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Zwift FTP-Off! Getting ready for training and racing

Ramp tests HURT. That is all.

For me, the main reason for getting started on Zwift was to get back in shape. I had drifted away from my bike with my new job and so I knew I needed a spark to reignite my riding. It is easier to enjoy your time on the bike when you are feeling fit and fast and I think that the knowledge that it would feel like riding through treacle was one of the main barriers to me getting back out there. So, what is the next step to take on Zwift to turn this around? I have done my first couple of rides and worked out how to access the basic functionality and now it is time to take it seriously and start doing some structured workouts.

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I have a fair amount of experience in the world of training plans, interval sessions and fitness tests as I have spent the last eight years delivering these in a range of settings to other riders; now it is my turn to be the student. The way we started was always the same: with a ramp test.

Ramp it up

The ramp test is a unique experience: it has no end. Okay, it has no pre-determined end. In all other forms of “competition” you are riding for a certain distance or a certain time which gives you a finish line of some form for your mind to aim for. What makes the ramp test a psychological test as much as a physical one is that you are testing your ability and motivation to wring out every bit of your capacity knowing that if you do so then the test will ask even more of you. It is unpleasant by design. Therefore, to help me wring every drop of effort out Dave from decided to join me (pre-lockdown) and make it a head to head competition. We also arranged for the youth cycling team that I run to watch on as extra fear not to lose all credibility in front of the teenagers who I coach on a weekly basis.

The point of the ramp test in Zwift is to define your Functional Threshold Power (FTP) which the sessions are designed around in order to make them specific to your current level of fitness. This catch-all measure of fitness has its limitations but is does a good job of benchmarking where to start. As you work your way through the ramp test you can almost feel your body cross this threshold in the way that your physiology changes when you are exercising above this intensity. At the start of this test, everything is fine and dandy. There is no need to pace yourself in a ramp test, the smart turbo takes over and using the ERG mode it adjusts the resistance applied to hold you roughly at the required power output which goes up and up until you have to stop. The further you get, the fitter you are.

I had an immediate advantage against Dave as we started the test, my lower weight meant that I could skip away across the deserts of Watopia and leave him playing catch up. However, that extra mass would surely mean that he would outlast me and so the question was: could I get far enough ahead so that when I stopped he couldn’t reach the same point I had? As the power outputs ramped up I knew I had only moments left before I caved, and I pleaded for more encouragement from the youngsters. As I hit the first seconds of the 16th stage at 400W my cranks ground to a halt and I was done.

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Dave charged just past me before stopping, winning our battle of wits, but I’m not sure either of us was aware of what the other was doing in the final moments of each of our tests. Your vision, even your world, narrows down to watching that number tick over and hoping for the end of the stage… before you realise that at the end of the stage it only gets harder! Once you have tasted the sweet relief of stopping and caught a few breaths at the end of the ramp test then the same thing happens to me every time: “I’m kicking myself, I’m sure I could have done another thirty seconds.” In the moment of those last few pedal strokes, though, those thoughts could not be further from the truth and the ultimate fact is that you performed what you are capable of. Now it's time to get down to the hard work of improving.

A world of training

Zwift has a whole range of structured sessions pre-loaded from the shortest 30 minute blast to some seriously long (by turbo training standards) efforts. This is ultimately always the big limitation with turbo training; the monotony of riding indoors without the thrills of cycling that hooked us all to the sport in the first place. I have done some pretty ludicrous hours on the turbo in the name of charity in the past (8 hours in a single day is the record) but when it has come to non-sponsored training then I've rarely made it past an hour.

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I found it surprising that a good chunk of the workouts on Zwift take you past the hour mark. This was a a bit difficult for me as my plan was to try to fit the riding in around my work and so the shorter sessions are most often going to be the ones I go for; the reason I haven’t been out riding is that two hours of spare time has not been a common occurrence whilst an hour here or there is certainly possible. That said, there are tons of sessions that you can dip into as you please, or you can follow the sessions through as an overall plan tailored to your goals.

I thought I would start small and went for Emily’s Short Mix – one of the 30 minute sessions that are right at the top of the list in the “Less than an hour to burn” section. After a short warm up it is straight into three efforts stepping from just below FTP to some way above it. FTP is theoretically the power output that you can maintain for an hour so this short session should surely be no problem. Unfortunately, a couple of limitations to my own personal physiology that the ramp test was not able to factor in made this first session a DNF. For whatever reason, I need a long warm up. In an ideal world, I need 20 mins easy riding before my body is ready to start working at higher intensity and so whilst I can go straight out of the blocks into those intervals, it catches up with me before the end of the session.

The other issue that I have is that whilst my FTP score from the ramp test gives a good overall picture of my fitness, the fact that I have not been training consistently means that it doesn’t translate directly into being able to predict how I will get on at other intensities. In this Emily’s short mix session, my lack of top-end fitness meant that as soon as I stepped up to the higher power outputs I was in real difficulty despite the fact that the session should have been tailored to me after the ramp test.

Zwift does have one trick up its sleeve: what I have come to think of as the “bail out” button where you can adjust the intensity of the session whilst you are doing it in real time by a few percent. This allows you to change the power output if you are finding it too tough or too easy. I didn’t realise this during the first session but once I found it then it helped me tweak the sessions around my limitations or strengths. I also started doing a short easy ride or 10 mins or so before clicking in to start the sessions to account for the longer warm up so after a bit of learning both those problems with the sessions were solved.

And so, I have been cracking on with more sessions: I like (maybe that’s not the word but you know what I mean) The Gorby as it has helped work on that top-end weakness and I have also had a stab at Mat Hayman’s Paris-Roubaix, an enjoyable longer session for when I couldn’t be bothered for it to be too hard. The Wringer is brutal – I ended up curled over my handlebars trying to keep my legs turning – and the SST sessions (sweetspot training, or just below FTP) gave me the first chance to use the “bail out” button to put the power up rather than down.

Zwift: the wringer session

The hard sessions, like The Wringer, are super hard. I was totally gassed about 6 intervals in. After that I was missing the power targets, my cadence was dropping to a crawl and my form on the bike was all over the place. I could probably have given more to the first efforts had I known there were fewer of them to come and this would have helped me to push what I am capable of at the top-end power outputs. Sometimes less is more.

Then there are the easier sessions like the sweetspot training which is just below FTP. It is fun riding at sweetspot. You are working hard, but you aren’t quite flat out. You get to the end of the ride and pat yourself on the back for a good effort where the endorphins were kicking; it is fun. I think for many people this is what Zwift is all about: having fun. But with the tag line “Fast is Fun” the question is: does the fast come first and then the fun or the other way around? For me, I want to get fast so that I can enjoy being out on the bike again. That means that the fun might have to wait and this is what turbo training has always been for me, a means to an end.

That all said, the power of Zwift’s platform is its versatility. It can provide a very different experience for each user based on what they want from it. This is the really amazing thing about what Zwift has achieved and will truly come into its own in the strange times that we are living in. I have already mentioned some of the small changes I have made to allow me to get what I need from the sessions on the platform, and there is also the facility to design your own sessions should you be as fussy as me. And so whilst the default may not be perfect it is certainly possible to tailor and improve what is on offer to suit your needs exactly.

There has never been a more valuable service that Zwift can provide than the socialisation of cycling by those who cannot ride together. Now we're in lockdown I'm be starting to explore the world of meetups and group rides. Already an important tool for those not blessed with the chance to enjoy the traditional side of social cycling, now we all can use it as a way to share our love of the sport with as many people as possible.

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