Ride, train, and race with friends, all without leaving your house. It sounds too good to be true. Yet with Zwift, the online cycling game and training program, it’s possible.
Started by Alarik Myrin and Eric Min in 2015, Zwift is all about turning indoor cycling, which can admittedly be tedious, into an immersive, interactive, and social experience. The program has quickly become a favorite for indoor cycling enthusiasts, so we decided to see what all the fuss was about.
After checking it out, we created this: the ultimate guide to Zwift. By the time you’re done reading it, you’ll know everything you need to get started on the platform and then some. We’ll cover what Zwift is in detail and how it works. Then, we’ll discuss pricing and equipment needs.
After that, we’ll delve into setting up an account. And then, we go exploring through Zwift’s many virtual worlds. We’ll talk about the game’s finer details, and we’ll answer a few frequently asked questions.
There’s no doubt that reading this guide to Zwift will provide everything you need to know about it. Whether you want to get fit, train with friends, or enter competitive races, joining Zwift is an excellent decision, and we’re here to answer all your questions.
What Zwift Is
As mentioned, Zwift is a cycling game and training program. You pedal your smart bike or trainer to move a customized avatar through a virtual course. The virtual course is filled with other avatars controlled by various players around the world. So there’s always someone to race against no matter when you decide to work out.
Zwift has several different virtual worlds, and within each one are various roads and routes to explore. The differing virtual spaces keep things exciting. Constant updates and new worlds will keep you coming back for more.
You can join up with groups or teams within the game. You can also participate in real race events. On top of that, Zwift offers several pre-designed workouts and structured training programs.
Using smart learning algorithms, gamified elements like points and badges, and immersive graphics that keep you engaged, Zwift makes indoor cycling fun and effective.
Best of all, the company is still growing, which means there will be more course content and engaging features to come. With regular updates and a constant stock of new users to compete with, Zwift blocks indoor workout boredom completely.
How Zwift Works
Zwift works using a power meter, smart trainer, or speed/cadence sensor with Bluetooth attached to your bike. Using an algorithm, Zwift translates the information from the meter or sensor into your avatar’s output in the game. The harder and faster you pedal, the better your avatar competes.
The algorithm takes into account your weight and calculated power. It also factors in the virtual course conditions. Draft from other riders and the road’s gradient affect your avatar’s performance.
Your equipment has a significant effect on how you’ll experience the game overall. We’ll touch more on that below, but know that having a smart trainer is ideal. Smart trainers will adjust your resistance automatically to match what’s happening in the game. The automatic resistance adjustment gives you a better and more immersive workout experience.
Zwift works with iPads and Android tablets. You can also run it through your computer, either a PC or a Mac. It won’t feel as immersive, but it works on smartphones too. Our favorite way to use it, though, is through an Apple TV. An Apple TV allows you to connect to a large screen, making the game more immersive and fun.
Zwift costs less than most gym memberships, and you’ll probably use it more often. New users can try the platform for seven days for free. After that, it’s $14.99 per month.
If you buy a trainer through Zwift’s online store, they’ll include one month free rather than seven days. Buying equipment through Zwift isn’t the most cost-effective way to train. Much of it is expensive. But buying from Zwift does ensure compatibility and the best game experience possible.
Equipment You Need
To run Zwift, you need a few pieces of equipment:
- Trainer or rollers
- Device to run Zwift on
- Power Meter or Speed/Cadence Sensor (if you don’t have a smart bike or smart trainer)
A trainer holds the bike in place, and in the case of a smart trainer, it will feed information to the game and back to the bike. You could purchase rollers or an indoor bike instead of the trainer; the game experience just won’t be quite as immersive. Check out our guide to the best two smart trainers you can currently buy Tacx NEO 2T v Wahoo Kickr.
If your trainer, or trainer alternative, isn’t “smart,” meaning it doesn’t send or receive game data, you’ll need a power meter to go with it. Power meters work for traditional cycling too, so it’s a great option if you plan on heading outside some days. As long as your power meter connects to Bluetooth, it should work with Zwift. It will feed the game information just like a smart trainer would; it just won’t be quite as accurate.
For an even cheaper alternative, you could use a speed/cadence sensor attached to your trainer. It’s not very accurate, but it’s a great way to get started with a minimal investment.
Zwift works with road bikes, mountain bikes, hybrid bikes, and tri bikes. As we mentioned above, it also works with indoor bikes. So, the type of bike you use doesn’t matter in terms of connectivity. Of course, different bikes handle diverse terrain in different ways. And that holds true, even inside the game!
As far as a device to run Zwift on, we mentioned those above. Zwift works with Apple TV, most smartphones, tablets, and computers.
Accessories You’ll Want to Have
You only need a few essentials to enjoy a workout on Zwift, but there are several accessories that make the game far more engaging and fun. To maximize your cycling experience, we suggest considering a fan and a front-wheel riser.
The fan is a given. You’re working out indoors, which means no breeze. When cycling, that can feel suffocating. So having a fan you can place in front of you is ideal.
A front wheel riser will keep your bike level which takes the pressure off your hands and wrists. Many trainers come with one, but if yours didn’t, we recommend investing in one before you start on Zwift.
The Ultimate Zwift Set-Up
Cyclists tend to be passionate about their hobby or sport. Zwift only increases that passion by upping the engagement level, turning pedal pushing into an immersive video game.
So, as you progress, you may find that you want to build a better Zwift setup than what you started with. You’ll reach a point where the speed and cadence sensor just won’t do it anymore, and you want the ultimate advantages that come with more superior equipment.
When you get to that level, here’s what we suggest.
First, invest in a really good bike. Many believe, falsely, that you should use an old bike when you’re placing it on a trainer. That used to be true because old-fashioned trainers could be tough on bike frames. But with modern trainers, that’s not the case. So, use a high-quality bike of your choice, preferably one that you’ll train with outdoors as well.
Next, you’ll want a smart trainer rather than a power meter or regular trainer. Look for one that’s easy to set up, stable, and quiet. The Wahoo Fitness KICKR is a great option and is certified by Zwift itself.
As we mentioned, you’ll need a wheel block or riser as well. For the ultimate setup, though, look into something like the KICKR Climb Trainer. The KICKR Climb Trainer allows you to remove your bike’s front wheel and mount it in a separate piece of equipment.
As you ride, the Climb Trainer simulates hills. You’ll actually feel the bike tip up and down as you traverse inclines and drops throughout Zwift’s universe.
You’ll still want a fan for a breeze, and an Apple TV is the ideal way to connect. On top of that, though, the best Zwift setup will have a large and mounted TV screen. The bigger the screen, the more immersive the game becomes.
Plus, there’s no reason you can’t use your giant screen for movie night when your workout’s done!
Getting Started with Zwift
Once you have your equipment set, it’s time to get started on the Zwift platform. Start by creating an account, then make sure it’s connected to all your 3rd party apps in account customization.
You have to customize your account on Zwift for the gaming experience to work properly. It’s a good idea to connect any third-party applications you’re already using, like Garmin Connect or Training Peaks. Then, fill in all the relevant data about yourself, like height, weight, and age.
You must be accurate with your height and weight, especially. Using that data, Zwift can calculate your speed. Zwift also uses that data to determine your watts per kg.
Your watts per kg are also known as your power number. Your power number is a measure of how much power you’re generating at any one time by pedaling. If you type in an inaccurate weight, your power number and speed won’t mean anything.
Once your details are in and your third-party apps are linked, it’s time to create your avatar. This is the fun part. Pick your avatar’s hair, skin tone, and personal attributes. Then dress them up using a wide selection of helmets, sunglasses, and bright-colored shoes.
Make them look exactly like you, or create an alter-ego. Then it’s on to picking your bike!
You can use a default bike on Zwift for your avatar. There are many to choose from when starting out. As you progress through the game, you can unlock better bike options.
Alternatively, you can use the game’s currency, known as drops, to purchase new accessories. You’ll earn currency as you complete rides, up to 50,000 drops at a time. Then you can head over to the Drop Shop to redeem them for new virtual equipment.
Download the Companion App
Before you start racing, you’ll want to download Zwift’s companion app to your smartphone. It will link you to everything in the Zwift world. With the app installed, you can track down your real-life friends to play, join virtual races, and communicate with the Zwift world at large.
Things To Know: Leveling Up, Challenges, and PowerUps
Interacting with Zwift’s game interface is easy and enjoyable, but there are a few things you should know before you put your virtual helmet on. Let’s talk about how you advance game levels, complete challenges, and gain PowerUps.
Earn XP Points to Level Up
To move up a level in the Zwift universe, you need XP points. The game awards XP points for every mile you ride. You can also earn XP points for completing a new course or by earning a PowerUp (more on that below).
Currently, there are 50 levels in the game to navigate, but as we mentioned before, the Zwift universe is only growing. We expect there will be more levels as time goes on.
Participate in Challenges to Unlock Rewards
Challenges in the Zwift world tend to be fleeting. They appear and disappear at random, or so it seems. If you come across one, completing it could unlock a new bike or earn you some other reward. So, they’re worth participating in.
There are a few fixed challenges in the game, like biking up Mt. Everest. Completing that one earns you a Trek Emonda bike; it also unlocks the chance to continue the climb. Should you take on that challenge, you can achieve the coveted Tron Bike.
In general, though, challenges come and go because they’re often linked to a real-world charitable endeavor. For example, in November of 2019, Zwift hosted a platform-wide challenge in support of Movember, all about awareness of men’s health issues.
Win PowerUps for a Competitive Edge
You can win a PowerUp at any pivotal game moment. You could receive one when you cross a finish line or when you earn a KOM designation.
KOM or QOM stands for King or Queen of the Mountain, respectively. It signifies that you have the best current time on a specific climb and is one of many designations you can earn in the game.
Regardless of when you receive it, earning a PowerUp gives you a strategic advantage. There are nine types of PowerUps; seven of them are performance-enhancing. Two will gain you extra XP points. Below, we’ve listed all of them for reference.
- Small Bonus: Earns you 10 XP points.
- Large Bonus: Earns you 250 XP points
- Lightweight: Reduces your bodyweight for 15 seconds to make uphill attacks easier.
- Draft Boost: Increases the draft you receive off other riders by 50% for 30 seconds
- Breakaway: You become immune to other players’ drafts for 10 seconds, allowing you to break away from the pack
- Helmet Boost: Makes you more aerodynamic for 15 seconds
- Ghost: For 10 seconds, you become invisible to all other players.
- Steamroller: Reduces rolling resistance for thirty seconds, so you’ll ride as if you were on pavement regardless of road conditions.
- Anvil: Increases your weight for 30 seconds so that you can descend faster
Exploring Zwift’s Many Worlds
Now that you have a basic understanding of the game and how it works, let’s dive into Zwift’s virtual universe. Zwift features eight different worlds, but only three are available to users at any given time.
Some users frown at what seems like an unnecessary restriction to the game; why can’t you access any given world at any given time? But limiting world access is a strategic move on Zwift’s part. It keeps everyone playing together on a few courses, which creates more community and competition.
Always available is the mythical world of Watopia. With it, three rotating world maps are open for play at any one time. These include any of the following:
- New York
Within each world, you’ll find multiple routes at varying distances, each with topographical details that make them distinct.
On top of the eight regular worlds, there are also two event-only areas of the game. You can only access Crit City and Bologna TT at scheduled times by participating in group rides or races.
Now that you have a general idea of the Zwift universe layout, let’s look at what each world-map has to offer, beginning with the always available Watopia.
With 54 routes that vary in every way, Watopia is the most diverse of the Zwift worlds to explore. It’s a favorite among Zwift users, and not just because it’s always available to ride within. Watopia allows you to experience things you never could in real life.
This mythical land allows cyclists to traverse an active volcano, conquer the Swiss Alps, and then navigate an underwater tunnel from the comfort of their living room or garage. Here you’ll find the Epic KOM, a 9.5-kilometer climb with an elevation gain of 414 meters.
You’ll also experience the Alpe du Zwift, which is supposedly the most intense climb in the entire game. It’s a GPS-accurate replica of the Alpe d’Huez, a regular Tour de France fixture. The route features 21 hairpin turns and a 1035 meter climb.
Once you’ve reached level ten or higher, you can also explore the Mayan Jungles in Watopia. There, you can twist and turn on gravel paths that lead through ancient ruins.
Or, if you want a real challenge, you can try The Four Horsemen. It’s the most difficult route in Watopia and features a series of four crazy climbs. To complete it, you’ll have to handle the original KOM, the Epic KOM, the Alpe du Zwift, and the Volcano climb. That’s over 2,000 meters of inclined ascent to tackle in one route!
The London map offers 13 routes to try, including Surrey’s infamous Box Hill and Leith Hill. The map’s creators built it in 2016 to mimic the Prudential RideLondon. In real life, the RideLondon is a 100-mile cycling race.
In the Zwift universe, you can participate in a virtual event similar to the Prudential RideLondon festival. You’ll have to climb Box Hill a whopping eleven times, though!
Maybe more exciting about the London map are the many famous sites. You’ll be able to cycle past Big Ben and Buckingham Palace virtually. You can also experience London treasures like Trafalgar Square and the Strand.
Built to mimic the UCI Road World Championships from 2015, the Richmond map offers three variations on one course. You can ride the Full Course, the Cobbled Climbs, or the Flat Loop.
The Full Course provides the most significant challenge. Though it’s only 16 kilometers in length, the course offers a definite obstacle in the form of its terrain. As the race creators put it, you have to “conquer the cobbles,” a nod to the bumpy roads racers faced in Richmond’s 2015 event.
Innsbruck held the UCI Road World Championships in 2018, and just like Richmond, the Innsbruck map replicates the event. There are five different routes to explore here and exquisite graphic detail to enjoy.
The 23.7-kilometer Short Lap is a favorite on this map, but you should try the Lutscher CCW if you want a challenge. This lollipop route has a lead-in and then requires several circuits of steep climbs. Lutscher, by the way, is German for lollipop, in case you were wondering.
Zwift based the Yorkshire map on the 2019 UCI Road Race Championship course. It focuses specifically on the ending circuit, called the Harrogate circuit. You’ll be able to explore the areas in and around the Harrogate circuit via five different routes.
Much of the routes traverse through friendly farmland, where you’ll see cows, sheep, and pigs out to pasture. You’ll also get to cycle down Millionaire’s Row, one of the fanciest places to call home in all of England.
One of our favorite maps to explore is the New York map. Zwift set this world 100 years into the future, making a bright, compelling, and awe-inspiring virtual realm. Glass roads set within the city weave through skyscrapers at towering heights, then drop you off in Central Park for a spell.
Here, the toughest route is called “The Everything Bagel,” and it lives up to its namesake. You’ll climb up steep city streets, then meander through the level paths of the park. It’s an hour of all-out effort made fun thanks to this world’s futuristic flair.
Zwift’s France map launched just ahead of 2020’s Virtual Tour de France. It features eight different routes that take you through quaint villages, vineyards, and fields of flowers.
The idyllic setting isn’t for the faint of heart, however. In this world, you’ll discover Ven Top, the virtual replica of France’s Mount Ventoux. This 21-kilometer climb will take you out of France’s picturesque countryside and into a mountainous moonscape full of boulders and extra windy conditions.
The Paris map launched directly in front of 2020’s virtual Tour de France, just like the France map. This realm has only two routes: Champs-Élysées and Lutece Express.
Both take you through the city streets of Paris, though they travel in different directions. You’ll see well-known shops, theaters, and cafes, as you travel the same route as the world-renowned Bastille Day parade.
Event Only Areas
Crit City and Giro d’Italia Bologna TT are two areas of the game only open for specific events. The Giro d’Italia is a well-known cycling race in the real world. In 2019, Zwift launched the Giro d’Italia Bologna TT course to mimic it.
Zwift designed Crit City to replicate a criterium. A criterium is simply a one-day bike race held on a circuit course. Zwift hosts racing events there often.
On top of everything else in the Zwift universe, the game also offers the Zwift Academy. Zwift Academy acts as a training and talent identification program. Thousands of Zwift users from all across the globe train through a program designed to make them stronger, more efficient, and faster cyclists.
The top man and top woman in the training program receive professional contracts, which is a huge incentive for some to join. Even if you’re not super competitive, though, the Academy is a great way to kick-start your training.
To graduate, you have to complete at least eight workouts and four group rides. Whether you win or lose, your avatar will earn badges and other goodies simply for participating.
Joining the Zwift Academy is especially great if you’re new to the community. It’ll force you to join in on group rides and workouts, and you’ll get to know people as you do. The more people you meet, the more incentive you have not to skip a training session.
Zwift Racing and Training Programs
Zwift is popular with regular users who want to stay in shape, as well as with professional athletes looking to train during the off-season or through an injury. So, Zwift offers a variety of training programs to follow. They also have several competitive races to join.
Zwift offers over 1000 structured workouts to help you reach your fitness goals. Each one will customize intervals based on your current skill level to give you the best possible workout.
But better than that, Zwift also offers long-term training programs. Race-winning coaches design these plans based on your skills as a cyclist. So, whether you’re new to cycling or a veteran racer, Zwift has a training plan that will help you get that much better.
The training programs are included with your Zwift membership and vary based on your goal. There are programs that will help you with endurance races and programs that will help you build strength. Regardless of what you’re trying to improve, Zwift’s coaches seem to have thought of a way to do it.
On top of that, Zwift provides a detailed workout analysis after each training session. You’ll be able to see your effort output, calories burned, and the duration you worked out. If you work with a coach in real life, they can use that data to inform your training program.
If you’re new to Zwift and especially if you’re new to cycling in general, start with the Zwift Cycling 101 program. It will help you learn how many watts you can sustain and for how long. It also provides a mini ramp test at the end of the program. That test will generate an FTP number for you.
FTP refers to functional threshold power. It refers to the particular wattage that, should you stay under it, will allow you to perform for a long duration. However, when you go over it, you become quickly fatigued.
Knowing your FTP is vital for racing. So, if you plan on participating in Zwift races, you’ll need to manually input an FTP or take the Zwift Cycling 101 program.
Using the Zwift companion app, you’ll be able to view and register for Zwift races. Zwift races occur at particular times, and each one has its own set of rules. So, you’ll want to review each race description carefully before signing up.
The races are split into categories, much like bike races are in real life. Categories in Zwift, though, have nothing to do with past race results. They rely on your FTP number. The categories rank from A to E, with A being the most challenging category.
Using Zwift’s training plans is one of the fastest ways to improve your FTP number and move into a more challenging category for racing. There are plans specifically formatted to do this for you and typically take 6-8 weeks to get through.
Whether you’re a beginning or advanced racer, though, you should check out Zwift’s Racing League. Season one of the competition started in 2020 and featured over 1000 teams from all skill levels. Season two is going on now and is sure to be bigger than last year’s was.
Frequently Asked Questions
It’s clear Zwift has a lot to offer an indoor cyclist, and we’ve covered the main points. However, with a gaming universe this big, there are bound to be a few things we missed.
So we put together a list of the most frequently asked questions when it comes to joining Zwift. Let’s see if we can answer them.
Is Zwift Worth it Without a Smart Trainer?
A smart trainer will give you the best Zwift experience. It provides accurate feedback to the game and changes your resistance to mimic virtual road conditions.
To say Zwift isn’t worth playing without a smart trainer, though, is like saying it’s not worth having a cell phone unless you can have the iPhone 12. Zwift is an incredible online community playground.
Even without a smart trainer, you’ll experience a real and engaging workout. So if you can’t afford or don’t want to spend the extra money early on, Zwift is worth it even with a regular trainer or with a power meter attached. If you decide you love cycling and Zwift, you can always invest in a smart trainer as you progress through the game.
How do I Join a Group Ride?
Joining a group ride is easiest from the Zwift companion app. Find the ride you want to participate in, and press the [+] button next to the ride’s title. A prompt will appear asking if you’d like a reminder of the ride’s time.
Before the ride is scheduled to begin, start the Zwift game. Then, start riding in any of the open worlds. Once you do, the game will show another prompt asking if you’d like to join the group ride you scheduled.
Don’t be alarmed if the group ride you want to join isn’t in a world that Zwift offers that day. Start riding in any of the worlds, and the prompt will appear, allowing you to participate in the otherwise closed-off game area.
Does Zwift Feel Harder than Biking Outdoors?
Yes, for many, Zwift does feel harder than biking outdoors. When you’re cycling outdoors, the air is hitting your face, cooling you down as you pedal.
Indoors, there’s no such airflow. That’s why we recommend having a fan you can aim at your face. It will make indoor rides far more comfortable, even if you’re scaling Everest or climbing the Volcano.
We should note, too, that how hard something is, comes down to perception. Many find indoor cycling with Zwift more enjoyable than biking outdoors because of the community and game-like features.
Earning points, competing against friends, and immersive graphics all make your workout more fun. The more fun you consider the exercise, the less difficulty you’ll experience.
Can I Play Zwift without an Internet Connection?
No, Zwift is an internet-based game. You can’t download it and play remotely. You have to be connected to the internet, though you can use multiple devices. For example, you could switch from using your computer screen to your smartphone or tablet as needed.
What is a Ride On?
A “Ride On!” is how Zwift users share encouragement and support. It appears as a big blue thumb over your avatar. When it shows up, it means that another player is impressed by your performance.
You can send a “Ride On!” easily using the Zwift Companion app. In the “Nearby” tab, you can view a list of riders around you in the game. Selecting their name allows you to send them a “Ride On!”. You can also do this via the live screen on the app by selecting the white circle surrounding any player.
In fact, you don’t have to be playing to send a “Ride On!”. Using the app, you can send them to all of your friends at any time. Simply tap the “Ride On!” button below the “Zwifting Now” bar within the app. You’ll send a thumbs up to all your friends at once!
Can I Just Ride on Zwift?
Yes, you can simply ride on Zwift. You do not have to join a race or group ride to play. In fact, for your first ride, it’s probably best to use the “Just Ride” option.
Selecting “Just Ride” will allow you to set your own route and pace, though you’ll still be in one of the virtual worlds permitted that day. This keeps you with all the other players around the world, so you’re still in a community of people, whether you know them or not.
Can I Cancel Zwift at Any Time?
Honestly, once you join Zwift, you probably won’t want to cancel. However, if you need to, Zwift doesn’t make it difficult.
Zwift runs on a monthly subscription that auto-renews. Cancel the auto-renewal, and your Zwift subscription will close out at the end of that month.
If you ever want to return to the game, Zwift will save your progress. So you can always come back and conquer Everest some other time.
The thought of riding a bike indoors used to make our skin crawl. It was such a tedious endeavor; pedaling while staring at a mirror, or worse, the wall! Zwift came along and changed all of that.
With immersive graphics, points and badges, and a competitive community, Zwfit manages to make indoor cycling fun! Simultaneously, with legitimate races, training programs, and the Zwift Academy, they’ve created an effective way to get in shape.
For those who enjoy racing games, want to work out with friends, or want to sharpen their competitive edge, Zwift has plenty to offer. We hope our guide to Zwift, at least, showed you that.
We also hope we answered all of your questions about the Zwift universe. So next time you log on, you’ll know where you want to explore. Whether you’re going for King of the Mountain or just want to stay in shape, Zwift is a great way to reach your goals. We highly suggest joining the game.