Indoor cycle training was once the preserve of the seriously dedicated racing cyclist but with the advent of smart trainers and interactive services like Zwift and TrainerRoad, indoor cycling has been given a new lease of life and more people are hitting the trainer than ever before.
Zwift and TrainerRoad both attempt to make indoor cycle training an attractive and useful option to ride outdoors when the weather is bad or you want to add more structured training to your riding. The work particularly well with the new breed of smart trainers as the resistance can be controlled by the software and the riding experience is reasonably realistic to actually riding along the road.
Both of these platforms are popular at the moment, but both serve their objectives with different approaches. Zwift turns cycling into a game while TrainerRoad offers a very serious and structured view on training. They are both paid subscription services – Zwift gives you a seven-day free trial so you can try it out, while TrainerRoad lets you reclaim your money within 30 days if you’re not happy with it – and both work on a plethora of devices, computers and smartphones. If you’re deciding between the two, we’re here to help with a guide to both and the pros and cons.
Cost: £12.99/month with no contract
Pros: Immersive, fun, engaging, free trial, works on most devices, in-game racing and events
Cons: Workouts and training plans not as extensive as TrainerRoad
Zwift’s biggest feature and its unique selling point is the ability to ride in a virtual world against or alongside other people from across the world. It’s totally immersive. It makes indoor cycling a game and the result is that it makes turbo training fun and engaging. If you use Zwift with a smart trainer, the level of resistance adjusts to match the terrain so when you're going up a climb, it really does feel like it.
You propel your avatar, dressed up in any cycling kit (even road.cc colours), bike and wheels of your choice, and cycle around one of a number of virtual locations. The main game world is called Watopia, and within that there's all the different types of terrain you could want, from a flat smash across the desert to a reproduction of the Alpe d'Huez in all its 21-switchback glory. There's even a mountain bike section under development.
There's a guest world every day, too. These are all real locations – London, Yorkshire, Innsbruck, Richmond, Bologna – and the riding options are more limited.
It’s a massive multiplayer game in essence, and you can race people from all over the world. There are many organised events, from training rides to races, so you can ride with people of a similar fitness and get a really good workout. The races are particularly realistic and can push you really hard, because it’s always motivating to chase someone, even in the virtual world.
If you want more structured training, Zwift also offers a wide range of workout modes and there’s everything from sprint intervals to sweet spot sessions. You can conduct an FTP test and follow one of the 12-week plans if you want to enjoy the benefits of a virtual coach to get you fit for a big sportive or race. You can also customise the workouts and make your own, too.
You can use the Zwift companion smartphone app to communicate with other cyclists and send messages to people you’re cycling with. You can also high-five people with a Ride On real-time encouragement. The app also lets you browse the many events on offer and sign up to one get a reminder before it's about to kick off.
The Zwift convert: John Stevenson
"I tried Zwift because I was interested in the idea of turning turbo training into a game, but didn’t expect to take to it. Now, however, I’m addicted. I’ve always had a turbo trainer kicking around but never used it at all seriously. I made the excuse that it was boring — which standard turbo training unarguably is — and said I’d far rather ride outside. But then I didn’t ride outside in the dark, cold and wet either.
"Zwift was a revelation, for three reasons. For a start, there’s something to look at aside from a bare wall, and unlike watching TV, what you’re seeing is relevant. More importantly for me, being told when to go hard and when to ease off in a training session, and getting constant information about your power output makes training much easier and — dare I say it? — fun.
"Then there’s the community. Getting Ride Ons from friends and strangers alike is enormously motivating, and I get a kick out of spotting other riders in road.cc kit. As my fitness improves, I’m looking forward to joining group rides and races too.
"It’s not perfect of course, but Zwift has fixed some of the earlier niggles. You no longer need to quit the whole application to restart a workout, or to switch from just messing around to doing a workout. And I haven't seen an utterly implausible power output for ages. I almost miss the giggles from having someone come past you at 22w/kg!
"On the whole, though, Zwift’s been a game-changer for me. It’s made indoor training fun, and that’s something I never thought I’d say."
Cost: $12/month or $99/year (if you’re not 100% satisfied, get a full refund within the first 30 days)
Pros: Extensive training plans and workouts, Virtual Power, structured training, cheaper than Zwift
Cons: No free trial, not as immersive as Zwift
TrainerRoad has been around for quite a few years and it’s a good alternative to Zwift if you want really well structured training plans and workouts to improve your fitness in a measurable way. TrainerRoad works best with a power meter but if you don’t have one, it can use a speed sensor to provide a Virtual Power. If you have a smart trainer it'll control the resistance for you.
TrainerRoad uses a simple and clean graphical interface that provides all the metrics you need to track your efforts, from speed, any connected sensors like heart rate, cadence and power. A workout is displayed as a simple graph representing your intervals and a line moves across this graph identifying your progress. Motivational and instructional text is provided on-screen to help you stay focused and provide useful tips. It’s not as immersive as Zwift’s virtual world but it gives you clear and simple focus, and that’s a good thing when doing hard workouts.
But by far TrainerRoad’s biggest appeal is the vast number of workouts and training plans it provides. There are a staggering 1,000+ workouts so there’ll be something for all tastes and requirements. You can also follow a training plan (there are 100+) with plans for every type of cyclist, covering early season base work to race preparation. Following a plan is the optimum way of improving your fitness, and it removes the guesswork so all you have to do is concentrate on following the plan.
Use TrainerRoad for the first time and you’ll need to complete an FTP test (unless you know it already) to find your benchmark which all workouts are based on. You can choose an 8 or 20-minute test, but TrainerRoad now recommend a shorter ramp test that takes about 25 minutes to complete.
While Zwift is immersive and fun, it’s far too easy to just amble around the virtual roads roads without any real purpose, and if purpose of training is what you want, TrainerRoad is a good choice with its vast collection of workouts and training plans. The latest update also allows you to import your outdoor riding into the program from Strava, and add that to your calendar, to get a better idea of your overall training stress.
The TrainerRoad convert: Dave Atkinson
Dave is one of the founders of road.cc and has been racing for the past couple of years. He's been using TrainerRoad for a couple of years.
"When I'm training for racing or a specific event i basically move all of my training indoors: that means doing three or four sessions a week on the turbo. There are three main reasons for this. Firstly, it's more time efficient. If you have to do four hours of training a week, then save for faffing around with your heart rate strap beforehand and a quick shower afterwards, four hours is all you need. Going out and getting a comparable amount of hard effort on the road takes a lot longer. Secondly, it's much easier to work at the level you need to: when you ride with other people they're either ripping your legs off or you're easing up to stay as a group. When it's just you and a wiggly line, there's no distraction. Thirdly, it makes the outdoor rides more fun. You're not having to think about working at a certain level: you can just be out enjoying yourself, knowing that you've done your chores.
"TrainerRoad I've found to be excellent for training. Zwift is more fun, and I love the racing aspect, but if you're riding indoors with a goal in mind then the focus on structure and the progressive nature of the plans makes for higher-quality training. I used to struggle to complete 45 minutes on the turbo but now I can manage double that. Partly that's because the session is laid out before you and you can see what you're getting; partly it's because the on-screen commentary helps you to focus on why you're doing what you're doing, and what the rewards will be. The comparative power curve feature is great for benchmarking how you're doing against previous seasons."
How to use Zwift or TrainerRoad
Getting started on Zwift or TrainerRoad is fairly straightforward. Both are compatible with Windows PC and MacOS, as well as iOs and Android smartphones and tablets. Both apps offer extensive compatibility with many of the popular turbo trainers available. If you’re using a computer you’ll need an ANT+ dongle but the apps can use Bluetooth provided the sensors also use the wireless protocol.
You don’t even need an expensive smart trainer. The minimum you’ll need is a basic turbo trainer and a speed sensor, as both apps can calculate power. The more sensors – cadence, heart rate, power – you can add the better the experience will be. The big advantage of a smart trainer for both systems is ERG mode, where the program controls the resistance so you only have to concentrate on pedalling, you don't even need to change gears, it'll set the resistance based on your cadence.
A smart trainer is an ideal setup but they are very expensive, and the market has exploded with choice in recent years. Though expensive, we know people that are investing in them instead of a winter bike for doing the bulk of their training on during the winter months. Another option could be to invest in a basic turbo trainer and a power meter that you can use both indoors and outdoors, especially useful if you want to also track your performance on the real roads.
It’s clear there are some key differences between the two services, but the outcome is that they both make indoor training a viable alternative to riding outdoors when you don't want to ride in the dark, wet and cold. And there's nothing wrong with that. You can rule five all you want but sometimes indoor training provides a more structured session, if it's training for a race or sportive that you want to undertake. Structured training, however you do it, is the best way to improve your fitness, and Zwift and TrainerRoad make it easy and accessible.
They’re both have their advantages, so which you choose comes down to personal preference. In our experience, each one suits difference people and their objectives differently, so our tip is to try them both before deciding which works for you.
There are plenty of alternative training services and we’ve listed 10 of the more popular ones in the article below.
David has worked on the road.cc tech team since July 2012. Previously he was editor of Bikemagic.com and before that staff writer at RCUK. He's a seasoned cyclist of all disciplines, from road to mountain biking, touring to cyclo-cross, he only wishes he had time to ride them all. He's mildly competitive, though he'll never admit it, and is a frequent road racer but is too lazy to do really well. He currently resides in the Cotswolds.