in the first instance by consuming some rapidly absorbable sugars within half an hour. This can be a cola or some winegums, but also some fruit (which has a high glucose-fructose content, which is good for recovery). Depending on the upcoming trainings you can also choose to take proteins directly, for example if you have a strength training planned at the end of the day.
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Images via Asker Jeukendrup, www.mysportscience.com
THERMOREGULATION, KEEPING THE BODY COOL
Since we ride on indoor trainers, the wind falls away, which is actually quite nice because you never have wind against it. However, the wind normally takes care of most of the cooling of our body. During exertion, the measured power is only 20-25% of the power the body produces, so muscle contractions are not fully efficient. This remaining power is released in the form of heat and heat, so the body produces an extreme amount of heat during exercise. You have to get rid of this heat in order not to overheat and therefore have to reduce your exertion. A small increase in your skin and core temperature will immediately reduce your performance! The cooler you can make the space in which your Zwift is, the less this decay! So really make sure you have enough fans! If you really see swimming purely as training (and not as a goal in itself), you can also choose to apply a particle of heat acclimatization. By performing regularly in the heat in a period of about 2 weeks you will acclimatize to this so that you will be able to perform well in the heat later on during your events. However, always make sure that you do not make this ‘heat stimulus’ too big, the thermoregulation of the body is quickly out of balance which can have many negative consequences.
As a last pro tip related to heat, it is smart to pre-cool the body well in advance, this can be done for example by eating a water ice cream 5 minutes before the start! If you have cooling vests, be sure to use them! The cooler you stay during the race, the better your power level will be and the better your performance will be in the end.
WARMING-UP AND COOLING DOWN, GETTING READY TO RACE
Because the start of a Zwift race determines everything, a good warm-up is crucial. Take your time for this! We recommend the following warm-up;
10min quiet pace
5 min scaffolding where you slowly step up the pace until you FTP the last minute
5 min recovery, loosen the legs
2 15second sprints with 2 minutes rest
8minutes quiet pace
Then you can get off your bike for a while and make sure that everything is all right and you are ready for the hard start!
After your race it is important to calmly lower your heart rate after that final sprint. So after your race always ride on low power and intensity for at least 10 minutes (but preferably a bit longer). With this you make sure that the lactate can be broken down again, and that you don’t have heavy legs for the next few days.
INDOOR VERSUS OUTDOOR, THE SHORT STORY
Many riders complain about the fact that they can pedal in much less power than outside. Not much scientific research has been done on this, the conclusion that can be drawn from these studies is as follows: cycling outside causes a higher variability in power and less static load than cycling inside. We will come back to this extensively in a later blog.
Cooling by means of riding wind lowers the temperature of the body which ensures better performance outside when not properly cooled. If cooling is done properly, there is no significant difference between indoor and outdoor performance! So don’t forget your water ice cream, cooling vest and fan next time you start to float;)!
First of all, be ready for a hard start, as described above, a good warm-up is vital.
Zwift has done its best to mimic the so-called draft effect, which means that you can benefit from driving between the wheels. So make really good use of this, you can tell by your posture on the bike if you’re well in the draft; if you’re sitting upright then you’re well hidden, if you’re riding the virtual you at the bottom of the brackets then you’re riding in the wind!
As your Zwift level increases, better bikes and wheels become available. This material can provide a better aerodynamic or lighter bike, so choose the smartest material for each race. In about an hour, the fastest bike can save more than a minute compared to the slowest! That brings us right to the point of trail exploration. There are an awful lot of routes on which you can ride, each route has its own peculiarities. A short course exploration on the internet is often really worthwhile, with this you soon see where it is smart to sit at the front. Keep in mind that just after a climb the peloton (just like in real life) goes on a ribbon where holes always fall, so always pay attention! Next to that there are of course powerups in Zwift, there are actually 3 important powerups;
- Spring; this will lighten your 9.5kg for 15second, so use it on the steepest stretches of the climb!
- Truck; makes your draft effect 3x bigger for 30sec, so you don’t have to pedal as much wattage to follow!
- Aero helmet; makes you 25% more aerodynamic for 15 seconds, so you can reach high speeds with high power. Super handy in the final sprint!
Because Zwift racing is really hard, we advise you not to do too many races a week, especially because every race brings a certain mental strain. So think carefully about how a race fits in your training week, always make sure it’s in balance with the quiet endurance trainings that week. See our article about polarized training (link). If you have any questions about this, consult your coach. If you still have a coach, now is the time to get in! For more information about training guidance click here!