The Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Zwift

John Abella
May 8 · 8 min read

A few years ago I got a Peloton and wrote the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Peloton which has been viewed almost 400,000 times now. These days I ride on Zwift a lot and have had some friends ask why I do it, what you need to get started, and why they might be interested.

First a note: this isn’t a thorough review of Zwift — if you want to get crazy about what bikes are fastest, which wheels to use on what race, and all of that — you should go read ZwiftInsider.


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Hey, we’re riding! The screen is a little busy, but don’t panic.

What is Zwift?

Let’s get to it — Zwift is a video game. Or a ‘cycling simulator’ if you want to be more technically correct and think you’re too old for video games. The rider pedals a real-world bike to move their in-game avatar along a virtual course. Contain yourselves, I know it sounds compelling already.

How does it work?

Everything in Zwift is based around power — namely the amount of watts you can generate turning the pedals on your bicycle. That means to start with you need to a bike and a way to measure power. A ‘power meter’ is something that some serious enthusiasts and athletes may have on their bikes already, but it’s not exactly common (or cheap.) By combing your watts with your weight (don’t lie! That’s called ‘weight-doping’) the game can determine how fast your avatar should be going.

If you have a power meter on your bike you can run any ‘dumb’ cycling trainer with a few additional sensors (cadence, speed) and get a decent approximation of how it should all work, but to really make the experience more authentic, you need a ‘smart trainer.’

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Even the slowest amongst us can get lucky every once in a while. King of the Mountain jersey.

Trainers

If you want a deep dive on trainers, go read DC Rainmaker — but we’ll cover the basics here.

Smart trainer (You want this): Broadcasts speed, power, cadence (most do) over Bluetooth and Ant+. Has the ability to change resistance to make it harder to pedal as your avatar in game goes ‘uphill.’

All trainers come in 2 styles: wheel-on or direct drive. A wheel on trainer means that you keep your rear wheel on the bike and it spins against a small metal drum attached to a flywheel. This type of trainer has some drawbacks: you’ll wear out your rear tire, it can slip if you’re putting out a ton of watts, it’s noisier, and they typically can’t replicate very steep inclines the way that a direct drive can.

A direct drive trainer has a cassette (set of rear gears) mounted on it that are appropriate for your bike and you ride with no rear wheel. These are quieter, don’t wear out tires, and can handle larger power outputs. They’re also more expensive and are harder to switch from one bike to another if you have multiple riders.

“Dumb trainer”: Doesn’t talk to the game directly; you need to mount speed and cadence sensors on your bike at the very least. If you have a power meter this can be a workable setup, but it won’t auto adjust to the terrain in-game to make things more or less difficult.

Zwift maintains a list of known-good trainers; starting from this list is a good idea, especially if your goal is to use a dumb trainer setup. Only some of them are modeled well enough in software to give you a ‘Zpower’ score, so if you need to keep it cheap, get one of those. But seriously, a trainer that reads power is like $300 or less these days. Try to get one of those.

Smart Bikes

A new wave of high-end ‘bikes’ that are dedicated to this type of virtual cycling are on the market now. They solve the issue of multiple riders since you can adjust the fit of the bikes quickly. Some of them can increase / decrease the angle of the bike as you go up and down hills, and all of them can simulate hills, measure power and everything else. They’re also super expensive. DC Rainmaker and GP Llama have good write-ups on these options.

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If you found this article helpful, feel free to send me one of these.

Playing the Game

You need a way to actually play the game. You can play on PC / Mac, iPad / iPhone, Android or even AppleTV. The intricacies of each are too much for this article, but they all have good and bad points. I use an AppleTV 4K and it works great with my setup. If you’re going to play on PC or Mac you need a pretty high-end video card. Depending on your setup you may need either a Bluetooth or Ant+ dongle for your PC.

Bikes

You can use any kind of actual bike on your trainer, but in general most people use a road bike. That doesn’t mean people haven’t done it with mountain bikes, hybrids or even fat bikes. There are competing schools of thought; get a beater bike off craigslist so you don’t put wear and tear on your ‘nice’ bike, or use your nice bike so that it’s closer to your outdoor riding experience as far as fit, contact points, etc.

Maps

The world in Zwift is broken down into two main parts:

Watopia: A fictional world with a variety of roads, mountains, deserts, seaside villages, underwater tunnels, volcanoes, jungles, etc. You can find any kind of roads in Watopia, and they’re always available.

Guest Maps: Many of these are modeled on real cities or real road cycling courses. Currently these include sites like: New York City, London, Innsbruck, Yorkshire, Richmond, and Bologna. These are fairly accurate representations… with some artistic freedom. These maps rotate on a schedule.

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This map is from Zwift Insider. Don’t sue me, I love your site.

Types of Rides

You can get into Zwift and just pick a map and ride as long as you’d like. No rules, no minimum speed or effort, just do your own thing. It’s just like going for a ride outside your house, only with better weather and scenery.

Group Rides: You can meet up with your friends or join a pre-arranged group ride. During the pandemic it’s not uncommon for these to have 300–800 riders in them sometimes. Most group rides are rated by how much effort they expect riders to put out — measured in Watts / kg. Start with some “D” class rides just to get a feel. Be aware that anything with like 3+ w/kg is going to be hard!

Workouts: You can pick from a (relatively) limited list of predefined workouts. These are based on your performance alone and require that you do an “FTP Test” to set your performance baseline. This is too much detail for here, but know that you can workout with a group and the group will stick together because even though people are putting out widely varying amounts of power, you’re all in the right ‘zone’ for your own fitness level.

Also note that once you get into workouts you can set something called ‘erg mode’ on smart trainers. If your workout calls for 200 watts, the trainer will set the difficulty appropriately and you need to pedal against it to maintain that wattage. It’ll follow the predefined workout and you just pedal. When riding in ‘erg mode’ — the trainer will ignore the terrain of the course and just maintain the power levels defined by your workout.

Races: Yep, you can race. This gets extremely serious as there are some professional Zwift racers now. If you want to dip your toe in, sign up for ZwiftPower as soon as you start zwifting. Your racing category will be determined by your watts / kg — or your power to weight ratio. You’ll need to have a heart rate monitor for your race results to count.

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Riding in a big group is fun. We ended up going through that volcano.

Challenges:

When you start — sign up for one of the three current challenges:

  • Climb Mt. Everest
  • Ride the length of California
  • Ride the length of Italy

There are rewards for each (the ultimate reward is the ‘Tron Bike’ — but that takes a lot of work) but many people don’t sign up for them right away and find them later only to realize they should have signed up in the beginning.

Other gear you need:

You should get a fan. Seriously, you’re going to need a fan. You need a heart rate monitor. You’re going to need towels, and you probably want a mat under your bike since you’re going to sweat.

Running:

Oh yeah — you can run in Zwift as well! You need a ‘foot pod’ and a treadmill, but otherwise it’s similar. I haven’t done it much, but I’ve done a few runs and it’s better than staring at a wall.

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Who wears short shorts? We all do when you’re Level 1 in Zwift running.

Other apps:

You can (and probably should) hook your Zwift account up to send your rides to Strava. They don’t have to be publicly viewable, but you’ll get better tracking and metrics through Strava than you will with Zwift alone.

If you want to really nerd out on data, you need Veloviewer.

What if I want to get more serious?

Like I said at the start, Zwift is a game. It’s fun, there are pros riding in it and lots of serious racing happening in it this year. If you want absolute training with less ‘game mechanics’ — you probably want Sufferfest or Trainerroad.

Compared to Peloton

I love both platforms, and without Peloton I never would have been in shape enough to ride on Zwift as much as I do. They’re very different though — you’ll never have an instructor telling you what to do, nobody will encourage you other than your friends, there’s no leaderboard for general riding, etc.. I tell people that Peloton is spinning (and everything else) and Zwift is cycling.


John Abella has ridden about 2,200 miles in Zwift and nerds out on his data on a daily basis. Find him on Zwift, Strava, ZwiftPower, Peloton (Waterhouse), Twitter, etc…

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