Zwift, Smart trainers, power trainers, thumbsup, Zwifting, FTP, Watopia and workouts – what does all this mean?
So you heard about Zwift…
This Zwift thing blew up last winter and has opened the door to lot of options for gear. For a lot of people Zwift starts the conversation, so it makes sense to start here. Hey mum it’s not a swiffer, we are talking about bikes ok.
Let’s step back a second. Trainers were typically used in winter months to keep fitness or even build fitness for an upcoming race season. The new age fundamentals of training are based in the philosophy that training with Power nets the best results, as they are the most comparable, consistent and repeatable. training with Heart Rate is OK, but often too unrepeatable as many other factors affect HR, like your sleep patterns and HR has a slower response time.
Thanks to over 8 years of power training study, there are now lots of online programs where you can have personalized workout plans based on your fitness, aka power. (Training Peaks, Trainer Road, Zwift to name a few). These can help you stay fit, set goals and become fitter should you wish.
Traditionally power sensing devices also called power meters have are mounted on the bike meters have been expensive anywhere from $600 for a Stages to over $1500 for an SRM (which is what you typically see in Grand Tour Pro Races) They measure power in Watts, and if you want to get really dorky, Pro riders tend to output around 6Watts / KG for context, the average person might jump on a bike and make 1.5Watts / KG. Just shows you the natural talent of pro’s. Watts are hands down the best way to scientifically measure output to be used for training and fitness.
How does this affect trainers?
Of the last year, trainer manufactures have invented ways to build lower cost Power meters into standard fluid in home trainers. They calculate the rotation speed and estimate the power based on the known resistance curve and can be calibrated giving a typical +/- 3% accuracy.
The advantage here is that now the technology is cheaper when it’s in a trainer and is not limited by size , power, weight, weatherproofing etc. compared on ton bike counterparts. Trainers with power built in can work with software programs that use these numbers. The trainers connect to the programs (run on your computer, or tablet) via bluetooth or Ant+ depending on what system you use.
These Power measuring trainers range from $360 to about $450 from brands like Wahoo, PowerOps and KurtKinetic
These types of trainers work in-conjunction with your bicycle, if you select a harder gear on your bike, they take more effort to spin and vica versa. A lot of the trainers now that use fluid and a good flywheel have a very realist smooth road feel. Recently there was a development… now there is another level of trainers which I talk about in a moment… hang on, it will make sense if we switch to Zwift for a moment.
Let’s talk about Zwift for a second. Zwift is a simulated riding environment, augmented reality, think a cycling game where you can see your bike, your friends your route. In order for Zwift to position you in that environment relative to other riders it uses your Power numbers measured in Watts.
Zwift can add an extra level of excitement, camaraderie and interest to an other wise boring subject of being sat inside on a trainer.
Zwift know the benefit of what they have an offer several options including group rides, training rides and races.
Zwift is pretty fun and makes sitting inside on a bike a lot ore bearable. Especially if you have virtual buddies to ride with and Volcanoes to ride up!
This is a little beyond what a normal training program gives you. Zwift is pretty fun and makes sitting inside on a bike a lot ore bearable. Especially if you have virtual buddies to ride with and volcanoes to ride up!
Next level Trainers
There is even a next level, imagine you are riding up a hill in Zwift, it’s a steep hill and in reality you would be working hard and going slower. (or stopping and getting off the bike, like me 🙂 )
Now what if Zwift could send signals back to the trainer to simulate this resistance?
Wow. Talk about a realistic riding experience. Well it can and there are a bunch of manufacturers that are making Smart Trainers. These are trainers with electromagnetic devices attached to their flywheels to provide variable resistance to your backwheel or your gears. The leader in this technology is Wahoo, they make units called Kickr’s from $600 to $1200. There are also options from Kurt Kinetic ($569) and Cycle Ops ($1199).
This provides the ultimate experience when used with programs like Zwift, you can be riding up a hill on a course and feel like you are riding up a hill, you can draft off of people and it feels like drafting, even going downhill. Training programs can also use this as they can prescribe a resistance to achieve a specific target wattage in that gear and make you work for it.
Word of caution – theres no industry standard for naming here. Most companies call trainers with control-able resistance – “Smart” but Kurt Kinetic choose to be a bit awkward and mix up their naming game. Their trainers with Control-able Resistance from Kinetic are called Smart Control. They have a lower level of Trainers called Smart which provide Wattage but no computer controlled resistance. (just human controlled via gears)
In this category there are two basic types – Back wheel on (you clip your bike in the trainer back wheel on) and wheel off, the trainer directly attaches to your chain. (wheel off) – for the wheel off kind however you will have to transfer the cassette or buy another cassette.
Lets jump back to Zwift…
Don’t forget that you don’t necessarily need a $1200 trainer to use Zwift, basically anything that can estimate power can be used to feed Zwift. there are some inexpensive trainers that estimate with wheel speed sensors and some have built in sensors. These provide no feedback from Zwift and rely on you changing gears to make the ride harder or easier. Then there are high end trainers like those from Wahoo that can measure power and change resistance.
Types of communication.
Moving on and getting more technical. These things have to connect , Some trainers communicate power numbers to software via Bluetooth, Some Via ANT+, some both. In most cases there are adapters for everything. If say you wanted to use your ipad for Zwift then you can get and Ant+ adapter. or if you wanted to use your Laptop with Bluetooth you could also.
Just be aware of the technologies for example an Ant+ Heart Rate Strap will not work with a Bluetooth System and vice versa.
Physical technicalities to notice
Since all of these trainers rely on supporting the back wheel in some fashion (both wheel on and off designs), you have to pay attention to the details. If you have a regular road bike things are going to be easy. The spacing on the back wheel will be 130, standard not a problem. You may have a cyclocross bike with 135mm or new mtn bike. Bikes with 142mm and 148mm Boost, this may or may-not be 12mm with different thread pitches. It all gets a bit complex as soon as you step into Thru axles. Fortunately most manufactures take care of this and have adapters. Certain bikes may cause a little more grief and you should check with the manufacturer how they accommodate such.
For the Wheel off Kickr : 12mm x 142mm
For the wheel on Kickr Snap
Kinetic Trainer Through axles here : https://www.kurtkinetic.com/thru-axles/
What tires to use?
For wheel on trainers, I say use any smooth tire, make sure it’s clean. You can use a worn out road tire. Trainer specific tires provide marginal improvement but mainly are just marketing hype to soak up your extra dollars for marginal features.
How to decide?
This is the million dollar question so to speak. Since there is such a wide range in price for trainers, I found the best way was to decide my budget formy winter training and work back from there. I did know I really anted to try Zwift, so that ruled out the least expensive ones, I knew I had to spend above $300 on a trainer that could simulate power.
Another way to choose, is to decide what you want to do. Do you want to ride for fun? Do you want to train? How often will you ride it?
- Most fun freeride, great training = Wheel off Smart trainer ~ $1200
- Most fun freeride , great train = Wheel on Smart trainer ~ $600
- Medium fun – Great for training = Wheel on Power Trainer = ~$370
- Low fun (no Zwift) – Good for Training = Wheel on trainer = ~$180 to $300
Please also bear in mind, online programs require a subscription Zwift = $15 a month. Also some trainers may require adapters at extra costs, ie an Ant+ adapter $40 or a special axle for a 142mm rear hub. $45 and a heart rate sensor can cost you $50
Training with power is great, but training with Power in Zwift is fantastic.
Zwift ads a level of fun back to indoor, you can be super serious and only train or you can ride for fun in virtual environments. Or , like me you can do a hybrid. A bit of both.
For training : Zwift allows a high quality structured workout (based on your FTP) with a game like interface to keep you engaged. That means theres more chance you will stick to your plan and achieve your fitness goals.
For just Riding – my friends who ride Zwift a lot for the “experience” have resistive / feedback trainers controlled by Zwift- They say that riding the Zwift environment and feeling the hills and descents is fun and engaging. It never used to be that way with indoor cycling, so well done Zwift.
Have to say, from a fitness perspective i’m hooked on Zwift, especially when it’s rainy and cold / icy out. Say hi if you get into it, my name is J Bucky with a British Flag.
What do I use?
I chose a Kurt Kinetic Road Machine their Smart Model ( not the Smart Control model)… This is the kind where the back wheel sits on a roller – It connects via Bluetooth (included) to my Macbook which has Zwift ($15/month)
It sends power data to Zwift but doesn’t review data from Zwift to vary the resistance, that I have to do with gears. I use it with a 130mm road bike no problem, its very stable, The ride feel is great, it rolls very smooth, has a road like resistance and accurately measures power. It’s pretty quiet and I would say its a great training machine at high value. Zwift is amazingly fun and motivating, I like it a lot compared to the olden days. If I need to add a heart rate monitor to it, to understand my recovery cycle I can its an extra $45, but I probably wont. Note: This trainer does not have the hill / course / resistance feedback from Zwift. – for that you need to spend more on a control-able resistance unit 🙂