Zwift: Tool or Toy?

an ironman triathlete's workout room
March 18, 2021

Dave Sheanin


Several years ago when Zwift was new, I did a one-week trial and decided that it was interesting, but not for me.  I do my fair share of indoor training and had been pretty satisfied with my “serious” indoor tools over the past decades--at first a CompuTrainer then a Kickr with software including PerfPro.  I could get my workouts in without distractions.  I’ve never understood the social sharing side of training logs (I’m looking at you, Strava) and I rarely train in groups in the “real world” anyhow.  I didn’t feel a need for entertainment value from watching an avatar so I never bought a subscription.

Fast-forward to the current day and Zwift has exploded in popularity and has added functionality.  Most of the athletes I coach ride workouts on Zwift and the global pandemic has made indoor training all the rage.  When D3 coach Jim Halberg suggested some group Zwift rides during our January coach meeting, I figured it was time for me to dust off my trial account and buy a subscription.

My first ride consisted of me peppering Jim over Discord with an hour’s worth of questions and some general complaining about Zwift vs. “serious” training tools.  But it was fun in its own way and I decided that I’d commit myself to at least a few months of learning the environment by doing all of my indoor training on the platform.

Perhaps this article is a waste of time because I’m so late to the party and anyone who might read this is already on Zwift, but I thought it might be useful to share my thoughts as a Zwift beginner but an experienced coach.

Zwift is both a powerful training platform as well as a game.  Jim told me several times during that first ride together that “it’s a game”.  You don’t have to play the game in order to use it as a training tool, but it’s very important to understand that gameplay underlies everything that happens in the Zwift world.

If you’re simply looking for a platform on which to import your structured workouts from your coach, Zwift will do that for you.  This handy little help article on the Training Peaks blog includes instructions.  Even if you don’t want to play the game, but need a place to import rideable workouts, Zwift will definitely work well (but it’s probably not the most cost-effective option).

As far as metrics, numbers like your speed within the game are reminiscent, but not perfectly reflective, of outdoor riding.  The response you feel on your smart trainer as you go uphill can be adjusted within Zwift’s settings so it’s difficult to say that climbing is really climbing.  As a coach, all that I can really rely on is time at power.  And as a training tool, this is enough.  

If you want to play the game, here are a few tips that I picked up along the way.

You start with some basic equipment but can upgrade as you reach certain levels and earn “drops”--currency in the game.  The better and more appropriate your equipment choices are, the faster you’ll ride within the game.  (Remember that from a training standpoint, your speed within the game doesn’t really matter.)  You earn drops by riding your bike with multiplier bonuses for riding harder, climbing hills, and receiving “ride ons” from other players.  You can spend your drops on faster bikes and wheels, along with fashion changes like kits and socks for your avatar.

To move up through the levels you earn XP points which are primarily awarded for riding distance.  There are several opportunities to earn XP bonuses to help you move through the levels faster.  See the following list for details.

Drops are completely separate from XP points.

If you want to make the most of the gaming experience as you train, here’s a top-ten list of “things I’ve learned” over the past couple of months.

  1. There is a ton of great information at  From course previews to equipment recommendations to technical information--this is the best resource I’ve found for learning and understanding Zwift.
  2. Set up your account using metric measurements. You get a 7 percent advantage on XP points by riding the world in metric measurements.  Plus, as you become fluent in the metric system, you’ll get the added benefit of sounding extra pretentious this summer at your favorite post-ride coffee shop talking about how many kilometers you just rode!
  3. Riding new routes each time you play (I mean, train) will help you get a sense of the different worlds and routes therein more quickly, and will also earn you XP bonuses for the first time you complete each route.  
  4. If your goal is to advance through the levels as quickly as possible, ride a TT bike most of the time.  You might want to switch to a road bike for some hillier rides, but when you’re on a TT bike, you earn extra points each time you pass under a banner.  There are usually two or more banners per route--this adds up, especially if you’re riding laps of shorter routes.  Note that you don’t earn power-ups (like short aero or weight advantages) when you ride a TT bike.
  5. There are some “hidden” bonuses that are significant.  The most significant that I’m aware of is for the first time you ride the Volcano Circuit (or Volcano Circuit CCW -- ”counterclockwise”) for 25 laps.  (This is a 104-kilometer ride--about 65 miles--so it’s a long one for a trainer but you can earn bonuses along the way, without riding the entire distance.) You’ll earn 5,750 XP points on a TT bike for the distance, special bonuses (at 5, 10, and 25 laps, plus another bonus for riding 100k).  The gaps between levels increase as you go, but this ride would move you from level one to level six if you were to do it as your very first ride.
  6. Ride the Alpe du Zwift in Watopia.  This ride is a hard but interesting (maybe even fun?)  hour (or so) that shows off the gamification with what is touted as a replica of the famous (and real) Alpe du Huez ride.  You’ll earn lots of drops because you’re going hard and uphill.  It’s a unique experience within the game--with individual splits for each of the 21 switchback segments.  Be sure to ride back down for the easy XP point collection.  And an extra bonus--at the top, you get to spin a wheel that could result in several prize options including a set of coveted climbing wheels (that are not otherwise available). While there are several ways to get to the Alpe, the Road to Sky route is the shortest.  You must be at least at level 6 to ride the Alpe.
  7. Structured workouts (which can be completed in or out of erg mode) award XP points differently than free-riding or racing routes. From a game perspective, if you ride slower than about 32kph on average, riding a workout can earn you an XP point advantage.  Some players have been known to “game” the Alpe by riding an easy structured workout on the way up and then free-riding on the way down in order to pick up maximum XP points (and make the climb feel easy).  Within the game, you’ll notice that some riders have what looks like the ghost image of a screen in front of them.  These riders are doing structured workouts.  
  8. My advice on upgrades: spend your drops on frames and wheels.  Don’t worry about jerseys and gloves.  If your goal is to play the game, save up for equipment that will give you an advantage in the game.
  9. There are options for group rides as well as races.  I recommend that you spend some time Zwifting on your own to explore routes and learn the environment before you join a group ride or race, but there’s really no barrier to jumping right in.  There’s no special etiquette for these events, although the pattern I’ve noticed is that players tend to drill it right from the start (on both group rides and races) so you should be warmed up well before you start an event if you want to ride with the lead group.
  10. There are obviously cheaters in the Zwift world, just like in the real world.  The easiest cheat is to lie about your weight (because your power to weight ratio is a major ingredient in the speed calculations).  If you mostly free-ride, you probably won’t notice very much, but if you’re racing, you might notice some questionable performances.  Since you’re on Zwift for the training benefit, my advice is to ignore the noise and have fun!

Coach Dave Sheanin believes with expert guidance, focused training and experience – our minds as well as our bodies adapt and we develop new capabilities. As our fitness increases and we expand our knowledge, the bar of maximum potential is raised!

Dave's Coaching Certifications include:

  • USA Triathlon Certified Coach
  • Training Peaks Certified Coach

Coach Dave Sheanin is an advocate for aligning triathletes with their race goals. He believes that becoming “triathlon literate” is key to meeting your goals. Triathlon is indeed a lifestyle and like the other important areas of your life, knowledge is power. He encourages you to explore the nuances of the sport, be open to new ideas and ask questions – of yourself, of fellow swimmers, cyclists and runners, and of your coach.  

Coach Dave is a USA Triathlon and Training Peaks Certified Coach.  Coach Dave was honored by USA Triathlon with the Community Impact Award.

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