When the weather turns wintery, bikes end up indoors on the trainer. I used to dread this time of year, but thanks to modern technology, indoor cycling isn’t the unbearable chore it once was. With a smart trainer, a few essential pieces of gear, and the right virtual riding platform, it can become downright fun and addicting.
Zwift's virtual world (right) vs. TrainerRoad's workout interface (left).
Among the many virtual riding options, Zwift and TrainerRoad are the most popular. Most indoor cyclists will end up choosing between the two. These platforms let you explore virtual worlds, interact with fellow riders online, and follow precise power-based workouts and training plans, all from the comfort of your own home. They’re the best way to stay fit and get faster during the winter months.
I’ve spent the last four years switching back and forth between Zwift and TrainerRoad, so I’ve had plenty of time to get to know each platform. If you’re trying to decide which is right for you, let's go over the pros and cons, as well as the major differences between and nuances of the two virtual riding platforms.
Zwift gameplay during a group ride. Riders can chat and give each other a "Ride On" (the thumb's up symbol) as encouragement or kudos.
Zwift is a “massively multiplayer online” cycling game that enables users to interact, train, and compete in a virtual world. Players can cycle freely around the game world or join organized group rides, races, and workouts with other users.
Free trial: Zwift offers a seven-day free trial for PC/Mac with unlimited distance once you start pedaling. For iOS/tvOS/Android you receive a 25km (15.5mi) trial once you start pedaling and then an additional seven days with unlimited distance once you select “Join Now.”
- Uses a vast, explorable, virtual world that simulates outdoor riding
- Competitive races and group rides keep things interesting
- Gamification elements can improve motivation
- Highly social
- TrainerRoad offers better tools for structured workouts and training programs
- Computer and internet limitations can detract from the experience
- No voice chat
Bottom line: Zwift is best for riders who want to replicate the outdoor riding experience. It’s great for those who need extra stimulation and motivation from Zwift’s game elements and interaction with other riders.
TrainerRoad offers a huge selection of workouts to target specific training goals.
TrainerRoad is a smart trainer app and an online training tool that provides structured cycling workouts and training plans. Instead of a big social or racing component, it is more focused on improving fitness and maximizing performance.
Cost: $19.95/month or $189/year
Free trial: TrainerRoad offers a free 30-day trial using a referral code, which is easy to get. If you have any friends using TrainerRoad they can send you a referral code, or you can ask for codes on the TrainerRoad forum (there is a thread specifically for getting trial codes) or any other cycling related forum.
- Customizable, adaptable, and easy-to-use training programs
- A simple, focused interface that can be minimized or used on a smartphone
- Video-based group workouts
- Regular updates, refinements, and new features
- No virtual world or any other form of ride simulation
- Only effective when you stick to training plans
- Less social
Bottom line: TrainerRoad is ideal for cyclists targeting specific racing and fitness goals. It’s great for data-oriented riders interested in doing workouts, tracking improvement, and maximizing performance, or anyone just looking for a simpler trainer experience.
The Zwift experience
Zwift tries to mimic outdoor riding.
Zwift piqued my interest in early 2017 when I noticed local riders uploading Strava rides that appeared to take place in New York and London. They were riding in Zwift’s virtual world, which also includes locations like Innsbruck, Paris, Richmond, and Yorkshire. In addition to these real-world locations, there is the main area of Watopia, a fictional island in the Pacific that provides everything from flat desert roads to rolling hills to high mountain climbs.
Stuck inside for the winter, I immediately grew envious that friends were still able to “ride” and signed up. My first forays into Zwift were interesting. I randomly chose routes and wandered around Watopia, trying to find every climb on the island.
With a smart trainer, Zwift simulates real-world riding by adjusting resistance as the roads in the virtual world change. When you get on a climb, resistance increases, and you have to shift like you do in real life. When you go downhill or tuck into the draft of another player’s avatar, resistance decreases. Of course, it doesn’t totally simulate the feeling of speed and balance you get outdoors, but it’s still pretty darn good. If you want to take things a step further, trainer platforms like the Saris MP1 (read my review of the MP1 here) can allow more movement to enhance realism.
To navigate Watopia or any of the rotating real-world maps like New York or London, you use the arrow keys on your computer keyboard or the controls on the smartphone-based Zwift Companion app to choose your route at intersections or to make u-turns. It’s not quite the open world most gamers are used to, as you’re confined to established roads and can't choose exactly where you're positioned on the road, but there’s still a lot to explore. Most riders will never be able to ride every road available (you unlock an achievement if you do).
If you’re looking to just pedal your bike and have something interesting to look at while you do it, this will be enough for most riders. There are lots of fun little visual treats to discover like passing trains, hot air balloons, sunken pirate ships, waterfalls, and even grazing dinosaurs in the forest. One of my favorite Easter eggs is a hungry bear failing to snag a beehive and falling out of a tree on one of the hilly forest routes.
From the Zwift dashboard you can select courses, workouts, join active riders, or pick from a long list of events (upper right).
Zwift also offers a huge number of races, group rides, and group workouts. They’re easy to find and join by looking at the events list on your Zwift dashboard or in the companion app. This, for me, is when the addiction starts. The first time you do a race or a group ride, expect to be completely blown out of the water. Experienced Zwift riders are fast, and they understand the nuances of the game.
Eventually, you learn to ride in the “blob” — the virtual peloton — where the draft gives you the greatest advantage. Once you leave it, you’re off the back for good unless you put in a herculean chase effort. Sticking with a group takes focus. This makes time fly by. Before you know it, you’ve pushed yourself hard for an hour or more. When you’re done, you’re hungry to do it again. There are races to suit everyone: sprints, hill climbs, time trials, and more.
If you want to build your mental fortitude, practice suffering, and scratch a competitive itch, there may be no better option than Zwift events.
Mid-race. Look at the power profile at the bottom to see how hard I had to work to stay with the group.
This winter, our content marketing manager, Spencer Powlison, got on Zwift and documented his transformation from skeptic to superfan in “Zero to Zwift Hero." He discovered the same thing I did — races and group rides are incredibly addictive. He also provides some great tips for racing and practicing that will help new riders looking to improve.
Of course, you don’t have to compete if you don’t want to. There are chill, no-drop group rides that are great for recovery days or beginners. And plenty of riders will be happy just cruising and exploring all the virtual roads. There are also lots of timed sectors like KOMs that you can test yourself against in solo efforts. A popular example is the Alpe du Zwift, an hour-long climb that’s fun (but hard).
Zwift makes it fun to put in miles and join events to unlock awards and fun gear options for your avatar. Accomplishing specific challenges will unlock special items like the coveted “Tron bike.” The more you ride, the more "drops" (as in sweat) you earn which can be spent on bikes and gear. As a rider who grew up glued to my Xbox, I’ve found the game elements of Zwift to be extremely effective at motivating me to continue riding. I do wish there was a built-in voice chat like other games. It can be hard to type when you’re riding, and if you want to talk to friends while riding you’ll need to use an outside app like Discord.
Zwift also provides workouts if you’re looking for structured training. You can choose individual workouts, or follow a structured plan that spans 4-12 weeks. I personally wasn’t a huge fan of Zwift’s offerings in this department, but there are plenty of riders who have had success with Zwift’s training plans. Some coaches have also critiqued Zwift’s workouts for lacking focus. If this is what interests you most, I’d suggest scrolling down and reading about what TrainerRoad offers.
Ultimately, the success of any training plan comes down to the rider. Something about Zwift makes it hard for me to follow prescribed workouts. There are just too many races and group rides to choose from. They’re so fun that I get sucked in, blow myself up after racing three days in a row, and then structured workouts become entirely unappealing.
Before you dive in, do pay attention to Zwift’s system requirements. Zwift is an online 3D game, and it takes a certain amount of processing power to run it. My old Macbook wasn’t up to the task. It would either crash in the middle of a ride, or I’d experience glitches, lag, and maps failing to load. You can run Zwift on a smartphone or tablet, but I find the small screen detracts from the intended experience. My current solution is an Apple TV 4K. It’s much cheaper than a new computer, and it is more than powerful enough to handle the game and graphics. It even seamlessly connects to my smart trainer and heart rate monitor via Bluetooth.
The TrainerRoad experience
The TrainerRoad interface.
Like with Zwift, I got interested in TrainerRoad when I saw riders on Strava posting rides. TrainerRoad appears as blue graphs representing workouts. This was early 2018, and I had a full season of racing ahead of me. With a baby on the way, that year felt like my last chance to score good results, so I wanted to get as fast as possible while I still could. The blue graphs intrigued me. The workouts looked hard and effective, so I had to try it out.
Compared to Zwift, TrainerRoad is more minimalistic. You get the blue graph that represents your workout, and then your power is denoted by a line. The goal is to match your power output to the graph, that’s it. If you’re using ERG mode on your trainer, you don’t even need to shift. You just pedal harder when it asks you to. This might sound boring, and I expected it to be boring, but it’s far from it.
Here’s the thing, not only was I a gamer as a teenager, but I was also a gym rat. Hitting intervals on a TrainerRoad graph brought me back to the mindset of busting out reps on the bench press. It takes focus and willpower to succeed. You do this over and over again and guess what, you get really fit, really fast.
This is TrainerRoad’s strength. I’ve never liked interval training. But TrainerRoad turns it into its own sort of game. It’s not a massively multiplayer online 3D spectacle. It’s something more simple and timeless, like Tetris or Solitaire. There is a pure and simple pleasure to being presented with a target power, and then digging deep to hold it without any of the distractions of a virtual landscape, a moving avatar, or other riders on the screen.
You can catch up on watching shows like "Peaky Blinders" AND workout with TrainerRoad in minimal mode.
It’s also great to use when you feel like watching something else while you ride. TrainerRoad can be put into “minimal mode” if you’re using a computer, or in my case, I’ll just run it on my smartphone attached to my handlebars. Even minimized, the graph is easy to see and follow, but it’s out of the way so you can also devote attention to something else. I’ve found this to be the best, guilt-free way to binge-watch my favorite TV shows. It’s also fun to watch races while doing workouts to keep riding stoke high in the off-season.
But TrainerRoad goes much deeper than just the graph and workouts. What really sets it apart are the training plans, Plan Builder, and calendar. Essentially, TrainerRoad replaces the need for a coach. TrainerRoad becomes your coach. Using Plan Builder, you plug in information like your training experience, target events, preferred riding discipline, and available time to train, and it creates an entirely custom plan. You go through a base, build, and specialty phase designed to help you peak physically at the right time. The workouts and plans are all based on a huge amount of data and experience, and designed by seasoned coaches.
An example of a high-volume (a.k.a. super hard) training plan laid out in the calendar. Plans can be adjusted based on time constraints and fitness. An actual plan for me would have shorter workouts and more days off.
Beyond the plan builder, the training calendar that comes with the TrainerRoad subscription is one of my favorite features. It lets you see all your past and future workouts, and it records vital training stats like TSS and CTL to help you plan how much additional work or recovery you need. It’s highly adaptable, so if you get sick, have to miss workouts for any reason, or just feel off, you adjust your plan accordingly and get back on track.
The best part is that any outdoor rides you record on Strava will automatically upload to your calendar. This means you don’t always have to ride on the trainer. You have the option to do TrainerRoad workouts outside using a Garmin or Wahoo head unit. Sometimes, I’ll just try to hit the same TSS I was supposed to do and enjoy the outdoors. All these features make training feel surprisingly flexible and enjoyable. I even keep my subscription going into the summer so I can continue using the calendar to track my fitness.
Compared to Zwift, TrainerRoad releases updates and new features far more regularly. The team behind it is also impressively responsive when it comes to taking suggestions and implementing changes. Based on customer input, TrainerRoad recently introduced a group workout feature. This allows you to do workouts with other people via webcam, similar to a Zoom call. I haven’t tried it yet, but it might be a good feature for riders who crave company on their indoor rides. Finding friends willing to look at your sweaty face might be the only limiting factor.
The team at TrainerRoad hosts "Ask a Cycling Coach," one of my favorite cycling podcasts.
The other great thing about TrainerRoad is the huge amount of resources they provide outside of their subscription service. They host my favorite cycling podcast “Ask a Cycling Coach,” which provides some of the best training information available, as well as an educational YouTube channel, and an online forum full of enthusiastic users willing to talk bikes, training, and racing.
Through these channels, they’re very willing to answer any training- and app-related questions. My love of these amazing resources encourages me to continue supporting them and was a huge factor in pushing me to try TrainerRoad for myself. TrainerRoad turned me from someone who hated structured training, who claimed I could never follow a training plan, into someone who happily obsessed over following my plan to a tee.
Photos courtesy of TrainerRoad.
So what do I choose now after several years of using Zwift and TrainerRoad? Well, this might seem like a cop-out, but I choose both. I see the benefits of each and can’t bring myself to discard one or the other.
One thing super-nerds like myself do is run Zwift and TrainerRoad at the same time. This requires an extra Bluetooth or ANT+ receiver, and it can occasionally cause some connectivity headaches. When the mood strikes me I connect TrainerRoad to my smart trainer so it can control resistance and Zwift to my bike’s power meter so I can ride through the virtual world while completing my TrainerRoad workout. If you can afford it and want the best of both worlds, this is the way to do it.
If I were forced to pick one, right now I’d go with Zwift. Due to the global pandemic, I don’t have any target events to train for, and my life is too hectic to even think about a structured training plan. Zwift feels like less of a commitment. I hop in Zwift races whenever I feel like it and get my legs torn off. Plus, a lot of my co-workers are on it. As I get starved of human contact during quarantines, it’s nice to still ride and compete with others, even if only virtually.
As the riding season approaches, I might change my answer to TrainerRoad. There are a few big races I’m dreaming about doing if they aren't canceled. If I do end up finding something to train for, I’ll switch to a TrainerRoad plan to set myself up for success.
Which do you prefer, Zwift or TrainerRoad? Or do you like something else entirely? Let us know in the comments!