Has Zwift racing made workouts redundant?

Racing on Zwift has undoubtedly changed the world of training. From races lasting just 5km to over 100km, the variety of racing in Zwift is increasing. With over 200,000 members registered, and anywhere from 1,000-2,300 (as of December 2016) riders online at any given moment, the popularity of Zwift is evident. With most seeking IRL race wins or PBs, racing in Zwift has grown rapidly and the level of competition has risen to the dizzy heights of near pro-level.

With so many racers eager to knock themselves out on course, racing in Zwift may be something to be feared. The pain is relentless as riders storm up climbs, attempt to breakaway, and deliver super sprints.

My coach tells me that training should be specific to the event I am training for and sufficiently hard, to induce changes in my muscles. So what better training than real races?

Surely being pushed to V02 Max and beyond in a race situation will drive more specific change in my body than following a zone-based training ride?

Workouts – Will heart rate zone training become a thing of the past? 

Does being efficient at 70% really increase your performance at 80%?

‘Specific zone training’ or ‘training zones’  refer to the intensity at which are riding at. Riding at different intensities brings about different physiological adaptations, thus the idea behind having specific training zones is you can control and measure how hard you are riding, giving you the ability to target specific improvements in your form.

The concept of improving a more intense effort by improving a less intense effort is certainly debatable. An argument for heart rate zone training is that it is cheap and easy. It is one-step more analytical than RPE (Rated Perceived Exertion), as it uses data. A heart rate monitor also costs far less than the cheapest power meters.

In contrast, an argument against such a workout is that it is limited by several factors. Firstly, in order for you to create your own training zones, you must find out what your maximum heart rate is.

A popular method for finding your maximum heart rate has been to use simple equations, such as 214 minus (0.8 x age) for men or 209 minus (0.9 x age) for women, and the original 220 minus age. However, these methods are not very accurate; recent research and coaching techniques has suggested that this method is very outdated and shouldn’t be relied on.

Your heart rate can differ so often, that it may be seen as an unreliable source of data. A lack of sleep, stress, illness, caffeine, hot environmental conditions and dehydration are some factors that will result in an elevated heart rate, leading to a misrepresentative figure. Consequently, if you use this figure as your max heart rate, your training zones will be incorrectly divided. What you believe is Zone 3 may actually be Zone 2 or Zone 4.

Can Zwift racing provide a new route to success? 

Although you may be riding in a virtual world, the pain is very much real!

Racing on Zwift occurs every day, and often multiple times throughout each day, catering for riders in different parts of the world. For example, 14 races were carried out on the 22nd December 2016. The choice is incredible. Each race often categorises riders based on their FTP. The categories generally work like this:

  • (A) : 4.0w/kg or higher
  • (B) : 3.2w/kg to 4.0w/kg
  • (C) : 2.5w/kg to 3.2w/kg
  • (D) : 2.5w/kg or lower

Each race often requires a specific name tag that you will need to put into your name prior to the race. For example, when racing a WBR-led race, ‘WBR (X)’ is required, with ‘X’ being your category.

How does a Zwift race usually unfold?

There is one common factor in Zwift racing: it’s very intense.

When racing in Zwift, I will often spend the first minute or so of the race well into Anaerobic (Zone 6) and Neuromuscular (Zone 7) power zones, and then spend the rest of the race riding close to threshold, before firing up the afterburners and giving it all in a breakaway or sprint. Collapsing onto the handlebars with the sole-focus of breathing is not uncommon.

Below: The first 90 seconds of a Zwift race. Be prepared to nail it as soon as the race begins. Not being in the leading group of a race at the very beginning may prove fatal to your chances of a win!

screen-shot-2016-12-22-at-17-00-35

Benefits of Zwift racing:

  • Competitiveness – Racing riders across the world in Zwift encourages perseverance and improvement. Workouts are often done alone, and you are less likely to push yourself out of your ‘comfort zone’.
  • Unpredictability – This aspect of Zwift racing results in yourself pushing harder than expected.  Following attacks, counterattacking, keeping with the peloton up climbs and sprinting to the finish all contribute to changes physically. Unpredictability is for sure, a common factor in real-life racing. Being able to adapt to a sudden change in effort in a race is essential.
  • Intensity – Zwift racing undoubtedly reflects the pain felt out in the real world of racing. From your sprinting to your 1 hour power, racing in Zwift works all aspects of a race. Personally, it’s the real deal – It’s the meal deal that you find in shops! You get a bit of everything, and for a pretty good price 🙂
  • Publicity and promotion – Zwift racing is continually gathering the attention of many, throughout the world, through live broadcasts on Facebook, YouTube and in channels such as Twitch and Beam by the likes of Nathan Guerra (beam.pro/NathanGuerra). You can quite easily end up being featured in a broadcast by simply racing! Who doesn’t like a bit of publicity?  More often than not, this exposure to viewers results in an extra drive to push on, developing yourself as an individual even more than a stand-alone workout would.

Limitations of Zwift racing:

  • Does not target specific power outputs – The unpredictability of Zwift racing results in a varied power output throughout the race. For example, if you are trying to maintain a certain wattage for a certain length of time, then it is probably better to perform a workout instead of using a Zwift race.
  • Losing – No one likes losing. You may be beaten quite a lot in Zwift racing, but don’t beat yourself up about that – Zwift racing is very intense!

How similar is Zwift racing to real-life racing?

Zwift race data vs. real-life race data – The comparison

Zwift races often last 30-90 minutes, much like most criterium, circuit and the shorter road races. However, the power output in Zwift racing varies less than that of a real-life race, largely due to the fact you do not have to freewheel around corners and that drafting in the real world feels somewhat easier to maintain. Below is a screenshot from a Zwift-race analysis:

Screen Shot 2016-12-23 at 20.53.38.png

This analysis of my effort in the EVR (A) Race, is over a 40-minute period. The power output does vary (as you can see by the purple spikes) due to the virtual gradient, and my response to attacks and sprinting.

Real-life racing (data below) illustrates the repetitive bursts of power, as you constantly accelerate out of corners; something not reflected in Zwift racing. My real-life race data analysis below is from the 2016 UK School Games Road Race. Racing the best 52 riders from across the country, we completed 30 laps of a racing circuit, lasting just over 90 minutes. 3 riders successfully broke-away from the peloton, that crossed the line in a sprint finish. I managed to finish 10th in the bunch sprint, giving me a finishing position of 13th out of 52. I was pleased with this performance, considering the fact I was passing riders in the sprint finish all the way to the line!

The image below, is a screenshot from the 2016 UK School Games Road Race:

Screen Shot 2016-12-23 at 20.58.46.png

As you can clearly see, my power output varies significantly more than in a Zwift race (due to repetitive acceleration out of corners and freewheeling downhill). My heart rate, speed and cadence reflects this. A similarity between the analysis of the Zwift race and the real-life race is that my heart rate in both, are quite similar; my heart rate trace IRL (in real life) being just 3 beats lower. The power output in the Zwift race is noticeably higher than that in the real-life race, but there are reasons behind this:

  1. In a major real-life race, I will try to save as much as energy as possible, hence the constant freewheeling. In this race, I spent 21.8% of my race freewheeling. This will result in a lower average power output. In Zwift, due to the astonishing difference in speed being in draft makes, riders constantly maintain a high power output, to stay in draft. This results in a high average power output.
  2. The real-life race data presents an analysis of a 90 minute race. The Zwift race data presents an analysis of a 40 minute race. Greater fatigue will have contributed to a decrease in my average power output.

Concluding from the two bits of data analysis, Zwift racing is not as ‘explosive’ as a real-life race. However, the average power output is greater, and could be compared to a time trial effort. Here’s a screenshot from a real-life time trial effort analysis – I did this on a road bike with aero bars on a few days before Christmas 2016 🙂

screen-shot-2016-12-23-at-21-04-00

I averaged 27.0mph (43.45km/h) for 7 miles on a flat course. My average power output, heart rate and cadence is smoother in this analysis than the others, but then again, I was purposely maintaining a power output. The little dip in power, heart rate and cadence is due to a sharp chicane that needs to be taken carefully! The Zwift race effort is not too different from this time trial effort. A time trial effort in Zwift is unsurprisingly more similar to a real-life time trial effort. This screenshot below illustrates how time trialists could use Zwift to good effect:

Screen Shot 2016-12-23 at 21.31.46.png

I rode with a few other teammates as ‘Team UK’ in the Tacx Team Time Trial World Championships, held on Zwift a few months before my real-life TT effort above. Averaging 202bpm for 55 minutes, the effort was incredibly hard. The power output in this TT effort is similar to that of the real-life TT effort, in addition to cadence and heart rate. Moreover, the average power output of this Zwift-TT effort is just 3 watts greater than that of the Zwift race – Zwift races are pretty similar to time trials!

So, how similar is Zwift racing to real-life racing? Well, in terms of a criterium, circuit or a short road race, not that similar. However, in terms of a real-life time trial, there are some similarities (such as average power output).

Popular workouts – Are they better than a Zwift race?

Workouts have dominated health magazines, websites, and general fitness understanding. Some popular workouts include the ‘Pyramid’ format, where an individual completes multiple efforts, increasing in time, or power, or heart rate, or cadence, up to half the number of efforts, before reducing whatever he/she has decided to work on. Also known as ‘Russian Steps’, a Pyramid workout will certainly be intense and is effective for usually shorter efforts.

I have tried Pyramid workouts multiple times, and although I find them to be very hard, I don’t feel that I have stressed my muscles to the same degree as a Zwift race would. I reckon the competitiveness in Zwift racing really does drive on the effort, and progress.

Zwift features a ‘Workout Menu’, where you can pick from a range of workouts, varying in purpose. You can access this feature by pressing the keyboard letter ‘E’ in-game.

Another popular way to train is via Sufferfest videos. IWBMATTKYT is an acronym I have learnt off-by-heart (I Will Beat My Ass Today To Kick Yours Tomorrow). Prior to my Zwift-addiction, I used sufferfest videos as a way to kill turbo boredom, and of course, progress physically. These workouts are fun 🙂

the-sufferfest-logo

Their logo says it all 😀

However, as these are simply videos in all respect, and do not use your power or heart rate figures, they use RPE (Rated Perceived Exertion).

The RPE scale is used to measure the intensity of your exercise. The RPE scale runs from 1 – 10, with 1 being very very light exercise i.e. eating pizza, to 10 being a full-on sprint effort. Although you may be able to judge ‘an effort 8’ well, in a real race, you do what’s necessary. The competitive-edge Zwift racing has to offer, in my opinion, sets it apart from workouts and workout videos.

Conclusion

I have come to the conclusion that Zwift racing is more engaging than workouts. The competitiveness encourages perseverance and progress. Furthermore, Zwift racing is more similar to a real-life short road race than a workout, as it reflects the unpredictability present in a real-life short road race. However, it is not as explosive as a real-life short road race. Time-trialling in Zwift and time-trialling in real-life are quite similar. Some of the best racers in Zwift are time-trial specialists in real-life. I think that Zwift racing has made workouts redundant. But I’m interested to know what you think!

Thanks for reading 🙂

15 thoughts on “Has Zwift racing made workouts redundant?

  1. The thing I see is this. The Zwift race starts, balls to the wall for 2 to 3 minutes. 75% of riders are gaped and wind up riding their own race (or time trial) for the next 45-60 minutes hanging several minutes behind the A riders. So it winds up being a long TT effort with maybe a sprint at the end. So if a rider does this 2 or 3 times a week he/she may become a good TT rider, but not a real world racer. Like you mentioned, the real world races have a lot more on and off the power (surging). This surging is what snaps the cord a lot of the time. Also a rider that just does work that makes him a good TT rider will not create the higher intensity to get stronger to be able to hang with those front row A riders. Zwift or real world workouts need to be performed that push a person beyond their max for 3 to 8 minutes at time. In due time the rider will become stronger and have the guns to hang with the front group as they blast off the line. Then once the A group pace settles all that TT work will help you survive. Workouts are good for adapting to faster recovery between surges. 30-90 second zone 5 and 6 intervals will train you to recover in seconds versus minutes. So in a nutshell, your coach is right. You need coaching and proper a training load to get better and faster. Also not saying Zwift does no good, absolutely Zwift is awesome. BUT, do not train 100% on Zwift as your only means to being a better racer. Mix it up. Get out there on the road with a real group and experience the repetitive zone 6 surges, sprinting out of corners, closing down a gap with a zone 5 or 6 chase. Do your prescribed workouts from your coach; there is nothing like an unbiased outside set of eyes and ears to move you along in the right direction.

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    1. Hi Cervelo, it took me a while to get on top of those crazy starts in Zwift racing, but I’m now able to hang at the front with the As. So it doesn’t turn into a solo time trial for me, personally. The hardest part of Zwift racing for me now is when we hit the hills and the Esses. These constant power surges uphill mimic power surges in real life. I now spend most of my time on Zwift racing, and when riding outside, doing specific workouts to benefit my real-life racing.

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  2. Even the group rides are making workouts redundant! In many in clinging on for dear life pushing out threshold wattages, then way above that to get back on when I get shelled out the back! I’ve hit new 20 minute power PBs in group rides, higher than I’ve ever gotten in the road too! It’s like the ultimate workout with added social motivation. How did I ever train well before Zwift?

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  3. I agree with you 100% on your analysis up until “I don’t do workouts anymore”. If your goal is to race irl then this is not the best approach. Racing on Zwift is a TT’ers game because of the lame draft algorithm and non-existing corners. Do you want to only be good a riding TTs irl?
    I race Elite level irl and the first hour (races are normally 3H+) is normally a full on attack fest where I will be pushing 1000w out of every corner and where races are won or winning breaks are established in short efforts of 1-4 minutes. If you have limited hours to train you should devote a big chunk of your time to be able to put out massive power of 1-4 min duration, repeatedly! This will give you a much higher chance of podium irl than working exclusively on your TT-skills by racing zwift.

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    1. Hi Jesper,

      I think we’re on the same page in regards to the benefits and drawbacks of Zwift. I think personally Zwift racing has made Zwift workouts redundant, because turbo is not the right place for me to do top-end, 40mph sprints. I keep that part of my training IRL, in addition to the hill efforts and KOM efforts (Strava) I do outside. Village sign sprinting with my teammates and chaingangs also contribute to my training mix.

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  4. The Zwift racing is great for me as I a short light weight climber and when the race goes over the mountain I may not be producing as high a wattage as the big sprinters but my watts to kg ration is higher and I drop them. However when it comes to the down hill the Zwift algorithm seems to turbo charge the big wattage into the speed of C and the gap I pulled is soon eaten up and it’s at theses moments during Zwift races that I have to dig deep. Not one a race yet 😭

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  5. Great Article. I think we are all n=1 since it is so new. I am just 3 weeks in and I feel like I barely know the program. I’ve now experimented with a few races and now I am focusing on some workouts to build FTP. Thanks for the article!

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  6. Great Article. I think we are all n=1 since it is so new. I am just 3 weeks in and I feel like I barely know the program. I’ve now experimented with a few races and now I am focusing on some workouts to build FTP. Thanks for the article!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I appreciate your technical analysis as I have often wondered how a Zwift/Wahoo race compared to a real race. I have found the Zwift group rides (race or otherwise) to be very realistic and brutal. Granted, the algorithms for drafting, corners, etc. could use some fine tuning but as a new product I must say that they are pretty amazing. It will only get better.

    That said, you are correct in your observations that a Zwift ride forces maximum effort at all times. The starting pace is insane and the ensuing pace is nearly as difficult. What surprised me is that I actually look forward to the training sessions – a Zwift race (or group ride) creates a similar anxious anticipation to that of real racing.

    The only variables that make it a bit questionable are the accuracy of the trainer’s power meter and the entered weight of the rider. I don’t weigh myself before every ride – I weigh myself once every two weeks and enter that into my Zwift profile. Therefore I am always +/- 1.5 pounds from my real weight. Percentage wise this doesn’t make much of a difference.

    In the end, Zwift has created an amazing environment for cycling enthusiasts. My wife and I are not racers but we fully expect to be in mid-summer condition at the start of the cycling season (that would be late-April up here in snowy Central New York!).

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  8. Nice write up. I haven’t started racing this year IRL, but have been doing 2-3 Zwift races per week. After a couple of races where I had to figure out not to get dropped at start or on the dirt roads, I can typically top 10 on races that don’t go up the mountain. According to my kickr, my #’s are ahead of where i’d normally be at March 1. Like you, I have to dig super deep every race not to get dropped on hills and to chase down attacks. And then I stupidly get caught up in the excitement and counterattack. The result is I go so much harder than in any workout I would have done by myself. There has to be benefit in that for IRL racing. I don’t see the effort as a TT like some others, but more a balls out attacking circuit race. I’m tall on Zwift and the drafting is just brutal, so I’m forced to go hard all the time. I love it. Will let you know how it translates to real racing.

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