Intro to Zwift: Getting Started and Tips to Win Your Next Zwift Race
By Chris Carmichael Founder and Head Coach of CTS
Races and group rides on Zwift continue to grow in popularity, and while many riders visit Watopia year-round, this is the time of year when even more cyclists jump on the platform as it gets colder outside. I absolutely recommend participating in group rides and races on Zwift. From a training and coaching standpoint, there are some things to keep in mind in order to integrate e-racing into your training plan.
Why race on Zwift?
While the purists and old curmudgeons rant about the evils of e-racing, the rest of us have a lot of good reasons to include it in our training programs.
- It’s fun and engaging: This is probably the only reason you really need. Your bike is a great training tool, as long as you actually ride it. And that’s the trouble for a lot of cyclists, particularly a generation of outdoor riders who have years of built up dread from riding trainers alone in the basement. As you’ll see below, Zwift racing requires a lot of focus and strategy, which keeps riders on the bike and glued to the screen.
- It’s really freaking hard: It doesn’t take that much exposure to very high-intensity efforts to stimulate a training adaptation, but achieving that time-at-intensity takes a level of motivation and focus that is hard for most athletes to achieve during solo training. Drawing a peloton from a worldwide population, e-races can be consistently harder than your local group ride or local race series, meaning you’ll get those max efforts that make a big difference.
- It’s convenient: I love local outdoor group rides, but they happen a few times a week – at best – and if you miss out, that’s it. There are so many group rides and races on Zwift you can jump into a race at almost any time of day or night, with no driving, pinned numbers, or parking lot warmups.
- It’s safe: Let’s be honest, crashing sucks. There are a lot of riders who love to compete but have stopped real-world racing because the risks are too high. E-racing can feed that competitive spirit… from your living room.
Integrating Zwift Races into a Cycling Training Plan
The convenience and availability of Zwift races has led to some interesting problems for goal-oriented cyclists. In some areas of the world, there are enough local outdoor group rides that riders can overdo it, but that’s rare. With Zwift, you can easily e-race yourself into the ground. While the best option is having a coach integrate e-races into your program, here are some general tips for self-coached cyclists:
- Watch your weekly workload: One of the big red flags in training is a sudden and significant increase in weekly workload, because your ambition and enthusiasm can change faster than your fitness can adapt. And it’s not just a matter of weekly hours – which can actually go down if the e-races are short. It’s a matter of intensity and
- Connect Zwift to training software: In order to monitor your weekly workload as you start e-racing, connect to TrainingPeaks or a similar software. And then actually go look at the data! It’s important to get a sense for how the demands of e-races differ from your solo rides, outdoor group rides, and events.
- Start with two e-races a week, in the 60-90 minute range: From a training perspective, e-races are an unstructured, intermittent high-intensity workout. Those have a place in training throughout the year, but they need to be balanced with interval training and moderate-intensity endurance rides so you accumulate enough time-at-intensity to retain and improve power for the full range of efforts required in your goal events. Thankfully, there are plenty of endurance-pace group rides on Zwift, too, and you can build interval workouts within the platform.
- Race your category – or higher: Most e-races on Zwift are divided into categories by watts/kg. As of now, you can jump into any category, and as a matter or etiquette it’s respectful of others to race toughest category you’re ready for. E-racing, however, allows you to “Cat-up”, which you can’t do in USA Cycling races. A Cat 4 can’t jump into a Pro-1-2 criterium, but you can in Zwift. That might be an extreme example, but it is sometimes good to ride group rides and races on Zwift that are over your head. You might get dropped, but you’ll probably dig pretty deep and achieve some great efforts before that happens.
Guide to E-racing on Zwift
If you’re new to Zwift racing, here’s a guide to getting set up, what to expect, and tips for success. This guide assumes you already have a trainer, Zwift account, and general knowledge of connecting to and using Zwift.
Getting set up to race on Zwift
You don’t need any extra equipment in order to race on Zwift, although a heart rate monitor is recommended in addition to your trainer (and is required for many races). There are a few steps you’ll want to take, though:
- Register on Zwiftpower.com: Sharing your Zwift data with Zwiftpower is recommended if you want to be included in race results. You will need to create a Zwiftpower account and have your Zwift ID to verify that your connecting your own account.
- Choosing a category: As mentioned above, most races are divided into categories by watts/kg. The most commonly used scale is:
- A: 4.0 w/kg FTP or higher
- B: 3.2 w/kg to 4.0 w/kg FTP
- C: 2.5 w/kg to 3.2 w/kg FTP
- D: Under 2.5 w/kg FTP
- Check the description/rules for that race: There isn’t a standard set of rules for races, so use the Zwift website or Zwift Companion App to read the description before you join the race. You can register for races days ahead of time and receive notifications as they approach, or click Join within 15 minutes of the start.
Preparing to race on Zwift
Zwift races are no joke, so it’s worth taking some time to get prepared.
- Get all your stuff: Just like a real race, there’s no time to jump off the bike to grab a towel or bottle of water. Make sure everything you want is within reach, including (but not limited to) plenty of water, food if it’s going to be longer than an hour, and the device(s) you’re going to use to communicate during the race. The Zwift Companion App is useful for messaging, using Power Ups, and changing your view. And turn on your fans to stay cool; it’s easy to overheat.
- Anticipate a hard start: Criterium, cyclocross, and mountain bike racers are used to going ballistic from the start line, and then settling into a more reasonable pace after several minutes. Long road races sometimes roll off the line pretty easy and then heat up in the first few kilometers. On Zwift, starts are harder than almost any real-life race you’ve ever done. If you’re not expecting that, it can be a shock to the system and send you out the back of the group. Yes, the pace will come down, but unlike group rides on the platform, no one at the front is going to encourage the peloton to regroup.
- Warm up well: With the expectation of a hard start, it’s important to warm up before joining the race. If you want the miles to count toward your overall mileage in Zwift you need to warm up on the course and not in the start corral (on a virtual trainer inside a virtual trainer…).
Tips for success in Zwift cycling races
The skills required for success in Zwift races are different than the skills and tactics used in outdoor racing, but there’s no doubt that a more skilled e-racer can beat a rider who is stronger but unfamiliar with racing on the platform. While this is not an exhaustive list, here are some tips for improving your e-racing game.
- Learn to draft: I’ve been drafting outdoors for 40 years, but I have to admit it took me a bit to get this skill down on Zwift. When you are close enough behind a rider, your avatar will “sit up”, which signals that you’re in the draft and means you can save about 25% of your power output and maintain the pace and your position. The tricky part is adjusting your pacing to stay in the draft, just like you have to adjust your speed to avoid running into the wheel ahead of you on the road. Only in Zwift, you don’t have brakes to check your speed.Keep in mind, you can be “kicked out” of the draft, too. As the courses curve and other people change positions, your avatar can be pushed to the outside of the peloton and out of the draft. There’s nothing you can do to maneuver back into the draft, but you will have to increase power output to stay in position, and either push harder or ease up until the system moves you back into the draft.
- Learn the courses: Just like on the road or trail, knowing the course means you know when to attack and where there might be descents that offer a reprieve. Not all surfaces are equal in Zwift, either. Resistance increases during “dirt” sections, almost as if they are mildly uphill.
- Turn down trainer difficulty: This doesn’t actually reduce the work necessary to climb a hill in Zwift, it just changes how responsive your smart trainer is to changes in gradient. The default is set at 50%, and reducing it makes climbs feel like a steadier grade. Increasing it makes you feel the gradient changes more, which typically means more gear shifting to adjust cadence.
- Use PowerUps: These are something e-racing has that outdoor racing definitely does not. They are boosts that are randomized, meaning you don’t know which one you’re going to get next. They also have a countdown timer, so you have to choose to use them or let them go. Using them strategically can either save energy or help you drop your competitors.
- Lightweight: The Feather icon. Deploying this makes you lighter for 15 seconds, which can either save energy on a steep section or increase your power to weight ratio to help you attack.
- Draft: The Van icon. This increases the effect of being in the draft for 30 seconds. It’s most useful at higher speeds, particularly on flats and false flats. There’s no benefit to using this PowerUp when you’re not in the draft.
- Aero boost: The Aero Helmet icon. When you’re not in the draft, the aero helmet reduces aerodynamic drag for 15 seconds.
- Invisibility: The Ghost icon. Ever wish you could attack when no one was looking? Hit this icon and you’ll be invisible for 10 seconds.
- Undraftable: The Burrito icon. There must be a story behind why it’s a burrito, but this icon is useful if your trying to breakaway because it makes it harder for the person behind you to stay with you.
- Upgrade your equipment in Drop Shop: Along with the aero helmet and feather PowerUps, the other way to get an advantage is by changing your equipment. The more you ride, the more you earn “Drops”, which can be used to purchase bikes and wheels that are either lighter or more aerodynamic, depending on what will be most beneficial. ZwiftInsider.com has reviews of the fastest bikes on flat courses and the fastest bikes on climbs.
- Stay alert: Just like in races in the real world, there are consequences for not paying attention. You can’t read body language, so you have to stay alert for power spikes and watch for avatars attacking. Gaps are hard to close and it can be a challenge sometimes to organize a chase (drafting and taking turns at the front like you would in a real group) because of the different communication options. Experiment with the different views to see which ones help you visualize the action and tactics best.
Zwift has its own Support Site that can answer a lot of questions about setup, connecting, and getting started with events (group rides and races). The best resource outside of Zwift (although Zwift is supportive of it) is ZwiftInsider.com. If you have a question, they probably have the answer. Zwiftpower.com also has a forum where you can ask questions about races and race series.
With the huge population of Zwift enthusiasts, your tips and and experiences on Zwift are welcome in the comments section.