Tips & Strategy, Virtual Cycling

Why Zwift Racing Hurts So Much

Racing is never easy but indoor racing feels harder even at the same wattage and heart-rate. Why does it hurt so much and what can we do about it?

Motivation: Riding Alone Versus Competing Against Real Life Humans

Alex Hutchinson with Outside magazine covered an interesting study recently on the perception of effort while running a 10km time trial solo versus in an organized race. The study showed that runners were 58 seconds faster when racing against others compared to their solo time trial effort. The perception of exertion, however, was about the same for both races.

Zwift racing isn’t a solo experience, but it’s not the same as IRL racing either. In the real world I’m watching other rider’s grimaces, their breathing, their bottle usage. I’m listening for shifts and cadence changes. And I’m sure as hell not checking on my power output and heart rate constantly.

In a Zwift race, though, I’m not responding to the riders avatars. They don’t slouch over the bars when they’re at their limit. I’m responding to the w/kg readouts on the right side of the screen and my own power output.

That’s a big change and changes perspective entirely. Zwift racing is much closer to time trialing than it is to real-world head-to-head racing.

Where to Find Motivation for Zwift Racing

  1. Anticipation is the biggest part of being a successful Zwift racer. At the beginning of a race you need to start watching for and building a mental list of the strongest names on the virtual road with you. When you see a strong guy start to move up the list, be ready for an attack.
  2. Know the course. If you get dropped in a Zwift race there is little to no chance of getting back on. Know where every hill is and kick before the grades start.
  3. Fuel up. Would you go to a weeknight crit or weekend road race fasted with no bottles and no on bike nutrition? Fuel up, get hydrated and keep the fuel and hydration going throughout your race.
  4. Find your flow. This part is hard and why Zwift races feel much more steady state than real-world crit, gravel or road racing to me. IRL you go much harder for short periods but also rest much harder than you will in a Zwift race. Don’t overdo your surges and power spikes, because you are not going to spin it out sitting on a wheel. In a Zwift race you have to work all the time.

Inefficient Cooling Kills

This is another huge reason why virtual racing can feel harder than riding outdoors. Riding the trainer, your entire body is stationary. You’re still creating tons of body heat (remember you’re only about 25% efficient at turning food into useful energy, the rest is lost to heat) so the core temperature can increase rapidly during exercise. As you heat up:

  • Heart rate will increase regardless of power output.
  • Blood will be diverted away from the working muscles to the skin to dissipate heat.
  • As your brain gets warmer your ability to concentrate will decline.

None of that is healthy, let alone good for racing.

Keep Cool During Virtual Racing

  1. Get yourself a big ass fan. A little box fan is not going to cut it here, the Lasko High Velocity fan is my go to for keeping cool.
  2. Drink. The body can sweat up to 2 liters per hour during intense exercise. The big fan will allow you to use that sweat for a nice cooling effect, but you have to replace all that liquid and electrolyte. Make yourself some bottle just like race day and throw in a few handfuls of ice to aid in keeping you cool. Spin up your own energy drink at home and save some dough while you’re at it.
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