Have you been thinking about doing Zwift workouts, but worried that they might be too tough? In this post I share the fun and excitement I just had, doing my very first structured workout on Zwift. I have been Zwifting for two months now, but have been afraid to attempt a structured workout. I finally did it, and I can’t wait for tomorrow to do it again. Turns out, there was no need at all to be afraid.
I have to share some personal background, because it is very relevant here. I have been a recreational cyclist all my life, and also spent many years bike commuting to work. Since quitting a full-time job, I am no longer a bike commuter, so my cycling hours have decreased dramatically. Which of course means that my cycling fitness has decreased. Use it or lose it …
Even more dramatically, I had a very scary heart incident in March of this year. Despite being extremely active all my life, it seems that my genetics caught up with me. It is also possible that I made some mistakes over the years. For example, I have always (until now) indulged my love of fatty meats. And I even had a few years when I was stupid enough to smoke cigarettes (hard to believe now, but it did happen back in my youth). Plus, I deliberately chose to believe the misleading articles that would have us believe that red wine is actually good for you. In short, I am not now, and never have been, a saint.
My heart incident and subsequent treatment were life-threatening, and I experienced it all as terrifying. This had the effect of scaring me off my bike for several months. I knew I had to get back in the saddle to help me fight back against atherosclerosis, but at the same time, I was afraid to be out on the road on my own. What if I had another event? I have been medically cleared for exercise, but this was not enough to magically calm my anxiety.
My New Zwift Hub Trainer
I eventually figured out that a perfect compromise would be to bring my cycling indoors for a while. That way, I could very gradually and carefully increase my cycling intensity, in the safety and comfort of my own home. I took advantage of the great value offered by the new Zwift Hub trainer, an indoor smart trainer at an affordable price. I paid $500 for it, which is a whole lot cheaper than comparable products on the market. It’s gone up by a hundred dollars now, but as it has been upgraded to include virtual gearing, it is still an awesome price. (Note: I am NOT an affiliate. I tried, but they weren’t interested. I guess we are just too average.)
I loved that it was fairly easy to assemble, and I was up and running within less than an hour. Or I guess I should say, up and cycling slowly and carefully!
Note that if you want to try Zwifting you don’t have to own a Zwift trainer. Any kind of smart trainer will work. You can even use a cheap “dumb” trainer, especially if you have a power meter and/or a speed/cadence sensor. So you could use a cheaper trainer to initially try indoor bike training, and see if you want to invest more.
Improvements in My Fitness and My Confidence
Well, I fell in love with Zwifting instantly. Even though it is indoors, I rediscovered the joy of cycling. I remembered why it is so addictive – because of the fun of the activity, and because of those wonderful endorphins that course through your body after a session of hard pedaling. In seemingly no time, I had completed my first 100 miles, and was totally hooked.
It has now been two months since I got my Zwift Hub trainer, and my confidence has increased in leaps and bounds. In fact, the time I spend on the bike is usually my least anxious hour of the day. At the same time, my fitness has been returning much faster than I ever could have hoped for. It has really amazed me.
Getting Intimidated by the Elite Cyclists on Zwift
However, I have to add that my first experience of the Zwift world was a bit intimidating. There seemed to be so many super fit athletes in the game. People whose cycling was far, far above average. Entire flocks of cyclists would shoot past me as if they were on motor cycles. I felt like I was the only out-of-shape cardiac survivor in the virtual world of Zwift. On one memorable day, I was passed by someone speed-walking up a hill. Yes, it was intimidating and a bit depressing. Was I in the wrong virtual universe?
This perspective soon changed. First, I quickly started to improve, and by Day 10, I was occasionally passing other people. Some of them on bikes!
Second, I started to notice that not all of the cyclists were 20-year-old Olympians. In fact, many are in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond. Many are just as slow as me. Some are even slower!
Third, I was passed by a cyclist whose name indicated that he belonged to a Cardiac Club. I investigated, and found that there was in fact a club specifically for people who have had cardiac surgery and are now medically cleared for exercise. That was the first cycling club I joined on Zwift.
Inclusive Cycling Clubs on Zwift
Since then, I have also joined the following inclusive cycling clubs on Zwift:
Zwift Beginners: Description: “All riders and runners are welcome here as long as you contribute positively.”
The Herd: Description: “The Herd is a welcoming, inclusive and supportive place for people within the virtual cycling universe. We are here to help you.”
Project Sloth: Motto: “We will get there when we get there.” Description: “The Sloth Project was started by Jamie Mcloughlin aimed at people like himself: Overweight, new to biking or recovering and just generally slow but everybody of all shapes and sizes are very welcome to join … there is no pressure besides your own fitness goals!”
Official Fat Lad at the Back Social Rides: No description – the name pretty much sums it up!
Bikealicious: Motto: “Cycling on Zwift should be fun and inclusive for all.”
Inclusivity on Group Bike Rides with Rubber Banding
After joining the clubs, I was delighted to learn about the concept of Rubber Banding. This is basically a computer algorithm within the Zwift game that holds together an entire group of cyclists. The result is that no one surges ahead, and – more importantly – no one is left behind. The ride progresses at the aggregated speed of the whole group. The only way you can be left behind is if you stop pedaling completely. I love this concept.
Thanks to rubber banding, I was able to join my first group ride without fear of being humiliated or dropped – or both at the same time. Being in a group ride gives you a chance to practice pacing yourself and drafting. And it’s a lot more fun and motivating than cycling on your own. Just like in real life!
To find a rubber banded ride, just read the group ride descriptions. Certain clubs are of course much more likely to organize them, including the Herd and Project Sloth. Other clubs are much more competitive, and so of course they don’t offer rubber banded rides.
It is even possible for you to organize your own rubber banded ride and invite your like-minded friends, although I have not yet figured out how to do this. And to be honest, I don’t have enough friends – yet. Zwift is designed to be sociable, and I hope to build up a virtual social life there, over time. It will be fun to have cycling friends again.
Zwift Cycling Workouts for Every Level – Including Average Cyclists
I have been mainly just having fun on Zwift for two months. I have been trying out various courses, and finding myself increasingly unafraid to give chase when someone passes me. Of course, I have been loving these sessions, and am doing as many as my level of fitness permits. And just from having fun, my fitness has improved. In fact, I am delighted at my rapid FTP improvement over the last two months.
What is FTP (functional threshold power)
FTP is “the highest power that a rider can maintain in a quasi-steady state without fatiguing for approximately one hour” (Andy Coggan). Expressed in watts (and sometimes in watts per kilo), it is used as the key metric on which to figure out your fitness level and your appropriate training zones.
Choosing a Zwift Workout
Motivated by this improvement, I decided it was time to step up to the challenge of doing workouts on Zwift. Yesterday I found a very handy resource online – a list of all training plans and workouts available on Zwift. I studied this, and decided on a workout called Aerobic Build. That workout never exceeded 80% of one’s FTP, and looked like a steady 1.5 hours of non-scary cycling.
All the same, I fell asleep last night worrying that the workout would be too hard, because Zwift would not know that I am still coming back from the whole cardiac incident thing.
What it Was Like Doing My Very First Zwift Workout
As it turned out, I need not have worried. This morning I quickly found the matching Zwift workout on my Zwift game menu. As soon as it started up, I saw that Zwift already knew my (unimpressive and shall forever remain anonymous) FTP. And Zwift based the entire workout on this, so that in effect the workout was customized to my specific level. If anything, I found the workout a little too easy. But by the end of the 1.5 hours, I definitely felt like I had had a good workout.
The way the workout is presented is slick and impressive, and at the same time, so easy that it calmed all my nerves. Basically, the game communicates with you constantly, telling you what you are supposed to be doing, and providing some feedback. It does this with written prompts on the screen, sound prompts, and green arches that welcome you every time you complete a segment.
You also get a gold star every time you finish a segment. Check them out on the top left of the screen shot above. These were my first gold stars since I learned to trace my name in Grade 1! And just as much fun, too.
Of course, it is not the same as having a human coach riding with you, but I have never been rich enough to experience that, so that is kind of irrelevant. For the price (free with my monthly membership fee), this virtual coach was awesome.
How the Zwift Workouts Work
The workout starts with a warmup, so you start off gently. I believe it was 35% of my FTP. I could not help going a bit faster, and so the game adjusted the level of my warmup upwards, first to 40% and then to 45%. I learned my lesson from that, and afterwards was careful to follow instructions!
Essentially, being on a workout means that the course is smoothed out. You don’t actually feel the uphills and the descents. And my virtual gears were disabled as well. Instead, the cycling feels harder or easier, depending on whether you are supposed to be cycling at 80% or 45% of FTP. All I had to do was learn to anticipate and feel the difference, and moderate my pedaling intensity appropriately.
Adjustability of Zwift Workouts
Once you have started, you might find that the workout feels a little too hard, or a little too easy. It is possible to gauge this because the prompts tell you how you should be feeling. In my case, the Zwift FTP estimate was definitely low. This is because I had not been pushing myself too hard, due to concern about my heart. So, the workout did not feel as challenging as it should have done.
But not to worry – they have thought of that. During the workouts you can use the menu to adjust the level of difficulty up or down. I am running the game on my Apple TV, and that has less options on-screen than running Zwift on a laptop. In my case, I could easily adjust the difficulty level on my Zwift Companion app on my phone.
Advantages of Zwift Workouts
Obviously, this kind of training has major advantages. To start with, it’s indoors, and you can do it any time of the day or year. And for me, a major advantage was that I was able to stay in Zone 2 of my FTP for most of the ride. As you no doubt know, the fitness world is currently flooded with people telling us that Zone 2 is essential for building your aerobic base, building up your mitochondria, and ultimately increasing your fitness and speed.
Note: Zone 2 is also called endurance cycling. It’s a speed at which you can still hold a conversation, should you so wish. It is equivalent to between 58 and 75% of your FTP.
The Problem with Zone 2 Training
Up till now, the problem for me has been that I find Zone 2 incredibly boring. (I know I am not alone in this.) And in the Zwift world it’s embarrassing too, because a cyclist in Zone 2 moves quite slowly, and pretty much everyone passes you. (Hence the infamous “being passed by a walker” incident.) So usually, I only do Zone 2 when I am walking the dogs, and we move very slowly because of course they need to constantly stop and smell disgusting things. Instead of losing my mind, I console myself by thinking, “Well, at least there’s no danger of hitting Zone 3!”
Thanks to this Zwift workout, I have now done my first solid block of Zone 2 training on a bike. I can almost feel my mitochondria growing! Seriously, I am pleasantly surprised at how good I feel after this relatively easy workout. My endorphins are definitely elevated to the point where I have had an exhilarated buzz for several hours. But I am not exhausted, and in fact I am feeling optimistic that I can do this again tomorrow.
As opposed to when I go out on a lovely scenic route, and mindlessly chase everyone who looks slow enough for me to catch. Then, I end up having spent most of my time in Zones 3 and 4, and I need 48 hours to recover enough to do the whole mindless (but admittedly fun) thing again.
Other Cool Things About Doing a Zwift Workout
What’s more, while doing the workout, I could choose my own route. So, I chose one of the many courses I am working through to level up on Zwift. In this case, I was able to complete the 31.6 km Neokyo All-Nighter course in Makuri Islands. Completing that course earned me a bunch of drops. (And one day, I will figure out how to spend my drops.)
Other cool things that happened during this Zwift workout:
- I unlocked a cool new item, Oakley Radar glasses. My first virtual name-brand glasses!
- I was promoted up by one level in Zwift.
- I unlocked an Achievement called Sweat! That is, I Completed a Workout.
Interesting Zwift Training Workout Hack that You Can Do
I am sure other people have also thought of this hack, but I am going to take credit for it anyway. Because after all, I thought of it all on my own!
If you think about it, workouts by definition have to ignore the uphills on the ride. So that means that if I choose to do my workout on, say, a Zwiftian mountainside, I can enjoy the scenery, while not having to actually pedal up a mountain.
Usually, when I am choosing a course to do, I automatically filter out anything that has an ascent of more than a thousand feet. No more! In future, I am going to use my workout sessions to try out routes I previously thought of as “terrifying.” As a bonus, other people will pass me slightly more slowly, because for them, it really is an uphill.
Note: when you are on a workout, there is a little symbol next to your name, indicating that you are doing a workout. So, any of the (10) people in the Zwift universe who actually know who I am will not be fooled into thinking that I have suddenly gone from Average Joe on a flat to Extraordinary Joe on the Alps. Oh well …
Bottom Line on Doing Beginner Zwift Workouts
I am thrilled to report that doing cycling workouts on Zwift is easy and fun, and accessible for pretty much anyone. Even me! Tomorrow, I am going to start my first Zwift Training Plan. You can check out those Training Plans here, as well as all the various Workouts. Just scroll down to find the Training Plans.
Good luck! Have fun and get fitter!
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