Why You Might Love Zwifting Too

By Jessica McWhirt

Winter’s coming.

Which means it’s time to pull out the cold riding gear and put away summer gear. Or is it? Well, if you race on Zwift or ride indoors, you don’t have to switch out your riding clothes. And that’s one of the many reasons why I’m a proponent of Zwift.

Jessica McWhirt in her pain cave

When I first started riding on a trainer, Zwift didn’t exist. And I hated every minute. I had some off-brand bike computer that recorded the elapsed time. I’d play Netflix shows to help the time go by. I never looked forward to it.

Then my friend, Jared, introduced me to Zwift. I thought it was dorky. I laughed at the customizable avatar and the simple graphics. I tried it anyway. Fast-forward to today. I’ve put 22,798 miles on Zwift, which equates to 50 days and 9 hours. I’ve maxed out the Cycling levels and I have so many drops, I don’t know what to do with them. Apparently, according to Zwift, I’ve also burned 1,752 slices of pizza.

I guess you could say I like Zwifting.

Why I Like Riding Indoors

Let me first start off by saying I love riding outside and I like riding indoors. I also wouldn’t propose riding inside if I didn’t use an app like Zwift. Here’s why I enjoy riding indoors on Zwift:

I get to work on my weaknesses

My two biggest weaknesses are climbing and sprinting. And you need to do both if you want to do well in a Zwift race. You also need to be a good time trialist to win on Zwift too if we’re being honest. All three weaknesses put me mid-pack in an A category Zwift race.

With Zwift, I can pick a climbing course and focus on climbing up Alpe du Zwift. My smart trainer responds to the increase in gradient and adjusts accordingly. It feels like I’m climbing up an 8% grade for 60 minutes. It’s more efficient than trying to hunt down a 60-minute climb outdoors.

For sprinting, I can either build a workout that focuses on sprints or I can join a race where I must sprint to attack, catch up, or win. Because of the racing, I’ve increased by FTP by 7% this year. I still haven’t mastered climbing or sprinting against other Zwifters, but it’s coming slowly.

I get to strategize with my team

There are Zwift teams on Zwift. You apply and join like you would in real life. I’m on Revolution Velo Racing, REVO for short. It’s an all-women’s Zwift team with racers in A, B, C, and D categories. I’m a solid B racer but have been racing in the A’s to fill out our A team. Zwift categories are based on your FTP in watts per kilogram. They also take into consideration your placings in races to either upgrade or downgrade you.

When I get to race with my team, it takes riding indoors up a notch. We communicate through Discord during a race which helps with tactics. It’s also incredibly motivating when you have teammates cheering you on through chat or through your headphones. Something you don’t get in real time during an in-person race.

It’s safer

Because there is an ongoing pandemic that doesn’t look like it’ll subside soon, Zwift is a much safer alternative than racing in real life. Don’t get me wrong, I miss group rides, like PHP, Meridian, and Worlds. I miss lining up at races, hearing the crowd scream at the top of their lungs, ringing their cowbells as we zip by.

But we will not contain the virus if we keep meeting up in groups. People breathing heavy, coughing, spitting, and blowing snot rockets. I can’t wait to get back to group rides and races but until then, my group rides and mass starts will be virtual.

Avoiding terrible weather

I used to commute in all types of weather: rain, snow, cold, and warm. I know Rule #5: Harden the F$%K Up. And sure, some days it’s fun being totally miserable out in the cold with a group of friends. I’ve done it before. But there are also times that I don’t want to have to bundle up like I’m about to navigate across an icy tundra. I don’t need to prove I’m tough.

Some days, I want to walk from my bedroom to my “pain cave” in my bibs, socks, and sports bra while I watch the “tough guys” fight against the blustery wind outside.

I also don’t have to worry about slipping on ice, frozen toes, fingers, or snot. I don’t need four layers of clothing to jump on Zwift. It’s easy. I appreciate easy this year more than usual.

I can multitask

I don’t always like to multitask, but when I do, I do it on recovery rides on Zwift. When I need to keep my heart rate and watts low, sometimes I’ll add to-dos during my Zwift ride.

I’ll work on social media for my job(s), I’ll read, I’ll write (like this article), and I’ll watch TV shows or movies. I don’t think training has to be miserable every single time. I also know there is a time and place for focused training. When I need to focus, I plug in my earphones and jam out while hitting (or trying to) certain watts.

But I also like to be efficient and if I can do two things in one shot, sign me up.

If you’re ready to ride indoors, here’s what you’ll need to sit comfortably in a pool of your own sweat.

Successful Indoor Riding Setup Basics

Clothing

You’ll still want to wear cycling bibs, especially riding indoors. The lack of revolving air will make your sweat pool so you want breathable material. Also, your position on the bike will be a lot more static than riding outside. Make sure you have comfortable bibs (and not worn out chamois pads).

I don’t wear a jersey because I’m inside. I don’t need to carry my phone, an extra water bottle, or snacks. Those all go on the ledge next to me. If you don’t want to go shirtless, wear a jersey or gym shirt that will wick away sweat.

Chamois Cream

This is a very personal decision with a multitude of options. I use Chamois Butt’r but other popular options are BlueRub, Assos, DZ nuts, and Mad Alchemy. I highly recommend chamois cream for all bike rides.

Chamois cream is an anti-bacterial substance that prevents friction between your skin and the fabric. Cyclists use chamois cream to prevent saddle sores and help eliminate bacteria that can build up from all the sweat.

I use Chamois Butt’r on every single ride. I’m prone to saddle sores, so I do whatever I can to prevent them. If they get bad enough, you’ll find yourself off the bike for a long time.

Fan

Another super important piece of equipment for a successful indoor ride setup is a fan. I use a simple box fan, which does the job. I used to bike without a fan and the sweat would just pour. I still sweat a lot, even with a fan, but it helps keep me cool and keeps the air flowing.

Mat

With all the sweating, you need a mat underneath you and the bike. This prevents all the yuck and grime dripping off of you and the bike from ruining the floor/carpet. You can find cheap ones online or you can use a beach towel.

Towel

I have a small towel I drape over my handlebars to wipe sweat from my face, which is another bonus of riding indoors. Riding outside, you just have to deal with sweat dripping into your eyes. Indoors, you can wipe it away with a cloth. This is super convenient during Zwift races when I am covered in sweat.

Easy access to water bottles/nutrition

I keep all my water bottles and nutrition on the window ledge. It’s easy to reach, and there’s enough room for several water bottles. This makes it so I don’t need bottle cages on my trainer bike, nor do I have to stuff my jersey pockets (like in real life rides).

Technology for Successful Indoor Riding

Before we dive into the technology needed, I want to recognize the privilege I have to not just race on Zwift but also afford everything it takes to use the platform. This is not cheap. I make adjustments to what I buy. I choose to pay for a Zwift membership instead of a gym membership, for example.

Zwift subscription

Zwift is not free. It costs $14.99/month. While it’s still cheaper than one crit race in Colorado, this totals to $180/year. This is all-inclusive. You have access to all the races, rides, and workouts provided on the Zwift platform. You can also create your own workouts within the platform itself, or you can do what I do: build my workouts in TrainingPeaks and import them into Zwift.

High-Speed Internet Connection

Because Zwift is an app and is only accessible online, you’ll need an internet connection. Preferably, high-speed, otherwise, your avatar and Watopia will be choppy. 

Laptop/tablet – ANT+ dongle or Bluetooth

There are a ton of different ways to set up Zwift. I use a laptop and an ANT+ dongle that connects to my smart trainer. There are many sources online that’ll guide you through setting up your connection to Zwift and your trainer.

Trainer

I use a smart trainer which means it responds to the gradient on Zwift. When there’s a hill, my trainer adjusts the resistance to make it feel like I’m actually going up the hill. This also makes riding indoors a game-changer. When I used a “dumb trainer,” I had to adjust my resistance manually to recreate climbing a hill. Again, there are a ton of smart trainer options, but they aren’t cheap. They may even be hard to find right now because of the pandemic.

Heart Rate Monitor

While you don’t need a heart rate monitor to Zwift, it helps with training. Also, if you do a Zwift race, most of them require a heart rate monitor to help prevent cheating.

Music/TV

This is an extra but it comes highly recommended. I won’t do a trainer ride without music. I have playlists made for races, workouts, and recovery rides. Music keeps me motivated. When I’m doing a recovery ride and want to make sure I keep it easy, I’ll watch a show or movie. It helps the time go by and better to be moving while also just vegging out. I wouldn’t recommend playing a show while doing structured workouts to maintain focus on the workout itself, but I highly recommend it for easy rides.

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