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.
Michael Stoecker says
That was a very good explanation – I’ve never really understood that “difficulty” setting. After reading your note, I may adjust mine down (from 75%, if I recall correctly). My Kickr is vintage 2017, and came with a 11-28T cassette (11 speed). The bike I attach to it is indexed for a 10-speed rear cassette, and I don’t want to mess with the derailleur. So, I am only able to use the cogs up to the 25T. I have to admit that I have to grind my way up some of the steep climbs available on Zwift (like the Alpe), and lots of routes on Rouvy, and it can definitely put real stress on my knees. Guess I need to experiment with this Zwift difficulty setting (lower values) to see if it helps my knees on the steeper segments. Or, did I jump to a conclusion that you did not intend. Thanks for a great write-up.
Road Bike Rider says
Yes, that feature is designed to solve your exact problem, so I’d back off on difficulty to save your knees.
I was hoping to get more commentary from other Zwift racers about their setups and approaches though!
Glad you found it helpful.
10-speed cassettes are very inexpensive these days, so why not just get a 10-speed cassette to put on your Kickr so you can use all ten cogs?
Michael Stoecker says
Yeah – I’ve been thinking along those lines. I’m kind of lazy … Thanks for the thought.
I have a Tacx wheel on trainer that simulates up to 20%. I also use the Tacx Training software and keep the difficulty setting at 100% unless I am doing steep climbs. I’m not into racing and like the real videos that Tacx provides. To each their own. I like your description of using lower setting so you don’t have to shift as often, I’ll have to try that.
I just completed my first Zwift Stage Race and after Stage 2 someone told me they had completed the stage at about 20-30% difficulty on their trainer. I normally have my trainer set at about 80% thinking that by doing so I would be replicating something closer to IRL riding. I changed my trainer difficulty to 40% for the last stage and had a phenomenal result. My watts were up but my cadence was also up. I was much more comfortable during the race and was able to stay with the peleton and not get dropped as I had the day before. I burned the same number of calories as I would have expected given the length and the terrain. Now m decision is if I go back to 80% for training and lower for races or maybe just keep it at about 50-60% for training. Still working that out, but if anyone has any advice on that I would be open to suggestions.
Road Bike Rider says
For training on Zwift, I generally use the workouts and put it in ERG mode, so the trainer difficulty setting isn’t relevant. With ERG mode during a workout, it doesn’t change for hills.
I have not attempted to train by just riding around Zwift worlds.
During racing, like you, I have better results with a lower difficulty setting so that I don’t have to mess with a bunch. of shifting and can just concentrate on generating watts and matching the surges of the peloton and keeping up.
Thanks for the reply. I also use ERG when doing training workouts in Zwift, although I spend most of my indoor riding time in group rides or races so I will play around with the setting some more and see what works best in group rides vs races and such.
I tried to adjust my trainer setting to be a bit “harder” in a Zwift race so I could keep my trainer quieter and use my little change ring. There was no where I could see to adjust it and of course I got shelled right at the start cause my trainer was noisy and ran out of gearing even in bigger gears. I have a cyclops rear wheel trainer and it works fine on group rides and workouts in the “harder” mode. Any insights are appreciated 🙂
Im just now trying to make the same transition from Kickr to Stages SB20 for Zwift racing and in the first race I tried found that it was simply harder on the SB20 for the same type of rolling course, The power required on average just felt much harder than the numbers showed and it often felt like I was riding in sand.
Did you experience this when changing over to the smart bike or was it smooth sailing and felt pretty much the same?
Road Bike Rider says
There’s a Facebook group for the Stages SB20 where they share a. lot of good information.
Basically, the Stages bike is just different than the Kickr. You adapt to the way it works after you get used to it. I personally wish it were a little more like the Kickr, but I like everything else about the bike enough that I would still buy it over again between the other smart bike choices.
What I have found to be effective with racing using the SB20 is to anticipate the rolling hills and speed up on the downhill as you approach it, and then the power starts to kick in and it gets you over the top.
But other people in the FB group might have even better feedback about SB20 tips for racing.
Hills aren’t the problem. It is everything. But lets just call it flats or steady-state.
My FTP outdoors is @300w. I am really struggling to hold 300w on the SC20 for 30 seconds. Can do 400w no more than 20 secs. Under 200w feels more or less ok, but after that it feels progressively worse.
My outdoor peak sprint is 1420-1400w. I touched 700 barely on the SB20 and frankly didn’t see that when I hit it only later on Strava analysis, during effort it actually looked like I peaked at 550.
Road Bike Rider says
With my SB20, my wattage results on the smart bike match up with what my power meter shows for my outdoor rides on two different bikes.
I would recommend making sure you have the newest firmware for the bike, making sure you have the newest firmware for both power meters, and then trying different things with your Zwift settings. Currently I’m connecting to the SB20 bike itself for cadence, power and “controllable” and am not connecting to any of the power meters and that’s working pretty well for me, using an ipad for Zwift. I’m not sure what Stages recommends currently for which thing they want you to connect to which part of Zwift for the settings.