I´m sure a lot of you know me already as I coach some of the biggest names in Zwift cycling as well as some of the best athletes in the world.
I am going to write a series of articles with this one being the introduction into the introduction – it might seem overly simple to those of you with experience, but I am sure it will be very helpful to people just starting out and not quite sure which direction to take or what steps to take to get improvements in their fitness, life balance and health.
To be good at Zwift racing, you'll need a combination of fitness, strategy, and technical know-how. In this article, we'll discuss various aspects to help you improve your Zwift racing performance.
1. Build Your Fitness
Zwift racing, like real-world racing, demands a strong fitness base, the key points of which are:
Vo2 max: Intervals from 3-8 mins in duration can make all the difference in key points of the races, depending on the course and the quality of the field.
Practice repeats of Vo2 with short rest periods, but if you are new, use work/rest ratios of 1:1 or more once the interval length goes above 6 mins.
Sprint Power: Zwift races often come down to sprint finishes, so working on your high-intensity efforts is crucial – but keep in mind that what matters the most is how strong your sprint is after 30-60 mins of high intensity. The only way to know this, is to actually… do it and practice it.
Climbing Skills: Some races feature steep climbs, so practice hill repeats to improve your climbing abilities – your physiology will have a big effect on this, as you start learning about yourself, you will notice that certain effort durations come more “naturally” than others, so for example, you might notice your power curve is excellent from 3-5 mins, but then there is a strong drop off, or you will notice you are a “one trick pony” meaning you can repeat an effort once, and it´s game over.
Pacing: Learn to pace yourself throughout a race. It's easy to go out too hard and burn out quickly.
One important aspect is also to race in the correct category and to understand game dynamics.
Some of the best Zwifters in the world, physiologically speaking, are far from the best from a pure data point.
They work hard and are exceptionally fit, but what separates them is understanding draft dynamics, positioning, key moments when to use the power and of course, route recon.
If you are new at this, racing lots and doing loads of rides with pacer bots will help you become much more efficient at conserving your energy in the pack, especially with the new draft dynamics currently at work.
2. Equipment and Setup
Having the right equipment and setup can make a significant difference:
Smart Trainer: Invest in the right smart trainer that works with your riding style. They might all look the same, especially on paper, but mechanically, or electronically, there are key differences.
The most popular ones are Wahoo Kickr models as it stands – but more and more are coming.
As you progress, keep in mind to race at the highest level of Zwift you need a trainer that reads +-1 percent so if you think you can get there, investing more in the beginning will pay dividends later on.
Gradient simulation is another thing that varies a lot from trainer to trainer, or more specifically, how it feels. Some just feel more natural than others.
Fan and Ventilation: Zwift racing can get intense and sweaty. A powerful fan and good ventilation will help you stay cool and comfortable, but also significantly increase your performance especially toward the end of a longer race since your core temp will remain stable and optimal.
If you don´t have aircon where you ride, simply opening a window will help a lot as it will ensure lower humidity and more oxygen in the room.
More oxygen, more watts.
Hydration and fuelling: it might seem like you really don´t need all that much as Zwift racing tends to be fairly short – but you couldn´t be more wrong.
This will require testing and practice as it´s so individual, sweat loss can be tested, but this costs money and will change depending on temperature, humidity and effort level.
One easy way to see if you´re hydrating enough, and by this I mean taking onboard enough salts, is to look at your HR vs power.
Perform a steady ride of 90 mins at 75 percent FTP, and if the HR starts to rise and by the end it is a full zone higher, you are losing way more fluid than you´re taking on. For a ride like this, HR and power should remain pretty much steady throughout with very little fluctuation – 3-4 bpm is an acceptable margin indoors.
Bike Fit: Ensure your bike setup is dialed in for comfort and efficiency. A professional bike fit can make a big difference in your power transfer and efficiency especially for the longer events.
3. Learn the Courses
Zwift features a variety of virtual courses, each with its own unique challenges. Study the courses, learn the routes, and understand where key climbs, descents, and sprint sections are. Knowing the courses can help you plan your efforts and strategy, but also avoid being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
4. Mental Toughness
Zwift racing can be mentally demanding. Maintain focus, stay positive, and be prepared for setbacks.
Success is never a straight road.
Understand that Zwift races can be unpredictable, and sometimes the unexpected happens, or in less pretty words, you get dropped. Badly.
Don´t let this bring you down, instead, learn what you did wrong, and never let it happen again.
Embrace the pain, and embrace the suck. Now read this again. Embrace it. Don´t fight it.
Cycling, virtual, or IRL, is often a game of who can suffer 1 second longer and this is the person who takes the win.
That said, remember to keep balance and remember, not every session should be a suffer fest or death on the trainer. Your brain will not like this as it will start to associate an activity it once loved for all the dopamine and endorphin thrills it got with nothing but pain and misery.
Correct load management is key, and sufficient rest is the only way to actually transform the work into fitness gains and strength.
Most of us, especially as we start, want everything and now. You have to play the long game and exercise patience.
Recovery is just as important as training. Ensure you get enough rest, sleep, and proper nutrition to support your training and racing efforts.
Supplementation is a good idea, but you should only use what is necessary as opposed to buying everything off the shelf in the pharmacy or online shop.
Some of the better supplements are creatine(tested 50+ years on people), protein shake - many varieties and manufacturers available, make sure it´s part of informed sport(it means it´s tested against contamination so you don´t fail a doping test), and magnesium, but not just any magnesium.
Off the shelf basic stuff doesn´t really work that well. I´ve personally had excellent experience with Pillar magnesium which is expensive, but again, quality costs.
Electrolytes I´ve already mentioned, but here goes it again. Do not drink too much water – water can actually dehydrate you if you drink too much of it as it basically just goes through the body especially if your salt intake through food isn´t sufficient. Drink electrolytes and water mixes throughout the day so you retain the fluid and keep hydrated.
Nutrition is again key, and instead of focusing on macros too much, make sure the source of your food isn´t garbage. Garbage in, garbage out – food quality should be as high as you can afford it, and as a general rule, if you can´t identify what the food was before it ended up on your plate, you really shouldn´t eat it.
6. Have Fun
Lastly, remember to have fun. Zwift racing can be highly competitive, but it's also a great way to enjoy cycling and connect with a global community of riders. You can literally ride with anyone anywhere on the planet. Another point is, we live in a world that is often not very kind. Be kind when you Zwift, exercise patience and try to display positivity. We all need more of that.
In conclusion, to be good at Zwift racing, you'll need a mix of fitness, strategy, and technical knowledge. It's a challenging and exciting way to compete and stay engaged with cycling, and with dedication and practice, you can improve your performance and enjoy the thrill of racing without ever having to leave your home, risk crashing and injury, but also having your loved ones stand right by your side and cheer you on.