We've come a long way since the times when cyclists would ride rollers while watching old race footage. In today's world, there's a range of indoor cycling covering a bit of casual spinning all the way up to elite-level racing. The technology underpinning this revolution isn't brand new but this year brought a wave of new users. There are numerous indoor cycling apps available, but today we're focussing on the two most well known, in our Zwift vs TrainerRoad head-to-head.
Over the years, training has moved from pencils and notebooks to the digital sphere. New ways of applying the old systems of measuring performance have migrated into the digital world. At the same time, there has been a growing number of cyclists who are less motivated by training numbers but still want a way to ride indoors.
- If this is you, check out our guide to the best turbo trainers
- Alternatively, view our how-to guide on achieving the cheapest Zwift setup
Cyclists are looking for ways to train hard all year round. No matter the weather outside. There is also a desire to ride safer, with no danger of vehicles, and a desire to ride on a schedule unrelated to the sun. On top of all these reasons that were already fuelling a rise in indoor cycling, COVID-19 has driven demand exponentially.
With gyms closed and lockdowns in place, people looked to cycling as a way to stay fit. Indoor cycling is just one piece of the industry on the rise as new users join the fold. Even as lockdowns have eased, group rides are still off the table in many parts of the world and indoor cycling can provide a safe way to ride socially during a pandemic.
The platforms that provide infrastructure for indoor cycling are numerous. There are options such as Rouvy that let you ride real routes all over the world, if you miss watching old race videos Sufferfest might speak to you, and Road Grand Tours can 'magically' create virtual worlds from just a GPX file. Yet, the two biggest platforms are Zwift and TrainerRoad.
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Zwift vs TrainerRoad head-to-head
- Zwift: your ultimate guide
Zwift is an immersive virtual world that lets you ride the way you like to. The main world that makes up Zwift is an island world called Watopia. The island has deserts, mountains, jungles, volcanoes, and beaches. Depending on where you are it ranges in climate and altitude from desert to snowy mountain peaks. There is also a variety of smaller, supporting worlds based on real-life locations.
At its most basic, Zwift is a virtual place to ride your bike. Log in at any time of day and choose a location to start riding. During a free ride, you can follow a prescribed course that will complete a loop of the desired distance and elevation. You can also change direction at any time and follow whatever route you feel like. If you prefer a pan flat course through the desert that's available. If you'd rather spend an hour, or more, climbing then choose a virtual approximation of the Alpe d'Huez or Mont Ventoux.
As you spend time riding in these worlds you will see other people around you. Feel free to grab a wheel as someone passes you. Drafting makes a big difference and following a wheel is a good way to give purpose to a ride. Recently Zwift has added 'Pace Partners' that ride at a given difficulty as a way to make sure there's always a wheel to grab.
It's the people in Zwift that really makes it come alive. Download the companion app and look in the events section. There are group rides and races of all kinds. All-day, and night, there are time trials, hill climb races, group workouts and group rides with categories for riders of all experience levels. You can race up the longest climbs or do a flat 10-mile time trial. Then with the help of ZwiftPower, you can see your results and track your progress over time. If you'd rather not race then spend an hour, or three, spinning your legs as fast as you feel comfortable while chatting with the people around you.
Zwift does offer a variety of workouts and workout plans you can follow. As you complete sections of the workouts there is a visual arch you can see approaching and it makes Zwift one of the best places to complete workouts. Despite this strength, Zwift is not the best place to coordinate structured training. Workouts are available but there isn't any way to track progress or build custom plans. It's a great place to complete FTP tests and if you are building plans somewhere else it's a great place to then complete your workouts.
Cost: $189/year or $19.99/month
- TrainerRoad: your ultimate guide
TrainerRoad has one very specific purpose, which it's to make you faster. Everything else that TrainerRoad does organises around that goal of making you faster. The focus is not entertainment, it's only to make you faster.
In service to making you faster TrainerRoad uses three pillars. The three pillars of planning, training, and analytics are intrinsically linked. Each piece works with the others but also offers different features to help you reach your goal.
The planning side can be distilled down to a simple question. What do you need to do to reach your goal? The goal might be a race but it doesn't have to be. If you'd rather have a loose goal to get faster, the system will help you with that. You can choose the amount of time you have available and structure things in a way that works for you.
Once you've built a plan, the next section is the training pillar. This is the piece that has the most overlap with Zwift, but TrainerRoad takes a much more focussed approach. Everything helps move you towards completing your goal.
In the training section, there is a lot of flexibility. Lots of workouts are available to make sure there's something that works for you. If you'd rather train alone then do it. If you'd rather train with other people there are tools so that you can complete workouts while seeing and hearing others. If you'd rather be inside then you can do that and if you'd rather be outside there are options for that as well.
Once you've started training, the Analytics pillar is where you can see if things are working. Pay attention to long term trends in your training and make sure it's going the direction you want. Look for personal records as a way to see results along the way and use custom comparison ranges to compare against yourself at any point.
The biggest advantages to TrainerRoad come down to a company drive to help you be the best athlete you can be. They use their huge user base to constantly run experiments and help find what makes people most likely to follow through on their goals. They also use communication through the TrainerRoad blog, YouTube channel, and podcasts to teach you how to coach yourself. The TrainerRoad product is only successful because they can help you be successful.
Zwift and TrainerRoad are the two most popular riding platforms but their purpose is very different. TrainerRoad is not designed for entertainment and it's not only an indoor product. The whole purpose is to get faster and they use data to further that goal. Zwift can help make you faster but that's not the goal. Zwift is a platform designed to help you ride your bike indoors. It's social and entertaining.
The disparate approaches do have some overlap but they actually work quite well together. There's no reason to choose only one or the other. Zwift offers no planning or long-term analytics while TrainerRoad doesn't try to be entertaining. Do your planning, get your workouts, and analyze your results with TrainerRoad then spend your time riding in Zwift.
Don't forget, both Zwift and TrainerRoad have deep communities. Whether you are working towards a very specific goal or just want to ride your bike more it's always better with friends. TrainerRoad has an active forum as well as lots of Facebook groups. Zwift has whole communities of racers that organise primarily through Facebook groups. Join a team and race with a group or find a community of people to ride with socially.
Zwift and TrainerRoad might be the most well-known platforms but they aren't the only options. If you like the idea of a platform that facilitates riding inside but you want to check out something different, try Rouvy. Alternatively, if you like the data-driven approach to getting faster then take a look at Sufferfest.
While Zwift has built a virtual world using graphics with an animated feel, Rouvy has tried to be as realistic as possible. The routes available to ride are real places in the world. Search by distance, elevation gain, or location and ride the places you've always wanted to ride. If you like racing it's easy to create a race anyone can join. Unlike Zwift it won't feel like a realistic peloton but you can choose to race any place you want, at any time, and see who shows up.
If you reminisce about the times when indoor training was watching race videos while riding rollers then Sufferefest might be a good option. It retains a lot of the feel of that kind of training while also being a modern, data-driven, training platform. Each workout is a video with real-life footage and text-based words of inspiration. If you follow the plans you will without a doubt get faster than you've ever been before. It does take dedication, fortitude, and a drive to succeed but the rewards are rich.
Josh hails from the Pacific Northwest of the United States but would prefer riding through the desert than the rain. He will happily talk for hours about the minute details of cycling tech but also has an understanding that most people just want things to work. He is a road cyclist at heart and doesn't care much if those roads are paved, dirt, or digital. Although he rarely races, if you ask him to ride from sunrise to sunset the answer is probably yes
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