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It’s that time again to dig out the trainer and set up the pain cave. There was a time when trainer riding meant hours in front of the TV on a loud mag trainer with nothing but a heart rate monitor and a speed sensor. While some still prefer the old school approach, power meters, direct drive trainers, and motorized resistance units have opened indoor training world to a plethora of training options. Apps like Trainer Road and Zwift allow riders to leverage the tools at their disposal to bring their indoor workouts and rides into a realm one could only dream about 10 years ago.
While online training videos have been available for some time, Trainer Road is often considered the OG in cycling apps. It gave riders access to an assortment of pre-designed workouts and the ability to create their own. Using an ANT+ dongle, riders could leverage the same metrics devices they use out on the road in their basement. HR, Power, Speed, Cadence could be tracked and recorded in a handy program that uses HR and/or Power targets to complete intervals and workouts.
In 2015 indoor riding was revolutionized once again with the advent of Zwift, the first widespread multi-player virtual cycling world. Riders from all over the world could connect and ride alongside each other in a virtual environment. Those with smart trainers could simulate real world environments with ascents, descents and even log these rides in Strava with real world GPS data.
Both options are immensely popular and offer users an immersive experience. But when we’re trying to decide which program we want to see appear on our credit card statement each month, we need to consider a variety of factors that include, but are not limited to, our goals and motivations for riding the trainer.
Let’s start with Zwift..
With a smart trainer riders can come as close to real world simulation as one can expect from current technology. It offers a virtual mass-multi-player environment that makes riding seem like more of a game. Indeed, there are levels and achievements that can be unlocked just by riding more often. There are even in-game bonuses that increase your aerodynamic advantage, prevent others from receiving a draft benefit or increase your own draft benefit (yes, it simulates drafting). The game also features a Green jersey (sprints), KOM jersey and an Orange jersey (rider with best lap time). The competitions reset every so often and when the jersey wearer exits the program it is passed onto the next best time. Because of the multi-player dynamic, riders can coordinate times to login and simulate group rides and training races. There is already a TNW on Zwift that boasts peloton sizes that would make the Tour feel inadequate.
There is no question that Zwift makes indoor riding immeasurably more pleasurable than it ever has been previously. It’s even possible to still watch TV while using Zwift. You’ll never get bored!
Now onto Trainer Road…
Trainer Road is an app that offers no distraction from the realities of trainer riding. It’s not a virtual environment and offers nothing to preoccupy the mind other than a timer and a wattage meter. In it’s presentation it seems like a bare-bones training app. Unless staring at your power output (or you really like graphs) is your idea of a good time it won’t keep you entertained. What it does offer is an abundance of workouts created by respected coaches and companies like The Sufferfest and the ability to create your own. Like Zwift, if you have a smart trainer, it will automatically adjust the resistance on your trainer based on the target output in the workout. It’s a great program for training and most serious cyclists swear by it. You can easily sync Trainer Road workouts with all your tracking apps (Strava, Training Peaks, etc.) or use the built in analysis tools when you login to the desktop site.
Which should you choose?
The best answer to that is both and other. Neither are very costly (right now) and will run you less then $30/month for both. But if you can only have one, the choice will depend on your level of motivation and your goals. If you’re training for competition and you have specific strengths and weaknesses you’d like to develop and address, Trainer Road might be the better option. While simulating the real world is nice and certainly more enjoyable, it doesn’t have as much value as a training tool as performing intervals with specific power targets and durations.
If you want to improve your FTP, riding loops around Zwift Island all day isn’t going to be that effective. What you want is targeted zone-based training. We know what real world riding is like. We know how to do it. We do it all summer. When we’re training for performance our goal is to elicit certain adaptations in our bodies, which includes, among other things, increasing our mitochondrial enzymes, increasing capillarization, increased plasma volume, increased oxygen uptake. We can accomplish all these things most effectively by doing precisely the opposite of real-world simulation. We ride at very specific power outputs for very specific durations of time in order to maximize these performance enhancing adaptations.
All that being said, if you have a hard time finding the motivation and focus to complete these very robotic workouts on the trainer, riding loops around Zwift Island is certainly offering more fitness benefit than doing nothing at all. And if you’re looking for a way to stay in reasonable shape so you don’t have those terrible first few rides in spring where your joints ache and your muscles are sore for days, Zwift might be the way to go.
Ultimately a combination of both is best. Regardless of your aims, targeted and structured workouts are the best bang for the buck with respect to fitness. If you’re the type who just wants to log miles in the winter, do the bulk of your riding in Zwift and complete one or two shorter workouts per week on Trainer Road that focus on aerobic capacity or VO2 max. If you’re the serious racer who wants to get the maximum performance benefit, do the bulk of your training with Trainer Road and use Zwift for your long base rides.
Finally, let’s talk about other. While riding inside on the trainer is a great way to train, don’t underestimate the benefit of a good spin class. I’m not talking about the one your mom does at the local rec centre. There are plenty of spin classes that tailor to cyclists and triathletes and offer guided programs that will help you with form and give you structure with variability. Incorporating the social element in a real-world environment is a great way to boost motivation and keep you active throughout the winter.