Last week I reached level 50 in the online cycling app Zwift, a seemingly unachievable goal which I had set myself soon after I first took to the roads of Watopia on March 20th last year. Ironically, this means I have cycled thousands of miles which have taken me absolutely nowhere in location and yet everywhere in my mind.

The thought of being stuck in lockdown and unable to go to the gym scared me, and during the many months since Zwift has become my salvation. I have found a community of like-minded cyclists of all different backgrounds and abilities, but sharing one thing in common, a love of riding their bike.

My almost eleven-month quest saw me ride 21,390 km, climb 187,836 m, and log 795 hours over those 334 days giving me an average of 64km per day. Apparently, I also burned 963 slices of pizza, although notably my waistline is only moderately smaller which proves that I have just as much passion for eating as I do for Zwifting!

There have been many highs and lows on my journey and, given how much support I have had from so many other people, it only seems fair that I share the biggest lessons I have learned or had reinforced along the way.

Look after your body

The human body is an amazing machine and far more adaptable than even the smartest piece of electronics. I came into my challenge with a moderate fitness level and an active lifestyle. I was a regular gym goer, with a good mix of fitness classes, strength work and indoor cycling, but had hit a plateau where I was going through the motions rather than making any progress.

My earliest Zwift rides rarely lasted more than an hour as it took time for my body and particularly my ‘undercarriage’ to adapt to the more static riding position. Perhaps my biggest ongoing obstacle has been saddle sores, seemingly an inevitability given the volume of riding I am doing. I have tried everything, from five different saddles, to every brand of bib short, slathering chamois cream, position changes and ultimately a rocker plate. Each solution has helped, but the discomfort has never totally gone away, so it has become an issue of management rather than cure. With a bit of luck, an easing of COVID-19 restrictions will allow me to get a decent bike-fit at some point this year!

The convenience of having my setup in the front room means also that it is almost too easy to ride too often, and thus neglect the need for rest and recovery when it comes to adaptation and fitness gains. Coming from a 30+ year history as an endurance athlete, I know all about the importance of periodising my training, but the draw and addiction of Zwift, plus the way I am using physical activity to manage my anxieties related to the pandemic, makes over-training an ever-present possibility.

Although I still don’t take as many full rest days as I should, I have got better at listening to the signals from my body when it comes to undue fatigue, an elevated resting heart rate, or a lowered physical and mental readiness to train, so I can back off before I am forced to. Providing I then reduce my number of rides or their intensity, am extra conscientious about getting more sleep, double down on my nutrition, and pay more attention to self-care, I seem to be able to bounce back before lasting damage is done.

I would be lying if I said that I love every km I ride on Zwift. The tough days are the exception, but they are undoubtedly there. I have become very tolerant of riding with a certain amount of low-level fatigue, something which I consider acceptable given I have no competitive goals and can adapt the rest of my lifestyle accordingly. It is interesting to note that I have not missed a single day of riding due to sickness, although I was probably helped by the COVID lockdowns and less exposure to germs from mixing with other people.

Set a realistic schedule and stick to it where possible

A few months into my Zwifting story, when I finally declared my level 50 goal, I was well aware that it was going to take serious effort for me to achieve it. It could easily have been overwhelming, so I chose not to dwell on how much more I had to do, but instead focussed on just riding consistently each week.

My monthly training volume increased slowly throughout the challenge, starting at 805km in April 2020 and progressing steadily to my biggest month at 2756 km in January this year. I would not have been able to comprehend that number a year ago, but keeping a log on Strava helps me to monitor the trends and adjust the duration or intensity of rides whilst keeping the bigger goal in mind.

I seem to have settled on a schedule which works well for me, with multiple long endurance rides at the weekend, easier or recovery rides on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, with any higher intensity rides or workouts on Tuesday and Thursday. My weekly routine does not vary a huge amount, with more than 80% of the same group rides always on my schedule. I also allow time in my plan to take part in events such as Zwift Academy or the recent Tour Du Zwift as these are a real opportunity to get involved in the supportive community and meet new friends.

I find it effective to plan my rides a week ahead, which fits in well with the Zwift event scheduler which opens seven-days in advance. I also make a note of any future events which I see on sites such as ZwiftInsider so I can safely incorporate them into my programme. Particularly when I know I have extra-long weekend rides, that forethought allows me to make sure I am not going into an important event feeling overly fatigued or with too many miles already in my legs. The positive of planning ahead is that I am never really looking for rides to do, and the power of habit means I am not continually pulling on my willpower to get me on the bike.   

Given my volume of riding, pacing myself during rides has proven to be massively important. Most of my rides are at an endurance pace, averaging 1.8w/kg when my FTP is equivalent to 2.7. My longest Zwift ride has been 11.5 hours, but providing I get the pacing and fuelling right, it is possible to do that without a massive amount of lasting fatigue. It takes some self-discipline for me to start out at less than 1.5w/kg, but I know from having been overly enthusiastic in the past, that riding too fast early on when I feel good only means a desperate struggle nearer the end!

As someone who always thinks I can do it all, perhaps my biggest lesson has been that I shouldn’t try to mix the quest for performance alongside such significant cycling volume. I started out I trying to incorporate at least one race each week and this was reasonably effective for the first six months. I even managed to scrape into Cat C before the figurative wheels came off and my ability to get myself mentally and physically ready to push myself to the max disappeared. I finally stopped racing in October when it became obvious that there was no point in turning up on the start line and wondering why I was there. This should perhaps act as a sage reminder to anyone contemplating a similar ultra-endurance quest, and it reminds me of the adage that you can’t chase two rabbits, or you will miss them both!

Play to your strengths

An embarrassing number of people contact me to say that they are impressed by the rides which I lay down on Zwift because they ‘could never do that’. Much as I do not mind being an inspiration, I certainly don’t have any super-human abilities or talent. If you read on in this article you will find absolute proof of that. What I perhaps do have, is an above average level of dedication and focus when I set my mind to something, although that can be both a blessing and a curse!

Firstly, I pick my goals very carefully. I didn’t set out to be a Category A racer or to simultaneously excel in another sport, but selected a challenge based on what I already knew about my strengths. I wasn’t starting from ground zero as I had a history, albeit ten+ years in the past, of life as an ironman athlete with a knowledge of what training every day felt like.  

I also acknowledge that I do not have the same level of other commitments which many people have to work around; I am self-employed and schedule my own day, plus I don’t have children or a current partner. This allows me the ability to 100% prioritise my training, something which would not be acceptable for most. It is a lot easier to be successful when you don’t have to take someone else’s needs, expectations or opinion into account!

That said, the pursuit of this selfish goal still involved a certain amount of personal sacrifice. I was certainly helped by the various COVID-19 lockdowns forcing me to spend more time at home, but even so, I watched less television, rarely saw my family or friends, slacked off on some business goals, and isolated myself from reality. This is not a sustainable situation, and although it has been fine to allow my life-balance to skew in this way, this is a temporary situation which I now need to adjust.

Equally, it would also be very wrong of anyone to stick me on a pedestal. I reached level 50 in what amounts to a fitness and computer game – not of any consequence in terms of my contribution and legacy to humanity, something which thankfully I am trying to take care of elsewhere. On a personal level, I am proud of my achievement because it allowed me to challenge myself physically in a way I have not been able to in recent years.   

I have wasted a lot of time in my life feeling inadequate because I was comparing myself to someone else, physically, mentally, financially, or in in some other aspect. I am reminded of the saying that comparison is the thief of joy, and much as striving and ambition is good, our only real competition is with ourselves. The reality is that there will always be someone who has achieved something more extreme than you.

Our daily goal should be to show up with the intention of being that little bit better than we were yesterday, neither dwelling on the failures of the past nor looking too far ahead to the future. That helps us to silence the inner critic which likes to put limitations on what we can achieve and makes us live small. Endurance sport is a great teacher for the way it reminds us that success rarely comes overnight, but is the result of finding our strengths, working around our weaknesses, and playing very consistently on the field in the middle.  

Seek others so you can both give and get support

When I initially joined Zwift, my expectation was that I would only do free rides or workouts as I would be too slow to do anything else. Thankfully, that proved not be the case. Significant health challenges in recent years had my ability to cycle outside and I had become disillusioned after always feeling like the weakest link on group rides. Once on Zwift, following the recommendation of a friend, I initially joined some women-only Zwift rides where I found an infectious amount of support and understanding which helped to bolster my confidence.

Once I understood the nuances of drafting, following a beacon, the limitations of w/kg when it comes to effort over different terrain, plus my own strengths and weaknesses as a rider, I started to join a variety of group rides and events. Smaller meetups have become a particular favourite, as I feel like I can really get to know my fellow athletes and understand their story and motivation to ride. The audio chat on Discord has also added a new dimension to my riding, somewhat mimicking the feeling of being on a real-life ride with a group of friends.

Riding with others has undoubtedly helped me to knock out some longer rides which I would not have attempted on my own, including those scary looking epic route achievement badges which everybody leaves until last. Having finally completed them all by September and thus grabbed the corresponding XP points to help me on my level 50 quest, I am now finding myself going back to re-visit them in support of others attempting to do the same – despite me swearing that some of them were a once only occurrence! Such is the power of the Zwift community that we all rise together.  

I have zero doubt that I would not have reached my goal without the support of my fellow riders and my gratitude cup is overflowing. It would take me way too long to name even the most prominent folks individually, but it is safe to say that many members of the HERD, the Pack and AHDRL feature prominently. 

My experience has been that most Zwifters are willing to share their experience to help others get the most from their time spent in the saddle. Giant egos are the exception and not the rule, and I don’t believe that anyone is too slow, too lacking in talent, or too silly (Zwift could not be described as intuitive) that they won’t find benefit from being an active part of the community. Despite my cycling background, I have undoubtedly grown and developed as a rider over the last 11-months, and I don’t intend to stop now!

What next?

I suppose a logical question is what is next for me now that my progress bar isn’t going to move anymore? Such is its importance in my life, you can still expect to find me popping up on Zwift most days so I can get my happy endorphin buzz.  I would like to get back to doing some racing and see if I can use my incredible base of ride fitness as a foundation for becoming something other than a very efficient but rather slow rider.  

The other part of this story which I have not elaborated on until now, is that I am a congenital heart patient. I have already faced three open heart surgeries and an unfortunate stroke which has left me with no usable vision in one eye. My latest valve replacement was scheduled in January 2020, but due to the NHS pressures caused by COVID-19, it understandably hasn’t happened yet. I am hopeful that it will take place before the middle of the year, and am reluctant to set myself too many hard goals until that is done. My main symptoms of breathlessness and palpitations are undoubtedly getting worse, and although moderation is not something I am known for practicing (an understatement!), this may be a good time for me to back off a little and just enjoy the time I get to spend on my bike.

What I would like to achieve in the meantime, is to bring together a group of Zwift athletes of all ages and abilities who are living with chronic health conditions. I remember clearly how intimidating I found it when I not only had to understand how to get the most out of Zwift, but also cope with the ups and downs of my energy levels, symptoms, and daily restrictions. In the past 11-months, I have met so many riders who use Zwift to help them manage medical treatment or its aftermath, and regularly hear stories from people managing heart problems, cancer, kidney disease, diabetes, and a host of other conditions. Zwift truly is a great platform which allows us to build community, seek support, and push our physical boundaries in a safe and controlled environment.

Looking forward, I would love to organise regular meetups and even badge hunting expeditions, but I am keeping my ambitions in check. If you would like to join me and share your journey with others following a similar road, it would be great to welcome you into the new Zwift Warriors Facebook group. Just click this link. For everyone else, please do reach out to me if I can give you some support or advice, and I look forward to seeing you on the roads of Watopia very soon.