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Zwift Tips from Shayna Powless
Getting started – or getting stronger – on the trainer.
By Shayna Powless with Rob Ware
Given that cycling has long been a question of counting values and numbers and stats, and then performing to those calculations, it’s no surprise that it was ripe for the wave of smart trainers, training apps, and gamification we’ve seen over the past several years. This is especially true when you consider how universally disdained the indoor trainer was before the advent of Zwift and its peers.
Indoor training has, of course, always been a thing in cycling. It’s famously benefited athletes like Matt Hayman, who used a ladder to prop-up his broken arm while building form on the trainer before his storybook win at Roubaix in 2016 (easily a top-five edition of the past 30 years). More recently, the trainer – paired with social training apps – also helped athletes like Jay Vine (UAE Team Emirates), who used his Zwift habit as a catapult to a successful career in the WorldTour, and First Endurance athlete Shayna Powless (DNA Cycling), who uses Zwift as a training aid for building top-end and climbing power by simulating gradients that aren’t otherwise available due to geography or weather.
Indoor training with a smart trainer and app is also just a hell of a lot of fun. It’s like a video game, but its effects aren’t limited to its own closed little world. When you’re grinding on a virtual training app, you’re leveling up in actual life.
There are a handful of social cycling apps that connect the trainer-bound athlete to worldwide communities of riding buddies and competition, but we asked Shayna to give us her take on the one you’ve probably heard the most about: Zwift. We still remember the strangeness of Zwift when open beta rolled out in 2015, and we were understandably skeptical. It pretty quickly won us over, even in its somewhat clunky, nascent form. If the recent subscription numbers are any indication, over three million other athletes agree with us.
Below are Shayna’s high-level tips for those looking to begin their own Zwift journey or up their virtual game, along with some elaborative commentary about our experiences with the platform.
Indoor Training Tips
We can confirm this anecdotally, and our own Chief Scientific Officer, Dr. Luke Bucci, can confirm it with data and research. Given the shorter, more intense duration of indoor training and racing, which features a lot of intervals or long periods riding at threshold, staying hydrated on the trainer can be an all-consuming job.
The thing to keep in mind: you’ll sweat more than you’d expect to if you were riding outside, so you should up your water and electrolyte intake accordingly. If your hydration mix’s osmolality allows it, consider doubling concentration in a bottle, just to ensure you’re keeping pace with your higher electrolyte needs.
Pro tip: Have a bottle of hydration mix 30 minutes before. This allows you to top off your electrolytes and carbs before the work begins.
Unless you have a Peloton in a sunroom with floor-to-ceiling panel windows you can open to a temperate Mediterranean breeze, there’s no wind indoors. So make your own. After shelling out the dollars for a smart trainer, a rocker platform, and a climbing simulator, springing for a fan is no big sweat. In our experience, riding on a virtual cycling app without a fan is a rather soggy affair.
For us, the biggest drawback to traditional indoor trainers has always been the boredom and the solitude. For decades, we’ve done things like watch movies at max volume (to the chagrin of housemates, significant others, and apartment neighbors) or reserved a space for our little stationary wheel of pain at the LBS for group sufferfests. The advent of smart trainers and apps like Zwift mean we can actually enjoy some 3D rendered scenery, experience simulated motion, and interact with the digital likenesses of other athletes. It’s not actually riding outside with our real-life pedal buddies, but it beats the alternative.
Indoor Racing Tips
- Be familiar with the course and platform you are racing on.
This one’s obvious. Knowing the course is cycling 101, and that rule is equally applicable to e-cycling. Surface changes, critical points, and – of course – understanding and preparing for the distance are all critical items to consider, just like in real life.
There is one key difference to consider while doing virtual recon: Zwift’s drafting mechanics mean that it can be easy to get dropped on descents or flats if you let a gap develop. Burned a few matches staying with the front group on a climb? Great, but don’t think the descent is a recovery spot. As Shayna advises, never stop actually pedaling unless you’re virtually tucked.
In real cycling, small gaps on descents are typical, and are easily nullified with a short kick on long straightaways or as the gradient levels out. Not so in Zwift, which gives a huge speed boost to pacelines, medium-sized groups, and pelotons. This is the “blob effect,” and it’s much more pronounced than you might expect based on real-world cycling dynamics. (It can be especially strange in a sprint, since there’s no physical blocking, just video game avatars rocketing through each other’s slipstreams at 40+mph.)
Zwift helpfully hits you with a “CLOSE THE GAP” warning if you’re slipping out of a slipstream. Make those warnings a priority, especially when you’re cresting a summit or the group is settling into tempo work on the flats, otherwise chasing back on will cost too much – if you make it back on at all.
The races start fast, and you should plan to be at threshold power for at least a few minutes in the beginning. This is fairly common in real-world racing, too, especially at the amateur level, but the Zwift starts almost feel more like an XC or CX race. Like with actual racing, virtual racing will calm down, and the race isn’t won in those first few virtual miles – but it can certainly be lost there. Making sure you’re warmed up will help keep you on the winning side of not losing the race before it’s really begun – remember, the blob effect is always a threat to shell inattentive riders who let a few bike lengths go.
Power ups are the most video game-esque aspect of Zwift, making them also the most alien to cyclists trying to jump from the actual to the virtual. You’ll acquire them automatically when passing through certain checkpoints; they’re the virtual version of a prime, but they don’t only go to whoever snipes the sprint or KOM points.
The items include things like a feather, which boosts your output while climbing, and an aero lid, which decreases drag. There’s also a burrito, which hilariously disables drafting in your immediate vicinity because of, well, reasons, we’re sure.
Given the nature of these items, some events choose to limit access to them or eliminate them altogether; however, they can also add accessibility by leveling the field a bit between Zwift competitors, giving new or weaker cyclists a chance against the Powlesses and Vines of Watopia.
Is that potentially an unfair or unearned advantage? Sure, by definition. But in the end, it is only a game, after all.