As we reach mid-February, some athletes have been in their non-competitive, non-event, or “shoulder” season for several months. Others who raced a full ‘cross calendar may feel like they have just shut it down. Wherever you fall in the spectrum, hopefully you’ve taken some time to dial it back, get off the bike a bit, enjoy other outdoor activities, and then start getting ready for next season.
During this time, many coaches and athletes will include strategically placed higher intensity workouts on the schedule. Strategic and deliberate with purpose. Over the past five or six years, there’s been a new way to include intensity all year round.
Like it or not, Virtual Racing, or E-Racing is here, and quite likely here to stay. There’s even National Championships, Professional Zwift Racing Teams, and some real money behind the competitions.
Virtual races can really be a lot of fun. I’ve participated in a good handful, and may
recommend a race to some of my clients. They’re a great way to really push yourself and mix things up when forced to train indoors. I’ve even had clients use E-Fondos to qualify for the National Fondo Championships. This is great as it makes the event much more attainable for the individual who doesn’t have the luxury of traveling to several far away events a year.
But unless you’re sandbagging or e-doping (lying about your weight and/or height), they are usually quite intense. Often too intense. Some group rides wouldfall into this category, too. They can make for a really fun workout or provide that extra motivation during the cold winter months, but we must be careful with their placement on the calendar and how frequently we’re participating.
On the virtual platform Zwift, at some times of the day you can find a race starting darn near every 15 minutes. You can certainly find races every single day. Other platforms might not have the same saturation as Zwift, but they’re there.
Even in the height of “in season”, athletes can easily overdo it with virtual racing and intense group rides. It’s important to respect the intensity of these events and be mindful of where they fall on your calendar. They’re fun and some folks report that they can be addictive. And they’re certainly an easy answer to the question, “what should I do on the trainer today?” Our brain’s pleasure center gets all fired up with the hard efforts and, assuming things don’t go terribly wrong, we can leave the event on a pretty good high.
If you’re still three or even four months away from the start of your season, I would suggest no more than 1 or 2 virtual races a month. Oh the blasphemy. One or two per month? For sure. I’m not suggesting zero intensity. Not at all. I’m a proponent of programming “intense” workouts with a specific objective that is targeted to help you reach goal. These workouts will often be progressive in duration of the intervals and/or the intensity of the intervals. Unfortunately e-racing doesn’t always afford this same kind of progression.
As mentioned, virtual races are often super intense and take a significant amount of time to properly recover. Additionally, most indoor setups, regardless of the number of fans, create very warm environments especially during the intense sessions like a race. Despite our best attempts, we’ll often end up in a dehydrated state. Along those lines, it’s not uncommon to under fuel for our indoor workouts. They’re indoors. How hard can they be? Very.
I came across this quite technical article on the recovery from a Zwift Race:
The science is cool, and the summary is:
“So, next time you are thinking about jumping into a Zwift race, it might be worth first considering the time-course of physiological recovery from a high-intensity effort like this, and what training you had planned in the subsequent 24-48 hours. In the case of the athlete described here, I’d say that refraining from the Friday night racing in an effort to maximize their outputs in their subsequent planned weekend of training might be the best approach. Thursday may have been a better night for racing, such that enough time was allowed for recovery prior to those planned intervals!”
With the extended recovery period, our subsequent workouts may be of lower quality. Or worse, we can quickly approach a non-functioning over-reaching state, which can have even longer negative implications. And while true over-training is not actually as common as folks would suggest, it’s definitely possible. All of these things can impact your progress as an athlete, but more importantly, the quality of your life as a healthy human being.
If the racing doesn’t put is in a bad place, maybe it’s still not the best course of action. Every choice in life has an opportunity cost, and by choosing a race it is keeping us from a workout that may be more beneficial to reaching our goals. That other workout might be more targeted intervals, a steady Zone 2 ride, strength training, or maybe REST is what would be best.
It’s also very easy to remain at a fitness plateau all year long we don’t respect the seasonality of our sport. Virtual platforms and indoor cycling has all but eliminated that seasonality. I remember on one of the FastTalk Podcasts Coach Connor talking about Florida as the “land of the eighty percenters.” He elaborated noting that with weather that allows for outdoor riding, group rides, and races all year long, there’s no “off season.” I’ve adopted the term “non-competitive” (or non-events/group rides) season, since we’re usually not “off” from exercise from long at all. But the idea is that if you’re doing the same thing all year long year after year, you might be at 80% of your potential, but never really rise above that.
A final thought on this to think about your season and when you really want to be fit and fast. We used to joke about the “Valentine’s Day Champs” or the “Saint Patrick’s Day Champs” well before Zwift. These were the folks that absolutely killed it during the winter, and maybe hit a warm training camp or two. Then, come mid-February to mid-March, they would be ripping. Sounds cool, right? They downside was, best case scenario was that they hit their peak and then dropped off the scene. Maybe they could get it back together for a second peak, but I rarely saw that. Worse cases were burnout, getting discouraged and disengaged from our awesome sport, or the worst—injury. We’re seeing the same thing with the virtual winter racers now.
If you’ve never raced on a virtual platform, check it out when you’re well rested and don’t have an intense or long workout for a couple of days. If you are a virtual racer, take a moment to think about how these fit into the big plan and are they really helping you progress, or are the just fun. Fun is good, but make sure it’s truly the fun you’re looking for.
Here’s another article talking about the importance of managing your effort:
And if you’re interested in learning more about Zwfit racing, check this out:
Or hit me up and we can chat and do a Zwift ride or race together.
Keep mixing it up and get outside whenever you can. But when you’re forced to be on your trainer or rollers, plan your rides with purpose.
If you are looking for more information about indoor training and meaningful workouts for indoors or out, give me a shout. I create workouts that can be downloaded to all major online platforms and head units and are easily followed on the screen.
Thoughts, questions, or comments on virtual racing? I’d love to hear! Post up below.
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Coach B.L. is the head coach at BJL Coaching and an avid racer and cycling enthusiast himself.