Workout Equivalents

What I have learned in my 45 years of multisport: You all are stronger than I am. Mentally in particular. What you can do that I cannot do are solo structured workouts. Specific, coach-generated and prescribed, science-based, non-negotiable workouts. This is what you say you like to do and I take you at your word.

Then in a few years I hear from you again. You’re burned out. You’ve moved on to ultrarunning or gravel cycling and the thing about those two sports is this: There are no structured workouts! You just go out and run. Or ride. No wonder you’ve moved on!

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that specific, prescribed workouts are important as you approach a target race. But honestly, I think a lot of workout planners (whether human or AI) are too precious about their prescriptions (if a computer can be precious). This time of year if you’re training indoors there is no good reason why you need to be chained to a featureless computer screen that simply tells you to pedal harder or easier. For every coach- or system-prescribed workout there is a shared-experience option that is just as good or better available to you.

What do I mean by shared experience? I’m a Turner Classic Movie devotee. When I see Sunrise or Stagecoach playing on TCM I tune in to watch it. In fact, I probably own DVDs of the movies I’m excited to see on TCM. But it’s different on TCM because even though I’m alone in my living room I know tens of thousands of people are watching Sunrise with me right as I’m watching it. I don’t know those people but I know they're out there and there’s value to knowing we’re experiencing the same emotions simultaneously.

In The Good Book a blessing is offered “Whenever 2 or 3 are gathered.” The shared experience is hardwired deep on our brain stems. There’s a reason Olympic-aspirational triathletes, runners, cyclists, swimmers live and train in enclaves. There’s a thing you get that you don’t get when you’re by yourself and let me ask you this: Do you think all the men and women in these enclaves perform their own individualized workouts? Isn’t it more reasonable to assume they jump in the pool and do the same workout, the leave interval scaled to ability? Ride the same bike rides? Run the same group runs? Isn’t it more likely the individualized session is the exception rather than the rule?

The coaches who run these enclaves know that the value of the shared experience outweighs the value of the individualized training plan.

But you can have the best of both worlds, especially in the winter, especially on your smart trainer. The good coach, the self-confident coach who understands that fun, variety, sensual saturation, shared experiences can enhance a workout and minimize boredom and burnout, recognizes this. Let me give you an example. Let’s say you have a stiff, 60min bike ride that delivers a TSS of, say, 80. A coach can write that structured training program in a workout builder, stick it on your training portal, and you can ride that mindless workout on your bike.

Or you can – as one “shared experience” example of many – ride with a RoboPacer in Zwift. That used to be a problem because there were only 4 pacers offering 4 efforts. Now (since a big November feature launch) there’s a whole big bunch roaming around various Zwift Worlds at all kinds of effort levels. Each of these RoboPacers (used to be called Pace Partners) is accompanied by 8, or 13, or 42, or 95 other riders. Shared Experience. Interesting side note on that: The RoboPacers start at a very mild 1.2w/kilo and go up from there. On your Zwift startup screen you can see all the RoboPacers, where they are (which Worlds), the effort levels, and how many Zwifters are riding with each RoboPacer. You see way more people riding with RoboPacers at the 1.2 to 1.8w/kg level than you do at the 3w/kg and up, which means that for years Zwift was underserving a huge population of riders who just weren’t fast enough to ride with even the lowest-effort group riders, races and pacers.

RoboPacers are the easiest way to get a workout equivalent to you want in a shared-experience environment because the effort so closely conforms to a prescribed effort. But it’s not an ERG-mode experience. There is at once a variance in effort (as is the case in any real-world group ride) while there remains a kind of glue that attaches you to that specified effort. There is also some unpredictability. I try to ride near the front of the group and almost certainly there’ll be a moment in the RoboPace session where a group of riders breaks free of the pacer and then there’s the intrigue in seeing if the group can stay away.

You can pretty much say that any group ride in Zwift, and even any race, will deliver a predictable degree and intensity of stress. Zwift offers structured workouts categorized by intensity. What I haven’t found is a way to compare workouts to other experiences on offer – RoboPacers, group rides, races – that will all deliver the same training response. In other words, if your training schedule has an effort quantity a type of effort – a score of some kind – I’d like to see a cafeteria menu of options that satisfy that prescribed workout session. (I think I might work on that.)

Zwift is an obvious way to make this case but it stands true for swim, bike and run, indoor and outdoor. I am not a coach and don’t presume to be one but I have coached athletes to numerous IRONMAN wins and Kona podiums at the pro level. My style is to find ways to make the workouts more fun, often by seeking out shared experience options. If I had a 100-mile ride on my athlete’s schedule but my athlete apprised me of an interesting 90- or 120-mile group ride I’d tell him or her to do it, even if it was a gravel ride. If I were training someone for an IRONMAN I could count on one hand all the workouts that absolutely must be adhered to, with no variation.

What I'm writing above holds true not just for Zwift, But FulGaz and RGT (images you see here are of all 3 platforms) and Rouvy. It also holds true for any workout;, indoor or outdoor; swim, bike or run. The goal is to have fun. which is more likely when you're not the only one in the session. And if I might be so bold: Fun will absolutely translate to a higher finish place and a faster finish time.