Smart trainers and gaming apps are roadie paradise. You can quickly log on, draft your mates, track your FTP, and really go full gas at 100rpm.
It's the exact opposite of MTB.
[BTW SCROLL ALL THE WAY TO THE BOTTOM IF YOU WANT 4X FREE ZWIFT WORKOUTS I USE WITH ALL MY ATHELTES]
But does that mean it's not going to make you a better MTB rider?
Over the years I've collected hundreds of hours on the trainer, including 10 wintery years training in snowy Pennsylvania and a dozen highly controlled, month-long research studies. Training inside always kinda sucked, but I kept coming back for more. It was a love/hath relationship.
Years ago I swore I'd never try Zwift. Zwift was too hard, too lame, and certainly not MTB!
But recently I broke my own rule.
And I love it!
As a mountain biker and MTB coach who is obsessed with science, power and training principles, I really do think there are a number of ways Zwift can help us ride MTB better.
Zwift has burst onto the scene over the last few years and has gained popularity as an exclusive training app and social platform for cyclists. Generally, this has been reserved for roadies, but I believe Zwift can help get you to the next level on the trails.
Below I've compiled 5 ways Zwift can help you be a faster MTB rider in group rides and on race tracks.
As you read through these, I'd be interested to know how Zwift has helped your MTB riding or racing.
Read on for my top 5 reasons for enduro, XC and Dh riders to try Zwift.
1. FEWER EXCUSES
I have no shame in admitting that I am a fair-weather rider. I've been mountain biking for 20 years, and the number of blown bearings and worn chains I've developed JUST from riding in crap weather would be enough to make you cry. I used to ride in storms, rain sleet snow, mud, etc., and my bikes always suffered.
That new chain you got last week is rusty from the last 25-hour training week? Nothing a bit of lube can't solve! I never really minded the rain or snow that much, but I was certainly aware that many people did! People always thought I was crazy.
But these days, I don't do that.
Now this can be a problem in wintery New Zealand. Yes, my actual-winter-friends, NZ does not actually get that cold in winter, but oh my damn does it get wet!
If you're a fair-weather rider like me, you don't need yet another excuse when it gets dark early and the weather is poor. But now that I have Zwift, I just hop into my pain cave, sweat it out, and I'm done in just over the time it used to take me to get dressed and undressed!
Set up your Zwift pain cave, and keep it set up - this way you won't have any excuses. It doesn't have to be flash, but the more ready your pain cave is to go, the less likely you'll be to skip a key workout on a rainy day.
My Zwift MTB pain cave - as dire as it looks!
2. RIDE HARD AT HIGH CADENCE
MTB is a bloody grind.
Almost as soon as you leave the parking lot, you're red lined at 50rpm grinding up the single track.
MTB riders can gain fitness by riding up mountains, and can gain a great deal of strength-endurance by riding at a low cadence. This is not altogether bad, since next time you go riding, you'll also have to climb up something steep. But...
Did you ever wonder why you can't hang with the roadies on a road ride? Or ever wonder why roadies who train the same amount can be so much fitter?
Mountain bikers get really good at grinding up climbs. They can stick it in one gear and just keep going and going at a snails pace no matter how steep the trail is. But once they get out on a road ride and the pace picks up and the speed is high, they can't really hang.
Unfortunately, all this climbing means that MTBers gets pretty bad at being able to go fast at high speed.
The difference here is not the power they are producing, but the cadence they are riding at to produce this power.
Remember: power = torque x angular velocity
MTBers really struggle to produce high power with low torque and high cadence.
If you hop on Zwift and try some threshold efforts at 90rpm, you'll get much more efficient riding at this cadence and this will really pay off on fast pedally sections on the trails.
Here is one of my favorite tempo workouts on most of my Zwift MTB plans
Riding at a high cadence has other benefits, such as greater venous return to the heart and reduced strain on the muscle fibers for each contraction.
3. RIDE STEADY AT A SUSTAINABLE PACE
Almost every kind of MTB requires you to produce really high power for a short time, and is followed up by a short micro-recovery before repeating.
You'll do this across the whole trail.
I discussed at length my research on steady-state power and the FTP here. Check that out to understand why a high FTP is important for every kind of MTBer.
One of the issues is that we as MTBers don't get as many chances to work on steady-state power like FTP as our roadie friends do.
The truth is that we can get pretty fit by riding trails, but the most effective way to get over the hump and increase FTP is to train just below it for extended periods.
Roadies get to do this much more often due to gearing and demands of the terrain.
Yes, we need to be able to produce high power for a short time over and over on trails, but having a higher FTP will allow us to recover faster between efforts and go for longer - whether on DH on on janky climbs.
One of the things I ensure for MTB riders in my training plans is to work in the inherent intensity of MTB rides with appropriate training intensity across the plan. If you already know you're gonna ride hard with your buddies, there's no way you can also do sprints 2 or 3 times per week. You'll bury yourself.
4. FIND YOUR LIMITS IN RACES
MTB riders rule at blowing up. They start crazy hard in races - but why?
If this is you, check out my article on how to avoid blowing up in MTB races.
One of the first things you'll notice in a Zwift race is that you can't at all maintain that start effort you normally do in MTB races.
If you start all-out in Zwift, you'll drop everyone off the line, but they will soon blow by you and drop you.
I blew up LOL, but sprinted the second group at the end. Note my low power and high heart rate. This is why measuring power on your MTB is so important! Check out my FREE podcast episode HERE, and my MTB power meter course HERE
The beauty here is also that you can see how hard everyone in your group is going. Just check out their watts per kg of body weight (W/kg). This is basically how Zwift calculates how fast you'd be going in the world (drafting included).
Starting too hard ALWAYS means you'll pay for it later. Gaining experience with Zwift will allow you to guard your start and go at the right pace for the entire race.
Once you find your limit, you'll know for next time to dig deep at a better time so you can stick with the group and finish ahead of the pack.
You can then take these learnings to the next MTB race, whether gravity-based or endurance-based.
IMO the only difference for fitness in gravity and in endurance is how hard you go, more or less :)
A podcast I did with Pro cyclist and Zwift academy winner, Ella Harris (I swore I'd never Zwift race)
5. WORK ON YOUR HORRIBLE TACTICS AND DRAFTING
On that note, your tactics suck.
Starting a sprint 5km from the finish will not work. Going all-out up every hill and riding cross-eyed down every descent is slow. You really need to work on your tactics.
In Zwift racing, you start pretty hard, but not too hard. The races quickly settle in, and if you're drooling on your bars in the first 2km, you might be in the wrong group.
Sometimes drafting can really make the difference, and often winning a Zwift race is not about having the highest power, but about sitting in the group and really going full gas in the sprint.
It sounds cheeky for MTB riders because we are used to "going hard the whole time", but in reality, the strategy of most MTB riders sees them with super high power at the start, which gets lower and lower as the race goes. And naively, they suffer like dogs the whole time.
Being able to outsprint your mates comes down to good timing, and using the fitness you have to outwit them and get there first - whether it's to the donut shop or to the start of the DH.
Also, don't forget that drafting can work in XC races, too. Aerodynamic drag and braking are the two things that slow us down the most next to gravity.
Riding on Zwift isn't like riding on trails - and that's why it can help you.
If you want to get better, spend time working on your weaknesses.
All kinds of MTB riders need to work on their fitness, but at the same time, you can get faster without getting fitter by using BrakeAce.
If you're serious about improving, you'll really try to dial in where you're going wrong. And if you have limited time to ride like me, you'll also need the tool and support to show you what to improve. I've spent my entire life helping MTBers, and I'd be happy to help you, too :)
As my thanks for reading this far, I created a ZIP file of 4 of my favorite Zwift workouts for FREE. You can download these and store them in your Zwift profile to use at any time using instructions from Zwift. My TrainingPeaks plans all sync directly to Zwift, so let me know if you have any questions on those.