Zwift / TrainerRoad Primer
Did you just get a smart trainer?* Are you excited to check out the wonderful world of indoor training apps, but not sure where to start? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered.
*Don’t have a smart trainer? TrainerRoad is still an option! It will calculate virtual power using your speed sensor.
What are indoor training apps?
Great question. They are apps (downloadable programs for your laptop, apps for your tablet and/or phone or AppleTV) that make intervals rides and/or endurance rides easier to execute and higher quality overall. The programs interface with your devices - smart trainer, power meter, cadence meter, and heart rate monitor - to collect all that data in a single place. More importantly, the app will put your trainer in erg mode during your workouts, telling your trainer where to set the resistance so that you always hit the target power and never have to shift gears.
There are a wide range of indoor training apps out there, but I’m going to focus on two of the more popular options: TrainerRoad and Zwift.
What is TrainerRoad?
I would describe TrainerRoad as a structured workout app. Whether you need to do an endurance ride - and stick to that endurance zone - or race-pace training or high-end intervals, TrainerRoad has a workout that fits the bill. Their software allows you to execute the workout in erg mode, and provides some nice coaching instruction within many of their workouts.
What is Zwift?
Zwift is a virtual world - or these days, five virtual worlds - where you can simulate riding your bike as if you were, in fact, outdoors. Zwift uses erg mode to adjust your trainer resistance relative to the grade of the virtual road on which you are riding, so you are going uphill and downhill and shifting gears just like you would outdoors. In addition, Zwift has a workout mode that allows you to execute structured workouts in erg mode.
Which should I use?
Another great question. Answer: it depends.
TrainerRoad has an incredible library of workouts and a wide range of high quality cycling training plans, but importing TrainingPeaks structured workouts designed by your coach into TrainerRoad is a little bit of a process. Because of this, I recommend using TrainerRoad if (a) you plan to choose your own workouts or follow a TrainerRoad plan, or (b) your coach assigns workouts from TrainerRoad’s workout library. (More on using TrainerRoad below.)
While I don’t love Zwift’s workouts the way I love TrainerRoad’s, I do love that my TrainingPeaks structured workouts get auto-imported into their platform. I also love that when weather or time constraints force me indoors for my endurance / long rides (or I just choose to stay indoors cuz, well, I love my trainer), I can ride in Zwift’s virtual worlds and the app controls my smart trainer in a way that simulates the varying terrain of the world in which I’m riding. So, if you’re looking for an all-in-one indoor training solution, Zwift is the way to go. (More on using Zwift below.)
First Steps for both Zwift and TrainerRoad
The first steps in using TrainerRoad, Zwift, or really any indoor training app are the same:
1. Create an account - typically done on the app provider’s website. Within the account, it’s of critical importance that you set your FTP (functional threshold power), and that you set it accurately. (More on determine your FTP here [link to Mike’s article on testing].)
2. Download the software/app to your laptop/tablet/phone/AppleTV - typically done from the app provider’s website or the app store on your device.
3. Open the app, login, and pair your devices. More detail on this in the app-specific sections below.
First: which devices should you pair? Here are my guidelines based on your set of devices:
1. Smart trainer, no power meter: Excellent. Click on the box labeled “Controllable” and pair your trainer here; it should also show up in the “Power Source” box. If you have a cadence sensor, click the box labeled “Cadence” and pair it here.
2. Smart trainer + power meter. Perfect. Two options with your specific set up:
(a) You can use the power meter as your power source and use the smart trainer to control resistance. Under this setup, the power readings will come from your power meter, which can result in a less smooth and accurate erg mode, e.g., your power will bounce around a bit during intervals, and will generally average out to the interval’s power target but it could be off by a percent or so. This approach is best when your FTP is based on a threshold test using your power meter.
To go with this setup, click “Controllable” and pair your trainer. Then click “Power Source” and pair your power meter. Finally, click “Cadence” and pair either your power meter or a cadence sensor.
(b) You can use the trainer and your power source. Under this setup, the power readings will come from your trainer, which will likely be 2-5% lower than the power readings from your power meter but will provide a smoother and more accurate erg mode, e.g., you will hit all power targets pretty much perfectly. If you choose this approach, make sure your FTP is set as your trainer FTP versus your power meter FTP to account for the difference.
To go with this setup, click “Controllable” and pair your trainer; it should automatically pair to “Power Source” as well. Then click “Cadence” and pair either your power meter or a cadence sensor.
3. Optional: click the box labeled “Heart Rate” and pair your HR monitor here. This allows you to collect all the data in a single location and it all upload it to TrainingPeaks in a single data file.
Once all your devices are paired, which you’ll do/confirm each time you log into the Zwift app, you’ll move to their ride selection screen. This is a big fork in the Zwift road: are you going to do a structured workout, or are you looking to simulate an outdoor ride in their virtual world? The former involves specific intervals and power targets that your trainer will automatically walk you through, and the latter allows you self-dictate your effort level and shift gears as the virtual terrain changes.
If You Are Simulating an Outdoor Ride
If you want to simulate an outdoor ride indoors (ideal for long and/or endurance rides), your Ride Type should say “Just Ride” - do not click “Select Workout.” You do, though, want to select your route - clicking on the drop-down box will pull up a list of routes, which I recommend you scour closely! Routes vary widely in terms of distance and relative elevation gain, so do some quick math and see if you’re picking a flat route, a big climb, or something in between.
After starting, you’ll know that you're in “Just Ride” mode because you'll feel the grade of the road changing with the course, and you'll need to shift gears to maintain your target effort level - just like outside! Your watts will go up when you hit climbs, and will drop on downhills. So, yes, you won't always be spot-on with the watt target - but you wouldn't be spot-on outside, either. Your goal, just like it would be outdoors, is for your overall effort level to match that listed within the workout.
Quick tip: the biggest mistake I see is when athletes execute their endurance days as a structured workout. If you see a big, long endurance-level block in a structured workout, do this as an “outdoor ride.” The only exception to this rule is if you have a recovery day on the calendar and want to ensure that you don’t overdo it - then pulling up the ride as a structured workout is appropriate.
If You Are Doing a Structured Workout
If you have a structured workout shown on your TrainingPeaks calendar, you can execute this in erg mode, or Workout Mode, within Zwift. In Workout Mode, your trainer will control your resistance to match the the prescribed targets for each interval.
Before starting a ride in workout mode, make sure that your TrainingPeaks account is linked to Zwift:
1. Log into Zwift, navigate to your Profile, and view your Connections. (Or just click this link.)
2. Click "Connect" under the TrainingPeaks heading and give Zwift permission to access your TrainingPeaks account.
Once your TrainingPeaks account is linked to Zwift, Zwift will automatically pull that day's structured workout into its list of workout options. To executed a structured workout in Zwift's Workout Mode:
1. Click "Select Workout" for Ride Type (you can ignore the Route option).
2. Find the "Training Peaks Custom Workouts" category (typically all the way at the bottom) and select the workout shown (it will only show workouts for the day you are riding, so if you are rescheduling your week be sure to move the workout to today's date!).
3. When you select the workout, your FTP is shown in the lower right-hand corner. Take a glance, because here's your chance to update your FTP if the number in Zwift is not correct.
4. Click "Workout" to start your ride. You'll know that you're in Workout Mode because while riding, the Zwift app will show the workout intervals on the left, the main information window will show progress relative to the interval, and a rolling 10-minute graph of your power output will be at the bottom of the screen.
If you want to do a structured workout, but don’t have one shown on your TrainingPeaks calendar to auto-import, you have two options: browse their list of structured workouts and pick one that looks good, or select “Custom Workouts” and create one of your own.
Quick tip: to allow your smart trainer to hit the lower end (warm up/cool down/recovery) power targets, it’s best to have your gearing set very, very easy: little ring up front, 2nd or 3rd easiest gear on the cassette. Your trainer can ramp up the resistance to significant levels for those upper end power targets, but it can only go so low before losing contact with your tire.
First: which devices should you pair? Here are my guidelines based on your set of devices:
1. Standard trainer + speed sensor: No smart trainer? No problem. Pair your speed sensor. Ideally, this will also provide you cadence.
2. Smart trainer, no power meter: Excellent. Pair the smart trainer. If you have a cadence sensor, pair this too.
2. Smart trainer + power meter. Perfect. Pair them both; two options with your specific set up:
(a) You can use the power meter as your power source and use the smart trainer to control resistance (this is the default setup if you pair both and don’t indicate otherwise). Under this setup, the power readings will come from your power meter, which can result in a less smooth and accurate erg mode, e.g., your power will bounce around a bit during intervals, and will generally average out to the interval’s power target but it could be off by a percent or so. This approach is best when your FTP is based on a threshold test using your power meter.
(b) You can indicate in the power meter’s device settings to use the device for cadence only. Under this setup, the power readings will come from your trainer, which will likely be 2-5% lower than the power readings from your power meter but will provide a smoother and more accurate erg mode, e.g., you will hit all power targets pretty much perfectly. If you choose this approach, make sure your FTP is set as your trainer FTP versus your power meter FTP to account for the difference.
4. Optional: pair your HR monitor, so you collect all the data in a single location and it all uploads to TrainingPeaks in a single data file.
Now that you’re officially ready to go, it’s time to work out! In TrainerRoad, the biggest hurdle can be selecting a workout. Here’s how I approach it:
1. If my coach has assigned a specific TrainerRoad workout, I just search for the workout name and I’m on my way.
2. If I have a workout guideline (and endurance ride, or anaerobic intervals, for example) I use the filter option to list workouts that hit my target zone and are of the appropriate duration and select a workout that meets the guidelines.
3. If I have a structured workout provided in TrainingPeaks, I can import that using TrainerRoad’s Workout Creator:
(a) In TrainingPeaks, open the workout, click on the blue down arrow in the upper right corner of the structure workout, download and save the workout file.
(b) If you haven’t already, download TrainerRoad’s Workout Builder (Mac and PC only, no device app available) here.
(c) Open the Workout Creator, and click and drag the workout file into the left-hand column list of workouts.
4. If I’m totally aimless, without any direction given from a coach or training plan, I select a workout from their Sweet Spot Base training plans - all of which are solid workouts that (typically) won’t kill you.
Once you’ve selected a workout, all that’s left to do is pedal. If you have a smart trainer paired, TrainerRoad will adjust resistance automatically to follow the intervals shown in the workout. If you’re on a standard trainer, you’ll want to watch your power output and adjust gears as appropriate to hit the intervals shown.
Two final tips:
1. Many of the pre-built TrainerRoad workouts have “coaching,” instructions and conversations that pop up during the workouts. Overall their “coaching” is of high quality, and their drills in many endurance workouts are very beneficial for pretty much anyone.
2. To allow your smart trainer to hit the lower end (warm up/cool down/recovery) power targets, it’s best to have your gearing set very, very easy: little ring up front, 2nd or 3rd easiest gear on the cassette. Your trainer can ramp up the resistance to significant levels for those upper-end power targets, but it can only go so low before losing contact with your tire.