Riding a bike trainer indoors might not sound too appealing to most mountain bikers but it can be a great way to get in some ride time when the weather isn’t great or when work and family commitments keep you tied up throughout the daylight hours. It’s also an effective way to train for a specific event or improve your fitness to make your “real” rides more enjoyable.
Getting started doesn’t have to be a huge investment and the barrier for entry is much lower than you might realise. Even the most basic setup will allow you to get online and start enjoying online cycling apps like Zwift.
Believe it or not, it’s actually heaps of fun (really!)
"Riding an indoor trainer next to a fire or any heat source won't be fun. Even if it's super chilly. You'll want at least one fan blowing on you, but preferably, all of the fans...and at least one towel."
Jump To Section:
- Why Would a Mountain Biker Want to Use Zwift?
- 10 Ways Zwift Can Benefit You
- Do You Need a Smart Trainer to Use Zwift?
- What You Need to Get Started
- Zwifting on a Basic Trainer
- Zwifting on a Smart Trainer
- Will My Mountain Bike Work on a Trainer?
- Guided Workouts and Training Plans
- Learn to Pedal (properly)
- Jargon Buster
Why Would a Mountain Biker Want to Use Zwift?
"Zwift is a fantasy land for roadies but mountain bikers can also get a lot out of it"
First up, I just want to acknowledge that there is no substitute for trail time for a mountain biker. It takes a lot of practice to develop the skills we need to ride off-road with confidence and sitting on a trainer isn’t going to do that for you. If you’ve got trails nearby and the time to use them, you should!
Easier said than done though right? Work, school, kids, household chores, crappy weather, COVID! Sometimes things just get in the way and our fitness and confidence on the bike can both take a hit.
The beauty of Zwift is that you can use it at any time of the day or night, regardless of the season, weather, or access to trails. You can knock out a killer session in as little as 30 mins and all you have to do is get on and start pedalling.
The structured workout plans are a great motivator to get out of bed a little earlier or sacrifice some couch time to get your training done, and 2-3 solid sessions a week can do amazing things for your fitness.
Combine your Zwifting with weekly skills sessions on the MTB and you’ve got a great recipe for becoming a better rider.
"The social aspect of Zwift is a big drawcard for many, with group rides and events going on 24/7"
"Got a competitive itch that needs to be scratched? Zwift racing is hugely popular"
10 Ways Zwift Can Benefit You:
- Doesn’t matter how cold/hot/wet it is outside.
- Easy to fit in a session with work/family/social commitments.
- COVID lockdowns and travel restrictions are likely to continue. Zwift lets you get your ride in and provides some social interaction if you’re stuck in lockdown.
- Learn to pedal properly. Lots of seated pedalling gives you plenty of time to refine and improve your technique.
- Structured training plans are motivating and a great way to prepare for specific events.
- Develops mental grit and determination. Pushing through hard sessions makes those tough climbs feel way easier.
- Doing your fitness rides on the trainer allows you to focus more on skills on your outdoor rides. Getting out for a quick 30 min cornering or bunny hopping session will feel much more worthwhile when you’ve got the fitness side covered.
- Don’t have to worry about traffic or obstacles when performing a hard session.
- Heaps of races are available for those with competitive urges.
- It’s fun!
Do You Need a Smart Trainer to Use Zwift?
The great news is that you don't! A smart trainer isn't essential to have a great experience using software like Zwift. A basic wheel-on trainer and a speed sensor are all you really need to enjoy most of what the game has to offer.
Having just upgraded to a smart trainer after a solid 8 months of performing Zwift workouts on a basic setup, there are things that I really like about both options.
"Basic Wheel-On Trainer Setup"
"Direct Drive Smart Trainer Setup"
What You Need to Get Started:
Regardless of how fancy your trainer is, you will need these to perform a session on Zwift
- Laptop/Apple TV/Tablet/Mobile Phone: Any of these will enable you to run Zwift but the bigger the screen the better. A mobile phone is fine if you don’t plan to look at it much but the small screen won’t provide a very immersive experience.
- A fan, even a couple if it’s hot. Remote-controlled ones are perfect as you can adjust the speed as you heat up without having to get off the bike halfway through a session.
- Towel/s: Don’t forget to bring a towel! You will sweat. A lot. Protect your bike and floor from your rivers of sweat.
- Water: All that sweat needs to be replaced.
- Desk or Stand: You’ll need to put all your stuff on something. A sit/stand desk is perfect but even a speaker stand works well.
- Heart rate monitor: See how hard you’re working and manage your efforts. Requires a heart rate monitor with Bluetooth/ANT+ connectivity.
- Trainer mat: Protects your floors from sweat and gunk from your drivetrain. Also helps to reduce noise and vibrations.
Not essential, but these will help you enjoy your experience more
- ANT+ Dongle: Depending on what hardware you’re running Zwift with you might prefer to pair your devices via ANT+ for a more reliable connection. Bluetooth can be quite flaky on Windows computers and there is nothing worse than having dropouts mid-game (or race!) or having to spend 30mins messing around before you can even start your session.
- Speaker/headphones: Crank the tunes or listen to a podcast to keep your mind in the right place.
- A quality set of knicks/bibs: All that seated pedalling can start to get uncomfortable after a while. Do yourself a favour and pad up before your session.
- Rotating Wheel Block: These just enable the bars to turn freely so they’re not locked in place. The Elite Sterzo even allows for steering input to add an extra dimension to your in-game experience.
- Dedicated Trainer Area: Having a dedicated space with the bike set up ready to go means that you can jump on at any time without having to waste time getting set up. Deck it out with some pictures or race plates to get you psyched for your session.
Basic Trainer Extras:
A basic trainer requires a few extra things
- Speed Sensor: Zwift uses the sensor and the estimated power curve from your trainer to calculate your virtual watts. The speed sensors that attach directly to the hub are the most fuss-free option.
- Cadence Sensor (optional): Not essential but some workouts want you to pedal at a specified cadence. Being able to see it on screen is super handy. Speed and Cadence sensors often come bundled together so you may as well get them both at once.
- Trainer Tyre: Made out of a rubber compound that’s designed to withstand high temperatures. These will last longer and make less noise than a tyre with tread. Don't use a knobby MTB tyre. The noise will be unbearable and you’ll end up with a melted tyre in a room that smells like burning rubber.
- Wheel Riser Block: Wheel on trainers raise up the rear wheel so you’ll need to balance it out with a riser block. A thick book or something works fine though.
Basic Trainer Pros/Cons
- More affordable
- In-app workouts and training plans are still very effective
- Having to shift to hit the right power/cadence numbers in workouts keeps you mentally engaged
- No variation in resistance lets you settle into your own pace without distractions
- No need to remove your wheel/cassette
- Not that awesome for use with mountain bikes
- Need a speed sensor to work with Zwift
- A bit noisier (a lot noisier if you try to use a knobby tyre!)
- Sudden increases in power can cause tyre slip
- Have to use gears to adjust resistance during workouts (a 1x setup won’t be that great)
- Most races will DQ you if you don’t have a real power meter
Smart Trainer Pros/Cons
- Direct drive system works better with mountain bikes
- Automatically varies the resistance for a realistic feel
- Erg mode creates maximum benefit by keeping you honest during workouts
- Power readings are generally quite accurate
- Don’t need an external power meter for Zwift racing
- Generally pretty quiet
- More expensive
- Need to remove the wheel to attach the bike
- Need to fit a cassette to the trainer
- Erg Mode takes some getting used to (Spiral of Death)
- Needs to be plugged in
Zwifting on a Basic Trainer
"A basic trainer provides an enjoyable experience with Zwift but you will need a speed sensor to transmit your data to the app"
The sensors that attach to the hub are the most fuss-free
Cadence sensors often come bundled with a speed sensor
Shop Basic Bike Trainers: Fluid provides the best feel but magnetic ones work fine too.
Zwift uses the speed sensor and the power curve from your trainer to estimate your virtual power, referred to in-game as zPower. Your power output determines how fast your rider will go in the game.
zPower is totally fine for workouts and general riding but the data isn't 100% accurate and you won’t be eligible for official results in most races. You can still enter races and smash yourself as much as you like but you'll be DQ'd from the scoreboards on the Zwift Power site.
If you want to do any kind of serious racing on Zwift you will need to splash out a bit of extra cash for a power meter or a direct drive smart trainer.
When using a basic trainer to do interval workouts you will have to adjust the resistance by changing gears as the trainer won’t do it for you. Some workouts get you to switch between specific power and cadence combinations so you’ll need a wide gear range to hit all the right numbers for each work/rest interval.
A dual chainring setup is ideal but you could get by with a 1x setup. Just make sure everything is tuned well for crisp, reliable shifting.
It might sound tedious having to change gears so much but it’s really not that bad. In fact, it makes for a really engaging experience as you have to stay aware of what’s coming up next in the workout and plan your shifts in advance as the interval timer counts down.
It’s totally up to you whether you want to hit the power/cadence numbers the workout specifies. You can go higher or lower depending on how you’re feeling on the day.
A basic trainer won’t provide any extra resistance up the climbs either. Your rider will slow down but you can make your way up the biggest mountains in the game with the same effort you’d feel riding on the flats.
You can always shift into a harder gear and grind your way up if you feel like it.
Zwifting on a Smart Trainer
"Even slight gradient changes create a noticeable difference to the resistance you feel when using a smart trainer"
A smart trainer adjusts the resistance for you so you’ll feel it change with the terrain. Even 1% variations in the gradient make a noticeable difference to the resistance. You really feel it when you hit a 16% gradient up a climb and the flatter sections and descents provide a welcome respite.
During workouts, the trainer uses Erg Mode to set the resistance for your work and rest intervals so all you really need to do is pedal. You might have to adjust your cadence slightly for each interval but you won’t need to use your gears.
The advantage of Erg Mode is that the trainer will make you hit the required power numbers no matter what. The bad news is...you’ve gotta hit the required power numbers, no matter what!
If the workout wants you to do 300 watts, the trainer will set the resistance to 300 watts, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re pedalling at 100 rpm or 20rpm.
If you’re having a bad day and your legs start to fail you during a hard effort the trainer will show no mercy and will keep ramping up the resistance the slower you pedal. This sensation is affectionately known as The Spiral of Death.
The only way to escape the Spiral of Death is to put in a harder effort to speed up your cadence or to shift into a harder gear to increase the speed of the flywheel. Easier said than done when your legs are already cooked!
Erg Mode can take a bit of getting used to, especially when coming off a standard trainer, but it forces you to hit all the right numbers during both your work and rest intervals so you’ll benefit more from your training.
Will My Mountain Bike Work on a Trainer?
Most direct-drive trainers are compatible with 130, 135, 142, and 148mm (Boost) frames and will come with adaptors to fit QR and thru-axle systems. Jetblack Volt and Wahoo Kickr trainers come with Boost adaptors included.
You’re out of luck if you have a Super Boost 157mm frame.
"A steel CX bike with a 135mm QR frame"
"An Enduro bike with a 148mm (Boost) thru-axle"
Wheel-on trainers have been around for a long time and generally work best with frames with QR skewers but thru-axle adaptors can be purchased separately.
Using a knobby tyre on a wheel-on trainer is not a good idea. The sound is bad but the melted rubber smell is worse! A dedicated trainer tyre is ideal as these are designed to deal with the heat generated by the roller but a slick tyre is also suitable.
If you are using a mountain bike on your trainer be sure to lock out your suspension or crank up the low-speed compression damping to reduce the amount of unwanted suspension movement.
Guided Workouts and Training Plans
"Zwift has multi-week dirt-specific training plans that can take you all the way from the couch to peaking for a specific event. Or just surprising your riding buddies"
Zwift has 1000+ workouts that come included as part of your subscription. The level of difficulty depends on your FTP (Functional Threshold Power) so they’ll scale as you get fitter or have time off the bike due to injury or illness. The guided intervals are easy to follow and provide structure and a sense of achievement after each workout.
There are even training plans tailored to MTB and Gravel riders that are well worth a look.
Check out the Dirt Destroyer plan to work on your power at lower cadences and the ability to surge and recover repeatedly (great for base training).
"There are plenty of individual workouts and multi-week training plans to choose from"
"Annika Langvad knows a thing or two about how to train for peak fitness. She has curated a series of workouts that are tough but effective training tools"
Learn To Pedal (properly)
Zwift is designed to recreate the experience of riding a road bike and if there’s one thing that roadies are really good at, it’s pedalling. It’s also pretty fair to say that the average mountain biker is a bit crap at it. Sure, we can mash on the pedals and get around OK but most of us have a lot of room for improvement in this area.
"High Torque - Low cadence efforts will quickly uncover any weak spots in your pedal stroke"
"Once your legs are cooked it'll become all too clear if you have a dominant leg or your hammies and glutes aren't pulling their weight"
Trainer sessions give you the opportunity to concentrate on your pedal stroke without interruption from obstacles on the trail. You can focus on how things feel, and see the difference that small changes can make to your stats on-screen in real-time.
With a bit of experimentation and refinement, you’ll become stronger and more efficient on the trail. Suddenly those awful fire trail climbs will feel much easier and you'll have more energy left in the tank for the fun bits. The downhills!
Zwift is an amazing tool that can give you the freedom to make huge fitness gains and fit quality training around a busy schedule.
You don’t need to spend a fortune on getting set up and it’s likely that you or someone you know has an unloved trainer sitting around somewhere ready to be dusted off and put to work.
As useful as Zwift is. You are a mountain biker and you need to work on your riding skills!
All the fitness in the world won’t help you when it’s steep, rough, and scary, so if you do catch the Zwift bug, be sure to put in some dedicated practice each week to keep making improvements to all aspects of your riding. Your future self will thank you.
"Could Zwift (or a spin-off) evolve into something like this one day? We can only dream…"
FTP: Functional Threshold Power - The highest average power you can maintain for an hour, measured in watts. Training apps use this number to determine how much load to put you under when performing workouts. If this is too high you’ll be in a whole world of hurt. If it’s too low things will be too easy and you won’t get much benefit.
You can either enter a known value manually or use one of the in-app tests to work out your theoretical FTP based on a percentage of your result.
20 min test: Go all out for 20 mins and Zwift will use a percentage of your average power to work out your theoretical FTP.
Ramp Test: Go until you blow! This one starts super easy and ramps up the intensity every 10 mins until a lung falls out and you can’t go any longer.
The Ramp Test is the easiest one to use to get started but your results might be skewed slightly higher than what you’d get from the 20 min test. This is great if you want to impress your mates with your elite level numbers...and not so great if you’re new to using a trainer on Erg mode and it crushes you on your first workout.
Erg Mode: Zwift dictates the power you need to put out (measured in watts) and the smart trainer automatically adjusts the resistance to suit. This makes for some effective training but it can be an awful experience if your FTP is too high or your cadence drops too low.
Cadence: How fast you’re pedalling. Measured by the number of revolutions per minute (RPM) of the cranks. It requires more strength to put out the same amount of power at a low cadence than it does at a higher cadence.
Watts: The measurement of how much power you can put through the pedals. The strength, fitness, and weight of a rider all have an effect on their power output. A heavier rider might be able to produce more watts than a lighter rider but that extra weight is harder to move around so the lighter rider might be faster, especially up hills.
W/kg: Watts per kilogram. Your power to weight ratio. This is a more useful reference than the raw power you can produce. As noted above, a more powerful rider might actually be slower than a lighter rider producing less power.
Your watts per kilo is calculated by dividing your FTP by your body weight in kilograms. A 75kg rider with an FTP of 300 watts will have a power to weight ratio of 4 W/kg.
If you want to do any racing on Zwift this number will determine which class you should enter. You can always race above or below your class, but just remember that nobody likes a sandbagger!
Still got questions?
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