My best winter ever: My new coach is a three-time Olympic champion - I’m guaranteed to win my first Zwift race

There have been ups and downs in my training for the 10-mile time trial. It turns out I groan when I dig deep

Cycling Weekly writer Tom Davidson riding indoors on Zwift
(Image credit: Richard Butcher (Future))

“Hi. Can you hear me?” I ask. In the middle of my screen, as the Zoom call starts up, sits Kristin Armstrong, one of the greatest time trialists of all time. She toggles with her microphone settings and returns a smile. “Yes,” she says. “How you doing?” 

Armstrong has been to four Olympic games, and won three gold medals, taking consecutive time trial titles in 2008, 2012 and 2016. Now, she runs two fitness centres and coaches. She recently helped Chloé Dygert to world titles on the road and track. 

Her latest athlete, however, is a more challenging prospect. Her latest athlete is me.

As we exchange pleasantries, I am distracted by the wall display behind her. Three bikes - the ones she used in her gold-medal-winning rides - hang suspended, alongside three framed Team USA skinsuits. 

I’m not after Olympic medals, though. As I laid out in my first article of this series, I want to win Cycling Weekly’s 10-mile virtual time trial on Zwift, and get my name in the results pages of the magazine. I need all the advice I can get. Fortunately for me, I’m sitting opposite an expert, and she’s about to give me over an hour’s worth of tips and tricks. 

“Time trialling is between your ears,” Armstrong tells me. “Your fitness is important, but it’s how much you can suffer.” 

In Zwift races, she explains, there is no rest. “Outdoors, when we take corners, we have to set up the corner to take that turn. On Zwift, it doesn’t matter. You’re not going to crash your indoor bike. You have to power through those corners. And just like the corners, you have to push the downhills.” 

Immediately, I’m scribbling down notes. I nod along as I write, pretending that none of this is new information to me. 

“How often are you planning to ride?” Armstrong asks. Three to four times a week, I reply, depending on how much binge drinking I have scheduled in my calendar. The second part I choose not to say aloud.  

“Ok,” she says. “I would definitely try to get outdoors for a longer ride, where you can pedal for longer and get that efficiency. Then I would focus on two days of intervals on Zwift. Then that last day, whether it’s indoors or outdoors, I would make sure your mind is focused on cadence or something not too stressful. Two days a week of hard work is enough.”

Two days of hard work sounds good to me. 

I begin with two of Zwift’s own workouts, of which there are hundreds on the platform. The first one goes smoothly, the second is a disaster. 

The first one I pick is ‘FTP Boosters’ - a bunch of efforts just below my newly-established FTP of 252 watts, with some hard 15-second efforts at 375 watts. It’s tough, but I tick through each interval, my legs tiring and arms pouring with sweat. I finish the workout, Zwift deals me a ‘Congrats!’ and an enormous sense of accomplishment washes over me.  

I cannot remember the name of the second workout. Sigmund Freud might say that’s because my mind has pushed it deep into my unconscious, to protect me from the traumatic memory. All I remember was it was a VO2 max thing, and it broke me. 

Tom Davidson riding on Zwift using a Zwift Hub One

(Image credit: Richard Butcher (Future))

No matter how hard I kicked, I couldn’t meet the 300 watts Zwift asked me to sustain. In one of the intervals, my heart rate shot over 200bpm, and I began to grunt like a birthing cow. This came to the severe disturbance of my housemates, who were sitting in the living room on the other side of the wall, trying to watch Taskmaster re-runs. 

One of my housemates sought to reassure me afterwards, telling me about a study he read that found that making noise is good for power output. I think he was just trying to be nice. All three of them now joke daily about my “bike noises”. 

Defeated, I packed that workout in at the halfway point, and decided to make my own. 

Armstrong had explained that you can build your own intervals on Zwift, and she suggested I focus on a few shorter blocks, as concentration can be trickier to hold indoors. 

This is how I came up with my new favourite workout. I went for a 4x4 - four blocks at 110% of my FTP, with four minutes of rest in between. The first two intervals were a breeze, but the sting quickly came, and by the end, I was doing small burps in my mouth - the kind I do when I’ve drunk too much lager at the pub and I’m working out an emergency exit route to the bathroom. 

Slight aside here, but during those moments of the workout, I find that listening to nu-metal music helps. Zwift has helped me rekindle my teenage love of Slipknot and Limp Bizkit, and as I push through my final blocks, I mix my “bike noises” with singing lyrics. The pain helps me deliver the lines with the same vim as Corey Taylor or Fred Durst. 30 seconds left of my final interval. “It’s my way or the highway!” I shout. 

Pain, after all, is important in training. It goes back to what Armstrong was saying about time trialling being “between your ears”. 

“You have to change your mentality to, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to hurt in order to win this bike race’,” she told me. “Then it’s almost like a gift, you’re like, ‘Yes, I’m in the zone. I’m hurting. I have to hurt in order to win. I’m going hard enough.’ If you don’t hurt, you cannot tell me you’re going hard enough.” 

Now, when I get to those final efforts, I make sure to dig really deep.

As the weeks have gone by, I’ve switched up my workouts, always coming back to my reliable 4x4. I’ve tried a few more of Zwift’s readymade ones, enjoying in particular ‘Knife-edge’ and one named after Giro d’Italia winner Tao Geoghegan Hart, which is specific for improving time trialling. 

For the first time in a long time, I’m riding in excess of 100km a week. This will sound like child’s play to some readers, but cut me some slack - these are some of the most intense kilometres I’ve ever ridden. 

With each turn of the cranks, I keep my ultimate goal in mind. The 10-mile time trial. I’ve got my workouts nailed and a notepad brimming with advice from an Olympic champion. All I’ve got to do now is ride the fastest 10 miles of my life, hope that nobody else shows up, and glory will be mine. 

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