For many, the idea of riding a bike indoors on a turbo trainer or rollers fills them with dread. It can be monotonous and boring and can take the fun out of cycling - in the winter months when the weather is bad, you can soon find your training dwindling, and with it, your fitness.
There are times when training indoors is the only, or at least the best option. The weather or life might dictate, and the conditions may force you to stay in, or you may want to do a shorter, more focused training session which doesn't easily work with a ride out on the local roads.
Zwift has revolutionised cycling, being immersive and interactive, allowing you to interact with riders all over the world. It is a virtual platform for you to ride around in an online world with other riders, following roads and climbing mountains. As an interactive video game, the harder you work, the faster you will go. In a group, if you put the power down you will ride away from others and if you start to tire, others may well ride away from you.
The input from your bike, recorded from a power meter, smart trainer or speed/cadence sensor is used to drive the game and the speed you are riding at. Speed is based on your watts per kilo so it is important to input your weight correctly for honest and accurate results.
The graphics are fantastic, and Zwift have done a great job of making your avatar's position mimic that which you would be in on an outdoor ride. Your avatar will stand on the pedals to go up climbs if your cadence is low enough, get into a sprinting position or an aero tuck on the drops and sit up when below a certain speed or when drafting behind another rider. It will even take a drink when sitting up, a great reminder to keep hydrated while training!
What you need
Your bike, an indoor bike trainer - turbo or rollers, a power meter or smart trainer with inbuilt power (such as the Wahoo KICKR SNAP), or at a minimum, a speed/cadence sensor. Also, a computer (PC or Mac) or an iPad or iPhone. Depending on your setup, you may need an ANT+ USB dongle plugged into your computer, so it can communicate with your trainer, however some setups pair using Bluetooth alone. Another area to consider, unless you have a direct-drive system where the wheel is removed, is purchasing a turbo trainer specific tyre so that you don't wear out your road tyre. The Continental UltraSport Hometrainer II Turbo Trainer Tyre is a great option.
In terms of indoor bike trainers, for the ultimate experience, a smart trainer is ideal. Smart trainers such as the Wahoo KICKR Power Turbo Trainer have a built-in power meter and variable resistance. Having variable resistance is a great feature as it adds some extra realism to the whole experience; when you climb, the resistance will adjust accordingly and you will have to change gear to make pedalling easier, and when descending the resistance will reduce and you will need to shift back up.
If you want to go all out and enhance your experience, you can purchase a number of accessories. You can buy a Pain Cave bundle which includes the Wahoo KICKR Power Turbo Trainer, a trainer floor mat and a desk for your computer, so you can focus on the road ahead. The desk and floor mat can also be bought separately if you would like to upgrade your setup.
If you don’t have access to, or the budget for, a smart trainer, you can use a more basic trainer like the CycleOps Fluid 2 Turbo Trainer with an ANT+ or Bluetooth speed sensor or a power meter. Rollers are another option, preferred by many riders for indoor training as riding on rollers feels more like riding outside on the road, improves bike handling skills and they are great for core strength. If you can get your hands on some smart rollers, with built-in resistance, even better.
Setting up Zwift
It's pretty simple to get started once you have all the equipment. Download the Zwift app on your computer or phone - you can do both, so if you are not able to access the computer while riding, you can use your phone to activate power-ups, make U-turns and chat to other riders. Next up is to set up an account and log in - providing details of your gender, height and weight for accurate measurement of your speed. If you wish, you can customise your avatar, even getting hold of club or team kit if this has been set up. If you'd like to kit your avatar out in Sigma Sports kit, just hit “P” while in the game and enter the unlock code: SIGMASPORT.
If you have an older computer, it may be worth checking that it meets the minimum requirements to run Zwift, and you can check this on the Zwift website.
Next, pair your devices - trainer, speed and cadence sensors, power meter and any extras such as a heart rate monitor. You now just need to choose the type of ride and you’re ready to go.
- Zwift’s software is available on PC, Mac, iPad and iPhone. There is also a Zwift iOS app but nothing for Android devices, as of yet
- There are a number of courses to choose from on the virtual worlds of Watopia, the RideLondon route and the 2015 UCI World Championships course in Richmond, USA so you can be sure of a varied and ever-changing environment
- You can choose to ride solo, join a group ride or race, or enter workout mode for some more specific training
- You can ride, interact and race with other riders from all over the world (press ‘m’ to chat to riders nearby)
- Once linked, rides will be automatically uploaded to Strava with maps, ride data and segments, just as you get after riding outside. If you have a TrainingPeaks account, you can set it to automatically upload rides here too
- Zwift can be customised to fit in with your training goals
- Your look can be customised; your avatar, kit and bike, some of which will be of an advantage in a group ride or race, reducing the weight, or increasing the aerodynamics of your setup
- You can claim jerseys for particular segments, such as climbs and sprints
Types of Zwift rides
You’re all set up, logged in and ready to go. There are a number of options to choose from depending on your targets.
JUST RIDE: If you just want to spin your legs or don’t want to follow a particular plan then you can select ‘Just Ride’. You can go at your own pace and cadence and select the type of ride or course you would like to do; flat, hilly, surprise me (which in my experience tends to take you up a mountain!), or you can choose to ride with someone nearby.
GROUP RIDE: A more structured and social option is to join one of the numerous daily group ride. Riding with others can help push you, or keep you at a particular pace if you have a habit of going out too hard. Choose a ride to join from the game screen, up to an hour in advance, or look at the rides on the official Zwift Events Calendar. The course, distance and time or pace of each ride is provided so you know in advance what you are signing up for. Most events tend to have a ride leader.
RACE: You sign up in a similar way to a group ride, and can join different groups depending on your w/Kg, so you are racing against people of a similar ability. Zwift races are a great way to test yourself against other riders and are great motivation to push yourself. Results will pop up at the end and are published on the Zwift Power website afterwards - make sure you sign into this website before the race to get your results included.
WORKOUT MODE: Zwift is more than just a game, where you ride around chatting online to other riders, it is also an excellent training tool. You can ride in workout mode and select pre-made workouts depending on your goals, from sweet spot sessions to sprint intervals. If you have a workout file (.zwo extension) you can upload and use this. You will need to have an FTP (Functional Threshold Power) reading for workout mode as intervals are based on your w/Kg but don’t worry, there are a couple of options to do an FTP test and get an accurate number for your training. As well as individual training sessions there are also full plans to follow if you are targeting a specific event.
ERG mode: Specific to those using certain smart trainers, ERG mode is a great tool that selects the resistance according to your wattage target for a workout or interval. It can be turned on or off depending on your preference.
To explain how this works in a little more detail, if you have an interval requiring you to ride at 160W, regardless of your cadence, the resistance will adjust to ensure you are pushing a constant 160W. So if you pedal at 60 RPM it will feel a lot harder than if you were pedalling at 100 RPM but you’ll be putting out the same power. When in ERG mode you won’t feel the resistance change based on gradient, only on wattage target.
Another real benefit of ERG mode is for those recovering from injury. There is no need to change gear so you just choose a gear before you start and there is no requirement to use the shifters during the entire workout.
DRAFTING: The effects of drafting, although not as extreme as out on the road, can help you to stay in a group, and you will receive pop ups on screen if you are dropping too far back, telling you to get closer to the rider in front for maximum drafting benefits.
POWER-UPS: A controversial feature of Zwift, power ups are meant to make indoor riding more fun and are offered randomly in every mode apart from workout mode, which is designed for more serious training. You may get a large or small bonus or a lightweight, draft or aero boost, all useful for strategic use in different circumstances.
LEADERBOARDS: Segment leaderboards are there so you can see how you stand compared to others around you. The leaderboards may be sprint, KOM/QOM or overall and if you have already completed the segment during your current session, you will have a ranking. For females, a separate leaderboard will come up, but you will still be able to see how are doing against both males and females in the main leaderboard.
U-TURNS: You can ride some of the course in both directions, except in workout mode. A change of direction can be activated via your phone or computer if you fancy a change of scenery.
Zwift has the ability to transform dull indoor training into an immersive experience so you can still enjoy your rides when you’re not able to get outside. More than this, you can use it to build strength, follow plans and train specifically for an event so come race day you are able to perform at your best.