Zwift training challenge: How fit can you get using a turbo trainer?

Conor Dunne put Zwift to the test to find out if the online training and cycling platform lives up to the hype

Clock12:00, Wednesday 11th October 2023

As recently as 2019, GCN’s Conor Dunne was lighting up the professional peloton…kind of. He only ever won one race, the Irish National Championships, but by GCN presenter standards, that’s pretty impressive.

Since retiring at the end of 2019 Conor’s fitness levels have slumped, so he decided to find out if he could restore his power numbers to some of their former glory, and there was only one way to do it: Zwift.

Zwift is one of the most popular online cycling apps available, offering everything from intense workouts and racing to virtual worlds which you can explore alone or on group rides. It’s deservedly built up an impressive reputation, but how fit can you get by using the app?

Conor took on a seven-week training plan on Zwift in 2021 to find out.

Read more: Getting started with Zwift indoor training

Why train indoors on Zwift?

Despite what some may believe, GCN’s presenters don’t actually spend that much time riding their bikes - at least, that’s what they keep telling us. Instead, they’re mainly office based with the same time constraints that afflict many other cyclists, leaving little time for training.

Online training apps like Zwift are a great solution, providing short, dedicated workouts for time-strapped cyclists - plus plenty of longer ones for those looking for a more thorough spin. These can be standalone workouts for when you want to just hop on the bike or Zwift offers a range of training plans with set workouts that can be planned around your schedule. It’s also possible to create custom training sessions and plans.

As an added bonus, specifically for those in chillier and wetter climes, Zwift is an effective way of training without having to face inclement weather - a real fitness-saver over the autumn and winter months.

Some traditionalists still question the effectiveness of online training platforms like Zwift but we wanted to put that to the test with Conor as our guinea pig. With the help of our friends WorldTour coach Greg Henderson, Conor followed a seven-week training programme containing two workouts per week - similar to the training volume of many everyday cyclists.

Check out that training plan here.

Read more: Beginner's guide to Zwift

Zwift racing and routes

Alongside the two training days, Conor also had two free rides each week in which he could do essentially whatever he wanted. For some he braved the weather for outdoor rides, but for many he took advantage of the numerous fun features on Zwift beyond the workouts. Here’s a glimpse of some of those features.

Read more: Zwift brings in a raft of new features for winter training season

Racing on Zwift

For anyone with a competitive edge, Zwift has you covered through its racing functionality.

These races come in all different shapes and sizes, from short crits to time trials. Riders are also split into different categories relative to their fitness, ensuring you’ll race against cyclists who are at a similar fitness level to you.

To race on Zwift you’ll need a smart trainer that will alter the resistance of your turbo trainer to mimic the virtual terrain, plus most races require a heart rate monitor.

Countless virtual routes: Watopia, London, New York and many more…

While some online cycling apps focus solely on training, Zwift offers so much more with innumerable virtual worlds to explore - okay they’re not innumerable, with 12 in total, but it’s unlikely you’ll ever explore all of the 197 routes available.

The most popular world is Watopia which includes Alpe du Zwift, a virtual Alpe d’Huez. On those days when you don’t have a set workout, simply selecting a world and going for a spin can be a lot of fun.

Group rides

If you don’t fancy riding alone, join a group ride. These appear in the ‘events’ section of the app and are frequent throughout the day (no matter where you are in the world).

You can also create ad hoc group rides with your friends through the ‘Meet Up’ feature.

Zwift training plan: a success?

Now, how fit did Conor get while following his seven-week Zwift training plan?

At the peak of his powers, Conor made the breakaway in the road race at the World Championships in 2018. That year the peloton tackled a tricky route around Innsbruck, Austria, taking on 4700m of climbing, including one tough 7.4km climb with an average gradient of 6%.

Conveniently for us, that course and climb are on Zwift, meaning Conor could complete the climb once again and compare it to his best effort in 2018. That gave us an idea of how much fitness Conor had lost since then, and also a benchmark when it came to seeing how much he’d improved after completing the Zwift plan.

Of the seven times up the climb in 2018, Conor’s fastest time was 18 minutes and 23 seconds, with a peak power output of between 450 to 470 watts - Conor’s best ever 20-minute power was around 470 watts too.

Unsurprisingly, Conor was much slower on his Zwift attempt, clocking a time of 20 minutes 57 seconds with an average power of 381 watts, which is around 4.2w/kg - not too shabby, but some way short of his peak performance. By our calculations, Conor had lost 19% of his fitness since retiring.

At the end of the seven weeks, Conor tackled the Innsbruck climb one final time, impressively completing it in 18:23 - exactly the same as his fastest time up the climb in the 2018 World Championships. That was averaging 432 watts, 51 watts than he managed seven weeks earlier, a 13% increase. It was only 9% less than his best ever 20-minute power too.

Of course, it’s only a one-off effort which is a different proposition to setting the time in the middle of a 260km race, but it’s seriously impressive improvement over a seven-week period.

Read more: Zwift releases first dedicated gaming controller for virtual riding

Does Zwift live up to the hype?

Judging by Conor’s power numbers after the seven weeks, the answer is a resounding yes!

Of course, having been a former pro, there is an element of muscle memory and we’d expect Conor to gain fitness faster than an amateur cyclist who hasn’t previously competed at the highest level, training for over 30 hours a week. However, the fact Conor was able to build so much fitness off of such little training is seriously impressive, and testament to how effective Zwift can be for time-strapped cyclists, providing focussed workouts to maximise those rare riding opportunities.

For Conor, it wasn’t the training plan that proved to be the most enjoyable part, but the community that supported him along the way. Through its group rides and workout functionality, Zwift turned the seven-weeks from a solo endeavour to a social one. It’s this social aspect that distinguishes Zwift from many other virtual cycling apps, providing a sense of community that is unrivalled on other platforms.

Need more indoor training inspiration? GCN Training is a library of online workout videos to help cyclists get fit. Check it out here.

Need more indoor cycling help or inspiration? GCN's ultimate guide to indoor cycling has you covered with advice and guides on everything from turbo training tech to workouts. Check it out here.

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