Zwift Workouts: How to train using Zwift

Zwift is an immensely popular virtual cycling platform that allows users to simulate outdoor riding while grinding away on the trainer. In the early days of trainer riding we stared at a wall; a poster; post-it with the name of our A-race on it; whatever we had that made the slog a little less tedious… No one could have predicted that we’d not only have an immersive virtual platform as advanced as Zwift but also be talking about a new class of rider: The Indoor Specialist.

Whether your focus is on Zwift racing, triathlon, or bike racing out in meatspace, Zwift has come to be an all-encompassing training tool. The three major functional aspects of Zwift are Free Riding, Group Rides/Races, and Workout Mode. With a combination of these there’s no reason to spend any time on another platform –though to be fair, we are still big fans of TrainerRoad.

Free Riding

We’re all familiar with free riding. It’s the core experience of Zwift. But how do we leverage it for training? Simple. It’s one of the best ways to lay down those base miles.

Why Athletes Like Free Riding
It’s the easiest way to get onto Zwift and complete a ride at any time. Zwift is available 24 hours/day. If you just want to ride, free ride will let you do that. And there’s never a shortage of other users out on course with whom you can tag along. In conjunction with some music, free riding is one of the best ways to keep yourself occupied for those long endurance rides.

Why Your Coach Likes Free Riding
Training out on the road is tricky. It doesn’t allow for the same kind of structure and specificity of workouts that you find when doing an ERG workout in Zwift’s Workout Mode. But because Zwift blends aspects of outdoor riding with the benefit of the trainer, it’s a much easier way for a coach to prescribe workouts that make use of the virtual terrain. Hill repeats are possible in Zwift. Lap based workouts are possible in Zwift. And all these types of Free Ride workouts, when using a smart trainer, require an athlete to develop good effort management skills. It’s one thing to put the trainer into ERG mode and pedal at a set wattage. But when you’re a triathlete or in TT on the road, it’s much harder to hold that effort over varying terrain. Zwift is a great place to practice effort management in a controlled environment.

Workout Mode

Workout Mode in Zwift is similar to any other ERG-based workout application. Some people aren’t fans of the colourful interface. It doesn’t appeal to their super serious training sensibilities. This is partly why we still love TrainerRoad. But Zwift workout mode surpasses other apps in a few key ways.

Why Athletes likes Workout Mode
It provides athletes with structure –something Type As crave. Seeing your targets, knocking them down, and moving onto the next is a great way to keep athletes motivated. Zwift incorporates mini rewards in the form of audio cues and gold stars to augment the satisfaction of nailing a key interval.

Why Your Coach likes Workout Mode
From a physiological perspective there is nothing better than ERG mode training for providing workout structure and submitting athletes to intervals and efforts that produce the greatest adaptation response. Targeted and effort specific training is key to athletic improvement.

But Zwift’s workout mode provides more than just that. Training Peaks integration makes it easier for coaches to prescribe workouts in Zwift. While we like TrainerRoad because of it’s pragmatic and clinical feel, it’s a multi-step process getting a workout to an athlete in TrainerRoad. With Zwift it’s as simple as building the workout and directing the athlete to link their Zwift account with Training Peaks.

Group Rides & Races

Just like riding out on the road, riding with other people is a good way to keep you honest and keep you motivated. It's much more motivating to keep going through a hard effort if your pride and ego won't allow you to be dropped by the person with whom you're riding. Group rides are fun because you get the advantage of being able to shelter in the pack and recover without having to kick the ride altogether.

Why Athletes Like Group Rides/Races
Group riding and racing provides athletes with the opportunity to augment their experience. It’s a bit like free riding with purpose. It allows athletes to indulge their social side while still getting a good workout. With many events running daily or weekly, it’s easy for athletes to find a group they like and commit to that ride every week.
These are also great opportunities to really show your mettle. Sometimes athletes need to indulge their ego and their competitive drive to really test their capability. Races and tough group rides are great for this.

Why Your Coach Likes Group Rides/Races
Group rides are a great way to motivate an athlete to stick with an effort when they think they can’t. It’s remarkable how many people can break out of their own self-created limitations when they’re with a group of people.  On the other hand, because of ride limits, they also prevent athletes from overdoing a long endurance ride. Group rides are also a great way to stay focussed on long rides.

Races are great ways for coaches to get MMP and best efforts from their athletes without subjecting athletes to rigorous and tedious testing protocols. Many athletes find it hard to push their limits with free riding alone and resort to using ERG mode to test efforts. This is great but what your coach really wants to see is HOW you get your best efforts naturally.

Races are also great ways to practice race planning and execution. This is an underrated skill for many bike racers and triathletes. Developing the ability to build a race plan, execute it, and improvise changes when necessary is an important skill to have. 

Putting It All Together

Building a solid weekly training cycle on Zwift can be fun and really give your training a good boost if you’re the type who needs more than just a graph on a screen. And because there are so many ways to use Zwift, we can vary our training and our indoor riding in ways never before possible.