A beginner’s guide to Zwift

Routes, racing, events and bikes: everything you need to know before jumping into Zwift's virtual world of riding and training

Clock09:00, Sunday 10th December 2023

Zwift is an app that lets you ride, train and race in a virtual cycling world with people from all over the globe. You can enjoy group rides with your friends, climb huge mountain passes and train for your goals. In fact, Zwift has transformed indoor training in recent years, and every year more and more people are getting involved.

If you’re new to the wide world of Zwift, you might be wondering where to get started. So, here’s everything you need to know to get set up on Zwift. We'll look at the equipment you need, the steps to setting it up, and what to do once you're within the game itself.

Read more: GCN's ultimate guide to indoor cycling

a bike, an indoor trainer and a means to hook up to the Zwift app are essential

Equipment and set-up

While it’s not quite as simple as hopping on your bike and heading outdoors, setting up Zwift doesn’t take long.

A bike and a turbo trainer are essential. You’ll also need a device that tells Zwift how much power you’re outputting, which is then translated to your virtual world. This could be either a smart trainer or a classic trainer paired with another device:

  • Smart trainers have built-in power meters and all of the power you output will be translated into the Zwift world. Smart trainers also change the resistance depending on whether the virtual road is going uphill or downhill, creating an immersive and more realistic experience.
  • Classic trainers are definitely the more cost-effective option if you're looking to save money, but you will need another device to communicate to Zwift how hard you're pedalling. This could be a speed sensor, or you could use a power meter which is already fitted to your bike. However, unlike a smart trainer, this set-up isn’t as interactive, as Zwift can’t control the resistance of your trainer. That means it won’t be able to simulate gradient changes and other aspects of the virtual world.
  • If you don't want to buy a trainer, you can also use an exercise bike or a set of bike rollers.

Once you’ve got everything set up, download the Zwift app onto a supported device such as a laptop, tablet, or smartphone and create an account. As you’ve probably guessed, the best things in life rarely come for free so you will need a subscription, although Zwift offers a free trial to help you get started.

Read more: Wheel-on, direct-drive or rollers? How to choose the right turbo trainer for you

Connect the smart trainer or sensors through Bluetooth or ANT+

Connect your trainer to Zwift via Bluetooth or ANT+

That’s the basic set-up done. Before jumping on your bike to start exploring the virtual world, you need to connect your smart trainer or sensor to the Zwift app. Here’s how:

  1. Jump onto your bike for 10 to 15 seconds and spin your legs to wake up the sensors.
  2. On the app, connect the smart trainer or sensors either through Bluetooth or ANT+, depending on which connection type they’re compatible with. In most cases, Bluetooth is the more stable connection, so choose that one if possible.
  3. If you’re using a smart trainer, it will display as connected and controllable. Controllable means that Zwift can control your smart trainer.
  4. If you have a classic trainer, you will need to add a speed sensor. This will only display as connected but not controllable.
Check your connectivity for the best experience

Check your internet connection

From winning races to setting a new PB on Alpe du Zwift, there's a lot to achieve on Zwift. Which also means there's a lot of room for heartbreak if your connection drops at an inopportune moment.

That’s why it's important to have a strong internet connection. If you’re struggling, try moving your Wi-Fi router closer to your set-up.

Sometimes, other Bluetooth devices can hinder the connection between the app and a trainer or sensor too, so turn any unnecessary devices off. Last but not least, make sure all of the firmware is up-to-date. This includes the smart trainer, the Zwift app, and the Zwift Companion app.

Change the appearance of your Zwift avatar to look like you

Customise your Zwift avatar

One of the many fun features on Zwift is the ability to change the appearance of the virtual ‘you’ that you - and others - will see on screen. There are different jerseys, helmets and bikes, plus you can unlock more things as you ride. Before long, you could be riding on your dream bike. It’s just a shame it’s not that simple in the real world.

So, jump into the account section of the app and change your avatar to whatever you’d like. You’ll also need to set your height and weight, which helps Zwift simulate the riding experience more accurately.

Once you've done that, it’s time to go Zwifting.

Zwift routes and worlds

Zwift routes and worlds

There is so much to do and so many places to explore that it can be a little overwhelming at first. One of the hardest decisions to make when riding on Zwift is which world and route to choose.

Each day, there are three worlds available. One of these is always Watopia and the other two change daily. All of these worlds will appear at the top of the screen under ‘Wld Choice’, and you can also see the upcoming schedule in the calendar at the bottom right of the screen.

Once you've selected the world you want to ride in, click ‘Routes’. This displays all of the routes in that world, and you can scroll through them to see the distance and elevation for each. Most worlds offer everything from leg-sapping, hilly courses to pan-flat routes, depending on what kind of riding you enjoy or how hard you want to push yourself.

When you’ve decided on a route, click ‘OK’ and then ‘Ride’. You'll then be transported to your chosen world where you'll automatically follow the route.


Zwift workouts and training plans

Zwift workouts and training plans

If you want to add some structure to your training, it’s worth exploring Zwift’s extensive range of workouts.

Each workout has a description so you know what it entails and Zwift even tailors the workouts to your FTP. Don’t know your FTP? Don’t worry! Zwift has multiple FTP tests available - they’ve got every base covered.


Racing and group rides

Indoor riding used to be a monotonous means of keeping fit in the colder months. A matter of sticking earphones in and staring at a wall. Not anymore! Through Zwift, you can enjoy group rides or even tap into your competitive side with races, providing hours of entertainment.

These group rides and races are available all day, every day no matter where in the world you are. Joining them is easy, here’s how:

  • On the Zwift Companion app, click ‘Events’ at the bottom of the screen and this will take you to a list of available events
  • Choose the event you want to participate in, with the choice of group rides or races. There are also women’s specific races to choose from
  • Pick an event and then select a category, from A to E. Each category represents a different fitness level based on your FTP as a power-to-weight ratio. A is the hardest level, then B is slightly easier and it works its way through to E which is the easiest. If you're pretty new to cycling with little racing experience, we’d recommend starting in category D.

Top Tip

Top Zwift racing tips:

  • Make sure you thoroughly warm up before the race begins - they start fast!
  • Use the Zwift Companion app to communicate with the riders you're racing or riding with. Have a chat with them, give some encouragement or just let them know that you’re on fire today
  • Check out your race results on Zwift Power. It provides standings from races plus some power data too

Ride with friends and pro riders

Finally, you can search for specific riders and ride along with them. It could be family and friends, your favourite pro or one of our presenters.

The best way to find other riders is through the Zwift Companion app:

  1. Click ‘More’ and then ‘Find Zwifters’. Type in their name and hit ‘Follow’
  2. Once they have accepted your request, you can invite them to ride along with you and create a meet-up
  3. You can join another rider from the Zwift app by clicking on their name under ‘Join Another Zwifter’. Anyone you follow will appear at the top of this list
  4. To create a meet-up, click on the little group icon on the Zwift Companion app and then select ‘Create Meetup’. From there you can select the time, date, world and who you want to invite. It’s possible to arrange collective group rides, where everyone sticks together, or races. You can also decide if you want to see everybody else in the virtual world or just your group.

Ride with friends and pro riders

Finally, you can search for specific riders and ride along with them. It could be family and friends, your favourite pro or one of our presenters.

The best way to find other riders is through the Zwift Companion app:

  1. Click ‘More’ and then ‘Find Zwifters’. Type in their name and hit ‘Follow’
  2. Once they have accepted your request, you can invite them to ride along with you and create a meet-up
  3. You can join another rider from the Zwift app by clicking on their name under ‘Join Another Zwifter’. Anyone you follow will appear at the top of this list
  4. To create a meet-up, click on the little group icon on the Zwift Companion app and then select ‘Create Meetup’. From there you can select the time, date, world and who you want to invite. It’s possible to arrange collective group rides, where everyone sticks together, or races. You can also decide if you want to see everybody else in the virtual world or just your group.

Final tips

That’s everything you need to know before you delve into the world of Zwift. You’re ready to explore virtual worlds, smash some KoMs/QoMs and make some virtual friends. Have fun! Before you get started, here are a few final tips:

  • Make sure you've got a bottle of water to keep you nice and hydrated, plus a towel and a fan if you have one - you’ll soon work up a sweat
  • Get the beats on! Music is a great source of motivation when pushing yourself on an indoor ride
  • Sync your Zwift account to other apps like Strava and TrainingPeaks so that you can share your ride with others

If you need any more advice before starting your Zwift experience, check out our article on what not to do when riding in the virtual world.


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