Zwift is a great indoor training tool for cyclists, but did you know that racing can be an effective addition to any training plan? Here's why you need to try racing in Zwift and how to get started.
Is racing on Zwift good training?
So many outdoor cyclists come to Zwift because it offers the opportunity to complete the kind of workouts you simply can't get in real life. Whether you follow one of the platform's native training plans, pick workouts ad-hoc or create your own workouts, you know that you won't be interrupted by traffic or junctions, you won't be struggling into a headwind or sideways rain and the hills will be exactly where you need them to be.
However, virtual races can also give you a solid workout. With most races lasting no more than an hour, you might find you can push a harder effort than you would over a longer distance. You could even try using the race as a workout. Need to work on threshold effort? A Zwift ITT is ideal. Want to go all-out on a hill-climb? The Bologna TT route is calling you. You could even try planning an interval session on the next Crit City race - alternate one lap sitting in the bunch with one lap attacking. Use Zwift Hacks to filter events by route so you can find exactly what you're looking for.
When you enter a Zwift race, you'll be asked to choose a category, or in some cases you'll be placed into a category, depending on the amount of power you can output. Categories go from D (avg 1-2.4 watts/kg) up to A (4-5 w/kg) which means that whatever your ability, you can find a race to challenge you. Some races separate each category completely so you'll only see riders who are in your category. If you want to really challenge yourself, look for races with a 'mass start' where all the categories are on the road together. Then see how long you can hold the wheels of riders in the category above.
What do I need to start racing on Zwift?
We're assuming that you've got your gains cave all set up by now but if you need any help, here's our guide to the perfect turbo setup. And if you haven't even got a turbo yet, here's our beginners guide to choosing the right one.
Sitting comfortably? Fan pointing the right way? Then here's what we recommend to help your racing career get off to a smooth start:
A ZwiftPower account
Although it's not essential for every race, it doesn't cost anything to sign up to ZwiftPower and you'll need it if you want to participate in many of the racing series and leagues.
Once you've completed three races, ZwiftPower will be able to tell you what category you should be racing in as well as your ranking.
ZwiftPower holds a wealth of information including race results, league result tables, power data, results for segments and much more. It helps team managers and race organizers to correctly categorize riders so that they race against riders of a similar ability. It can also help you to keep track of your Zwift performance in the same way that you can on Strava for all your other activities.
A device that transmits power data
How fast your avatar goes in a race depends on your watts per kilo so organizers expect that both your weight and your power output are as accurate as possible.
If you don't have a power meter, either on your bike or within the turbo trainer itself, Zwift can estimate your zPower based on your resistance and speed. This is good enough for most riders but it's not considered accurate enough by many race organizers who may stipulate in the rules that you need to either use a smart trainer which transmits power data or an approved power meter.
If you are one of the elite few racing in the top ranks of Zwift, you might even be asked to transmit power data from both the turbo and a power meter. The two power sources can then be compared by e-doping regulation and checked for evidence of tampering. It's not important for the majority of races - most of us just need one or the other - but it starts to make sense at National and World Championship level.
Reliable bathroom scales
When you signed up to Zwift, you would have been asked for your weight and height so that your in-game avatar's behavior is as close as possible to your real-life behavior on the bike.
In Zwift racing, it's especially important - inputting an inaccurate weight means your results will be inaccurate which is not only unfair to your competitors, but also to yourself since you'll never know what your level truly is. With rare exceptions, there's no prizes or money in Zwift racing - you're doing it for you so there's no point in lying to yourself.
It's also worth noting that in some major races such as the WTRL Zwift Racing League you could be asked at random to send in a video recording of a height and weight check and you will be asked to prove that your scales are accurate.
Some race organizers stipulate that riders must wear a heart rate monitor as irregular data can help them identify potential cheats.
Although you can enter races without a HRM and there's nothing to stop you riding, there is sometimes a penalty such as deducted points if you do ride without one so check the rules when you sign up.
The Zwift Companion App
Even if you're not racing, if you don't already use the Zwift Companion App it's well worth installing on your mobile to help you get the most from your rides. Use it to browse and sign up to upcoming events, then use the handy notification feature to add them to your calendar. You can also find friends to follow and send them 'Ride Ons' for encouragement (a bit like Strava Kudos).
The Companion App really comes into its own when you're racing or riding in an event. It lets you easily trigger any Power Ups with a tap, plus you can text the group and even take a photo.
What are the best tactics in Zwift racing?
There's only so much I can tell you here in this blog. To really develop as a racer, the number one thing you can do is join a team.
A great place to start is to join one or more of the Zwift Facebook communities. Zwift Riders, WTRL Zwift Racing League and Zwift Ladies Only are all welcoming to any level of rider and you can ask questions and find out which teams are looking for new recruits.
If you're interested in a team but not sure whether to take the plunge, find out if they have a community Facebook group or if they lead group rides in Zwift. This is a great way to really get a feel for the ethos of the team and get to know some of the riders so you can work out whether they're a good fit for you.
The team also need to work out if you're a good fit for them so make sure you've signed up to Zwift Power and completed three races so that there's enough data to demonstrate your ability.
Most Zwift teams compete at all levels, from Cat D up to Cat A, and will be made up of riders from all backgrounds with a wealth of different experiences you can draw on. Once you're in, you'll be able to work on tactics and strategy together and you'll hone your race craft so much faster than you would alone.
Having a team also holds you accountable to show up and do your best so it's a great motivator. Plus, you'll make friends from all over the country, and maybe all over the world, so you'll have insider knowledge on the best bike destinations wherever you go.
Do your homework
Make sure you read the notes in the event description well so you understand the format of the race. Will you simply be racing for the best finish position, or are there points up for grabs on intermediate sprints and climbs? How are the points awarded? For example, some sections may carry FAL (First Across the Line) points on certain sections which means that the top riders on that lap are awarded point. Some sections can also carry FTS (Fastest Through Segment) points, which means points are awarded to the fastest finishers on that section for the whole race.
Knowing which sections have FAL and FTS can change how you ride and inform your team tactics. For example, it makes sense that a fast climber who doesn't have much hope of picking up sprint points would target climbs and they might even pick up FTS points, even if they're out of contention for FAL points.
It's a good idea to get to know the course. The best way is to do a pre-ride in the week leading up to your race. You can search ZwiftHacks to find events by course name.
If you don't have time for a pre-ride, Zwift Insider has detailed descriptions and maps of every route, or you can search YouTube for community-made recon videos or videos from previous races on the route. Sherpa Dave has become a minor Zwift celebrity for his detailed videos including course notes you can print out.
Finally, make sure you've done your research on the best equipment for the course. Frames and wheelsets are rated for weight and aerodynamics and some are faster on certain terrain. If in doubt, you can find detailed analysis of frames and wheels on Zwift Insider. Give yourself enough time before the race to head to the Zwift Drop Shop if you haven't already got the right bike in your garage. This is a perfect use for that pile of 'Drops' (Zwft currency) you've amassed.
Get ready well before the start
Zwift relies on technology. Lots of different bits of technology. Bluetooth, ANT+, your trainer, your laptop, your wi-fi, the Zwift app and your bike can and will go wrong at some point. Zwift app updates happen frequently and often when it's least convenient. Make sure you log in nice and early to check that everything works and everything is talking to each other so you arrive in the start pen nice and calm.
And on the subject of the start pen, it's a good idea to get there as soon as it opens which is thirty minutes before the banner drop. This will give you the best possible starting position. You'll also have plenty of time to make any last-minute changes to your equipment. Having the right frame and wheels for the terrain can make all the difference so make sure you're happy with your decision.
Find your place
Even seasoned road racers find themselves taken aback by the hard starts on Zwift races. Whilst a 'lead-in' from the start pen to the start line is normally a gentle procession in real life, in Zwift the racing starts from the word 'go.'
Riders in the start pens will be revving up in the moments before the banner drops so they'll be flying by the time they get going, unlike in real life where it's a standing start.
Make sure your legs are warmed up and be ready to push hard out of the gate to find your place in the group. Once groups have formed, you'll find that things will calm down and you'll feel the benefit of the draft.
Draft, draft, draft
Races in Zwift can be won or lost on sprints and climbs. Burn your matches wisely so you reserve the power to attack at the key moments.
If you've ever raced in Zwift and looked at the average w/kg in the results at the end, you may have been surprised to see riders with a lower w/kg appearing higher in the race results than some with a higher average w/kg. Successful riders know that sitting in the group, and not at the front of it, you'll be able to stay in contention with less effort, which means fresher legs when putting the power down really counts.
Average w/kg are lower if you're sitting in the group for most of the race, but rested legs can push higher watts for primes (sprint/KOM points) and at the finish line.
Know your power-ups and time them well
Just like in Mario Kart, Zwift has power-ups which can give you a boost just when you need it, or make things a little harder for the riders around you.
In most races, the organizers will pick up to three power-ups that can be issued at random every time you pass through a gate, either at the start/finish banner for the lap or at the sprint or KOM banners. It's a good idea to find out which ones will be active in advance so you can think about the best place on the course to use them.
Feather - Your weight is reduced by 10% for 15 seconds which can make all the difference on a climb if you're planning an attack, or you're just struggling to hang on.
Van - Drafting efficiency is increased by 50% for 30 seconds. This means it's easier to hang onto faster riders ahead, or use it to take a little break in the group.
Aero helmet - This one reduces your drag by 25%, making you more aerodynamic, and lasts for 15 seconds. It's a handy little boost if you're going for the sprints or you could use it for attacks on the flat or down hill
Burrito - You'll become undraftable for ten seconds so it's great if you're trying to launch a solo attack, or simply shake off a pesky wheelsucker. Just watch out for teammates trying to cling on behind you.
Ghost - This makes you invisible to all other riders for ten seconds so you can launch a sneak attack if you want to.
Steamroller - Roll as smooth and fast as you would on a road bike on tarmac for 30 seconds, regardless of the terrain. On a road bike, makes gravel, dirt and cobbles a breeze. On a mountain bike, you can use it to glide over bridges, tarmac and hard-packed dirt.
Anvil - Use this to gain 50kg for 30 seconds and fly down descents.