Like you I love to race bikes and I am bummed that the race season should be in full swing BUT we are all doing the social responsible thing and staying home; I hope.
So that leads us to the idea of virtual racing. I have been fielding a lot of questions from my athletes as well as fellow racers about if they should or should not be racing online. Well to help get to the correct answer for you let's answer a few other questions first.
What does a typical power file look like for a virtual race?
What type of racing do you typically do outside?
What does a typical power file of your outdoor races look like? (If you don’t have a power meter look at your HR file or think about what the race feels like)
Do the virtual race files look/feel similar to your outdoor race files?
If not, does the virtual race help you towards your goals as an efficient workout?
Anyone who has participated in a virtual road race certainly knows that it is basically an FTP test; Zone 4&5 from the gun to the finish. I am not sure what your typical outdoor races are like but mine are not at all similar to the virtual versions. A virtual race requires more of an even power output similar to a Time Trial; an outdoor race is much more like an interval style workout, periods of high power for a few minutes followed by sitting in and recovering, rinse and repeat.
This difference can easily be seen by looking at the Variability Index (VI) in the summary of your power file. If your summary does not give you a VI value you can find it by dividing your Normalized Power by the Average Power. Below is a chart showing the power and VI values of the last four races of a client. What you should notice is the major differences between the VI numbers from the outdoor races compared to the virtual races. The last two outdoor races the VIs were 1.21 and 1.27 meaning there was a 21% and 27% difference between their Average Power and Normalized Power. In their last two virtual races the VIs were much lower at 1.00 and 1.05.
The VI helps us understand how the efforts during the workout/race played out. A low VI lets say 1.00-1.10 meaning the NP and AP are within 10% shows it was a very consistent effort from start to finish; no high power peaks and no low power valleys. A high VI around 1.20-1.30 means there is a much bigger gap between the NP and AP this is much more of a gas on/gas off type of effort with high power peaks and low power drops. Thinking about this in another way is like gas mileage for a car; low VI is like highway miles and a high VI is like city driving. You can see that for the athlete above virtual racing is not the same type racing as outdoors.
So should you be doing them? Well that depends on what story your VI is telling you. If they are similar outdoors as virtual then heck yeah you should be. If the numbers are more similar to the athlete above then you need to understand why you are racing if you choose to. It could simply be that you need the competition to keep you motivated while stuck indoors or you need others to help push you during those hard threshold efforts. Just don’t fool yourself into believing that they are preparing you to race outside; they are not.
Bottom line is virtual racing is fun, helps keep motivation and can be a great threshold workout but they will not replicate an outdoor race. If you truly want to replicate an outdoor race then create a power file from one of your past race files. That workout file will truly replicate the actual ebbs and flows of a race; this time just time your sprint at the end better!