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How to use Zwift to train for an event

How indoor training can help you train for a century ride, sportive, road race, criterium and time trial

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Alpe du Zwift

It’s that time of year when riders start to plan out their objectives for next season. Maybe you want to ride 100 miles for the first time or take on a legendary gran fondo or sportive such as the Etape du Tour. Or perhaps you’re a road, criterium or time-trial racer looking for an edge in 2020.

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Whatever your goal, Zwift can help you achieve it.

The benefits of indoor training have been well documented, but fighting the boredom used to be arguably just as hard as physically completing the intervals.

How to sign-up to Zwift

Visit the Zwift website to sign-up for a free 7-day trial. After your trial period ends, Zwift costs £12.99 / $14.99 per month.

Fortunately, though, the advent of platforms such as Zwift, where you can ride, train and race in a virtual world with thousands of other people from across the globe, has truly consigned this struggle to history. 

You can take on one of Zwift’s training plans and ride alone in your own world of pain or, as it’s a hugely social platform, join one of the many group rides, races and events that take place on Zwift every day. To find out what’s happening, head to the events page on the Zwift Companion app. There you’ll be able to filter by category and event type to find something that suits your own personal needs.

Beyond just being engaging, Zwift can also help make your training extremely time efficient. “Your muscles are firing all the time on turbo, compared to on the road where you get lots of small rest periods from cornering and freewheeling,” says Matt Rowe of Rowe & King Cycle Coaching.

Rowe even goes as far to say an hour on Zwift is worth roughly an hour-and-a-half on the road, partly thanks to the fact you can complete your planned session to the letter, without any unexpected interruptions.

But how can you best use Zwift to achieve your goals on the bike? Here’s how to train for a century ride, sportive, road race, criterium and time trial – otherwise, sign-up for a free trial on the Zwift website.

Riding 100 miles

Group of cyclists on Zwift's London course
Combine short and long sessions to train for a century ride.
Zwift

Despite all of the advances in technology, riding 100 miles (161km) is still a massive target for many cyclists because, unless you’re Marcin Bialoblocki (who set a 100-mile time-trial record of 03:13:37 in 2019), it’s going to take you a long time – most mere mortals will be looking at more than six hours in the saddle, at least.

It would be easy to think that training for long rides is all about getting in the base miles, but Rowe says it’s also vital to incorporate shorter, harder sessions into your training, especially if, like many people, you don’t have unlimited free time to train.

“You don’t need to complete 100 miles in training to peak for a 100 mile event, but reducing volume comes with a need to increase intensity,” he says.

Zwift has a wide selection of potent workouts that last less than an hour, so you can get in a decent effort in a short amount of time. Rowe also suggests focusing on sweetspot training because it’s “one of the most time efficient ways to boost your endurance.”

Recommended training plan on Zwift

Consider trying Zwift’s FTP Builder or Build Me Up training plans. These are designed to help you make sizeable gains in your aerobic ability, helping you to ride for longer without fatiguing.

Training for gran fondos and sportives

Alpe du Zwift
Training for a gran fondo with lots of climbing? Head to Alpe du Zwift.
Zwift

The key to success in a gran fondo or sportive is often about being able to manage the huge amount of elevation gain across the course. Famous continental events such as the Etape du Tour and Maratona dles Dolomites, for example, both pack in around 4,000m of climbing.

But, if you live somewhere without alpine-like mountain roads (like most parts of the UK), it can be practically impossible to replicate the kind of specific climbing efforts required to excel on that terrain.

However, with Zwift you can take on epic climbs from the comfort of your own home, such as Alpe du Zwift. Taking inspiration from the mythical Tour climb of Alpe d’Huez, it features 21 hairpins along with 1,036m of elevation gain.

Or you could try the Four Horsemen route in Watopia. It’s a 89.3km ride across all the KOM segments in Watopia and packs in an elevation gain of 2,112m, making it an ideal way of training for a sportive or gran fondo.

Recommended training plan on Zwift

For riders looking to add structure to their training, Zwift’s Gran Fondo plan is specifically targeted at preparing you for this kind of event. Rowe says: “Sweetspot training is your friend here, especially [in combination] with threshold efforts at lower cadences – aim for 50 to 60 RPM, but be careful with your knees.”

Preparing for a season of road racing

Zwift training plan, FTP Builder
Zwift’s FTP Builder training plan will help develop your aerobic fitness.
Zwift

It’s all very well hitting your best numbers when you’re fresh, but road races are generally won in the last hour (or less), so to succeed in this discipline you need to get used to producing big efforts when you’re fatigued, according to Rowe.

To do this, you’ll need to work on your endurance, your capacity to sustain power above threshold and your neuromuscular power (your sprint). You also need to get in plenty of real-world riding and racing in real life to hone your bunch riding skills and tactics.

Most aspiring road racers will know that getting to the final of a road race with something left in the legs is key, but we can’t all train like WorldTour professionals and get in 20 to 30 hours on the bike every week to build a massive engine. Instead, you have to be “smart and specific with the time you have available to train”, says Rowe.

Rowe suggests combining endurance rides in the morning with a Zwift race in the evening, for a great way of training for the tough back end of road races. 

“It can be difficult to dig deep enough outside of a competitive environment, so racing on Zwift is a perfect way to incorporate true race-level efforts into your training,” says Rowe.

And while there’s always lots of talk among racers about avoiding junk miles, Rowe says balance is important. 

“Having fun and riding with your mates at the weekend is always recommended, but it’s possible to realise a far greater training stimulus by doing structured training as opposed to simply going with the flow,” he says.

Recommended training plan on Zwift

The FTP Builder plan will give you a solid foundation of fitness to work with, but as Rowe says, you’ll want to enter some Zwift races as well, to ensure you’re getting the right amount of intensity into your training on a regular basis.

Getting in peak form for criteriums

Zwift training plan, Crit Crusher
The aptly-named Crit Crusher will sharpen your form for race day.
Zwift

Criterium races, or crits, are short road races usually held around a circuit of varying degrees of technicality. There are crits that have short hills, twists and turns or there are crits that are essentially pan flat and involve racing at breakneck speed around an outdoor track.

Whatever the course, crits are all about going full gas from start to finish, so prepare to train for intensity. “You need to get used to going fast”, says Rowe.

As with road racing, a lot of riding and racing experience in real life is vital because bunch positioning, cornering and race tactics are all crucial skills that you need to work on in order to succeed.

Replicating the kind of intensity and repeated efforts required in crits outside on open roads can be challenging, though. Often, you’ll find that road systems and traffic will slow you down and stop you from getting full efforts out safely, so doing the really hard stuff on Zwift makes sense.

Once again, jumping into Zwift races is a great way of training at proper race speeds thanks to the competitive mindset they allow you to tap into.

A new event-only course called Crit City has recently been added to the game. It’s just 1.9km long with 26ft of elevation per lap, but events will almost certainly be ridden all out from start to finish, so be prepared to dig deep.

Outside of race situations, Rowe recommends focusing on speed work with fresh legs: “You want to be hitting your maximum neuromuscular power numbers and stressing your muscular-skeletal system,” he says.

Recommended training plan on Zwift

Rowe says criterium training is all about quality, not quantity. The CRIT Crusher plan on Zwift consists of just four hours of training per week on average, for example, but be prepared to spend a lot of that time chewing your handlebars. After all, the harder you train, the easier the race will be.

Training for time trials

Time trial rider on Zwift in Yorkshire
Zwift’s structured training plans are well suited to time trial riders.
Zwift

Contrary to popular opinion, time-trialling isn’t simply about staring at the watts and churning out a pure threshold effort for one hour. It’s actually more complicated than you might expect, as Rowe says: “There’s a lot of technique and feel in time-trialling. Experience counts for a lot.”

Nevertheless, it is a solo effort against the clock (unless you’re doing a team time-trial, that is), meaning there’s no drafting and tactics count for less, so working on your aerobic engine is a massive component to success in time trials. 

There’s more nuance to it than simply riding at Functional Threshold Power all the time, though, because the fastest way to ride most time-trials is rarely to just hold a constant power for the entire duration of the race. 

It’s critical you can push above threshold and recover quickly, and that you can repeat this until the end of the race. Even nominally flat time-trials will almost always be peppered with small rises, downhills and corners, and it will always be faster to distribute your effort tactically over the course, rather than trying to maintain a totally consistent wattage target throughout.

Beyond that, popular events such as 10-mile time-trials or short mid-week club events – which most people will finish in under 25 to 30 minutes – require long efforts well above FTP, so you need to train your mind and body to handle that kind of intensity.

Training on Zwift is a perfect way to train for these types of efforts because doing race efforts on the TT bike out on the open roads isn’t always ideal, especially if the roads where you live are busy. 

“You know you can complete your planned session to the letter [on Zwift], without any interruptions or unwanted rest,” says Rowe. That means you can focus on being disciplined in the aero position and digging as deep as possible in a safe environment.

Recommended training plan on Zwift 

The TT Tune-Up is perfect for seasoned cyclists, but it’s quite a heavy workload so less experienced riders may find it too much. In that case, the FTP Builder plan might be a better place to start but, either way, Rowe suggests doing “specific efforts on Zwift, particularly in the zones above threshold, while also learning how to ride to feel in time-trials out on the road.”

Custom workouts on Zwift

Zwift Companion app
Use the Zwift Companion app to sync your workouts from Training Peaks or Today’s Plan.
Zwift

It’s worth noting that Zwift has a powerful in-game tool for creating custom workouts, so if you’ve got a specific session that you know works wonders for you, or if Zwift’s large library of workouts and training plans just aren’t quite what you’re looking for, you can always dive in and build your own workouts in a matter of minutes.

If you’ve got a coach or training plan on Training Peaks or Today’s Plan, you can also import your sessions onto Zwift simply by syncing your accounts on the Connections page (found under More / Settings) of the Zwift Companion app.

You don’t need to be training for a specific event to get the most out of Zwift, though. If you just want to get a bit fitter, take a local KOM/QOM or smoke your friends at the town sign sprint, Zwift can help you do that, too.

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And whether you’re new to the platform or a seasoned virtual pro, don’t forget to check out our Zwift tips to help make your experience as enjoyable as possible.