Zwift review – not great

Summary: It’s probably not worth it unless you have a $600+ smart trainer.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve picked up running in the last 6 months. It’s been winter, which necessitates time on the treadmill. And I’m expecting this summer to be record heat which will push me to the treadmill even more. I also cross-train on an indoor bike. I used to cycle outside regularly when I lived near a paved trail, riding up to 50 miles at a time. I used Peloton for over a year, 3-5 times per week. So Zwift seemed like a natural fit for making indoor cardio a little more entertaining. But I was very disappointed.

What is Zwift

Zwift is a fitness game for biking or running that translates your real workouts into video game inputs. As you bike or run, your character bikes or runs. The game tracks your speed and cadence and heart rate and shows your run/bike in the game world. It’s really meant to make indoor exercise feel like outdoor exercise.

What went well

I was able to pair the sensors on my bike and they seem pretty accurate. I’m using Wahoo speed and cadence sensors. The Zwift app picks them up nicely and displays the data fairly accurately. Zwift also has a lot of courses and training plans to pick from. Zwift must work fine for a lot of people because there is a very active community and I saw plenty of other riders and runners. I believe the Zwift community is the only valuable part of the application.

The store problem

The biggest problem was their store. I wanted to use Zwift for running as well as biking, and for that you need a sensor (foot pod) attached to your shoe. Zwift has a foot pod on their site for $20, Amazon has one at $120. I spent a week trying to purchase this foot pod. Their store just didn’t work. I would type in my card number and the page would spin until it crashed and reloaded. I clicked the Paypal button but the page would crash and reload. I tried on three computers with various browsers, two phones, and an iPad, all with the same result. I would love to just use my Apple Watch for running cadence even if it’s not the most accurate, but only Garmin watches are supported for running.

The interface

It’s not a great user interface. For one, you need to have two apps open on two different devices. The actual Zwift game, and the Zwift companion. The Zwift game has some settings available, but only during a ride/run. Before a ride, the only option you have is to start a ride. The companion app is what you should be interacting with, and also sends data like heart rate from a smartwatch.

The whole look and feel is similar to a Flash web game from the 2000s. Everything is oversized, cartoony, and flashy. The animations are stiff and clunky. The world you’re moving through is uninspiring with its lack of detail. I’ve been told the game looks better running on a Windows gaming PC but the options I have are iPad or Apple TV, both of which are locked to the lowest possible detail settings.

There’s not a great sense of speed, either. I was riding at 20mph but from looking at my character you’d think I still had training wheels on. Very demoralizing when I’m struggling to breathe, pouring sweat, and my character is trucking along as half the speed of smell.

The exercise

Also demoralizing was the introduction to their workouts. It’s possible I missed something in the onboarding, but their “First Ride” asked me to get up to 140 watts which is roughly my FTP. Pushing hard, I made it there and the app flashed “This is heart rate zone 2!” I was in zone 5. It then told me to push to 170w, which I did. It asked me to hold this for 5 minutes, which I did not. The next step was 180w for 30 seconds. By this point my legs were fried and I was lucky to push 25 watts. I limped to the finish line with the game screaming at me to put out more power. I was not able to find any way in-game to lower their expectations. In the companion app I could adjust the handicap but only down to 75%. This made me very unhappy, failing my first ride because it just assumed I was an elite cyclist. It seems like the first ride should ramp and auto-adjust to your fitness levels? Again, it does not.

The experience

After the first ride I was able to adjust my FTP score and a few days later I got a real ride in. I still didn’t see the point. Granted, I’m riding with a road bike on a basic trainer so I don’t have thousands of dollars invested in the game, but the entire experience felt disconnected. A person passed me slowly and the game told me to speed up to catch them. I doubled my speed and they still slowly pedaled away from me. My speed didn’t actually matter. I also struggled with the hills in the game, because of course you don’t feel them unless you have a smart trainer. Granted I only did two rides, but I would expect the game to prompt you to increase your wattage output during a hill and decrease on downhills. You know, to simulate actually going up and down hills. It does not.

Similarly, you ride on rails. There’s no steering except at intersections, and even then it’s left or right. And like always, this only works if you buy their $100 controller. When you pass or are being passed, the bikes ram into each other and then one slides 90° sideways until the overtaking is complete. You know, exactly like cyclists do in the real world.

In conclusion

There’s no feel of the wind in your hair unless you have their smart fan. There’s no varying resistance unless you have their smart trainer. There’s no way to buy their foot pod so you can’t run unless you buy their smart treadmill. I’m sure there’s value in their events and races and community. But everything about the onboarding process and technical problems kept me from experiencing that. And I wasn’t investing thousands of dollars in equipment specifically for Zwift when I can’t even get Zwift to… you know, work.

Basically, if you know you want to use Zwift and you have friends who use it and you’re willing to pay for the full setup, you’ll likely enjoy it. If you think it sounds kinda neat and want to dip your toes in… don’t. It’s not for casual cyclists just trying to cross-train between runs.

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