We have all had those days we are jazzed about getting out to ride, only to have a work meeting run late (who schedules work meetings at 4:30 p.m.?) or an early evening thunderstorm roll through the area.

One option is to pull the plug and hope for a better day tomorrow. Another is to throw the bike on the trainer, log in to Zwift and do your workout in the virtual world of Watopia.

Trainers have always been a viable option for doing ’cross workouts indoors, but cranking out 2 x 20s while watching reruns on Netflix is pretty boring and can challenge the mental strength of even the most committed athletes out there.

As I said in my review of Zwift, the training application makes riding indoors less worse, and thus Zwift also makes doing cyclocross intervals indoors less worse. To take this adventure in logic to its conclusion, if you are generally anti-trainer, you might just be able to tolerate a hard workout on Zwift given the general air of less worseness.

Today’s Training Tuesday looks at how you can use Zwift to get your workouts in on those days when the boss keeps you late or Mother Nature turns unfriendly. Of course, these are the thoughts of a journalist and not a coach, and the conceit of this article is only meant to taken semi-seriously, so proceed accordingly.

When life gets in the way, maybe you can take your training inside to Zwift. © Cyclocross Magazine

When life gets in the way, maybe you can take your training inside to Zwift. © Cyclocross Magazine

Do a Workout

The most obvious way to train specific skills is to do a workout. Zwift has a number of set workouts built in to work on threshold, VO2Max and other skills, and you can also create your own. As we noted in our Zwift review, you can do these in Erg Mode, which keeps you at the prescribed power, or in a free-ride format.

I cannot say I really recommend doing workouts in Zwift as the cure to your anti-trainer-interval blues. After all, you are still hammering away while watching your fake biker person instead of reruns on Netflix or the wall. It is basically the same thing. (I think this person speaks for many of us when it comes to do a 20-minute interval.)

If you want, you can do interval workouts in Zwift.

If you want, you can do interval workouts in Zwift.

What Zwift does offer, however, is several hills and segments that you can ride in place of doing intervals. The rest of this column looks takes that approach.

Do a Zwift Race

When you go to your first cyclocross race in the coming weeks you are likely to hear a couple things. One is “whattirepressureyourunning?” and the second? “I’m racing my way into shape.”

What if, and hear me out here, there was a way to race your way into shape before you start racing?

Zwift races taken place regularly during the day. photo:

Zwift races taken place regularly during the day. photo:

If you are behind on your training and need some motivation to work hard, Zwift racing is perhaps the perfect way to push yourself into the red to get ready for cyclocross’ all-out efforts. After getting a taste of Zwift racing during my review of the application, I am now all-in on racing on Zwift. It is fun as hell and a great way to get a hard workout in.

Zwift races last anywhere from 20 minutes to about 2 hours and can be flat or incredibly hilly, so you have a lot of options for how to race. Additionally, there is usually about one race every hour, so they do not take much planning to join, leaving you more time to worry about life-related things

Racing in Zwift will get your heart rate up quickly and keep it there, especially on hilly routes. For example, here is my heart rate profile from a recent race through London’s Surrey Hills.

Author's Zwift race heart rate

Author’s Zwift race heart rate profile

Another sneaky helpful aspect of Zwift racing is they are a great chance to learn to be more confident in a race setting since they are relatively anonymous and cost free dollars to join. No race entry fee down the tubes if your early attack falls flat and you get dropped by the group. Attack the group or go hard on a climb, and if it does not work, who cares?

It is worth noting that although Zwift’s drafting and climbing physics take some getting used to, Zwift racing will not improve the bike handling aspect of your cyclocross racing. For that, you need to go ride your bike outside and perhaps peruse our suggestions of ways to improve your handling skills.

Ride at Threshold on the Epic KOM or Alpe du Zwift

Cyclocross races last between 30 and 60 minutes, so it follows that your maximum power over that period of time (Functional Threshold Power) will be a major contributor to your cyclocross success.

It has been argued that threshold workouts are the bread and butter of ’cross success and should be a key component of your cyclocross training program.

Watopia, the virtual world created for Zwift, offers a few options perfect for working on threshold efforts. The Forward Epic KOM and Reverse Epic KOM each have about 1,300 feet of climbing and take between 20 and 30 minutes to complete for most mortals.

As my understanding goes, a set of 2 x 20-minute intervals is considered the gold standard for threshold intervals, so a climb of the Epic KOM in each direction could a threshold workout make. Even one climb near or above your threshold power, especially if you rev it trying to get a PR or the active leader’s jersey, should help you work in Zone 4.

The newest addition to the Watopia virtual world is Alpe du Zwift, which mimics the famed Alpe du Huez that was part of the Tour de France this year with nearly 3,400 feet of climbing.

The Alpe du Zwift takes between 45 and 65 minutes for most of us to climb, so an Alpe du Zwift effort is a good way to get used to the pain of a cyclocross race. The grades on the hill change frequently, especially at each of the 21 switchbacks, so the effort is not perfectly smooth and requires some accelerations to keep your power up.

Alpe du Zwift only becomes available after you reach level 12 in the game, so it will take some work to ride there if you are a Zwift newb.

The Road to Sky route takes you straight to the vaunted Alpe du Zwift climb.

The Road to Sky route takes you straight to the vaunted Alpe du Zwift climb.

One caveat with using hills to train at threshold is that your functional threshold power on a climb might be different than on a flat section. I know personally, I can put out higher power numbers on climbs than on flats.

Even the climbiest of cyclocross courses still have a lot of flat sections, so it is important to be able to produce watts at low gradients. Zwift allows you to adjust the trainer difficulty, so if you want to climb Alpe du Zwift in the big ring instead of the small, you can turn the difficulty down to fit your needs. Do not worry though, you still have to produce the watts.

VO2Max-ish Climbs

Last year we all marveled at Mathieu van der Poel’s ability to bury his competitors with one five to eight minute effort early in the race. In the Women’s races, Sanne Cant often accomplished the same effect with a big effort in the penultimate or final lap.

If you want to ride like Mathieu or Sanne, Zwift’s Box and Leith Hills in London and Volcano Climb in Watopica provide a way to work on your own one-lap power.

(Again, as my understanding goes) 5 x 5-minute intervals are considered the standard for VO2Max intervals, which are more or less the maximum power you can put out under aerobic conditions. Box and Leith Hills and the Volcano each take 6 to 10 minutes to climb, so they can be a good location to work on those types of efforts.

Based on personal experience, doing five efforts for five minutes is incredibly challenging, so a good workout could be maybe three or four climbs of any of the three hills mentioned. Zwift has a Uey button, so much like the real world, you can do hill repeats by climbing, turning, descending, turning, climbing and so on.

Zwift’s London world also has a number of set routes that include either Box or Leith Hill. The Greater and Greatest London Loops each take about the duration of a cyclocross race to finish, so you can ride near threshold on the flats and then crank it up as hard as you can on the climbs to simulate your big race effort.

The Greatest London Loop route takes about 45 minutes to complete and includes a big climb.

The Greatest London Loop route takes about 45 minutes to complete and includes a big climb.

The specified Zwift world changes each day, so if you have your heart set on a specific route, there is a hack available that allows you to ride the Zwift world of your choice.


Cyclocross is known for its unpredictable nature and frequent accelerations out of corners. The climbs and routes mentioned above can help train your hemi engine, but they do not necessarily prepare you for the constant change of pace in cyclocross.

The final workout option available is what I call the “Squirrel!” workout. Much like the dog in the movie Up, the Squirrel! workout inspires you to get distracted by any and all opportunities to go hard.

Both Watopia and London have sprints and longer segments such as the Zwift KOM that warrant hammering for. If someone passes you going relatively hard, get out of the saddle and chase them down. Someone sucking your wheel? Drop them.

This style of workout mimics not only the repeated hard efforts of cyclocross but also the unpredictable nature of when you will be required to put down power and go deeper into the red. It is also an excuse to yell Squirrel! over and over and annoy your roommates or family.

Happy Zwifting

Being forced to ride inside is not the end of the world, thanks in large part to the availability of smart trainers and applications like Zwift. The virtual worlds in Zwift provide several ways to reap the benefits of ’cross-specific intervals without being forced into doing dreaded trainer intervals.

Hopefully, these musings on how Zwift can be used to train cyclocross skills help provide some food for thought and maybe spark some ideas of your own. Happy cyclocross training, and who knows, maybe we will see cyclocrossers take over the Zwift racing world this winter.