What is Zwift?

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When the weather’s grim, you’re nursing an injury, or you’re time-poor, it can be hard to find the motivation to leave the house for a ride. For decades, the alternative was to attach your bike to a noisy wind or magnetic trainer, and spin your way through a tyre-shredding and tedious (albeit highly effective) workout whilst staring at a wall. But that’s all changed.

Since coming out of beta in late 2015, Zwift has taken indoor training by storm. Even if you’re not using the platform yourself, you’ll have heard whispers of it in the bunch – maybe even seen your Strava feed filled with friends riding in exotic (even imaginary!) locations. And if the rain is hammering down on your roof when the alarm goes off for your morning bunch ride, perhaps you’ll start to see the appeal of joining them.

Zwift: the basics

Zwift is an online multiplayer training tool and game, which allows users to ride on a series of courses against other riders from all around the world. It transcends the dull reputation of training indoors, and has been at the forefront of gamifying and bringing social interaction to this previously loathed activity. It’s clearly struck a chord with its target audience – the platform’s popularity has rapidly grown, and hundreds of thousands of active account users are now regularly logging on to ride on Zwift.

Within the Zwift experience, users can choose the appearance, kit and bike of their avatar. There are three virtual worlds – the 2015 Road World Championships course in Richmond, Virginia; around the London CBD (with a detour to the climb of Box Hill); and a fictional island called Watopia. The courses can be run both clockwise and anti-clockwise, and Zwift serves up the different courses on a rotating roster.

The Zwift platform can be used in a number of ways that are both familiar and fresh with innovation. At its most simple, you can just jump on and ride around the course – a considerably more immersive experience than just pedalling on an indoor trainer without visual stimuli. But where Zwift comes into its own is when social interactivity is added, allowing users from around the world to ride in virtual bunches and participate in challenges, with all the banter and social engagement and competitive nature of a hard bunch ride.

What does it cost?

Zwift is a subscription-based service, which costs $19.99 AUD a month. You can also test it out with a payment-free seven-day trial before committing.

What you need to get set up

Technological advances in the trainer space have brought previously unimagined levels of realism to the indoor cycling experience. Smart trainers – which incorporate power meters, electronically powered resistance, and an astonishingly lifelike ride-feel – provide the best experience when riding on Zwift, but are by no means essential.

The basic set-up

Whilst smart trainers are pretty incredible in what they can achieve, they’re also expensive and aren’t strictly necessary to getting rolling on Zwift. With only a limited financial outlay and a few bits of equipment you’ve probably already got at home or in the garage, you may be able to make your first foray into the world of Zwift.

As long as you’ve got a computer or other device that meets Zwift’s minimum requirements, a bike, an indoor trainer and an ANT+ speed/cadence sensor or Bluetooth LE (BLE) device, you’re good to go – albeit in a reduced capacity.

Zwift has tested a wide array of popular classic trainers (i.e. not smart trainers) to calculate virtual power-curves for different speeds. In essence, this gives a power figure based on speed. While the accuracy of this power figure is reduced during accelerations, at a steady pace with a properly set-up trainer it should be quite accurate. Wattage on virtual power-curves is capped at 1,200w.

Zwift has also calculated a more accurate power-curve for a smaller number of trainers – the ‘zPower’ virtual power curve – which can estimate and display your wattage even during accelerations. Wattage on zPower is, likewise, capped at 1,200w.

But the most accurate way to experience Zwift with a non-smart trainer is by using an actual power meter rather than a virtual one. If you have an ANT+ or BLE power meter, you’re able to Zwift on any trainer, including rollers.

If your trainer isn’t a device supported by Zwift, all is not lost – you can still get on the platform by running off a speed sensor alone, but diligent set-up of the trainer is essential and your virtual maximum wattage will be capped at 400w.

Smart set-up

Where Zwift really comes into its own, however, is with the addition of a smart trainer. Smart trainers are electronically controlled trainers with an inbuilt power meter, that are able to provide an additional level of realism to the riding experience. Ascending a virtual hill on Watopia? The trainer will apply more resistance to replicate this added effort. Drafting behind another rider? The smart trainer will reduce the effort required. It’s a slightly eerie but impressively lifelike experience.

Some smart trainers can be wince-inducingly expensive but so is a lot of bike gear, and if you’re spending enough time on an indoor trainer it’s a worthwhile investment for the improvement in performance and enjoyment they can bring. Look to brands like Cyclops, Tacx, Wahoo or Elite for highly-regarded smart trainers.

Other stuff

Zwift is a graphics-rich platform, so there are certain computer requirements that may influence your ability to run the program. It’s nothing overly restrictive, however, and if you have a Mac or PC built in the past three years you should be able to get Zwifting without too much trouble. You’re also in luck if you’re using other Apple devices – you can run the program on iPad, iPhone and Apple TV. Zwift for Android is currently in development.

Depending on what sensors you’re using on your bike, you may need to purchase an additional dongle to transmit the signal to Zwift. If you’re using a Garmin speed/cadence sensor, for example, you’ll need an ANT+ dongle to receive the sensor signal and translate it to a format that Zwift can understand.

That’s the essential stuff out of the way. In the interests of comfort and cleanliness, it’s not a bad idea to set up a fan (or two) and a sweat mat under the trainer to ensure your Zwifting experience is as pleasant as possible.

How it can help cyclists

Time on the trainer is incredibly efficient – there’s no coasting, no tailwinds, no drafting and no traffic lights to recover at. But its benefits are far greater than just that.

For vast swathes of the world with cold, dark winters, indoor trainers are a godsend, allowing riders to maintain or even improve their fitness through the off-season. With a Zwift account, you don’t need to scramble about for your leg warmers, shoe covers and full-finger gloves to go for a bike ride. The world outside may be buried under feet of snow, but chances are it’ll be sunny in Watopia, and digital rain and snow doesn’t get you wet or cold.

Those recovering from injury can also benefit from training on Zwift. Broken collarbones and wrists are a common byproduct of crashing on a bike, and riding on an indoor trainer can allow you to spin your legs without needing to worry about braking or having your hands on the handlebars. Even the most seasoned professionals are reaping the benefits – Mat Hayman, winner of the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, broke his arm just six weeks before the race and credited Zwift with helping him maintain his motivation and form throughout his recovery.

The efficiency of Zwift can also be a serious boon for the time-poor. Parents, shift-workers and those working long hours – to name but a few – can all benefit from being able to fit a hard workout into a shorter amount of time.

Finally, if you’re geographically isolated, don’t have a group to ride with, or want to ride with friends living interstate or overseas, indoor cycling on Zwift offers considerable social benefits. Indeed, as our very own US team discovered – remote working across three different cities – it’s possible to use the platform for virtual lunch rides, too.

Virtual cycling, real fitness

Virtual cycling on platforms like Zwift is one of the clearest demonstrations of how technological advancements can improve the individual riding experience. Offering an engaging, social way for cyclists to ride (and ride hard!) from the comfort of their own home, Zwift has brought new life to the previously tedious activity of indoor training.

Paired with a smart trainer, Zwift narrows the gap in realism between riding on road and online – and as countless thousands of Zwift users are discovering, it can be incredibly efficient, social and fun as well.