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Complete Beginners Guide to Riding Indoors on Zwift

by Zach Nehr

Blog ▸ Complete Beginners Guide to Riding Indoors on Zwift

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.

It’s no secret that Zwift is the world’s most popular indoor cycling app. The company has been around for less than a decade, but Zwift can count more than four million users as of early 2022. In this post, we’ve put together a complete beginner’s guide to riding indoors on Zwift. 

The prospects of indoor training can be overwhelming for new cyclists or those new to indoor training. You will need specific equipment, apps, and wireless connections that you may have never heard of before. 

But once you get started on Zwift, you’ll be happy that you did. On Zwift, you can test your fitness, ride with others, tackle new routes, or race against anyone worldwide. 

In this article, we’re first going to explain indoor training and why Zwift is the most popular indoor training platform. Next, we’ll discuss indoor training equipment and everything you need to get started on Zwift. Finally, we’ll give you a complete list of indoor training gear to make your turbo training sessions much more comfortable. 

Here is a list of everything that we’ll discuss in this post: 

Beginner’s Guide to Riding Indoors on Zwift:

  • What is Indoor Training?
    • Virtual Training Apps
      • Zwift
  • What Can You Do on Zwift?
    • Solo Training
    • Structured Workouts
    • Training Plans
    • Training Plans
    • Group Rides
    • Races
    • Zwift Companion app
  • The Best Ways to Use Zwift
    • Apple TV
    • Laptop
    • iPad
    • Phone
    • Computer
  • Indoor Training Equipment
    • Smart Trainers
    • Direct Drive Trainers
    • Wheel-on Trainers
    • Other Types of Indoor Trainers
  • Accessories for Indoor Training
    • Fan
    • Trainer mat
    • Towels

What is Indoor Training?

Indoor training is any means of riding a stationary bike, usually indoors. Technically, you can ride an indoor trainer (also called a turbo trainer) anywhere, including your porch, patio, or at the top of a mountain. 

In most cases, indoor training refers to bike-specific trainers and apps that allow cyclists to ride indoors. There are two main sub-types of indoor trainers: smart trainers and dumb trainers.

A smart trainer has the ability to wirelessly connect to indoor training apps, and automatically adjust its resistance for workouts and gradient simulation. ‘Dumb trainers’ are basic indoor trainers that do not have the ability to connect to external apps, nor can they automatically adjust their resistance for a workout or virtual gradient simulation. Dumb trainers are the most popular type of indoor trainer, especially for beginner athletes, because they are affordable and user-friendly.

The beauty of modern indoor training is that it is done with a smart trainer connected to virtual platforms that allow you to ride through virtual worlds and connect with other cyclists worldwide. Like any other social media, an indoor training app connects to the internet. Thus, you can connect with anyone else on that app. 

Virtual Training Apps

A virtual training app is an electronic program that wirelessly connects to a turbo trainer, creating an immersive virtual riding experience for all levels of cyclists. These apps work in the same way as any other simulator. As you pedal on the bike (on the indoor trainer), you will see your avatar move in the virtual world, your avatar’s power and speed matching yours. 

Zwift is the most popular indoor training app, while there are countless others and more seemingly popping up every week. TrainerRoad, Rouvy, Wahoo x RGT, and Peloton are the other most popular virtual training apps. 

Each virtual training app has its own set of functions and features, and in this article, we are focusing on Zwift. 

Zwift

As the most popular virtual training app in the world, there is a reason that Zwift is leading the way. There are many reasons. 

Zwift is an online training platform that has all the features that most indoor cyclists ask for. Plus, they are constantly adding and innovating to their platform. You can download Zwift (and most other indoor training apps) on iOS, Mac, Windows, or Android.

Most cyclists use Zwift on a TV or laptop, but you can also use Zwift on your phone. If you want to use Zwift on a TV, you will need to broadcast Zwift using an HDMI cable or Apple TV, for example.

Here is a quick guide to everything that you can do on Zwift. 

What Can You Do On Zwift?

Solo Training

The first thing that every Zwift rider (or Zwifter) does is complete the solo riding tutorial. Upon opening the app, Zwift places your avatar in downtown Watopia, the center of Zwift’s original and most expansive world. 

To expand on that, Zwift has multiple worlds to choose from, which are different cities and locations you can ride through. Some of these worlds are virtual (Watopia and Neokyo), while others are based on real-life locations (Innsbruck and London). 

Each world has tons of different routes to choose from, ranging from only a few miles to over 65 miles. Each time you complete a new route, you will earn that route’s badge and experience points, which go towards leveling up your profile. We’ll expand on this more below. 

Solo training is one of the most popular Zwift modes because you can hop on the turbo trainer and ride. There are more than 100 routes to choose from, and you can ride at any speed or level of effort. 

Zwift Levels and Unlocks

As you complete new routes and gain experience points (which accumulate for every mile or kilometer you complete), you will level up and earn Drops, which are the equivalent of Zwift currency. But what can you buy in Zwift, a virtual training platform?

You can use Drops to buy new bike frames and wheels for your avatar, which affects your speed and climbing ability. The fastest bikes and wheels are the most expensive (just like in real life), so you’ll have to work hard to get there. 

As you level up, you will also unlock more routes, kits, and clothing which you can use to customize your avatar. 

Structured Workouts and Training Plans

If you’re in the mood to improve your fitness, then Zwift is the platform for you. Many riders use Zwift for the workout function alone, and Zwift has more than 2400 workouts to choose from. That means you could do one new workout every day, and you wouldn’t run out of options for six and a half years!

The mymoTTIV app seamlessly integrates with the Zwift workout feature. mymoTTIV workouts can automatically be sent to Zwift so that you can simply open Zwift and choose from any of the workouts in your mymoTTIV library. This includes access to your training plans and workouts on the mymoTTIV app, all available simultaneously on Zwift.

Every Zwift workout is FTP-based, which means that you will complete intervals at a target power based on a percentage of your functional threshold power (FTP). 

If you don’t know your FTP, Zwift has a couple of different fitness tests to choose from that will reveal your exact FTP. Zwift automatically saves your new FTP, and you can jump right into your next workout. 

There are also more than 12 training plans on Zwift, including plans specific to time trials, gravel racing, and Gran Fondos. Most of these training plans are 6-8 weeks long with 4-5 workouts each week (including endurance and recovery rides). In preparing for your next goal race, you could have your entire training calendar right there in Zwift. 

Group Rides

Zwift group rides have exploded in popularity in the next couple of years. First, the pandemic forced many people onto the turbo trainer, and many of us were craving social interaction while stuck inside. With the cancellations of group rides and races for many months, cyclists turned to Zwift to scratch their group ride itch. 

Zwift group rides are held every hour of every day, and you can join them from the Zwift home screen or the Zwift Companion app on your phone. 

Each Zwift group ride has its own target pace and general rules, so you’ll know exactly what you’re getting into before starting the ride. 

A few months ago, Zwift also introduced pace partners or pace bots, which are informal group rides that run 24/7. Zwift pace bots are virtual riders, almost holograms, that ride at a specific pace around a specific route. Anyone can join these pace partners, and sometimes you will see 200-300 people riding with the pace bot as a group. 

Zwift Races

Zwift has made it to the top of cycling with its racing platform, having hosted the UCI eSport World Championship for the last two years. These were also the first two years before a cycling eSport World Championship was ever held, cementing Zwift’s place in cycling history. 

However, Zwift racing isn’t reserved for the elites. Zwift races, like Zwift group rides, take place every hour, 24/7/365. 

Zwift races are divided into A, B, C, D, E, and women’s only categories. Each group has its own category limits, which are limited by a rider’s FTP. Thus, in any given Zwift race, you will race against riders who are very close to your fitness level. 

Between every Zwift racing and the UCI eSport World Championships, competitive Zwift Racing Leagues are held throughout the year. These leagues offer unique, team-based racing formats and some of the toughest in the virtual cycling world. 

Tens of thousands of riders compete in Zwift Racing Leagues, and most riders cite it as the most fun they’ve ever had on the indoor trainer. 

woman in black and white stripe tank top riding black bicycle

Zwift Companion App

One of the best additions that Zwift has ever made to its platform is the Zwift Companion app. This is a free app that is available on iOS and Android, and it is separate from the Zwift app. 

The Zwift Companion app is like your user dashboard and Zwift’s social media. Via the Zwift Companion app, you can find and sign up for group rides and events, send and receive messages, follow other users, and hand out ‘Ride On’s’ which is a virtual thumbs-up and ‘like’ given during a user’s activity. 

While you can also complete these tasks via the Zwift website, most Zwifters find it easier and more convenient to use the Zwift Companion app via their phone. 

The Best Ways to Use Zwift

Apple TV

Zwifting on an Apple TV is the favorite option for most indoor cyclists. Apple TV helps immerse you in Zwift’s virtual riding world by providing the biggest screen – on a TV, of course. 

The platform of Apple TV is also very affordable compared to other options such as buying a dedicated laptop or computer for Zwift. Plus, when you get Apple TV, you get everything else that comes with that in addition to the ability to use Zwift. 

Apple TV also avoids the problem of running multiple connections between multiple devices during your Zwift experience. The system is as streamlined as it gets since your smart trainer connects directly to Apple TV. 

Laptop

Using Zwift on a laptop is another popular option for Zwifters. A laptop is totally portable, which means that you can bring Zwift with you wherever you go, and you won’t be limited by a TV or computer with Zwift at home. 

While most people already have a laptop, you’ll need a certain power and processing speed to run Zwift. If your laptop fits the bill, great! You can run Zwift without any additional costs. But if your laptop doesn’t have the capabilities of running Zwift, it can be expensive to buy a laptop dedicated to using Zwift. 

iPad or tablet

Running Zwift on an iPad or tablet is halfway in between using Zwift on a laptop or phone. The screen size will probably be larger than a phone, but may not be the size of a laptop, for example. 

iPads and tablets are super portable just like a phone or laptop, but a tablet requires a stand (or a delicate balancing act) for Zwift. Tablets are not as common as laptops or phones, either, so it can be a big purchase to buy a new tablet just for Zwift. 

However, tablets are one of the most popular options for Zwifters who frequently travel because of their lightweight portability. 

Phone

The phone option for Zwift is certainly the most convenient, but it’s also the worst for the user experience. Simply put, a phone screen is too small for a virtual training app like Zwift. 

However, if there is no other option, then using Zwift on your phone is a lot better than not using a virtual training app at all. When you’re on the road and riding for an hour in a hotel room, for example, having Zwift on your phone is the perfect way to pass the time. 

In addition, you can use Zwift to complete workouts. And even if you can hardly see the screen, an ERG mod workout adjusts the resistance for you, allowing you to complete a full indoor training workout using just a phone and a smart trainer.

Computer

The most serious Zwifters connect their training app to a computer, which is often a full-fledged gaming computer. These systems provide the best graphics and run speeds of an option for using Zwift. You can also stream Zwift riding or racing via a gaming computer with HD graphics. 

However, using Zwift on an expensive gaming computer is really reserved for the most serious Zwifters. It can be a costly and permanent setup to put it all together. But if you are serious about Zwift and indoor training, and you have a dedicated indoor training room or studio, then Zwifting on a computer could be a game-changer for you.

Indoor Training Equipment 

One of the most challenging parts of getting started on Zwift is gathering your indoor training equipment. For beginners, it may seem impossible where to begin. But here, we have a quick guide to indoor training equipment. 

First, we’ll discuss the must-haves (turbo trainer and bike), and then we’ll talk about everything else you can get that will add to your experience. Hint: having only an indoor trainer and a bike is not fun. 

Smart Trainers

Smart trainers can wirelessly connect to virtual training apps such as Zwift to simulate virtual gradients and automatically adjust the turbo trainer’s resistance during a power-based ERG mode workout. Smart trainers have an integrated power meter, which means that the trainer itself measures your power output. They also have an integrated cadence sensor that measures your cadence in revolutions per minute (rpm).

These trainers typically use Bluetooth FE-C or ANT+ (also called ant or Bluetooth) wireless technology to connect to the virtual training app. Most of the time, these connections are automatically turned on, and your trainer should connect with your app seamlessly via Bluetooth or ant. 

For beginner indoor cyclists, every turbo trainer manufacturer has their own instruction manual, quick start-up guide, and tutorial videos for setting up their smart trainer. Don’t worry if your trainer isn’t showing up on the app. Sometimes all you need to do is unplug the trainer, then plug it back in. And if that doesn’t work, we guarantee there is a simple fix. 

Cyclists use two main types of smart trainers for indoor training: direct drive smart trainers and wheel-on trainers. 

Direct Drive Smart Trainers

Direct drive smart trainer

Direct drive smart trainers are high-quality indoor trainers that attach directly to your bike’s rear triangle. In order to attach your bike to a direct drive trainer, you need to remove the rear wheel and place the bike’s dropouts on the trainer. 

Known for incredible power accuracy (+/-1–2%), low noise levels, and realistic ride feel, direct drive smart trainers are among the most popular choices for indoor cyclists.

As of this writing, all direct drive trainers are also smart trainers. In contrast, wheel-on trainers may or may not include smart capabilities.  

Wheel-on Trainers

Wheel-on trainer

Wheel-on trainers are cheaper, lighter, and easier to use than direct-drive smart trainers. However, wheel-on trainers have much lower power accuracy, are much louder, and sacrifice a realistic ride feel compared to direct drive trainers. 

Most wheel-on trainers are ‘dumb trainers,’ meaning they do not have smart capabilities. In other words, dumb trainers cannot interact with a virtual training app, simulate virtual gradients, or adjust to a power-based ERG mode workout. 

Most beginner indoor cyclists start with a wheel-on trainer because they are affordable and easy to use. You don’t need to detach any part of your bike. All you need to do is place your rear wheel inside the wheel-on trainer and tighten the clamps. 

Other Types of Indoor Trainers

While direct drive smart trainers and wheel-on trainers are the most popular options, there are a few other types of indoor trainers that you can use. 

Rollers

As the name suggests, rollers are a basic indoor cycling apparatus that uses three different rollers to simulate cycling. Your front wheel sits on the front roller while your rear wheel is between the two rear rollers. 

Nothing attaches your bike to the rollers rather than the tires making contact with each roller. That means that you’ll have to balance your bike and hold it in place once you get going. 

man in black shirt riding on white and orange bmx bike

Rollers are the best indoor cycling simulation because you have to balance and ride in a straight line, just like you would out in the real world. It takes some practice to get comfortable on rollers. Still, they are many cyclists’ favorite indoor training device because they are fun and affordable. 

Many cyclists also use rollers to warm up for races since they are light, foldable, and easy to transport. With no power cord needed, you can ride rollers just anywhere. 

Indoor Smart Bikes

man in black jacket and black pants riding bicycle

Indoor smart bikes are purpose-built indoor cycling machines that can only be ridden inside. They are like fancy spin bikes directly modeled after a road bike. 

For those with the financial means (indoor smart bikes cost upwards of $3,000), an indoor smart bike is said to be the ultimate indoor training experience. The ride feel of an indoor smart bike is superior to all other indoor training machines, and it is quieter than ever. You can customize your fit and gear ratios, which sets indoor smart bikes apart from other indoor trainers. 

Accessories for Indoor Training

To have the best indoor training experience, you’ll want more than just a trainer, bike, and indoor training app. You still want to be comfortable on the indoor trainer, prevent overheating, and keep your training space clean. 

You can add many different accessories to your indoor training setup. Still, we’ve narrowed it down to our top three: fans, trainer mats, and towels. 

Get a Fan!

A high-quality fan is the #1 indoor training accessory that you could argue is a necessity. When you’re riding the indoor trainer, you are completely stationary. That means there is no breeze or wind to help cool you off.

Plus, your indoor training room is probably warm, around 70 degrees, as most indoor buildings are. That combination of temperature and absence of wind means that your core temperature will increase much faster on the indoor trainer. 

Translation: you will get much hotter on the indoor trainer than in comparable outdoor conditions. 

man in black t-shirt riding on orange and black bicycle

A large fan is the best way to stay cool on the indoor trainer, as it simulates the cooling effect of the wind you have on the road. You can even get an industrial-size fan to stay cool during high-intensity workouts and races. And if you have the space, you could even get multiple fans. 

For the ultimate indoor training setup, we recommend having one large fan on the floor in front of you, blowing towards your chest and face, and one medium-size fan behind you, blowing on your back and legs to help prevent overheating. 

Trainer Mat

While a trainer mat isn’t an absolute necessity, it is the best way to protect your floor from sweat and dirt coming from your trainer. A trainer mat will also help your bike remain stable, especially during sprints. 

We recommend a cycling-specific trainer mat that is built with the exact dimensions and level of padding you need. In general, thin mats are better than thicker mats which may feel unstable if there’s not much padding. 

Regardless of which trainer mat you get, ensure that the material can absorb water and sweat, which will be dripping off you. 

Towels

You know by now that you are going to be sweating heavily on the trainer. Even during a recovery ride, you will probably have some perspiration on your head, hands, and arms. 

During a virtual race or a hard workout, you could be dripping sweat onto the floor. Even if you have a trainer mat, you don’t want to soak your bike in sweat. 

In fact, sweat can seep into your handlebar tape, steam bolts, and bottom bracket if you just let it flow. Over time, sweat can actually damage or corrode your bike and its components. We’ve seen whole parts needing replacement after a cyclist let sweat drip onto their bike for the entire winter. 

We recommend getting a medium-size towel that you can drape over your handlebars during an indoor trainer ride. You can also wear a sweatband on your forehead and wrists to capture even more sweat before it drips onto your bike.  

Zach Nehr

Zach Nehr

Zach has a degree in Exercise Science and Psychology. He is a certified coach, Cat 1 cyclist, and is a freelance writer having been published in many of the worlds largest endurance sports publications.