How to improve time trialling on Zwift
This piece has been made in association with Zwift.
A time trial is a race of truth; a reflection of a cyclist’s capabilities to push out high watts for a sustained length of time.
And it lends itself perfectly to the power-orientated world of Zwift.
The software that has revolutionised cycling is essentially based on time trial-like performances, with users riding at and around their functional threshold power (FTP). If it’s a near-certainty that a climber will triumph on Alpe d’Huez, it’s far more probable that a time triallist will be victorious on Alpe du Zwift.
It’s why Zwift is the perfect training ground for time triallists, the ideal surroundings to improve their FTP, to make them faster against the clock and to help them get even closer to the consistent speeds of Filippo Ganna. OK, maybe not the last part, but definitely the first two.
Filippo Ganna broke the UCI Hour Record in 2022 (Image by James Startt)
“Zwift is really helpful for those trying to get better at time trialling,” says former British pro Jon Mould who now works as a coach.
His advice is that riders take advantage of the many hundreds of time trial-specific workouts on the platform to prepare themselves, not being afraid to mix the sessions up to target different areas.
Read more: Embrace the pain with high intensity intervals
“You can have sessions where there are repeats of some really short intense efforts for a minute, followed by three minutes under your FTP. Over-unders are not easy - they’re hard! But they need to be done,” Mould advises.
“There’s a balance to be found in doing a few things: you also need to work on your VO2 to make sure you can go over your FTP without it ruining you. Similarly, you can also ride at Zone 2 and then go full gas for five minutes before returning to Zone 2 riding. These things all bring the performance level up.”
There are a few generalisations that we can make about time trialling that can help us all in a race against the ticking seconds.
First, the shorter the TT, the higher power you will be aiming to push out; you’re far more likely to be able to ride above FTP for a 20-minute 10 mile time trial than you are to ride at the same watts for a 50-mile effort.
(Image by Zwift)
Secondly, in a discipline that is all about pacing and managing energy reserves and power in the tank, a good rule is to start a time trial at around 90% of one’s FTP. As the time trial progresses, slowly build the effort before reaching 100% of functional power. The last thing anyone wants is to overcook the first two-thirds and be knackered as the home straight approaches.
Zwift helps novices and seasoned time triallists enormously with the visible presence of power and heart rate data. It’s possible to view your power figures at all times, making it that much easier to ride at the targeted percentage of FTP.
That helps when riding in outside conditions as your body is trained and knows what it feels like to ride just a little bit under, at or over FTP. Think of it like conditioning: the more you do something, the more you become accustomed to it until the point where it’s second-nature.
Mould, however, suggests that Zwifters should throw in a few higher bursts of efforts to better replicate time trials on the open roads.
“It can be easy to fall into the trap of being able to hold those watts perfectly on Zwift, but go out on the open road and what you think is a pan-flat course actually has little drags and little descents,” adds the 2018 Commonwealth road race silver medallist.
“It means that your power is always changing. You can try and keep it close to what you want, but sometimes you'll be forced to go over threshold to hold the speed, and then you’ll need a micro-rest. People can forget about that so over-under work is fundamental.
(Gameplay image by Zwift)
“These over-under sessions are motivating too as they break up the monotony of riding a time trial. You can sit at the power you need, but breaking it up with little digs and bursts keeps it fresh. Pepper some threshold stuff in there and it’ll really help.”
Read more: How to become a better sprinter on Zwift
Whether it’s a local ‘10’, ‘25’ or even a longer-distance that requires multiple hours in a time trial position, Zwift has riders covered with a range of time trial courses.
The Tempus Fugit map in Watopia is for those preparing for flat TT courses, while its sister course, the Tick Tock, accommodates sections of flat where it’s easier to sustain the targeted power, but interspersed by some rolling hills in the middle where the rider can practise slightly riding above threshold before recovering on the descends.
And for those who want a cronoescalada – a hill-climb – to finish things off, look no further than the Bologna TT which has a steep, medium-length climb at the end of what is otherwise a flat course.
Follow the advice and a race of truth will become that little bit more manageable and, dare we whisper it, but also enjoyable.