Not too long ago, I would hop on my bike trainer, my very expensive fluid trainer, and ride. I would watch Sports Center, or a movie, or reruns of Ironmans and Tour de France races. I would count down the time until my 60 minutes was up, looking at my watch every 5 minutes.  It was a means to an end as I would avoid the cold, snowy, wet and not ideal conditions outside.  Fast forward twenty years and the 2nd place male athlete in the Hawaii Ironman has not been outside unless it was a race. 100% indoor training. What madness!

I feel I have been through a pretty dramatic evolution in triathlon since I started in 1998. The style and appeal of bikes, and now the method of how we train on them. I don’t mean intervals I mean how we do those intervals. Indoor or out, our cadence, power, heart rate or RPE. So, here’s the question, is Zwift the ideal training solution? 

PROS

  • A training community without socializing. With group workouts and races at all times of the day.
  • Bike races without traveling.
  • Safety from aggressive drivers.
  • Convenience for training due to weather, temperature, early morning or late night workouts and/ or being on call or parent duty.
  • Workouts imported or from a selection in a catalog.
  • A truly controllable environment. Even heat training can be done if you have a specific room you can crank the heat up too.

CONS

  • No wind in your face. 
  • No turns to maneuver.
  • No tactics as a cyclist for drafting and true pack riding.
  • No true road feel and the tiny nuances and micro adjusting your line to avoid small obstacles. (which is actually both a pro and con).

Let’s dive in, the pro column is looking pretty darn good.  But call me old fashioned when I’m doing workouts on the trainer. I do not import workouts or use the workout library and I do not use ERG mode. When on Zwift, I choose the route that I want to get the best workout that I’m looking for. You see I really do like the hills and undulations of the terrain. The trainer difficulty for the hills goes away in workout mode and erg mode. I think when you go outside to train or race and your goal is ½ Ironman effort, you really do need to control your efforts on your own with changes in terrain.  

Suggestions to Use the Tool Wisely:  the next time you need to do some specific work on your bike and you choose the Kickr and Zwift combo, choose a route that gets the job done that you need to simulate. 

  • Hill repeats? Maybe that’s volcano climb or the steep hill at the start of a hilly loop as it winds under the bridge and back over the overpass, just past ocean view. 5x5minutes? Maybe that’s volcano circuit. 3×15 minutes? Head on over to jungle loop. Anyway. The point is you can have the feel and the terrain changes all while focusing on hitting your wattage. You just have to be mindful. 

  • Hitting your numbers despite terrain changes gives a little bit more of a realistic approach to how you will adjust to outdoor riding. Nowhere in outdoor riding can you lock your resistance into place and pedal at 5.0 watts per kg. 

  • But here’s my big thing, and Lionel Sanders knows this too, your bike handling skills will not improve on Zwift. Too many triathletes are simply not savvy bike handlers. This definitely needs to be practiced. How are you going to ride those 808’s in a steady or even blustery head/cross breeze? How are you going to handle the 90-degree corners without shaving too much speed off and then burning a match to get back up to speed? What about that stick, pothole or snake or piece of glass in the road that came up on you in an instant. Improving your bike handling and cornering will make you a better, more relaxed triathlete. Being less stressed on a technical course or in bad weather takes practice.

What would coach Jim (me) do? 
First, I would ride some quality sessions on Zwift and probably not all of them on my TT bike.  The other 1-2 days I might have a road or gravel bike and get out on some back roads or trails where the traffic is minimal. I don’t care about the speed or power on these days, but I can ride without worry and work on the technical aspects of riding. Take a bike class that teaches bike handling. Most of these classes are in grass and are so slow you’ll be lucky your Garmin even gets off of auto pause. 

Second. I would really consider riding your road/ gravel bike more. I think triathletes spend entirely way too much time on their TT bikes. Give your neck a break, and ride a road bike. Develop more muscular power, different muscle groups and even some different muscular patterns and recruitment to actually make you stronger on the TT bike. Like Cam Wurf, I only ride my TT bike 1-2 days a week. Road bike 3-4 and gravel bike usually at least once a week. Yep, that’s about 6-7 days a week, but not all hard days!  TT bikes are built to be fast. So ride it fast. Your easy rides, or climbing rides, or social rides or commuting rides should not be on a race bike.  Ferrari owners have more than 1 car. 

Ride Zwift and feel the terrain, and learn to focus on the proper intensity, or just go KOM hunting, that’s a fantastic workout too. And occasionally join a Zwift race! Then ride the outdoor bike for fun and focus on bike handling skills. Feel the wind, the road obstacles, the cornering. Don’t worry about power, just have fun.

Coach Jim recognizes that athletes spend too much time focusing solely on their strengths or just on their weaknesses. As a coach, he believes you should work on both. Your strengths can give you a competitive edge in one or more of the disciplines but spend an inordinate amount of time on them and you can forgo progress in other areas. Not enough time and you’ll see them diminish. Same with your weaknesses, but together we’ll build a plan to balance the two and make you the best overall athlete you can be!

D3 COACHING IS YOUR KEY

To race day success!