By Lars Hundley
So you’ve gotten into Zwift and now you’re doing some races, but perhaps you’re curious about the best app settings to give you the biggest racing advantage.
The short answer is that there is not a “best setting” that works for everyone. There are lots of successful Zwift racers using vastly different smart trainer setups and app settings.
It’s really a matter of understanding what the settings mean, and then choosing what you think will work best for your specific smart trainer set up and your preferred method of racing.
Probably the only setting in the app that makes a real difference in how it feels to ride the trainer is the trainer difficulty setting. Let’s start with an explanation of how trainer difficulty on the Zwift app works, and why you might want to set it differently depending on your smart trainer gearing and your trainer riding style.
To illustrate, we can start with the two different extreme settings. Difficulty set to zero versus difficulty set to 100 percent.
If your difficulty is set to zero, it does NOT mean that it’s going to increase your wattage output in any way or make it easier to pedal more watts. It just means that you won’t feel the ups and downs of hills and descents of the course on the app, and you’ll be able to just pick one gear and hammer and not worry about shifting. You’ll still have to crank out the same number of watts per kilogram to hit the same speeds on the Zwift course.
If your difficulty is set to 100 percent, it’s exactly the opposite. You’ll feel every up and down on the course just as if it were in real life. So when you hit a dreaded 10 percent incline, you’ll have to have enough gearing on the bike hooked up to your smart trainer (or the gearing set up for a smart bike) so that you can physically pedal up a grade that steep.
Just as it might be impossible in real life to ride up a 10 percent grade in a 53 x 12 gear (and would definitely bog you down and hurt your knees), it will be equally impossible to ride a steep climb on Zwift that way.
I ride a Stages Bike SB20 smart bike, and previously owned a Wahoo KICKR that was hooked up to my road bike. With the Stages smart bike, you can set up your gearing choices virtually, where it simulates whatever kind of gear cluster you’d like to ride with. Want to ride a 1x 12 gear option? You can. Want to ride a triple chainring setup? You can. There’s even a “dream cluster” where you can give yourself 50 different gears.
So for the Stages smart bike, you might set your gearing completely differently depending on if you are racing a flat Zwift race or a race up one of the major climbs.
If your regular bike is hooked up to your smart trainer (like a KICKR or Tacx or Elite trainer), you’d be limited by the actual cluster you have installed on your bike that is sitting on the trainer. If a 28 tooth is the biggest gear you have in the back, then it’s going to be difficult to pedal when you hit the steep stuff.
And THIS is why Zwift offers the difficulty setting in the first place. If you set your difficulty to 50 percent and you hit a 10 percent grade, it will simulate it as a 5 percent grade to your smart trainer, so that you can use one of your existing gears on your bike to physically pedal up the grade.
Here’s the key though — although it’s simulating a 5 percent grade so that you can still pedal, you’ll still have to pedal the exact same number of watts as you would otherwise to keep up with all the other racers riding the same hill at whatever setting they are using.
Essentially, the difficulty setting is really just simulating a gear cluster more suitable to the the simulated terrain, so that your smart trainer doesn’t make the bike so hard to pedal that you can’t keep going.
For me personally, I have the difficulty set to around 5 percent and typically ride the entire race in a single gear. Why 5 percent? I chose 5 percent because I still want to be able to have some kind of idea of the terrain in the race so I can physically know what’s going on when other racers are experiencing a steep climb.
The reason for this is because just like in real bike racing, racers hit the climbs hard to try and drop everyone else. If you can’t feel that you’re on a hill, it’s a little harder to react to the surges, in my opinion.
But if I can set up any simulated gear cluster I want with my Stages Bike SB20 smart bike, why wouldn’t I just just a good gear cluster that’s perfectly suited to each course?
It’s because for me personally, Zwift racing is a different thing than real bicycle racing. I don’t need or want to simulate all the shifting when I race Zwift. I want to sit down and only have to worry about riding hard enough to generate the wattage to stay with “the blob” (the Zwift peloton).
Most of my smart bike training is done using workouts, either with The Sufferfest or on Zwift itself. I put all of those workouts in ERG mode, which means that the smart bike (or smart trainer) controls the wattage you are forced to pedal, and it doesn’t matter which gear you are in.
You can pedal 300 watts at 100 rpm, or you can pedal 300 watts at 75 rpm and the trainer just adjusts. I use the trainer to gain cardiovascular fitness, so I don’t really care about the shifting simulation aspect so much.
But if you’re racing your real bike on a smart trainer and you think it would be beneficial to you to also practice shifting because it’s more similar to riding on the road, then you’d probably want your difficulty setting to be set harder, so that you are required to shift as the inclines and declines come and go.
Zwift Insider has an even more in depth look at the Difficulty setting on Zwift.
What about other settings though? Most of the other ones are things like sound volume for the virtual world (there are virtual crowd noises, etc.), whether you can see the leaderboards and whether you see the group text chats from other riders. These are basically just preferences.
One thing that can come in handy is running the separate Zwift Companion app on your phone at the same time as you are running the regular Zwift app. By running the Zwift Companion app, you get a live view of the course that you don’t see with the regular app. It shows you the entire course, with little dots that show where all the racers are on the map.
If you are in a group that splits from the main group, or you get dropped or go off the front, you can see what’s happening with the rest of the riders by glancing down at this map view. You’ll instantly be able to see how big the groups are that are ahead and behind you, and if they are getting closer or further away.
Do you have a favorite Zwift setup for racing? I’d love to hear about your setup in the comments.