Over the last months, with the Covid-19 pandemic and the cancellation of all the races, we have seen an increase in the number of participants in virtual racing platforms. These simulated indoor races managed to attract everyone from casual club cyclists to the very top professionals and their teams, who saw the opportunity to promote themselves and maintain optimal performance through specific training adaptations. Virtual racing may seem equivalent to real life, but after comparing the requirements and characteristics of these races, we will see that they actually present some remarkable differences.
Starting from the physiological requirements, we would say that the virtual indoor races have similarities with both an individual time trial race and an endurance road race. Their duration is clearly shorter than an endurance road race, and at the same time the variability in power and intensity is lower.
This is easily demonstrated by comparing the difference between the Normalized and Average Power from the two types of races—we know that in road races the difference between these two metrics tends to be significant. However in most indoor events we observe a very strong pace without high fluctuations. The racing pace is a continuous effort around the threshold zone that doesn’t allow the legs to relax. Such efforts are clearly better suited for time-trial specialists or climbers who prefer a steady strong pace. Even the final sprints are longer in duration, and rarely show the high absolute power values a rider would perform outdoors.
Nutrition and Hydration
Regarding nutrition and hydration, the same principal rules that apply to real life competitions apply to indoors racing. Due to shorter duration, the energy requirements for an indoor race are lower, but because of the high intensity you must ensure that your glycogen stores are full.
There is no need for a special nutritional strategy to ‘load’ the glycogen stores—a regular meal with complex carbohydrates 2-3 hours before the race should meet most athletes’ needs. During the indoor races (depending on the duration of the event) liquid carbohydrate formulas of high glycemic index and energy gels can deliver the necessary energy and at the same time will keep your body well hydrated.
As far as hydration during indoor races, we also need to be more aware of the higher level of sweating. Due to the lack of moving air, which can facilitate evaporative cooling, indoor riding tends to generate a lot of head and sweat. Not only can that higher body temperature cause a further reduction in performance, but higher sweating rates indicate the need for adequate fluid consumption around 700-1000ml for every racing hour.
The goal should be to drink sufficient fluids to limit the weight loss to less than about one percent of the initial body weight. Due to the elevated need of fluid replacement, a hypotonic drink with low carbohydrate content will deliver rapid hydration, fast-absorbed carbs for your overall energy, and electrolyte release.
Keeping the Body Cool
As mentioned above, an important issue faced by those who participate in indoor races is the increase of body temperature. Naturally, this causes an increase in sweating rate and consequently dehydration which results in a significant decrease in performance. Furthermore, without adequate rehydration, heart rate may rise progressively despite relatively constant metabolic demands.
This increase in body temperature needs to be mitigated by various cooling techniques, such as lowering the room temperature by using air conditioning; using fans to create a simulated “windy” condition; and even utilizing cooling vests or wet towels for the reduction of body temperature. In the end, the goal is to keep the body temperature as low as you can to allow you perform at the highest level.
Cycling is a sport where a rider spends a great amount of energy overcoming air resistance. Thus, most tactics revolve around this effect. Although a great deal of effort has been made from the virtual platform companies to mimic the draft effect, it is impossible to achieve it perfectly because it depends on a number of uncontrolled factors such as the exact position in the group, the body position, the change of wind direction etc. The closer the virtual races manage to transfer the conditions of a real race, the more interesting the races will be for the riders and the spectacle.
Virtual indoor racing will continue to be an alternative racing solution that will offer a competitive, secure environment with many advantages for the participants and promotional opportunities for the sponsors. Their physiological characteristics may differ as the magnitude of power variability may be lower from the outdoors events and the thermoregulatory responses dissimilar due to the absence of natural air flow rates. However, it remains extremely demanding in order to promote specific training adaptations and performance benefits.
There is a lot of potential, and virtual racing might expand the sport in unexpected directions, attracting new audiences and talents!