Virtual Cyclists Tackle Racing in the Real World

Screen Shot 2022-03-07 at 7.39.45 PM

Liz Van Houweling

Elite and pro cyclists of all disciplines use virtual training and racing to prepare for their real-life goals.

Virtual riding has various benefits, but undoubtedly one of the biggest is the potential for building a huge amount of fitness. I raced in real life (IRL) for about ten years, but I am definitely at my peak cycling fitness level after 1.5 years of Zwift racing.


Last year, I dabbled in a few gravel, mountain, and cyclocross races, and I was impressed with how strong I felt despite not doing much training outdoors.

Liz Van Houweling mountain bike racing

The cancellation of many IRL races due to the pandemic forced many people inside. Still, even with the re-introduction of most outdoor races, many racers are choosing to continue to incorporate virtual riding into their training programs.


Why? Maybe just because it’s awesome. But it also can prepare you for any discipline you choose!


While I would argue that virtual riding is now its own discipline, it basically stems from road racing. Fitness is SO important, and Zwift provides a perfectly controlled environment for racers to do targeted training specific to their IRL goals. And while not exactly the same, you can even practice your race tactics while participating in Zwift racing.


Maeghan Easler races indoors for the Saris NoPinz team and focuses primarily on crits, road races, and stage races with her real-life United team. She feels Zwift racing is most similar to crits in intensity and duration. They require super hard riding while also recovering at a fairly high intensity.

Zwift avatars racing

However, she thinks some courses, especially those with extended climbs or big loops, are raced more similarly to road races. People ride conservatively until the defining features, where it is all out! A significant difference is that a long Zwift race is 1-1.5 hours, while road races can easily be 3+ hours.

“I personally feel like they are similarly hard despite the time difference. For me, there is more adrenaline outdoors, and the cooler and faster wind helps cool you down. The surrounding peloton motivates you to keep going.

For me, indoor racing doesn’t offer as much of the adrenaline or rush of racing. But this makes you work on mental strength which can help outdoors.”

Maeghan Easler riding bike outdoors

Too much focus on intense Zwift racing can leave your foundation of endurance lacking, which is crucial for longer road courses and stage racing. After competing in the UCI Cycling Esports World Championships and ZRL Premier races, Maeghan chose to back off on some Zwift racing to better prepare for her IRL goals. Attempting to stay sharp for the intensity of Zwift racing while also building endurance would have led to overtraining.


Virtual riding cannot replicate the fight for positioning, bike handling, and some of the more nuanced race tactics that happen with IRL races. Pack dynamics are different, and you can’t just power yourself into a good position.

Knowing IRL courses is crucial, just like Zwift races, but it’s much more challenging to pre-ride them, often leading people to miss splits due to poor positioning. There are no gaps formed due to the wind (or other inclement weather!) on Zwift, and more splits are due to lack of fitness rather than simply poor positioning.


IRL racing requires slightly sharper elbows and perhaps more aggressiveness than virtual riding. But if your fitness is high, you’ll have more confidence and will ride in a way that reflects this!

4 cyclists racing bike in a pace line

Mountain Bike

The relatively short nature of short track and cross country races are very similar to the intense efforts required in Zwift racing. Even in longer marathon races, dirt trails usually include steep hills and many corners that require repeated explosive bursts. 

Tom Colley is a mountain biker for the ProVision team out of the UK and has been using Zwift since May 2020. One of his goals over the winter was to improve the first 10-12 minutes of a race.


It is a sprint right off the line and then settles into a hard effort. This part of the race is critical because it becomes harder to pass in the single track, and being too far back near the beginning can result in being caught up behind the inevitable bottlenecks.

Tom Colley mountain bike racer

“I used the Crit City races because you can get that intense period of sprint, recover, sprint, recover—it massively helped me build that endurance and my ability to keep in the mix on the MTB. I've seen some massive improvements in that phase of the race for me since focusing on it.

The races with the 2-3 minute steep climbs are also where I needed to work. So Innsbrook, Yorkshire, Richmond races are perfect for that race intensity effort, repeated over 1hr.

I think with Zwift, if you're looking to work on and build specific aspects of your riding it’s perfect.”

Mountain bikers cannot dedicate 100% of their training to Zwift because they can’t practice the technical skills necessary to succeed on the dirt. To practice these skills while tired is another component entirely! However, I’ve found if you’ve ridden a mountain bike long enough, the skills come back quickly, especially if fitness is high from Zwift.


Building core strength is also essential for mountain bikers to remain strong in the second half of races after repeated bumps, and this isn’t something that virtual riding offers. Incorporating exercises such as planks, bridges, supermans, mountain climbers, and burpees can help virtual riders build a stronger core and prepare for IRL mountain bike races.

Liz Van Houweling doing plank exercise


Can you imagine spending many days a week riding multiple hours on the trainer? I know I can’t, but many endurance cyclists do just that. Because there are no interruptions to indoor riding, you can spend fewer hours riding to replicate a similar long ride outdoors.


Not to mention, there is the added benefit of water, snacks, and a bathroom nearby at all times! A PB&J and cold Coke on my side table for a 3-hour sweaty ride? Yes, please!

Rose Wiley bike riding on dirt road

Rose Willey is an ultra-endurance rider from Des Moines, Iowa, who started riding Zwift year-round about three years ago. She loves 100-200 mile races and trains up to 20 hours/week.

“ A typical week for me looks like 1-2 hours a day 3 days a week on Zwift for the structured workouts where I'm focusing on building power and stamina. Then (weather permitting) 1-2 hours outdoors on the opposing days with a long ride (4-8hrs) on the weekend. Again, a long ride is weather permitting and right now I've only been able to do one outside so far this year.

I've actually ridden four 100+ mile days on Zwift in 2022 and have been grateful for the ability to do so. My personal record is 7.5 hrs for 136 miles on Zwift, about two weekends ago. I typically use ERG mode for most of my general "z2 or unstructured rides" and I appreciate that Zwift and my smart trainer simulate the outdoors topography to make it more interesting.”

Riding indoors can help you prepare and practice a proper fueling strategy for race day, which is crucial for long events. However, it is another skill entirely to be able to eat and drink on the bike while it is moving, so riders must practice that outdoors.

indoor bike racing setup

While you are still hunched over in a riding position, indoor riding does not simulate the more varied surfaces and associated stresses that you encounter outside. Anyone who has ever spent 8 hours riding gravel knows it doesn’t affect your body like 8 hours of stationary pedaling or even pavement!


Getting your body strong enough to handle the stress of race day is essential.


I may be a bit biased, but I believe that when used properly, virtual racing is one of the best preparations you can make for any discipline of cycling. Understand the demands of your discipline, determine your specific goals, and choose training and races accordingly. Be sure to supplement your virtual training with any other work needed for success, like core work, longer outdoor endurance rides, and skills work.


Many of us live in places where the weather isn’t ideal year-round, and everybody has life stress and commitments that can prevent us from riding as much as we’d like. Intelligently use Zwift, and I guarantee you will see virtual and IRL results.


Not to mention, Zwift racing is just fun! Any bike ride is better than no bike ride, even if your bike isn’t moving.

Your Thoughts?

Do you use Zwift to get ready for IRL races? Are you a Zwift racer who occasionally dips into IRL races? What results have you seen?


For more insight from the top eracers in the sport check out the Esports page of The ZOM!

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