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Beginner’s guide: everything you need to know about Zwift

What is Zwift, how can you get setup and what are the benefits?

Turbo training has long been a retreat for cyclists in the winter months, where the often inclement weather can put even the hardiest of riders off venturing outside, or riders head indoors in search of high-quality training time. However, it’s always had its flaws.

With the best will in the world, turbo training essentially involves sitting in your living room, bedroom or garage and turning your legs over with nothing to occupy your mind. Sure, you may find you have a training video to follow or like to help pass the time by watching Netflix, but the bottom line is turbo training can be monotonous and boring.

– The gamification of cycling: how Zwift has revolutionised indoor training –

However, recently the rise of online training platform, Zwift, has begun to challenge this status quo. By offering an interactive platform, it aims to bring more realism and interactivity to your indoor training than ever before. We suspect, like us, you’re interested in giving it a try, but what do you need to know before you do? Read our beginner’s guide to Zwift below for all the essential information you need to get started.

Zwift has revolutionised the way we ride indoors, allowing users to join virtual group rides

What is Zwift?

Put simply, Zwift is an online platform that allows currently more than 60,000 cyclists to complete virtual rides. The online software features a virtual world of maps you can follow on screen.

It translates your efforts on the bike, where recorded from simple speed and cadence sensors or a full-bore smart trainer or power meter combination, into real-time speed in the virtual world.

Zwift’s online world include the mythical island Watopia and the ‘Zwift Alps’

You up your effort, it speeds up. You ease off, it slows down. All the while, as an online platform, it’s able to host thousands of other cyclists at the same time, giving you real cycling partners within the virtual world that you’re able to interact with – and even race against.

As well as looking to relieve the boredom of indoor training, it’s also a very capable training tool in its own right, with many different workouts and set rides available to help you make the most of your time – a factor for most turbo trainer users. You can also join set group rides, and Zwift even has its own virtual World Championships.

What are the key features of Zwift?

  • Zwift’s software is available on PC, Mac, iPad and iPhone. The has recent launched of Zwift’s iOS app has opened the virtual world up to a much wider audience, although its not available on Android devices.
  • 3D mapping of the likes of Zwift Island, the RideLondon route and the 2015 UCI World Championships course in Richmond, USA, provides an ever-changing landscape.
  • You can choose a variety of rides; from solo ride-outs exploring the various online worlds, to joining in with groups or even organised races. It can be as competitive as you want, with the ability to choose the difficulty you take on.
  • Social interaction with other riders in the game allows you to link up with other users from around the world.
  • Links up seamlessly to Strava – link your account, finish a ride and it’ll appear automatically with a mapped representation of your ride, and a rundown of all the segments you’ve completed, just like a real ride.
  • Zwift features different modes for different targets, so you can customise it to align with your focus and goals.
  • Fully customise your look in the game by creating your own avatar – from skin tone to kit and the bike itself. This even has benefits when inputting your avatar’s weight – match it up to your own for a more accurate representation of how the terrain will affect your speed.
  • Win virtual rewards, like coloured jerseys – just like the pros. The more you ride, the more packages you unlock to increase your ability to customise your look.
  • Subscription costs £8 a month (or $10).
Customise you rider by choosing their bike, wheels, skin tone and kit

What equipment do you need to get setup?

In order to use Zwift, naturally you need a bike and any turbo trainer, and at least a speed/cadence sensor in order to provide some data for the platform to be able to translate your efforts into a representation of speed on screen.

In order to get that information online live as you’re riding, you also need an iPad, iPhone or computer (here are the minimum specs) that’s connected to the internet with the Zwift app installed, and an ANT+ USB dongle (widely available from online retailers) to connect your sensors to the computer. You can also connect via Bluetooth, using the Zwift Mobile Link (PC/Mac), native Bluetooth (Mac/iOS), depending on your setup. See the Zwift website for more.

To use Zwift you need a controllable smart trainer or classic trainer with a speed sensor

It’s not necessary to have a power meter or smart trainer to use Zwift effectively, although the use of such devices can improve your experience by providing accurate power readings, rather than estimated ones based on simple speed/cadence sensors.

Zwift can also automatically control the resistance of a compatible smart trainer according to the terrain and conditions on the virtual road, adding another layer of realism to the experience.

Zwift is now available to iOS users through iPhone and iPad devices

Why are the benefits of Zwift?

One of the main reasons to use Zwift is to boost your motivation by incorporating greater interactivity and feedback into your indoor sessions – we even included in our ‘seven ways to make turbo trainer sessions more interesting’ article. Zwift also adds a social aspect to your training/

Alongside the key benefit of keep you out of the grotty British winter weather, Zwift is, in essence, a distraction tool that helps you turn what could have been a monotonous and boring turbo session into a full-bore ride, just without the wind in your hair (unless you decide to set up a fan, of course).

Even pros make use of it, especially when the weather at home stops them from riding outside safely. Belarussian Canyon//SRAM rider Alena Amialiusik has to deal with the hardest of winters every year while still needing to follow a training plan for the following season.

Zwift’s online world also include a version of the RideLondon route

“I train using Zwift on my Wahoo Snap turbo trainer while I’m at home in Minsk, because the winter is too harsh to be riding outdoors,” says Amialiusik. “It’s a way I can start my winter training with some indoor kilometres that I wouldn’t be able to achieve outdoors,” she says.

In fact, Zwift has become increasingly popular with professional riders, with Mathew Hayman (Orica-Scott) also a fan. The Australian trained using Zwift while recovering from a broken arm in 2016 – before going on to win Paris-Roubaix. Hayman also recently recorded a 202km ride on Zwift, showing how the platform ensures turbo training isn’t just for short, hard interval sessions.

What makes Zwift so engaging?

Zwift offers such an engaging experience thanks to two primary factors: its realism and its interactivity.

You can see who else is riding on the course with you at the same time and you can interact with them via messaging, while you can setup group rides which other users can select to participate in, as well as joining rides yourself. Group rides are graded by things like climbing, distance and time in the saddle, so you know what kind of ride you’re signing up for.

Users can join group rides, graded by things like the amount of climbing, distance and time in the saddle

There are also a variety of different maps including the original ‘Watopia’ (also known as Zwift Island), London/Surrey (a recreation of the Prudential RideLondon course) and the 2015 UCI Road World Championships course in Richmond, USA, with many different routes accessible within each world live as you ride.

It can be as competitive as you want it to be as well: the software tells you when a rider is coming up behind you, so you can choose to tag onto them, and informs you when you’re getting the benefit of the virtual draft while sitting behind them. Timed segment leaderboards are peppered around the courses as well, with Zwift automatically tracking you each time you pass through them.

The level of interaction is popular with Amialiusik too, adding that the element of fun is what keeps here motivated to spend time on her turbo trainer. “I like that you can see who you are riding with and where they are from. To me, that’s one of the best parts! And, although training at times isn’t fun, Zwift can help make it fun for racers and non-racers alike.”

Zwift riders can also explore the online world on their own

What impact would a smart trainer have on your Zwift experience?

The smarter the turbo trainer, the more encompassing and responsive Zwift can be, because a smart trainer has the ability to react to the environment. So, instead of only your virtual, on-speed speed reducing when you approach a virtual climb on screen, your trainer will adapt the resistance to suit, so you have to work harder to maintain your cadence, just as you would in the real world.

– Buyer’s guide: everything you need to know about smart trainers –

This kind of adaptability, and the extent to which it can mimic on-screen obstacles depends on the features of your smart trainer, with some even able to simulate descents by reducing the resistance to the point where you’re forced you to shift down to stay on top of the gear.

While a smart trainer is by no means essential in order to use Zwift, it will help you get the most out of the experience

There are other realism features available too. For example, the Tacx Neo Smart has the ability to simulate road surfaces, shaking the bike as you cycle over the cobbled roads in the game, for example, while the Kinetic Rock’n’Roll design allows a more realistic rocking bicycle motion underneath you as you get out of the saddle.

– Seven of the best smart turbo trainers –

If you’re looking to go the whole hog and invest in a smart trainers, then we recommend checking out our recent buyer’s guide to smart trainers – or check out seven of the best here.

What about structured training?

As we’ve already mentioned, you can also use Zwift for structured training, helping you to get the most out of your time on the bike, rather than simply rolling around the virtual worlds (not that that’s a bad thing).

Zwift’s Workouts feature allows you to do a Functional Threshold Power (FTP) test, choose individual workouts, or follow full training plans based on your goals as a rider. You can also create your own workouts.

Zwift also offers structured workouts, helping you to make the most of limited time on the bike

The on-screen layout makes it very easy to follow each workout, with the structure of the workout displayed on left of the screen, and your current power and target power (for that interval) displayed at the top.

Again, this is where a smart trainer comes into its own by automatically adjusting the resistance so you consistently hit the target power. Otherwise, you will have to automatically adjust the resistance of your trainer, with power only estimated by an algorithm based on the data provided by your speed sensor.

You can also create your own workouts

What does Zwift cost?

Assuming you have a bike and turbo trainer already with a compatible iOS device or computer, then the only additional costs are a subscription to the Zwift platform at £8 per month, and potentially a small outlay for an ANT+ dongle.

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