Zwift: what is it and how does it work?

Popular virtual training app Zwift is used globally by both beginner triathletes and pros. But what exactly is it and how does it work? Let us explain...

Zwift: what is it and how does it work?

Zwift has grown in popularity over the past few years and chances are you’ll have heard about it somewhere, whether in a magazine, on TV or at your local tri club. Here, Elise Metcalf breaks down exactly what it is and how you can use it.

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What is Zwift?

Zwift is an online running and cycling platform that allows users to train, interact and compete in a virtual world. By connecting a bike with a smart turbo trainer, or a treadmill with a RunPod device, users can join a community of runners and riders, clocking up miles from the comfort of their own home.

What equipment do I need to train on Zwift?

Zwift requires the user to have their own bike. Most cyclists use road bikes, but mountain bikes and hybrids are also compatible with the software. A trainer is then attached to the back of the bike, giving resistance and stability. There are several turbo trainers on the market that users can choose from, which vary by brand, price and functionality.

Smart trainers provide the optimal experience, automatically adapting resistance according to the gradient of the route and creating a more realistic experience.

If you’re a runner, you’ll need a Zwift RunPod, which is a lightweight device that attaches to your running shoe. It tracks your speed, cadence and distance while you run on a treadmill, powering your avatar in Zwift’s virtual world.

What can I do on Zwift?

From casual rides through volcanic terrain to progressive training plans and hardcore races, Zwift accommodates all kinds of athletes. When you log on, you can select which Zwift world you’d like to train in. ‘Watopia’ is Zwift’s imaginary world, with varied landscapes and impressive scenery, while true-to-life routes include London, New York City and Innsbruck.

Just Ride vs training sessions

Selecting ‘Just Ride’ allows you to explore routes at your own pace. The turbo trainer automatically adapts the resistance to replicate the steep climbs or epic downhills that you may experience as part of your ride.

Selecting a specific training session or plan will utilise the ‘Erg Mode’ function on your trainer. This adjusts the resistance of the trainer while you ride so that you’re delivering the correct power output for each interval. These pre-set power or cadence targets allow you to improve your strength and tailor sessions to a specific goal.

When you join Zwift, you’ll have the opportunity to do a functional threshold power (FTP) test. This identifies the maximum power you can reasonably hold for an hour-long time trial, though this is usually calculated over the course of a 20-minute test. Based on this power output, Zwift will adapt your training settings, ensuring workouts are individualised to your ability and push you to your limits where required.

Group rides and Zwift races

Group rides and races are also popular features on Zwift. You can meet up with friends or join organised group rides, interacting with other riders through a messenger function. Group rides have a predetermined pace and usually have a leader setting the course for the duration of the cycle.

Races are scheduled for different ability categories, allowing riders to compete against other users of a comparable level. They are a great way to challenge yourself and channel your competitive energy. As you ride more on Zwift, you can unlock new equipment and jerseys. This not only motivates your training, but also ensures that your Zwift avatar is always looking fresh.

How much does Zwift cost?

The question on everyone’s lips! Zwift has a standard monthly membership fee of £12.99 per month. This gives you access to everything on the software, including running and cycling features. A seven-day trial is available so that you can give it a try before committing, and the subscription can be cancelled or paused at any time.

Tempted to give Zwift a go? Check out our turbo trainer reviews to get you started, then head over to the Zwift website to begin your free trial.

Elise Metcalf is an amateur triathlete with an avid interest in exercise, nutrition and performance. 

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Top image credit: Tim de Waele/Getty Images