A Season of Zwift Racing: What I've Learned
When I stepped on the scale on December 28th for what seemed like the first time in a decade, I didn't at all like what I saw. As a matter of fact, the glowing red number illuminated below me indicated more than a number I didn't want to see, it proved that measurable action needed to be taken to rectify what only can be counted as a lost year of fitness.
Like many others, it's not like I simply quit doing anything in 2020, but with the pandemic raging around my otherwise peaceful life, things were certainly impacted. For several years, I've depended heavily on the cycling events that, like clockwork, kept me motivated, training to achieve a goal, and continuously in a state of readiness both mentally and physically. And, like so many around the world, when those events were canceled, postponed, or moved to "virtual" events. My interest, and therefore my fitness, waned. I rode the fewest miles I have since I started riding a bike in earnest while becoming increasingly lackadaisical with my diet.
Ultimately, I recognized that my body had changed for the worse, my fitness was at an all-time low, and I actually could see how physically unattractive I had become. It was time to change, so I started looking for a new outlet to keep me active, accountable, and to get back in shape. For many of my friends and I, we had begun (in some cases) or picked back up (in my case) basketball. A couple of hours a week of that had me moving again, but I needed more and I needed on-the-bike training back in my life.
Somewhere towards the end of 2020, I did the Three Sisters route on Zwift in a race one afternoon. It was a great workout and got me thinking about actually leveraging Zwift as a training outlet. With no events on the horizon, I chose to join Team CRYO-GEN, almost immediately jumped into Season 2 of WTRL's Zwift Race League, and started out doing weekly team time trials.
In a little over 6 weeks since that initial weigh-in, I've dropped a majority of the weight I gained over the latter part of 2020 (12+ lbs. depending on the day), and my fitness is rapidly on the upswing. After a full season of Zwift racing, I've learned a few things, and I'll share them with you. Whether or not you're looking to actually race competitively on Zwift or simply looking to maximize your enjoyment of the platform, I think there's something here for anyone looking to start racing virtually or who find themselves in the same boat I was and just need to get more active.
Zwift is a Game and Gamers will Game Zwift
That's a mouthful, but it's not too difficult to understand if you know (at least loosely) how Zwift works and how Zwift racing works. For the most part, ZRL as a racing league is moderated, policed, and sponsored by WTRL (World Tactical Racing Leagues, Ltd.). WTRL organizes the Zwift Race League, organizes the events, and provides the results for league races.
That said, WTRL does its best to ensure that riders stay within their category limits and limit virtual doping by regulating how those races are governed. For the most part, the upper echelon of Zwift racing is unaffected by those manipulating the game as it is far more highly regulated than at the lower "C" and "D" levels where I compete. That said if you're looking to get into racing, expect that those C and D categories to have plenty of sandbagging racers who know very well how to modulate their power in-game in order to avoid being flagged by Zwift Power as a potential upgrade in category.
Experienced Zwift racers know exactly what they can do, when, and how in order to stay below flagging thresholds and therefore ride at a lower level than their abilities would otherwise indicate. Unlike real life where experience upgrades a rider, WTRL and Zwift depend exclusively on data from Zwift Power as to where riders are categorized. That said, it's not unheard of for Zwifters to game the system to achieve an advantage. Just beware that there will always be "those guys".
One-Minute Power is Crucial to Start Races
Zwift racing absolutely rips. I never have (and never will) race outdoors, so I really don't have a way to compare Zwift racing efforts to real-world efforts, but one thing I know is that I'm not a slouch when it comes to suffering. Zwift races are a whole different animal since there aren't neutralized laps or a neutralized start like in the real world. Knowing that, it's balls to the wall from the drop of the start banner, and you better be ready to pump out some BIG watts to stay with the lead group for at least 30 seconds and likely longer.
The better your one-minute power out of the gate, the more likely you are to start the race in a more formidable position throughout. However, it's super important to not burn your matches straight out of the gate. There's something to be said about understanding that you can't hang with the fast group and need to hold back something to either gain sprint points or overall position points at the end of the race. If you are planning to stay with the fast groups, then know that you'll have to be prepared to surge and cover little moves throughout.
Fuel for Success
Zwift races are hard from the start, so there's no need to unnecessarily make things even more miserable. I learned early on to fuel adequately throughout the day before my 6:45 P.M. local time ZRL races. I reached out to a fellow CRYO-GEN rider who had a great deal of success as a collegiate runner and has made quite a name for himself on the Race Development Team for CRYO. After some back and forth, I decided to fuel heavily with carbs on race day to leave nothing to chance come race time. There's nothing worse than bonking during a hard effort and not be able to recover.
For me, that looked something like 100g carbs for breakfast, 150-or-so g carbs for lunch, and some form of carbohydrate-rich "snack" 1-2 hours before race time. That "snack" usually comprised of a banana (25g carb) and some Gatorade or other carb drink to supplement as well as something about 30 minutes before I hopped on the bike just to stave off hunger.
As I mentioned earlier, I dropped a lot of weight quickly in large part due to maintaining a daily caloric deficit. This, while beneficial for my overall health, was not going to be something I needed to focus on during race days. After consulting with my fellow CRYO-GENner, I decided that I would maintain a weight-loss focus on non-race days and a high-carb diet on race days to help enhance my performance. Boy did this make a difference! I can't say enough about adequate fuelling for these races as it leaves nothing to chance when it comes to your performance.
Emphasize Recovery Nutrition
We joke on my CRYO-GEN team that beer is the universal recovery drink and for some this may very well be true; however, when it comes to real-life recovery, I've found that supplementing that recovery with a drink high in both carbs and protein made a significant impact on my ability to function the next day and lessen the ill effects of hard races throughout the rest of the week. For me, that looks pretty simple: two servings of Gatorade power (or carb mix of your choice) and one serving of protein powder. I got this idea from a TrainerRoad podcast, and it's worked like a charm: lemon-lime Gatorade powder and vanilla protein makes a delicious key lime pie-ish recovery drink!
If DIY recovery mixes aren't quite your thing, then you can go with a pre-made recovery mix from SIS, Skratch, or any number of the other manufacturers out there. I like both the SIS Rego and Skratch recovery mix equally, but they tend to be pretty pricey compared to a handle of Gatorade powder and some Optimum Nutrition whey protein powder. You can also eat real food, of course, but after a hard 100+ TSS Zwift race, you need quick, easily digestible calories to limit the damage.
Your Team is Crucial
While Zwift racing day-to-day isn't necessarily a team activity, when it comes to finding motivation, learning the ropes as a new Zwift racer, and understanding the finer points of what can only be considered a suitable substitute for riding outside, the team you race with is essential. If you're new to Zwift racing, and especially ZRL, you'll notice almost immediately that all of the team tactics you see the World Tour pros employ simply aren't at play--at least not at the lower categories.
ZRL is designed around a point system, and it really rewards individuals and teams that can strategically emphasize their strengths to earn points. The best of all, you could be in dead last place, put together an all-out sprint, and still earn points for your team the way ZRL rewards points for the "fastest through segment". I digressed slightly, but the important thing to know is that your team's overall experience adds to the knowledge you bring into any given race or season. Just this year, through a mix of riding more with Zwift as my smart trainer resistance tool (as opposed to TrainerRoad) and with the help of an experienced captain and many others who have raced Zwift before racing was cool, I was able to glean so much information and be far more successful than I otherwise would have been.
All that to say, if you're looking to begin racing, especially in an upcoming ZRL season, then consider joining a team that both motivates you, challenges you, and gives you feedback. Also, study up on your courses--it'll make a world of difference!
My First Season of Zwift Racing Summarized
There's a lot I learned from my first season of Zwift racing and there's a lot more than what I listed above. Beyond just the physical parts of the platform, there are significant psychological boons to be had from racing on Zwift, but I'll save those revelations for another day. Additionally, there are a lot of race tactics that I could get into, but those are also better saved for another time or for any number of articles on the interwebs on the subject.
What I've outlined above deals largely with the things I learned personally through 8-ish weeks of ZRL Season 2. Sure, there's a lot of room to improve on and I didn't necessarily talk about results, but they improved race after race as I learned more and more about how to race. It's also crucially important as a beginner to be on a team with experienced Zwifters who can help you through some of the bigger learning curves, therefore, lessening how much you need to learn on your own.
To close this one out, I recommend trying Zwift races to anyone looking to get into shape or learn how to race without actually risking crashing, COVID, burning rubber, or burning your flesh on the tarmac. It's a great workout and a great opportunity to learn a great deal about yourself as a rider! Let me know what you've learned about Zwift racing in the comments!