Everything you need to know about Zwift, from the first-timer's perspective

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Jonathan Reece is a staff member at CyclingTips and was asked to give a new user’s perspective of Zwift. In the following account you’ll find details of everything he loved, the challenges he faced, and tips on getting the most out of the platform.

Zwift has been around for two and half years now. However, for many the Zwift experience has been limited to witnessing the increasing number of Zwift-titled rides on their Strava activity feed; or at least that was my experience of the platform. With everyone else seemingly using Zwift — heck, Mat Hayman even won Paris-Roubaix after training on Zwift — I was keen to set my bike up indoors and give it a go.

Setting the scene

I have never used a smart trainer before. My experience with trainers has been limited to time on an old, tyre-shredding, wind trainer that I could never seem to get a good workout on, nor find the motivation to ride for more than 15 minutes (a year). I have been cycling for a few years now, but only recently started racing. Previously, riding had always been about getting outdoors, enjoying nature, socialising, and of course, trying to smash my mates.

As I’ve started racing, and my mates have improved, I’ve quickly realised the value of following a structured training program and increasing my time on the bike. However time constraints mean that, apart from commuting to work, I’d be lucky to get in two morning rides a week.

Enter Zwift …

What is Zwift?

Here at CyclingTips we’ve written previously about Zwift, but in brief, it’s a social network, virtual reality platform, multiplayer game and indoor trainer software all in one.

In order to simulate a real-world experience, Zwift syncs with your smart trainer to give you live feedback to create the effect of riding on real courses, such as the 2015 Richmond World Championships course. A smart trainer (like a Wahoo Kickr) allows Zwift to control the resistance you’ll face in order to match the terrain and conditions (e.g. gradient, wind or road surface.)

What you need

To get started, you’re going to need to sign up to Zwift and download the software for Mac or PC at zwift.com (Zwift is available on iOS as well, but I used a laptop during my trial). A Zwift membership costs $10USD/month, however you can take advantage of a seven-day free trial and experience all the functionality Zwift has to offer before committing to the monthly spend.

Next, you’re going to need a computer capable of running Zwift (see specs here), a bike, a smart trainer and an ANT+ dongle (or Bluetooth). To add to the experience, you can also connect your speed/cadence sensors and heart rate monitor.

(Note: A smart trainer is not a requirement to use Zwift, however it certainly does add to the experience. The alternate option is to use a classic trainer and pair a power meter via ANT+. Using this method you’ll still get power data which determines your performance on Zwift, however you won’t get real-time feedback and resistance control.)

A smart trainer (and a power meter, too) does come with a hefty price tag though, so starting with a classic trainer might be the way to go. I have been lucky enough to ride a Wahoo Kickr (thanks to FE Sports) during my Zwift trial. I have never owned a power meter so I was looking forward to seeing the benefits of training with power, and how my power (or lack thereof) stacked up against the pros.

Getting started

Once installed on your computer, you need to create a Zwift account, set up your profile and personalise your rider avatar. While this is a breeze, perhaps don’t plan on starting a ride within 10 minutes of beginning the process. As soon as I had installed Zwift, an app update was required which, frustratingly, took 20 minutes to download.

Over this hurdle, it was easy to add in basic personal information, set preferences and connect my Strava account (automatic uploads to Strava is a feature I love, because if it’s not on Strava, etc etc …). If you have TrainingPeaks, you can also connect your account so you can analyse all your data in one place.

For all the weight weenies out there, please make sure you add your weight correctly. We’ve seen some pretty desperate methods of cheating in cycling recently (think motor doping), but there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing someone fly past you on Zwift with a ridiculous watts-per-kilogram reading. Your weight, and the power you’re putting out, determine how fast you travel in Zwift’s virtual world, and an honesty system does apply.

With your account set up, the next step is to customise your rider avatar. To keep things interesting, new bikes, jerseys, helmets and wheels are unlocked the more you ride Zwift and the more challenges/races you complete.

The last step before kitting up (jersey and helmet not required indoors) and heading “out” for your first ride is to pair your ANT+ devices and trainer. This can be done via Bluetooth, however on recommendation, I was using an ANT+ dongle.

First ride impressions

My first ride on Zwift was the first time I had used a Kickr and apart from being surprised at just how heavy the thing was, the Kickr was extremely easy to set up. It’s literally just a case of plug in and play.

(Note: I do recommend installing the Wahoo Utility app on your phone and doing a spindown collaboration to ensure your data is accurate. Wahoo has information on how to do this here.)

I’d talked to users of Zwift and seen enough images of people using indoor trainers to know a few of the basics needed for an indoor session:

Fan: It gets extremely sweaty with zero air movement so a fan is a must. I used a ceiling fan.

Towel: See above re: sweat. You don’t want that covering your bars, so place it over your cockpit.

Mat: See above. You also don’t want it covering the carpet. Thankfully included with the Kickr was a large rubber mat to place under the Kickr and bike. A yoga mat would also work.

Water bottle: See above. You’re going to be sweating a lot, so make sure you’re putting back in and rehydrating as you go.

Something to rest your laptop on: I quickly realised that we didn’t have anything in the house at a proper height. A small table will work. Or even better have your computer hooked up to a television screen on the wall.

In an earlier review on CyclingTips, Matt de Neef wrote about how Zwift gamifies the indoor training experience and makes you feel like you’re playing a game of sorts, not simply using a training service. I can honestly say that my initial impressions of Zwift were similar to those I used to get when logging on to play Call of Duty’s online multiplayer mode (yes former gamer talking …).

That said, I initially found the home screen confusing. I found there was little information on how to actually use the system (I found it after my first ride so it is there, but you have to go looking for it) and so I missed a lot in my first session. More on that later.

On the homescreen you’re greeted with options to select your ride type, the route, whether you want to join another rider, or start an event. To start, I selected the ‘just ride’ option and chose the flat course on the fictional island of Watopia.

Like exploring a new world for the first time, there’s lots to get your head around, but it was also very easy to simply start pedaling and take it all in. After setting out, it wasn’t long before I was passed by another rider and told by Zwift to “Close the Gap”. It was at this moment that it all started to make sense, and I could see how this could get highly addictive …

I was quite content rolling around the flat loop but I wanted to head into the hills. I had seen a hill loop in the menu option on the homescreen so I decided to end my ride and start again on that course. What I didn’t realise was that upon finishing your ride and saving it to Strava, the app immediately shuts down. To me it seemed like the app had crashed abruptly. I had to start Zwift up again to choose the hilly loop.

I have read a few forums since experiencing this issue and it seems to be the normal function of the app. ‘Save and Exit’ exits the app immediately and there isn’t even confirmation that your ride has saved. To me, ‘Exit’ should be separate to ‘Save’ and I would like an option to go back to the home menu to do things like view ride data and customise my rider. It appears I’m not the only one to voice these grievances, so hopefully Zwift adds this functionality at some point.

I was able to quickly relaunch, start a new ride, this time on Watopia’s hilly course. Along with motivating advice to “Close the Gap” between you and the rider in front of you, Zwift also includes ranked lap times, sprint points, and as I soon found out, KOMs. Data is shown in real time for all user attempts that day and is surprisingly motivating. Seeing your name trickle further and further down the leaderboard is enough to get anyone out of the saddle and pushing hard on the pedals!

While I thoroughly enjoyed seeing my power data for the first time (even if it did have the effect of bringing me back down to earth), and the workout felt like the best I’d had on the bike in a long time, there was one thing that just wasn’t right.

The main problem I faced during my first session was that, while riding, my power would suddenly drop to 0 watts, without warning, forcing my avatar to hop off his bike. A frustrating experience when you’re in the middle of a KOM setting your one-minute max power.

I tried connecting my Kickr via the ANT+ dongle and later via Bluetooth but both faced the same problem. After completing the workout exhausted, but slightly disappointed, I did some research and determined that Bluetooth can be influenced heavily by your surroundings (fans can apparently interrupt the signal), and that the ANT+ dongle needs to be set close to your trainer. After reading recommendations on various forums, I headed out to buy a USB extension cable so I could move the dongle closer to the Kickr. That solved the issue entirely.

Zwift has a USB extension cable available for purchase here.

Lessons learned

Clearly I had jumped into my first Zwift ride with little research, but I was also surprised just how little in-game support there appeared to be. A number of rides later, and after some heavy reading through Zwift’s support pages, here are some of the issues I ran into, and the features/functionality that weren’t clear to me initially.

Extension cable: As mentioned above, if you’re using an ANT+ dongle get an extension cable so you can place the dongle right next to the Kickr. Your data will be accurate and you won’t face any drop outs. It’s an essential piece of gear.

Changing routes: While you’re prompted at the start of each ride to choose your route (i.e. flat course, hilly loop, etc …), that doesn’t mean you are stuck to that choice when in the game. While you’re riding around you’ll be notified whenever you come to a fork in the road. Based on the route you’ve chosen, turns will be preselected for you, however if you decide you want change it up, simply select a different direction and see where it takes you!

Where’s the map? If you do want to change routes, there is no in-game map to tell you where you’re going. For example, if you want to warm up on a flat route before heading the hills, you need to know what turns to make. There is information available on the Zwift courses (here), however the only in-game compass point is the elevation map. Thankfully you will get to know the courses, but be prepared to get lost initially.

Where are all the courses? Before my first Zwift ride I had read a little bit about the platform and I knew they had recreated the 2015 Richmond World Championships course, and there was also a London course. However when setting out on my first few rides I could only work out how to access Zwift’s fictional island, Watopia.

After some more reading I quickly worked out that the courses were on a roster, presumably so Zwift can ensure there is a maximal number of people in the same area to add to the social feel of the game. You can find the course roster here or on the Zwift homescreen.

This aside, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed getting to know all three courses. Watopia has the most areas to explore, including some big climbs which really do give you that sense of achievement similar to climbing a mountain in the real world.

Mobile Link app: If you want to get the most out of the game, get the Zwift Mobile Link iOS app. This allows you to navigate the game easily and engage with other riders. Whilst you’re riding around you unlock power-ups (like weight and aero advantages) that can be used with the phone; you can also easily interact with riders (flicking your elbow, waving etc); and make turns. Some of these features are available on the computer, but I found controlling the game with the phone easier, given my computer sits out of reach.

Not to be confused with the iOS app: Whilst the Mobile Link app helps you get the most out of the Zwift experience, there is also, as mentioned, the option to use Zwift on your iPad or iPhone. While this might have some advantages (namely placing your iPad on a stand is easier than your laptop), I’ve decided to stick to playing Zwift on my laptop.

Turning around: This is a little trick that wasn’t clear to me for a number of rides. Missed a turn, or want to do hill repeats? It’s easy to pull a U-turn using the Mobile Link app. Simply hold down the arrow button on the app, or the down arrow on your computer’s keyboard.

If you want to know more, here are a few support resources I found useful:

TitaniumGeek’s Unofficial Zwift Manual: This is basically the bible for anything you want to know about the game
CyclingTips Zwift review: Our first-look review of the platform
Zwift’s Getting Started page: The basics you need to know from Zwift (equipment, compatibility etc.)
Zwift’s Support page: Zwift’s main support channel

Getting more advanced

While I have been quite happy jumping onto Zwift and rolling around for 45 minutes every morning, there are a number of more advanced features that allow you to get the most out of the game and maximise your training effect.

Workouts: Similar to using Trainer Road or Sufferfest, Zwift has a number of inbuilt structured training sessions and fitness tests. If you want to get targeted with your training you’ll be heading for the Workouts section. Selecting a workout is done via the main menu, and there are plenty to choose from. To start, I’d recommend doing the inbuilt FTP test to give yourself a baseline to work off.

The one thing to note about workouts (if you have a smart trainer), is that even though you are riding around the courses of Zwift with other users, the game world essentially becomes irrelevant as resistance on the trainer is set by the workout, and not by the course (i.e. gradient). You also can’t get a draft whilst in workout mode.

Been given a specific session from your coach? You can also simply create your own custom workout which is a nice feature. View our full workout review here.

Riding with a friend: Zwift makes it easy to join another rider on course from the main menu.

Group rides/races: For a trainer workout done alone in my spare room, Zwift has the effect of making a ride feel almost as social as a ride done outside on your local roads. One of the most popular features is the regular group rides and races. (You can join the next CyclingTips e-fondo here.)

Selecting an event or group ride can be done via the main menu, or through the Mobile Link app. There are tons of group rides going on, so finding the one that suits your ability is crucial. A comprehensive list of group rides can be found here, and events on the Zwift Facebook page.

Note: It takes a few goes to get your pacing right in Zwift group rides. Just like in the real world, knowing when the bunch is about to jump is crucial. If you see a hill, start putting the power down and make your way to the front if you can.

For information on other advanced features that I have only glossed over so far, such as challenges and missions, I’d suggest reading this Zwift guide here.

In summary

So, does Zwift add to the indoor training experience and will I continue to use it? Absolutely. As mentioned at the beginning, I have not been an indoor trainer kind of guy before. In the past I’ve found indoor riding mind-numbing and I’ve lacked the motivation to do it consistently. With Zwift, as crazy as it sounds, I’ve been excited to wake up, turn on my computer and go for a ride.

The social nature of the app, and the gamification of leaderboards, power-ups and levels to unlock makes using the app extremely addictive. So far, the longest session I’ve done was 90 minutes, and it didn’t feel like a stretch at all.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the flexibility Zwift gives you. Too often we’re forced to ride at times we wouldn’t otherwise want to, in the cold, wet or dark, in an effort to avoid busy traffic on open roads. Not only is Zwift safer, but you get more out of your time on the bike too, and you can mix it up and include double days in your training. While a one-hour group ride outdoors might involve a significant amount of soft pedalling/ coasting, or stopping at lights, one hour on the trainer requires you to push the pedals the whole time, significantly increasing the effect of your workout.

Does it replace road riding? No. But I feel it will allow me to maintain a higher level of fitness during busier times of the year, or when the weather outside is miserable. Any app that gets me off the couch and makes me spend more time on the bike is worth it, I think.

I will also make special mention of the Wahoo Kickr. I am well aware that my experience of Zwift has been greatly enhanced by the Kickr. I have loved the feedback it’s given me, the ability to track my power, and change the resistance to match the course. Does that mean that using the app without a smart trainer isn’t worthwhile? No. But I feel the benefits of the app are best seen with a smart trainer.

So, have you tried Zwift? What have I missed? What do you like about Zwift and what are your favourite features? Let me know in the comments below!