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7 Ways to Improve Your Cycling Fitness this Winter

Triathletes can get more out of winter training. It’s the season to build strength and power on the bike. Here’s how.

Winter is the time to work on your weaknesses. For a lot of triathletes, that’s the bike leg—but boosting your cycling fitness in winter is often easier said than done. Though winter runs and indoor pool laps aren’t usually that different from in-season training, cycling tends to be more complex. Getting up to speed—and staying up to speed—in traffic, in the dark, or on icy roads is no easy task. Unless you live along an endless country lane and have a job that lets you work out in the middle of the day, hitting regular training splits outdoors in winter is pretty much a pipe dream. 

That’s one of the reasons so many triathletes dial back their intensity on the bike in the winter—that, and a persistent misconception that winter is the time to build an aerobic base via lots of long, slow mileage. But recent research shows that you can drastically increase your in-season functional threshold power (FTP) by swapping the slog for focused, high-intensity training during the winter months. The best way to do that is on a bike trainer.

Level-up your winter cycling routine with Zwift.
Level-up your winter cycling routine with Zwift. (Photo: Zwift)

In contrast to patchy outdoor training or pricey Spin classes, a home bike trainer gives you a convenient, low-cost way to dial in your training in a controlled environment. Because you use your own bike or smart bike, you can build strength in the exact posture you’ll be in while racing. Plus, with the advent of smart trainers from brands like Zwift, at-home training has become the easiest way to link up with a motivated community, tap into the e-racing buzz, and download hard workouts that will push you to your max. All that is essential for staying strong and confident through the winter—and preparing yourself to punch it up into that extra gear come race season.

And good news: just in time for preseason training, Zwift has announced the launch of updates that could change the game for indoor bike training. Here are seven ways to level up your winter cycling routine.

1. Measure Your Baseline

The first step in any training cycle should be measuring your baseline. If your goal for the winter is to increase your FTP, you should start with a 20-minute FTP test. You will be able to do that in situ via Zwift’s Route-Based Workouts, which launches soon. These workouts set you rolling through simulations of some of the world’s most inspiring landscapes. Your workout is embedded in the trails you choose, which each feature a variety of terrain and output levels similar to what you’d encounter on an outdoor road ride. (Pair them with the new Zwift Hub, and you’ll also feel real-time resistance changes as the road surface varies.) 

Not only is this style of workout more applicable to real-world cycling, but it lets Zwift calculate your FTP in a scenario that more closely resembles the real world. The Zwift app will then create structured workouts for you based on your FTP. 

Zwift’s Team Time Trials have also seen some cool updates this season (including some slick new TT bikes). Team racing (see below) and Team Time Trials can be a great way to hone your racing strategy and establish a baseline in a group environment.

2. Set a Regular Schedule

For Lionel Sanders—a Canadian pro triathlete and two-time Ironman World Championship silver medalist—it’s important to maintain a consistent workout routine throughout the winter. Sanders does the majority of his bike training indoors because of the controlled, community-focused, data-driven environment it provides.

“During the off-season, I think a great thing to do is to join a weekly ride on Zwift,” he says. (If you’re working on increasing your power on the bike, that should be in addition to your regular workouts, either on Zwift or off.)

“[That weekly ride] can be easy or hard or a combination of both, but it will help you stay fit and be a lot of fun at the same time,” Sanders explains. “Invite your friends to join you, and it won’t be work at all.”

3. Find Your Crew

Some athletes thrive working out alone in their basements, but most of us do our best work amid the energy and camaraderie of the peloton. If that sounds like you, Zwift’s clubs and group rides—which are categorized by riders’ ability levels—could help you hit your splits on your high-effort intervals this winter.

Find your cycling community.
Find your cycling community. (Photo: Zwift)

“I think accountability amongst peers in the sport is a very helpful aspect of Zwift,” Sanders says. “You can plan meetups or plan to do races with friends and you’ve got to show up! [That’s] especially useful in the winter months in most places when riding outdoors is not feasible.” 

Sanders recently launched his own Zwift Club, LS Racing, which he says is poised to take off in a big way in 2023. The club will offer casual rides and focused workouts, both punctuated by good conversation and a welcoming vibe. Clubs are available to find and join through the Zwift companion app.

4. Race Yourself with HoloReplay

We’ve all heard the adage that tri isn’t about competing against the athlete in front of you; it’s about competing against yourself. Now, thanks to Zwift’s new HoloReplay feature, that’s actually possible—in a near-literal sense. 

With HoloReplay, you can select a personal-best performance from any free ride or group ride you’ve most recently done or in the past 90 days or a combination of both. Zwift then creates a ghost image of you—a HoloReplay—programmed to match your speed, pace, and racing strategy from that data. You’re then able to race your past self, giving you a clear picture of how far you’ve come (and what you have left to work on). In the true spirit of triathlon, HoloReplays aren’t draftable, so you can measure your effort against your personal best.

5. Try Your Heroes’ Favorite Workouts

Ever wondered how the pros train during the winter? Maybe it’s time you joined them. On Zwift, you can download the workouts of Olympians, Ironman champions, and pros (including training programs built by Sanders). Like all of Zwift’s workouts, these are on demand and hypersocial. You’ll be able to benefit from some serious camaraderie—and a little healthy heckling—to help push you to the next level.

Zwift is always coming out with new routes, more levels, and plenty of races and events to join,” Sanders says. That includes a few new locations for this season, including an expansion of the Makuri Islands maps. Sanders says a change of scenery is an easy way to keep indoor training fresh and interesting throughout the season.

6. Stay Engaged with Zwift Racing League

If you’re the kind of person who needs a little competitive spirit to keep you out of the winter doldrums, consider Zwift’s virtual races. Athletes looking to simulate the highs and lows of a competition season can essentially squeeze a miniseason into their winter training block by signing up for Zwift Racing League, which has more than 1,800 teams to choose from based on your training priorities and ability level. (The next ZRL series runs from January 10 to February 14.)

Zwift automatically slots you into one of 18 skills categories based on your FTP and profile—and enforces that categorization to make sure ultra-elites don’t sneak into lower categories for easy wins. You’ll also have the opportunity to test your strengths and weaknesses within your team: each ZRL series includes at least one Team Time Trial, which awards points for everything from straight-up wins to the fastest times on single climbs or segments.

Stay engaged through the Zwift Racing League.
Stay engaged through the Zwift Racing League. (Photo: Zwift)

The other good news is that you no longer have to commit to specific time slots to compete. Instead, races are on demand, starting every hour on the hour. They’re led by a trusty team of pacer bots, and they all finish within 60 minutes. That means you can sneak in a race after work, between errands, or in that precious quiet hour before the kids get up.

7. Prep for Kona with ZA Tri

The road to Kona 2023 starts now. You can access all the workouts from this year’s Zwift Tri Academy, which were designed by world-class triathlon coach Dr. Dan Plews. There are short and long options, which means you can squeeze in a workout whether you have 30 minutes to spare or 45.

Between tailor-made workouts, new routes, and all the new clubs and community events coming online this season, there’s a lot to be excited about. Tack these onto your indoor cycling routine, and who knows? Winter might just become your new favorite training season.

Zwift is the fitness company born from gaming. We’re dedicated fitness enthusiasts, experienced video game developers, and disruptive thinkers. Play is in our DNA and we know fun fuels results. Zwift utilizes massively multiplayer online gaming technology to create rich, 3D worlds ripe for exploration. Join thousands of cyclists and runners in immersive playgrounds like London, New York, and Paris as well as our very own Watopia. Our app connects wirelessly to exercise equipment: bike trainers, treadmills, and more, so your real-world effort powers your avatar in the game. From friendly races to social rides and structured training programs, Zwift unites a diverse community in pursuit of a more fun, immersive, and social fitness experience.

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