Zwift: your complete guide

What Zwift is, how it works and what equipment you need

Zwift Yorkshire

Zwift is an online cycling game and training program that enables users to ride, train and compete in a virtual world.

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Aimed at eliminating the excruciating boredom of simply sitting on the trainer and staring at the wall, Zwift has exploded in popularity since its release in 2014.

Indoor cycling is all the rage at the moment. It seemed like every cycling brand at this year’s Eurobike had something to offer this burgeoning market, including new indoor training bikes from Wahoo, Stages and SRM.

There are a number of different indoor training apps available, but Zwift is arguably the most fully featured, and almost certainly the most popular – reports suggest that over half a million people have signed up for an account so far.

Zwift eRacing
eRacing is now a thing. While it’s obviously not the same as racing a bike out on the road, it’s a great way to get a hard workout.
Zwift

More and more features are constantly being added to Zwift, which is mostly great because it adds a lot of value to an impressive package. But it can also make knowing how and where to start quite daunting.

There’s no need to worry though. We’ve done a mountain of research and have put together a comprehensive guide to the virtual training and racing platform. Here’s everything you need to know about Zwift.

What is Zwift?

Zwift is an online, interactive training and racing platform. Your pedalling on a trainer drives your avatar around a virtual course. The harder you pedal, the faster you go.

Zwift has seven different worlds (more on these later), and within each you can navigate the roads as you go.

You can ride with thousands of other riders inside Zwift. You can join group rides and races — and even get a draft from other riders — or just join the world and jump on with other riders when you want to. You can also do structured power-based workouts.

It features a multitude of gamified elements that encourage you to ride longer and harder, with the goal of increasing your fitness. Zwift’s catchphrase is ‘Fun is fast’.

How does Zwift work?

Zwift
There’s an app available for Apple TV, if you feel like setting up your bike in the middle of your living room. A smart trainer, such as the Wahoo Kickr shown here, will help you get the most out of Zwift.
Zwift

Zwift takes the input from your bike — either via a power meter, a smart trainer or just a speed/cadence sensor using ANT+ or Bluetooth — and uses an algorithm to translate your input data into your avatar’s speed on the virtual course.

It takes into account your weight, your power or calculated power, the road gradient and the draft, or lack thereof, from other riders.

You can use Zwift on a computer (PC or Mac), an iPhone, an iPad or an Android smartphone or tablet.

Zwift is now also compatible with Apple TV, so if you’ve got one of those (and your partner/roommate doesn’t mind), you can set yourself up right in front of the TV.

How much does Zwift cost?

Initially, it’s free; though long term, sadly not.

You can get a free 7-day trial if you register for a Zwift account online, but after your trial period ends it costs £12.99 / $14.99 per month to continue using it.

What equipment do I need to use Zwift?

The basic list of equipment you need is:

  • A bike
  • A trainer or a set of rollers
  • An ANT+ or Bluetooth measurement tool: a power meter, smart trainer or speed/cadence sensor
  • A computer, smartphone or tablet with Bluetooth or ANT+ (or an ANT+ USB dongle)
Zwift
You can set up Zwift on a compatible iOS or Android device.
Zwift

As the main source of input data for the virtual world, the ANT+ or Bluetooth measurement tool you use is really the key piece of equipment (after your bike, obviously).

If you’re really committed to your indoor training (and have the required cash lying around), then you can get a dedicated indoor bike.

Brands such as Stages, Wahoo and SRM now all offer fully integrated indoor training solutions for those looking to squeeze every last watt out of their virtual training and racing sessions.

Zwift will use the data from your power meter to calculate your in-game speed

A smart trainer is the next option. Like an indoor training bike, a smart trainer will measure your power directly and transmit that data straight to Zwift.

Beyond simply measuring power, smart trainers are also able to simulate course gradients – changing the resistance according to the slope – and can be controlled by Zwift in Workout mode to make sure you’re hitting the prescribed wattages of a training session (again, more on this later).

If you have a power meter, you can make do with any kind of trainer or rollers. Zwift will use the data from your power meter to calculate your in-game speed, but obviously you’ll miss out on simulated gradients and controlled Workouts that come with using an indoor training bike or smart trainer.

A speed/cadence sensor is the most basic option and allows you to use your regular bike (with no power meter) attached to a conventional trainer. Zwift will then crunch the numbers to estimate your power. It’s not the most accurate or realistic option, of course, but it does have one major advantage: it’s the cheapest way to get started on Zwift.

Zwift Companion App
The Zwift Companion App for iOS and Android devices allows you to control your avatar and access other functionality such as messaging and joining events, without having to reach for your computer.
Zwift

How do I get started on Zwift?

First, you need to sign-up for an account.

On your Mac or PC, you can do it online at https://zwift.com/create_account. On a tablet or model device, you can download the Zwift app from the Apple App Store or Google Play, and sign up through that.

You can sign up for a subscription (£12.99 / $14.99 per month) straight away or start a free 7-day trial.

If you’re using a computer or Apple TV to use Zwift, we also recommend downloading the Zwift Companion app from the App Store or Google Play. This app puts a number of convenient features at your fingertips, such as changing the direction of your avatar and messaging other Zwifters.

The Companion app is also a great way of exploring and signing up for the many events that Zwift offers – such as group rides, group workouts and races.

Once that’s all set up, and you have the app running, you need to pair your devices. These should appear on screen as clickable options once you’ve woken them up.

Next, you simply choose which world you want to ride in.

What courses can I ride on Zwift?

There are currently seven different worlds on Zwift:

  • Watopia
  • Bologna
  • Innsbruck
  • London
  • New York City
  • Richmond
  • Yorkshire
Zwift London
In addition to Watopia, Zwift’s ‘always on’ world, there is a rotating list of guest worlds such as London…
Zwift

Each of these worlds has a number of preset courses for you to ride, or you can just pedal freely around each map.

There is a catch, though. On any particular day, there will only be two worlds available to ride. Watopia (Zwift’s original and most fully featured virtual world) and a ‘guest world’ (one of the others).

Zwift New York
..and a futuristic take on New York.
Zwift

This might sound restrictive, but Zwift is designed to be a social platform, and this stops the user base spreading out too thinly across the platform. With this feature in place, you’ll always have other people to ride with (and against).

If you want to know when a particular world will be available to ride, you can see the schedule for the coming month on the right of the World Choice screen.

Zwift Harrogate
Zwift recently recreated the Harrogate finishing circuit from the 2019 UCI World Road Championships in Yorkshire, as a guest world.
Zwift

How do I join a group ride on Zwift?

Once setup and ready to go, you can start exploring Zwift’s virtual world as you please, but there’s also the option to join a group ride.

When you log in to Zwift, you’ll see a list of upcoming rides and races on the upper-right of the Mac/PC screen. On the Mobile Link app, you can see a more detailed list with descriptions, times and more information. You can also go to http://zwift.com/events/ for a full list.

To join, just click the ride. On most group rides you can self-select the level of intensity, from A to D (we’ve outlined what these categories mean in the racing section below). Group rides are categorised to ensure everyone rides together.

Zwift group workouts
You can join group workouts via the Events page. On these rides, the group is tethered together, so as long as you keep riding, you won’t get dropped.
Zwift

If you are not yet riding, you can receive a reminder. If you are already riding and an event is starting soon, you can join, and when the start time gets close, your avatar will be transported to the start line, where you can warm up on a virtual trainer while waiting to start.

In the start corral, you can see the other riders who will be doing the event, and your instant message chats will be seen only by others in that group.

Most events have a ride leader who you can follow, and you can read their comments on screen as you go. For mellower rides, the group leader often communicates to keep the group together.

Can I race on Zwift?

Yes, you can race on Zwift. Doing so is as easy as joining any other event or group ride on the calendar – you simply choose a race from the events list, choose which category you want to compete in and sign up.

Categories for racing are based on Functional Threshold Power (FTP), in watts per kilogram (w/kg):

  • A = 4.0 w/kg and above
  • B = 3.2-3.9 w/kg
  • C = 2.5-3.1 w/kg
  • D = 2.4 w/kg and below

If you don’t know your FTP you can use one of the FTP tests available in Zwift’s Workouts page.

Once you’ve selected a category and signed up for a race, Zwift will automatically take you to the race start when the race is about to begin.

Have your water bottles, an XXL fan and towel ready, because if you have to stop mid-race, you’ll get dropped and left behind immediately.

Make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get warmed up too, Zwift races are notorious for starting fast – some people even pump up the watts just before the start to get a jump on everyone else.

Be aware that drafting is also thing even in virtual racing! Try to use this to your advantage, just like in the real world.

What does w/kg mean?

W/kg simply means ‘watts divided by kilograms’. It’s also known as your ‘power-to-weight ratio’, and it’s a key figure in determining performance on a bike in both Zwift and the real world.

On a flat road, the absolute amount of power someone can produce is a key metric. But when the road goes uphill you also have to overcome the force of gravity, and the greater your total mass (body and bike), the more power is required to accelerate to, or maintain, a certain speed.

Zwift uses your w/kg at FTP firstly to determine how fast your avatar moves in the virtual world, especially uphill

With that in mind, the wattage you can produce per kilo of body weight becomes the key metric on any significant hill.

Zwift uses your w/kg at FTP firstly to determine how fast your avatar moves in the virtual world, especially uphill. Beyond that, it also uses w/kg at FTP to set categories and intensity levels for group rides, races, workouts and training plans.

As you might have figured out, it’s pretty easy to cheat the system by simply entering your weight as lower than it really is. But, as the old saying goes, you’d only be cheating yourself…

What are PowerUps?

PowerUps are one of the ways Zwift gamifies the platform. They give you either an immediate quantity of experience points (XP), or a way to temporarily boost your avatar’s speed.

They’re awarded randomly whenever you pass through a start/finish, KOM or sprint arch. A bit like on Mario Kart, if you already have an unused PowerUp when you pass through an arch, you won’t get another.

There are currently seven different PowerUps in Zwift:

  • Large Bonus: Instantly gives you 250 XP points
  • Small Bonus: Instantly gives you 10XP points
  • Feather Lightweight: Symbolised by a feather, this reduces your weight by 9kg for 15 seconds. Best saved for use on a steep climb, where it will make the biggest difference to your speed.
  • Truck Draft Boost: Symbolised by a van, increases the draft effect by 50% for 30 seconds. This is a PowerUp for riding at speed on the flats, where drafting has the biggest effect.
  • Helmet Aero Boost: Reduces your avatars aerodynamic drag by 25% for 15 seconds. This is useful when riding solo on the flat or at high speeds.
  • Breakaway Burrito: Makes you ‘undraftable’ for 10 seconds. Best used when trying to break away from a group.
  • Invisibility: Symbolised by a ghost, this makes you invisible to other riders for 10 seconds. Best used when trying to breakaway from a group or solo rider – try to establish a gap before you reappear and everyone realises what you’ve done.

PowerUps can be activated at any time by hitting the spacebar on your computer, or via the Zwift Companion app – just touch the on-screen PowerUp icon. Once activated, timed PowerUps will show a timer showing how long your PowerUp has left to run.

If you’re in the middle of a structured workout, or on a TT bike, you can only acquire Small and Large Bonus PowerUps – so you can’t use them to make your training any easier, sadly.

Can I use Zwift for structured workouts?

Training Plans
There a lots of different training plans, all with a different goal. You can choose a broad plan for building general fitness, or choose something more specific.
Zwift

Absolutely, this is one of Zwift’s key features.

Zwift has over a thousand structured workouts (which are essentially interval training sessions) to choose from – or you can build your own – and you can even sign-up for long-term training plans.

You can choose a plan to target specific events or weaknesses, such as ‘TT-Tune Up’ – which, as the name suggests, focuses on the aerobic power and top-end fitness required for time trialling. Or there are broader plans such as ‘FTP Builder’, designed to increase your general fitness and Functional Threshold Power in a short amount of time.

These plans have been put together by real coaches and are designed to be flexible, so if life gets hectic, you can easily move sessions around to fit in with everything going on in the real world.

Zwift's training plans
Zwift’s training plans can be adjusted for duration to fit your needs.
Zwift

All structured training on Zwift is based around your w/kg at FTP, so you really need some sort of power measuring device – a smart indoor bike, smart trainer or power meter – to get the most out of this feature.

If you’re on a smart indoor bike, or a smart trainer, then there’s an option to allow Zwift to control the resistance in ERG mode. This will override any changes in course gradient, and change the resistance according to the specified wattages in the workout. This is a great way to ensure you’re hitting the prescribed wattage and getting the most out of every training session.

If you don’t have a power measuring device, Zwift will try to approximate your power output using data from your speed/cadence sensor and information about whatever trainer you’re using. As these numbers are just estimates though, the training zones and data generated won’t be as accurate as they could be.

How do I do a Zwift workout?

To do a workout on Zwift, log in, then click on ‘Training’, underneath the ‘World Choice’ section in the middle of the window.

This will open up a new window, where you’ll see two tabs. One for single workouts and another for training plans with multiple sessions.

If you’ve already set your FTP, then you can simply select a workout and get going.

If you’re new to Zwift, it’s worth doing an FTP test to get an accurate baseline figure for Zwift to base your workouts around.

Zwift Training Plans
To try to prevent you from overtraining, workouts in a Zwift training plan only unlock after a specified amount of recovery time has passed.
Zwift

In addition to workouts that you do on your own, at any time, there are also scheduled group workouts. Like a group ride in the real world, these start at fixed times (so you have to sign up for them in advance via the events page) and involve multiple participants.

Very much unlike the group rides and races, though, group workouts keep everyone together in a group. As long as you are pedalling, you stay in the bunch.

The group chat function works well in group workouts

As with the individual workouts, your efforts are based on your FTP. However, in group workouts, Zwift tethers everyone together so the end result is like being in an indoor cycling class: you are all following the same workout together, but at different individual efforts according to your fitness.

The group chat function works well here, in that the only messages you see (and send) are pertinent to the group.

How do I upload my Zwift rides to Strava?

You can link your Zwift account with Strava, and ensure your efforts appear on the KOM/QOM leaderboards.

There are two ways to do it. On the Zwift Companion app (on an iOS or Android device ) or via zwift.com.

On the Zwift Companion app, tap ‘More’ in the bottom right corner, then tap into ‘Settings’. From there, tap ‘Connections’ and you’ll find Strava at the top of the list. Simply tap the + icon and you’ll be asked to enter your login details for Strava. Once that’s done, your accounts will be synced and your Zwift rides will upload to Strava automatically.

Zwift HUD Alpe du Zwift
Each world contains a multitude of virtual Strava KOM/QOM’s to post times on, including the monstrous Alpe du Zwift.
Zwift

You’ll know you’re connected if the Strava logo appears in colour and the + sign has changed to a tick.

On zwift.com, the process is very similar. Login to your account, then click on ‘Settings’ in the top left corner.

In settings, click on ‘Connections’. Click on ‘Connect’ under the Strava logo and enter your Strava login details when prompted. You’ll then automatically be directed back to Zwift where the Strava logo should now be in colour, instead of greyed out.

How do I customise my Zwift avatar and bike?

Yes, we’re all individuals! In Zwift you can customise the appearance of your rider and your bike. Head to the preferences section of the menu and you can toggle through a number of choices for how your avatar and bike look in the ‘Drop Shop’.

As you ride and complete challenges, you’ll earn XP and in-game currency (known as Drops). As you level up you’ll unlock more bikes and wheels on which to spend the currency you earn. Be warned though, if you want the best bikes, you’ll need to put in a lot of hours on the bike (unless you’re willing to resort to more nefarious means).

Zwift Drop Shop
Zwift allows you to customise the look of your avatar and you can also spend in-game currency, earned through riding, on new bikes and wheels in the Drop Shop.
Zwift

Unlockable bikes and wheels are also more aerodynamic or lighter (and sometimes both) than the basic kit available when you start. So the kit you unlock will actually make a difference to your avatar’s speed in the virtual world, not just how it looks

To get a BikeRadar kit, press “P” after you sign in and enter the code “BIKERADAR”. Or just navigate to the jersey selection and move the slider over until you find our Sportful kit.

How do I chat in Zwift?

When using a computer, press ‘M’ and then just start typing. Your messages will be seen by riders near you.

When using the Zwift Companion app, you can use the Group Text button to chat with riders in your same group or race. You can also hit the chat box next to an individual rider to send a private message.

The easiest way is probably using the talk-to-text function on an Android or iOS device. To do this, hit the mic icon after you have brought up the message box.

Can I report riders for bad behaviour?

On the whole, Zwift is pretty civil, but you might encounter a few problems.

For starters, it is impossible to crash or be crashed by someone. If you feel like someone is acting inappropriately, you can flag them with the Zwift Companion app.

You can also flag other riders for foul language, harassment or suspicious power output. This last category Zwift has set as ‘flier’ – basically meaning if you see someone flying past you at a sustained 8+ watts per kilogram, then something is up.

Zwift has power profiles for world-class performances for various durations. So if a rider gets flagged, and Zwift looks at their file and sees they are indeed producing phenomenal power, then the rider will receive a message along the lines of ‘hey, you should be pro!’, with a recommendation to check their settings and a notification that their ride is invisible to other riders.

That rider will still be able to complete their ride and see other people in the game, but they will just be invisible to others.

Two things can cause supernatural power in Zwift: inaccurately entering weight (and thus altering that w/kg figure) or having a trainer improperly set up.

FutureWorks steering

One of the more recent innovations on Zwift is the steering functionality found in a section of the Titan’s Grove area of Watopia.

It works via the Zwift Companion app, and uses the accelerometers in your smartphone to sense the left and right movement of your handlebars and control your avatar. This obviously means your smartphone needs to be mounted to your handlebars in some way.

The steering segment is around 2 miles long, and is (naturally) timed for an element of competition. Zwift will also score how well you take the corners.

If you can complete the segment in under 12min 30sec with a 100 percent score, you’ll unlock the Zwift mountain bike and mountain wheels.

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Zwift says this new feature will also be integrated into the recently launched Wahoo, Tacx, Stages and Wattbike smart bikes over the coming months.