If you’ve never heard of Zwift, it’s time to sit up and take note. The indoor training app has changed the way cyclists ride, with an ever-expanding virtual world that’s closer to a computer game than it is a conventional sport.
One thing remains certain, though: Zwift is a great way to keep fit, providing the motivation, engagement and results you need to keep coming back, whether riding solo on the app’s virtual roads, joining a group ride or embarking on a training plan.
“Anyone can benefit from Zwift,” says Pav Bryan of Spokes Personal Performance Coaching. “Even if you don’t race, you can join a social group ride and become totally immersed in a new and expanding world.”
Here’s how you can use Zwift to improve your fitness and what you need to get started, regardless of your budget.
What is Zwift?
Zwift is an indoor training app that links your turbo trainer or indoor training bike to your computer, smartphone or tablet. Pedaling your bike powers a customisable avatar around one of the app’s five virtual worlds, each with its own network of roads.
Like riding outside, you can simply pedal at your own pace while there’s also the option to join group rides or complete structured training sessions. The harder you ride, the faster you go, with the app using an algorithm to convert your power output and weight into speed. There are also a number of Zwift training plans and Zwift workouts that you can use to help you meet your fitness goals.
If you’ve got your bike hooked up to one of the latest smart turbo trainers, or you’re using a smart-enabled indoor training bike, the app will automatically control the resistance to lock onto your target power during a training session, ensuring you get the most from every pedal stroke.
Smart trainers and smart indoor training bikes are also capable of automatically adjusting the resistance as the gradient changes on Zwift’s virtual roads, becomes harder as things get steeper, and easier when riding downhill. You also get a little breather when drafting another rider, just like when you’re riding on the road. Clever, eh?
What do you need to get started on Zwift?
First things first, you need a subscription to Zwift, which costs £12.99/$14.99 a month (Zwift also offers a seven-day free trial).
Most people will use Zwift with a turbo trainer, which converts your regular bike into an indoor training bike via the rear wheel. If you’re using a conventional turbo trainer, you’ll also need a ANT+ or Bluetooth speed sensor in order for Zwift to estimate your power output.
In recent years we’ve also seen the emergence of smart trainers, with internal electronics that directly measure your power output and transmit that data to Zwift (and other compatible training apps). Smart trainers offer the most realistic and engaging Zwift experience, but inevitably are more expensive.
If you're going the turbo trainer route, you don't need to specifically look for a 'Zwift turbo trainer', just ensure the one you have meets the criteria above.
So... what is the best Zwift setup? We've listed three options below, to cover a range of budgets.
Budget: Elite Qubo Power Fluid, £270
The Elite Qubo Power Fluid is a conventional turbo, so it’s not capable of directly measuring power or automatically controlling the resistance, but it does offer excellent ride-feel for a budget trainer, helping to keep things smooth as you turn the pedals.
In order to use Zwift, you’ll also need to partner the Qubo Power Fluid with a speed sensor attached to your bike, which in turn needs to be paired to your smart device via ANT+ or Bluetooth (this will enable the app to estimate your power).
Mid-range: Tacx Flux Smart, £549
Step up a level with the Tacx Flux Smart, a mid-range, direct-drive smart trainer that offers built-in power measurement to a claimed accuracy of +/- three per cent and full connectivity.
That, of course, means the Flux Smart can directly link up with third-party apps, with the trainer capable of handling a thigh-crushing 1,500 watts, while also being able to replicate a gradient of up to ten per cent, so you’re ready to take on the toughest courses Zwift has to offer.
We’ve long been fans of the flagship Tacx Neo and, while the Tacx Flux Smart doesn’t quite have the all-singing features of its big brother, this is a serious impressive trainer for the money if you want to get the true Zwift experience without breaking the bank.
Ultimate: Wattbike Atom, £1,599
Wattbike has a long history of producing top-level training bikes and the Wattbike Atom is the company’s most advanced bike to date.
The Atom offers full ANT+ and Bluetooth connectivity, so it can seamlessly connect to Zwift and a host of other software, including Wattbike’s own Hub app, which offers a comprehensive range of performance tests, training plans and analytical tools.
The Atom is a dedicated indoor training bike so you can jump straight on – there’s no faffing about with attaching your regular bicycle. It’s fully adjustable, so multiple members of the same household can use it, and the drop handlebar is equipped with electronic shifters, with 22 gears to adjust the resistance.
Of course, as a smart bike, you can also set the Atom to automatically adjust the resistance as you ride, whether completing a lung-busting interval session or simply cruising the roads of Zwift.
Three of the best Zwift workouts to make you stronger
The advent of indoor training applications such as Zwift has proven to add another dimension to what was previously considered a mind-numbing but necessary chore. As the game has developed so have the variety of workouts available to users, all of which have been tailored by coaches for the best results.
In this pixel-based environment riders can participate in a raft of various in-game workouts which are a great way of adding structure to your training as well as boosting your fitness and strength.
Easy or challenging, each workout is based on your FTP (functional threshold power) – the best average power output you can sustain for one hour. Geared to your particular ability, these sessions are aimed at building on your strengths and targeting your weakness areas in the form of high-intensity workouts.
1. The FTP test
In order to get the most out of any of the Zwift workouts you’ll need to know your FTP score. A quick way to get this sorted is by performing a FTP or ramp test. Not only will it provide you with a good baseline figure from which to kick off the season, as your fitness level increases so will your FTP. Zwift currently offers three FTP workouts, namely the ‘FTP Test’, ‘FTP Test (shorter)’ and the ‘Ramp Test’.
How it works:
Regardless of which workout you choose, determining your FTP will require a short but intense all-out effort. While there’s no easy way of determining this figure – suffering is par for the course – the Ramp Test is probably the least invasive method of the three tests, requiring around 4-8 minutes of hard effort. After a five minute warmup, you will perform a series of 1-minute intervals, which begin at 100 watts and increase by 20 watts each minute until you can’t turn the pedals any longer. Once you stop pedalling, your FTP will be calculated based on your effort.
2. Jon’s short mix
So you’ve got a tight schedule? No problem. Jon’s Short Mix is one of 10, 'Less than an hour to burn' high-tensity sessions designed by Zwift to maximise your time. While by no means enjoyable, this workout focuses on a series of sub-threshold and maximal bursts which aim to improve your anaerobic capacity.
How it works:
It starts with a brief warmup and goes straight into two short anaerobic bursts, quickly followed by three max-effort sprints. There’s something for everybody in this quick mix of pain and pleasure, including a sweet spot training (SST) block to stimulate the FTP zone and a couple of efforts for the sprinters.
3. Mat Hayman Paris-Roubaix 1
Zwift has become so effective as a training tool that many professional riders have flocked to it as a means to keep fit during the winter months as well as recover from injury. Take Mathew Hayman, for example, who used Zwift to win Paris-Roubaix in 2016 after breaking his arm six weeks before the race. The Paris-Roubaix 1 workout gives Zwifters a little taste of what was required from Mat Hayman to win the cobbled Classic.
How it works:
The Mat Hayman Paris-Roubaix 1 workout is one of the most brutal sets currently available on Zwift. In fact, if you don’t feel nauseated after the first 10 minutes you’re doing it wrong. It doesn’t look all that intimidating at first but after the five minute warmup you’re thrown straight into a 20-second maximal sprint followed by one minute recovery at 65% FTP – repeat three times. A 20 minute SST interval follows, after which point you can either carry on (if you're strong enough) or throw in the towel. And it gets harder… 12 more maximal sprints separated by one-minute SST efforts.
This article is part of a series on indoor cycling, supported by Wattbike