What is Zwift and how can you get started?

We discover how your way into the world of Zwift may be easier than you think

There was a time when cycle training was either focussed on getting outside and putting in long miles, or sitting on a turbo trainer desperately trying to distract yourself from the monotony of turning the pedals while staring at a blank wall. However, in recent years, Zwift has led the way in spicing up training with an interactive world that adds variety, quality and, dare we say it, downright fun to indoor riding.

Where cyclists might previously have whittled away hours on a turbo trainer until they couldn’t suffer the boredom any longer, or complete short, sharp interval sessions, Zwift is a turbo trainer ‘game’ designed to make indoor training both fun and rewarding, so you can be the best cyclist possible when it comes to crunch time on the road.

But what do you need to know to get started on Zwift? And how can you get setup to join thousands of other riders in Zwift’s online world? It may be easier than you think.

Zwift’s virtual world has revolutionised indoor training


What is Zwift?

Ultimately, Zwift is for all types of cyclist, from newbies looking to improve their fitness, to professionals winning Paris-Roubaix, via sportive riders training for mountainous events and amateur racers. According to Zwift, the platform helps users reach their fitness goal, whatever it may be, and that means it could do a job for everyone.

How it helps athletes achieve this is by adding entertainment through the power of gaming. We’ve all been there, where an indoor workout turns into a long hard sweaty slog with a seemingly interminable end. Most of the time, it’s not interesting or entertaining, and at worst can put people off training entirely.

Zwift is aimed at riders of all abilities

That’s where Zwift comes in. Fundamentally, the platform adds a layer of interactivity that can help alleviate that boredom when riding on a turbo trainer. It does this by translating your efforts on the turbo trainer into a virtual world, complete with maps, roads, landscapes and full of other riders to interact with. You can also follow dedicated training programmes. In Zwift’s own words, it taps into the “power of technology, the fun of gaming and the sense of community to fitness”.

The stats are certainly impressive, because since the platform first launched online in September 2014, it now boasts riders hailing from more than 150 countries, who had collectively logged 218,128,291km (135,239,541 miles) as of October 2017. That’s just over 5,449 times around the Earth’s equator.

Who is Zwift for?

Good question. Is it for racers? Sportivistas? Weekend warriors? Improvers? Beginners? The answer is this: it’s for all of the above, whether you’re just looking to work on your general fitness, aiming to achieve a personal best, or training for a specific event. The key point is that it can suit anyone, regardless of ability.

Zwift’s Chris Snook adds to this: “Ideally, to make the most of Zwift, you’ll have a goal of some kind in mind. Think of Mat Hayman, who used Zwift to help his preparation for the 2016 Paris-Roubaix [Hayman won the race], or perhaps it’s simply to lose weight or improve fitness.

Mat Hayman used Zwift while preparing for the 2016 Paris-Roubaix

“Whatever it is, Zwift is for everybody – and by that, we mean everybody. It doesn’t matter who you are, there’s something for everyone whether you’re a social rider, looking to improve fitness, or a racer,” he says.

On top of that, one of the benefits of Zwift is that it’s a virtual platform – which means a lot of the issues that stop people getting on their bikes (e.g. busy roads, time constraints, poor weather, and so on) are almost completely removed.

What can you do on Zwift?

It’s clear that Zwift is setup for all-comers, because once you’re signed in, you’re able to take part in a vast array of training programmes, events, races, or simply be dropped onto the map and ride.  

“At its most basic, you can simply sign on and ride around a chosen course for an experience that’s certainly more engaging than staring at a wall or stem, but you can also be dropped in to ride with a friend if they’re signed in too,” says Snook.

Zwift’s interactive world includes three maps: Watopia Island, London and Richmond, Virginia

Zwift’s online world is constantly expanding, with the platform currently based around three maps: Zwift’s own Watopia Island, and virtual recreations of London and the 2015 UCI Road World Championships course in Richmond, Virginia. Each offers a variety of terrain and scenery.

Additionally, the menus allow you to select pre-set workouts and programmes that you can choose from to help you add structure to your training. “You may be targeting a build up to a 100-mile ride, or want an FTP booster programme to follow,” Snook explains.

Structured training sessions provide visual cues to help you hit the required power

Key to all of this is power – the speed of your online avatar is based on your power output, whether that’s measured by a smart trainer/power meter, or estimated by a conventional trainer and speed sensor. We’ll come on to what you need to get setup on Zwift later.

“Fundamentally, like any training schedule it breaks the work down into manageable chunks, but it also makes it visual. For example, in an interval programme it’ll take you through a virtual banner on the road, like the red kite at a pro race, and give you another at the finish, along with a countdown timer all the while showing your wattage output and whether you’re hitting your target. It adds that extra layer of interest.”

You get plenty of post-ride data, too

If you’re keen on being competitive or riding in large groups, then you can try dedicated events too. “You can join group rides and group workouts, the latter keeps everyone grouped together regardless of ability,” says Snook. “For the competitive, there are races you can compete in. These are organised and categorised in categories based on FTP, which means you’ll be in with a selection of riders of a similar ability to you.”

What do you need to get started?

While Zwift uses your output to power your online avatar, you don’t need a smart trainer or power meter to get started. In fact, it’s understandable that those who don’t have either or both of these expensive pieces of equipment are put off from trying Zwift, however, the fact is that they’re not necessary to get stuck in and enjoy the platform.

Assuming for a moment that you have a PC, Mac or iOS device with an internet connection, and, of course, a bike, the list of equipment that you need to get started is relatively small, and potentially inexpensive. In short, you’ll need:

  • Any turbo trainer or set of rollers with your bike installed (you can find a full list of the turbo trainers compatible with Zwift here)
  • A speed and cadence sensor (using either ANT+ or Bluetooth) installed on your bike
  • A USB dongle or receiver that transmits the ANT+ or Bluetooth signal to your PC, Mac or iOS device. Your device may have this built-in already (some computers can receive Bluetooth, for example)
  • A Zwift membership, which currently costs $10 a month
While a dream setup like this will enhance the Zwift experience, you don’t need to spend a fortune to get started

With this simple setup, Zwift uses an algorithm to translate your wheel speed and cadence into a representative power output, and match this against the weight you’ve entered on your account. This allows it to estimate and simulate your virtual road speed with the Zwift world.

“Of course, the best experience can be had on a smart trainer, which will automatically adjust its resistance to terrain [when climbing, for example], your target wattage in an interval training sessions, and other factors such as drafting behind another rider,” says Snook. If using a conventional trainer, you have to physically change the resistance (whether on the turbo or by shifting gear) to adjust your effort level.

You can start your Zwift experience with a conventional turbo trainer and speed/cadence sensor

“A dedicated power meter will also make it more accurate too, but neither are necessary to be able to follow training plans and use Zwift effectively,” adds Snook.

This means that, although Zwift’s virtual world is ever expanding and becoming more intelligent with greater integration with smart trainers and technology, the reality is that it can be just as usable and useful if you’re starting out with a basic setup. So, with the cost outlay less that you might expect, and all the potential benefits you can glean from riding in the virtual world thrown in, why not give it a try?

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