A beginner's guide to Zwift

From what it is to what you need – here's everything you need to know to get started on Zwift.

This article is produced in association with Zwift

Zwift has revolutionised cycling and indoor training over the past few years, with everyone from novices to Tour de France winners using the platform to improve their fitness and form. 

But what exactly is Zwift? How does it work? What do you need? And how does a virtual place called Watopia really make you a better cyclist?

What is Zwift?

Zwift is an online training platform founded in 2014 where riders use their own bike on a trainer or a static bike (more on this later) to move their virtual avatar around a virtual course.

Users can simply pick a map (we’ll get to this, too) and go for a spin, or take part in one of the many thousands of specified training workouts, race against other online participants and ride in the multiple virtual worlds - whether that’s the imaginary and mythical Watopia or recreations of real-world cities and parcours. 

It’s the perfect way to keep training when the weather’s bad outside, but it’s also valuable for those who are restricted by the amount of time they can train or for riders who require a focused training session devoid of the variables that come into play when riding on the road. 

What separates Zwift from simply riding on the rollers is that the platform is enjoyable, sociable and offers a visual and animated screen to draw the attention to, a far better alternative to staring blankly at your garage wall.

Rider using Zwift Zwift's animated online world (Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

How does it work?

Put simply, the online avatar is moved on the screen by the amount of watts a cyclist creates in each pedal revolution, with the user riding a bike that is able to measure power (through the use of a power meter or speed and cadence sensors) or a smart trainer (see below). 

The faster you pedal, the faster the avatar will move; if you stop pedalling, so will the online impersonation. 

Zwift have an extensive list of ride options covering non-structured riding, organised races, time trials and social rides, with users able to filter the events to their desire and capabilities. Everyone starts on level one with riders accumulating experience points that can progress them to level 60.

To have unlimited access to Zwift’s immersive, online world, a monthly fee costs £12.99.

What do you need?

First up, you’ll have to pay for membership (£12.99 a month; free trial for seven days) and then download Zwift on all or any one of your smartphones, tablets, laptops or smart TVs. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have an avatar and can play the game.

You can then simply connect to Zwift by riding your bike on a turbo trainer, but be aware that the two have to be compatible with the software and sync together. 

There are two types of turbo trainers. The cheapest is the one where the wheels of your bike (road, gravel, hybrid, mountain - any type!) simply spin against a metal drum that is attached to the flywheel, and Zwift will do a pretty good job of estimating your watt output by using the Bluetooth or ANT+ speed and cadence sensors attached to the turbo trainer.

It’s a good option if you’re working within a tight budget and social rides are your main priority, but work less well if serious, intense training needs to be undertaken as the wheel can slip and slide, and the noise generated is far more significant than direct drive trainers.

Direct drive trainers work by removing the rear wheel and connecting the bike’s frame onto a stationary trainer that has a cassette mounted on it. Basically, you’ll be riding without a back wheel. These replicate training efforts much better, permit Zwift to control the resistance of the trainer, and result in better and more realistic workouts.

Ultracyclist Laura Scott using a smart trainer with Zwift in her living room Ultracyclist Laura Scott using Zwift in her living room (Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images)

There is a third option, and one that is even better. Welcome to the world of smart bikes that have been created entirely for indoor cycling use on platforms such as Zwift.

Resembling the basic shape of a spinning bike, smart bikes are different from what you may have seen in a gym class as they accurately measure power, heart rate and cadence and simulate the riding experience outside through the change in gradients and resistance.

How much will all this set you back? You can get simple spin-on-wheel trainers for as cheap as £100, but if you’re looking to eke out major performance gains, smart trainers from Wahoo, Stages and Wattbike can see you spending up to £3,000. 

What else could I need?

As we’ve seen, you don’t need too much to get started, but once you’re hooked (and this will happen…) the shopping list invariably grows as the fascination with Watopia becomes ever more pronounced.

The biggest purchase away from the membership and a trainer is a fan. Believe us, it’s worth the outlay. If you’ve never cycled furiously inside a pain cave (the term used for the room in which the Zwifter trains in), then you’ve never experienced the hot, sticky, humid, smelly sensation that this generates in a small, confined space. A fan significantly helps the ambience - and riding experience. On a similar note, crack a window open in the room you’re using if possible, as improved ventilation and airflow is far better than the alternative.

It’s a good idea to buy a mat for your trainer to rest on, while you’ll also want access to towels to wipe away all that sweat. Some brands even produce on-bike towels that wrap around the top tube and handlebars.

You can go overboard and decorate your pain cave to your heart’s content, but another good purchase is a sturdy table to rest your phone/tablet/laptop device on, as well as a place to hold said towels, food and water.

And, finally, we can’t forget a speaker or headphones. You need music to pump you up, so turn the volume up and spin your avatar through the virtual worlds.

What are the maps?

Speaking of which, let’s enter the strange phenomena of Watopia and the other worlds it’s spawned. 

Watopia is a fictional world that sees the rider’s avatar pass through ever-changing landscapes of mountains, jungles, underwater tunnels, quiet villages and bustling cities. Whatever type of road or challenge you crave, Watopia can provide it - as if by magic. Who’d have thought that one day we’d be able to punish ourselves on 25% gradients from our spare bedroom.

Then there are guest maps that imitate actual cities or are virtual replicas of race parcours, such as the courses used in the Road World Championships.

Throughout the virtual race courses there are virtual sprints and King and Queen of the Mountains, with the fastest riders awarded a designated jersey. It’s exactly like the real-world version of cycle racing, right?

Read more: What's new on Zwift this winter? 

What are the different types of rides?

You can log-in, select a map and start turning the pedals. But you can also take it a step further and really feel the innumerable benefits of Zwift.

Group rides see upwards of hundreds of users all riding the same virtual course, with people able to communicate to one another via headsets or gaming keyboards. Group rides - as in real-life - can be slow or fast, and riders can select the level they wish to ride in, and because riders are grouped according to their watts/kg output, everyone is on a similar level and in theory able to keep up.

Rides are rated in watts/kg categories - anything under 2.5w/kg will be leisurely but anything over that and there won’t be so much chatting.

Workouts are exactly what they sound like: focused training sessions designed to improve performance and fitness. There are countless options, but to get started you must do an FTP test to establish your performance baseline. Pre-defined workouts are easy to find and partake in with your only job being you have to follow the instructions and maintain the power levels demanded of you by the workout. Easy, huh?

What may have seemed ludicrous just a decade ago is now big business. Yes, people do race their bikes online. It’s so big that there’s even an official UCI Cycling eSports World Championships now, and a handful of Zwifters have turned professional on the road thanks to their racing exploits on Zwift.

Read more: How do professional riders use Zwift in the off-season? 

Elinor Barker of Great Britain in action during the inaugural UCI Cycling eSports World Championships from her home in ManchesterElinor Baker of Great Britain in the UCI Cycling eSports World Championships (Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com)

There are many, many racing options now - anything from hill climbs, time trials or simulations of bunch racing. One extra thing on this - a heart rate monitor is necessary if you want your results to count.

Can I cheat?

It’s possible - but don’t!

There is a thing called weight doping which is where the rider lies about their weight to give them a higher watts per kilo number. It’s controversial - as you’d expect - and we don’t need to say more. Be honest, please, and don’t pretend you weigh less than you actually do.

Anything else to know?

We all know the adage - if it isn’t on Strava, did it even happen? It also extends to Zwift, and thankfully they’ve got the option of connecting with Strava ensuring that every online workout is visible to analyse over on Strava as well.

Your online avatar is what other users will see as you race past them at furious speeds - and you can customise it however you like. Likewise you can change your online bike and its components as you progress through the game.

And, finally, it’s unlikely that you’ve ever been for a ride with a pro on the open roads, but the world’s best often log on to Zwift for social rides, meaning that, yes, you really can say you have ridden alongside Geraint Thomas or Mathieu van der Poel. 

Cover image by SWpix.com