Zwift: Your Secret Weapon for Effective Cycling TrainingDonovan van Gelder
During the 2020 covid lockdown period the online cycling platform Zwift became every cyclists saviour. We were not allowed to train outdoors and even the most die-hard, ride-outside-in-any-weather cyclist was converted to the indoor trainer. Many were taken completely by surprise at how immersive and stimulating Zwift could make the normally tedious indoor session. It was fascinating to realise that riding along in a video game environment with the avatars of thousands of other cyclists from around the World, could make the time pass so much more easily. So much so, that even long, endurance type efforts were mentally, much easier to accomplish.
Covid lockdowns are thankfully, a thing of the past, and hopefully we never see the like again. Cyclists are back on the roads, training for races in the real world. So is having a Zwift account still a useful addition to a cyclists training arsenal? The short answer is of course yes, and here are a few of the reasons why.
Winter is coming – The mornings are dark and chilly now in the Southern Hemisphere. With modern clothing and bicycle lights, this is not such a problem for the easier endurance efforts or social coffee rides, but to get a good, hard interval or tempo ride in is much harder to achieve during the winter months. It is harder to get the body up to optimal operating temperature when the mercury is in single digits and this will affect the performance of the quality efforts we need to make. The additional clothing is also not ideally suited to aggressive riding in an aero position. Additionally, if speed is one of the variables that we use to measure our intervals, that is also seriously compromised by the addition of jackets, gloves etc.
A dark, badly lit road is definitely not ideal for putting our heads down and going hell for leather. The speed that we will be travelling requires knowing what potential obstacles are coming up well in advance and by the time these are caught in our front light’s beam, no matter how powerful it may be, it could be too late to react. This is compounded even further in a ‘chain-gang’ type session and riding fast in a group.
Doing our interval sessions on Zwift solves all these problems. Firstly, it is only a matter of minutes before we are warmed up and working up a healthy sweat indoors, ready to start our first interval. There are no obstacles to avoid and we can focus completely on putting the effort into the pedals and achieving the numbers that we have set ourselves. Yes, this can be achieved purely on an indoor trainer without the addition of digital roads and scenery but where Zwift has the edge is in the group rides and races which very accurately simulate the chain-gang and aggressive bunch ride efforts. It is amazing how hard we can push ourselves in a Zwift race, despite being stationary in our garage or living room.
Another thing to consider for interval training, even in the warm, long mornings of Summer is that most of us live in built-up, urban areas where there are very few long stretches of road without intersections, or potential traffic which could at best, delay or interrupt our interval effort and at worse, place us at risk of accident and injury by riding at unsafe speeds for any given situation. If you are anything like me and get a bit stupid when riding full gas, we tend to take more risks to maintain effort and speed during interval or hard tempo riding and this doesn’t gel well with road furniture and traffic on open roads. I know that I am far less a danger to myself in Tempus Fugit.
The biggest advantage of Zwift over the open road is the amount of control we have over effort and duration. Most interval training requires fairly regular gradients. Flat is preferable but at the very least we don’t want constant changes of inclination when performing a set of intervals. In most cases we also want each interval in the set to be similar and thus comparable. Zwift even has options of different length climbs and gradients of these in order to perform hill repeats indoors. Something which I found very difficult to simulate on a more simple indoor trainer set up in the past. The biggest advantage is that these are perfectly repeatable every time we do a session. There is never any wind in Zwift and, as an example, riding a Tempus Time Trial again four weeks after the last one, will allow us perfect insight into how our form is progressing and where we need to make adjustments to our training.
Yes, there are differences to riding our bikes on Zwift and for the vast majority of us it will never replace riding outside unless we are forced to stay indoors. It is a means to an end. It is a way for us to make our ‘real’ riding better. On the open road or shoulder to shoulder in a race. It is always going to be more enjoyable dancing up our local hills or making our mates suffer in the local club ride, and building the form necessary to do that, is definitely more achievable with well-constructed training sessions in an online world.