Gone are the days of suffering on the indoor trainer in solitary confinement. The concept has quickly evolved into a more exciting and sociable way of training thanks to the advent of the smart trainer and a revolutionary indoor-training application called Zwift.
Zwift was the brainchild of Eric Min (CEO/founder) who together with programming wizard Jon Mayfield, envisaged making indoor cycling more socially connected, time effective and interactive. After months of invite-only beta testing during the latter part of 2014, Zwift quickly moved from an open-beta phase to a polished, subscription-based product in 2015.
With five courses to choose from and a host of other novelties and training options, Zwift has fast become the indoor-cycling tool of choice among cyclists of all ages, abilities and nationalities. The whole concept can be difficult to grasp at first — especially for newbies or those not familiar with smart-trainer jargon — but after reading this guide you’ll be Zwift ready in no time.
What is Zwift and how does it work?
In a nutshell, Zwift is an interactive cycling game that mimics real-world cycling, via a turbo trainer and screen, allowing you to train and race against other cyclists from all around the world in the comfort of your own home.
But it’s more than just a game — there’s a physical element that makes it a captivating and immersive experience thanks to the relationship between rider, bicycle and turbo trainer. While classic turbo trainers or rollers are compatible with Zwift, the interactivity is rather limited in terms of resistance but Zwift can still calculate your power when an ANT+ or Bluetooth speed/cadence sensor is connected to your bike.
For the best experience, a dedicated, direct-drive smart trainer with variable resistance control and a built-in power meter is required. Using clever in-game algorithms, the resistance of your smart trainer will automatically adjust to match the topographical nuances of the Zwift world you’re riding through — the difficulty of which will increase on hills and decrease on descents. The game will even detect when you’re drafting another rider and reduce your power, albeit fractionally, just like in real life.
Is Zwift free or do I have to pay?
Yes and no. New members will benefit from a 7-day free trial before a monthly subscription fee of £12.99 or US$14.99 is required to continue using the platform.
Getting started on Zwift
Zwift is compatible with a host of platforms including Mac and PC, smartphones and tablet-based devices. Unlike Mac and iOS devices with built-in BLE, PC users will require an ANT+ dongle to read the signals from the sensors on your bike or trainer. It’s also wise to ensure your device meets the minimum system requirements.
Below are several points to help you get a better understanding of how Zwift works, including in-game tips and how to unlock better bikes and equipment.
1. Zwift account basics
After creating an account it’s recommended that you link it with third-party apps such Strava, Training Peaks, GarminConnect, Today’s Plan or any other fitness tracker applications in the connection panel in your settings. Over and above filling in your name, age and height, it’s important that you input your correct weight as Zwift will use this to calculate your speed and watts per kilogram figure.
2. Zwift avatar customisation
Here you can get creative and personalise your avatar to look just like you or take on a completely different set of character traits altogether. Customisable items include an array of helmets, glasses, jerseys, gloves, socks and shoes as well as personal attributes such as hair, facial hair and skin tone.
3. Zwift bikes, wheels and the Drop Shop
There are several default bikes available while other ‘more exotic’ options must be unlocked with promo codes earned from XP points and completed challenges. An easier way to get your hands on bikes or wheels is by using the in-game currency called Drops. One Drop is equivalent to 1 US cent so you’ll need to earn a lot of it in order to purchase bike frames and wheels from the Drop Shop. The good news is you can earn upwards of 50000 Drops per ride depending on how deep into the red you’re willing to go.
4. Zwift XP points
XP points are awarded for every kilometre (20 XP) or mile (30 XP) you ride and count towards reaching higher levels in the game, of which there are currently 50. You will receive additional XP points every time you get a small- or large-bonus powerup or complete a KOM or sprint segment.
5. Zwift companion app
A downloadable application, the Zwift Companion app is your link to everything in the game. It allows you to communicate with other Zwifters, search for friends, join virtual group rides and races. It also functions as a controller and makes navigating a far easier exercise than using a laptop or keyboard.
6. Zwift powerups
Powerups are randomly awarded as you pass through a start/finish, sprint arch or summit a KOM. There are five different types including three performance-enhancing powerups that can be used to your advantage in races.
- Large bonus: 250 XP points
- Small bonus: 10 XP points
- Feather Lightweight (feather): Reduces your weight by 7kg for uphill attacks. (15 seconds).
- Truck Draft Boost (van): Boosts the draft you are getting off riders by 50 per cent. (30 seconds)
- Helmet Aero Boost (helmet): Handy for attacks off the front or contesting the sprint. (30 seconds)
7. Zwift jerseys
Apart from the cycling jerseys you can unlock in the game, there are also a variety of halo jerseys that denote the fastest female and male riders currently on the course — the coveted KOM, Sprint and Lap Leader jersey.
8. Zwift Challenges
There are currently three challenges available on Zwift:
- Climb Mt. Everest: Climb 8850m
- Ride California: Ride 1283km
- Tour Italy: Ride 2000km
Of the three, it’s the Mt. Everest Challenge that all Zwifters aspire to complete. While finishing the Everest challenge is an achievement in its own right, it’s what comes next that many consider an even greater feat — climbing to 50000m to qualify for the envy-inducing, Concept Z1 ‘Tron’ bike, the holy grail of bikes on Zwift.
What equipment do I need to use Zwift?
First things first, you will need a bicycle and a turbo trainer. As previously mentioned, a dedicated smart trainer will provide a far more immersive experience than merely adapting your classic turbo trainer. There are a ton of different smart trainers available, from cheaper wheel-on models to pricier direct-drive units. For those who want to get the most out of Zwift, a direct-drive smart trainer such as an Elite Direto, CycleOps Hammer, Wahoo Kickr or Tacx Neo is highly recommended.
The best Zwift setup
It’s also worth investing in a couple of ancillary items such as a good-quality fan to keep you cool, a stand to securely mount your laptop or tablet and a mat to prevent scuffs and marks on your floor.
Wahoo also offer a Kickr Climb device, which simulates gradients while climbing.
Best Zwift courses and rides
There are currently five 3D-mapped worlds on Zwift — Watopia, London, Richmond, Innsbruck and New York, which rotate based on a schedule that can be found on the Zwift community site. Each course offers a comprehensive number of routes that vary in profile and distance.
The mythical island of Watopia remains a favourite among Zwifters and offers the most variety in terms of terrain with 26 different routes to choose from. It’s also home to three monstrous climbs: the Epic KOM, the Volcano climb and legendary Alpe du Zwift.
Zwift Watopia’s most challenging route: The Four Horsemen (89.3km/2112m)
Taking in no less than four demanding climbs, the original KOM, Epic KOM, Volcano climb and Alpe du Zwift, the Four Horseman features 2112m of vertical ascent spread over 89.3km.
Based on the 2015 UCI Road World Championship route, Richmond can be ridden in three variations: Full Course (16.1km/157m), Hilly Lap (9.1km/133m) and the Flat Loop (5km/19m). None of the courses can be ridden in reverse.
Zwift Richmond’s most challenging route: 2015 UCI World’s Course (16.1km/157m)
It might be relatively short in distance but the lumpy nature of the UCI World’s Course makes it a true challenge for any Zwifter worth their FTP.
The London map was added to Zwift in 2016 to coincide with the Prudential RideLondon. It offers a mix of 13 different routes, including a Richmond Park-inspired section and Surrey’s most infamous climbs, Box Hill and Leith Hill.
Zwift London’s most challenging route: PRL Full (173.1km/2606m)
Designed to mimic the distance of the real Prudential RideLondon-Surrey 100, the PRL Full route requires Zwifters to climb Box Hill 11 times.
Like Richmond, Innsbruck was designed to give Zwifters and professional riders a taste of the 2018 UCI Road World Championship course. Mapped in exquisite detail, Innsbruck is configurable in five different layouts, the most popular route being the 23.7km/494m UCI Worlds Short Lap.
Zwift Innsbruck’s most challenging route: Lutscher CCW (22km/825.8m)
German for lollipop, the Lutscher CCW route is one for the climbers with unrelenting gradients that kick up to 14 per cent in places.
5. New York
Set 100 years in the future, New York features suspended sky roads that shimmy between the city’s skyscrapers and routes through Central Park. The futuristic setting represents Zwift’s move to gamify the training experience and keep users more entertained.
Zwift New York’s most challenging route: Everything Bagel (34.3km/545m)
Everything Bagel is the longest route on the New York map and is ideal for a hard, all-out 60min effort taking in 545m of climbing.
Special Pop-up Worlds
2019 marked the first pop-up world launched by Zwift: the 2019 Giro d’Italia Bologna TT course. While the 8.2km time trial was freely available for the duration of this year’s Giro d’Italia, it can currently only be ridden at special events/races.
The Zwift Academy
The Zwift Academy is a global talent-identifying platform that provides aspiring riders from all over the globe with an opportunity to compete for a professional contract. Using Zwift’s in-game framework, riders need to complete several workouts and races before a select group of finalists go head-to-head in a series of real-world scenarios. Since its inception in 2016, four athletes have graduated from the academy and earned professional contracts: Leah Thorvilson and Tanja Erath with Canyon-SRAM and Ollie Jones and Martin Lavrič with Dimension Data for Qhubeka Continental U23 team.
Best Zwift training and racing
Zwift has become so effective as a training tool that many professional riders use it to keep fit during the winter months or to 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. Steve Cummings did the same thing, and secured both the 2017 British road and time-trial titles after a shoulder surgery prevented him from training outdoors.
While many Zwifters merely free-ride to stay fit, others prefer using the app’s many built-in programs. Zwift’s structured training plans use your FTP to calculate certain workout metrics to track improvement and progression. Furthermore, coach-prescribed workouts from Training Peaks can be imported into Zwift and completed using ERG mode, a setting that locks the resistance of the trainer at a set wattage for each interval.
Racing has become massively popular on Zwift. Using the Companion app, riders can browse through and enter an array of different races, which are graded from A-D based on FTP in order to keep riders of equal ability together.
A: 4.0 w/kg or above
B: 3.2 w/kg to 3.9 w/kg
C: 2.5 w/kg to 3.1 w/kg
D: Under 2.4 w/kg or below
The rise of eRacing has revolutionised cycling as we know it, with events such as the Zwift National Championships and KISS Super League ushering in a new wave of national champions as well as the formation of the world’s first professional eRacing cycling team — Canyon ZCC.