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Winter Cycling Workouts With Zwift

Published December 14, 2017

During the Spring and Summer (and a little into Fall), I use cycling as a way to stay fit and enjoy the sun.  2-3 times a week I will commute to the office purely using pedal power.  At least once a week, I take the kids out on their bikes and even have one of those trailers that hold the youngest ones.  It is very much an enjoyable way for me to exercise.

Then the Winter hits.  I have to resort to a treadmill which I find way too boring.  It got so bad last year that I wound up throwing out my back due to lack of exercise.  That all changed this year.

One of the guys in the office who is also a cyclist, said that the local bike shop has been promoting a product called Zwift.  I checked it out and was instantly interested.  Zwift is a gaming platform designed for biking around a virtual world from the comfort of your home.  It's a monthly subscription model and there are thousands of other people from around the world on it at any given time.  The interesting thing is that you bring your own hardware to use Zwift.

There are a few required items:
- Bicycle - yes, you use your own bike that you normally use outside.
- Bike Trainer - this typically takes your rear wheel off the ground (or completely off) and applies resistance to make it feel like you are riding on a road.
- Speed Sensor - at the minimum, a cheap sensor attached to your rear wheel to tell Zwift how fast you are going.
- Zwift App - available on Mac, Windows, iOS and now Apple TV.

To test this out for myself without spending a fortune, I only invested in one piece of new hardware, a $40 Garmin Speed Sensor.  I already had a "dumb" Bike Trainer (that I tried many years ago but was more bored then on the treadmill) and I have plenty of computers.  

The setup was quite easy:
- Hook up bike to trainer
- Put sensor on rear wheel
- Launch Zwift

Immediately upon launching Zwift the first time, I am prompted with a pairing screen that shows my speed sensor and I click "Ride."  Somehow I was placed in a virtual island called "Watopia."  Watopia is an imaginary island produced by they amazing staff at Zwift.  This actually GPS to part the Solomon Islands.  Peddling, I start to move on the screen.  Peddle harder, I move faster.  You get the gist.  It was really amazing and simple.

After the 1.8 mile test ride, I quickly decided to setup my "Pain Cave" - this is the name that Zwifters use to describe the small area they devote to setup their equipment.  The new list of equipment for my Pain Cave quickly grew:
- Smart Trainer - This is an upgraded bike trainer that uses bluetooth or ant+ tech to communicate with Zwift.  It is able to control resistance automatically as you roll up and down hills in Zwift.  It also has extremely accurate readings of speed, power (how hard you pedal) and cadence (how fast you pedal).  This will likely be the most expensive part of the equation but makes it the most realistic to riding outdoors.
- Fan - There is no wind inside.  Wind is important to keep your body cool and prevent excessive sweating or even overheating.
- Big Screen TV & Mount - This helps you feel like you are really there.  Luckily, I had an extra set we keep around for conferences.
- Heart Rate Monitor - I use my Apple Watch hooked up to the Zwift Mobile Link app but many use strap on HR monitors.

The technology is fascinating!  I became a gamer again and I am almost 40!  There are group workouts, races or you can just ride.  During the rides, you are amongst your peers from all over the world.  Their flag represents what country they are from but jerseys, bikes and even socks can be customized to make your avatar feel like you.  Every bit of this screams large-multiplayer gaming but there are no guns.  My weapon is how sore I want my legs to be.  At any given moment, your HUD presents your power, speed, cadence, heart rate, time and more.  You can see how others riding around you fair in this department and can even offer them a "Ride On," Zwift's version of a Facebook like.

The immersive world of Zwift has really shifted my Winter workouts to be enjoyable and down-right addictive.  In under two months, I've ridden close to 500 miles, climbed 22k feet and burned enough calories equivalent to 48 slices of pizza (yes it shows you that).  I am immersed and am becoming a better cyclist as a result.  The constant stats and graphs in the app really push you to work harder and more efficient.  I've learned the terminology used by the pros and have even seen them fly by me as I climb some of the hardest hills I've ever climbed.

I am hooked and so are tens of thousands of others.

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Ronnie Schwartz is the CTO and founder of RustyBrick, an agile web & mobile development firm that creates effective applications and focuses on finding the right balance between time to production and software quality to get clients in front of their customers quickly and effectively. Ronnie brings over twenty years of innovative design, programming and management expertise to the table.

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