The online training platforms for indoor cycling have gained huge popularity and with the darker evenings and colder weather now looming it’s likely many of us will rely heavily on virtual training and racing in the months to come. Zwift races and team time trials can be huge fun but are, for the most part, unstructured, so how and when can you utilize them effectively?
Total Tri Training was an early adopter of Zwift training and racing back in the 1st lockdown period of 2020 and has seen up to 20 teams racing concurrently in the WTRL team time trials and over 100 athletes racing together in our own race formats too. The events initially served the primary purpose of bringing our community together and provided some light relief from the Covid restrictions and social isolation. When used alongside the Discord app these events became hugely interactive.
The power of community
Virtual racing draws upon group effects that are also common in real life (IRL). Suffering as a group and working towards a common (team) goal provides additional motivation to do one’s best and builds bonds amongst group members. Just as in team sports some individuals will go a little further, dig a little deeper, in the name of ‘team’. This is unusual in triathlon, which is a highly individual sport. Further group effects determine that no-one wants to be the first to drop out or to “let the team down” again providing further motivation to go deep and give everything.
The power of competition
In a similar manner to above, an appropriate level of competition spurs people on and we have seen on numerous occasions that athletes are able to achieve higher power and HR values when racing than when training in isolation. Can you stay with group? Can you attack the group? Can you hold off the others? Can you win the sprint? The mental challenge of bunch racing is quite different to the time trialling that most triathletes are accustomed to. It is more unpredictable and less controllable. There is an inherent lack of control which presents mental challenges that are missing from the controlled self-paced efforts of a time trial or triathlon bike leg.
How does virtual racing fit in to a training programme?
- Racing certainly accrues both high power values and heart rates as previously alluded to. This would place it within the 20% (or so) of very hard training sessions (as described within polarised training where hard is hard and easy is easy – AKA: 80/20 (note these percentages are not fixed). Therefore, when building a weekly training plan this counts as one of your 2-3* high quality sessions (* varies between athletes).
- View races as part of your training. Don’t put so much emphasis on them that you refrain from training (taper) in the days leading up to it. Your overall development, through consistent training volume and intensity, is more crucial than the actual race result. It is however prudent to schedule a lower intensity (endurance) training day on the day prior to the event, just as you would before any key session.
- The overall intensity of the ride is dependent on the duration with riders going a little harder for the shorter distance races. But a minimum of 30 mins of heart rate at or exceeding threshold is likely. This produces considerable (productive) strain on the body similar to a workout of 3×10-12mins at threshold. For the longer races, power may be a little lower on average, but HR will remain elevated at or around threshold giving even more minutes of quality work.
*Stephen Seiler suggests, a key fact that underpins the training of most of the world’s top endurance athletes is the accrual of minutes at or above 90% of max HR (threshold for most) within their hardest sessions. Virtual racing could be 30-50mins of such work in the bag!
- Unlike typical threshold sessions, whilst your average power and heart rate may look similar there will be some considerable spikes in power which determines that this session will also produce substantial strain on the anaerobic system. More bang for your buck? Possibly.
- To react to the changes in power and speed a range of cadences will be utilised (from my personal experience overall cadence will be higher than usual). Maintaining the ability to utilise various cadences is a crucial skill in cycling performance.
- Racing may provide greater motivation, to both complete a workout or to work hard on any given day. And we know consistency of effort is crucial in endurance sports. We need to turn up for every session in our plan. Enter as race and you’ll more than likely turn up!
- Finally, but not insignificant by any means, is the fact that riders will often push to their limit. Whether this be in the middle or in the last kms to the finish line. The cognitive ability to go and go until you can go no further is likely to build mental resilience and re-set your perception of what is actually possible. This mental fortitude will be crucial come race day, whatever your chosen event.
Why shouldn’t you do the TTT?
The benefits outlined above may be outweighed by other factors from time to time. These include:
- If you’re not yet at the end of your season. The specificity of your training intensity and duration possibly becomes more important during your race build and preparation phase.
- Returning from injury, illness or time off. Avoid going too hard too soon!
- During blocks of run or swim focussed training perhaps.
- When there are signs of over-reaching or even over-training. Once this begins then having a strong word with yourself (to the effect of ‘man-up’) will not work and the added stress will likely lead you deeper into the hole. It is imperative that you do not feel obliged to race. Control your own destiny and make sound choices for long term development…. something we try to empower all of our athletes with at Total Tri Training.