Advice for getting better?

This isn’t a 100% Zwift-only related question but being new to cycling - you guys are the only ones I know who bike :slight_smile: Plus I do have some questions that could relate to how I use Zwift (settings, free riding or workouts, etc) so that’s also why I’m asking this here.

First, about me, as I said, new to cycling, kind of out of shape in general. Was never into anything ‘cardio’ before. I bought a Kickr smart trainer and a 10-speed older Cannondale road bike that I keep attached to it.

So far, for the past 5-6 weeks, I’ve been enjoying free riding and trying out different worlds. I can’t bike for very long though. I’m so impressed with people who can bike for 2 hours. My rides average from 30-45 minutes right now.

I don’t think I can survive an FTP test so I haven’t done one yet. I haven’t tried “workouts” yet either.

I struggle on the elevations mostly, my legs get really tired. I don’t even pick routes with a lot of elevation yet.

I haven’t decided what settings are best (the “trainer difficulty” in Zwift). I’ve heard it’s best to put it at 100% but again I really struggle on elevations so I don’t know if that’s a good idea. But maybe I should put it at 100% and just downshift as much as I can when I’m struggling? Or is it the same when I have it set to around 25-30% difficulty and just means I don’t have to switch gears as often but same effort otherwise? Or do I keep going at 25-30% difficulty and work up from there?

I’m thinking the disadvantage to not putting the difficulty to 100% is that the downhills aren’t really easier. I am able to upshift now and gain some speed but the effort doesn’t really feel easier on my legs. I guess there’s no ‘coasting’ anyway in Zwift anyway though…

I guess my main question in addition to trainer difficulty settings, is just what to do to get “better” (better at climbing, better at longer rides). I guess I have made some progress since I used to struggle after 30 minutes of riding and now I’ve been pushing into 40-45 minutes. Though I’m sure if I picked a route with more elevation I probably can’t as long.

I don’t know if I’m ready for “workouts” or if I should just continue to do more free-riding until I feel stronger at it and then do an FTP test and then some workouts.

Thanks in advance for any guidance on this.

My background so you know where my “advice” is coming from:
I do not race
I am older and have been riding for exercise for 30+ years (as opposed to riding around as means of transportation as a kid)

Do you have a heart rate monitor? If not get one…I recommend a chest strap (wahoo or garmin) or maybe an optical band for the upper arm (Stryd?). I do not recommend the wrist optical watch…some issues with reliability.
If you have one…do you know your anaerobic threshold (AT)? You can estimate but these methods can be inaccurate. There may be better ways to estimate these days and maybe someone will chime in.
The point is you can track progress through power and such but I think it is easier to meter your efforts through heart rate. The stronger you get, the more you can ride above AT. You do want efforts above AT to get stronger but do not want to spend the majority of time at that level. When you cannot push yourself to that level you are either overtraining or getting sick.

Set your trainer difficulty to 50% or so. You want to have gears available when going uphill.
If you plan to race, you might want to start the training programs in Zwift. Some have reported good results.
If no plans to race, getting stronger is pretty simple:
Ride harder
Ride uphill
Ride uphill harder.
Do not over train (track HR first thing in the morning).

30-45 minutes is a good ride. In Zwift that equates to an hour or so as the riding is constant…no stopping/resting at stoplights, etc…

IMO Zwift is brilliant. Some complain (mostly racers and those on spin/non-recommended setups) but I think it is great bang for the dollar. But if you start getting tired of the virtual world, do a trial of Fulgaz and/or Rouvy and ride around the world. Too bad this wasn’t around 25 years ago…

Good luck.


I suggest sticking at the default of 50% trainer difficulty to start with, especially if you find hills hard. The important thing is to enjoy it so that you keep coming back for more, not to make it so hard that you don’t feel motivated to use Zwift, or at least so that you don’t do hills.

Trainer Difficulty is badly named really. You still need to put out the same total power (watts) to get up a hill in Zwift, no matter the TD setting. What it effectively does is alter the virtual gearing - e.g. a low TD setting is like having a really big cog at the back in real life, so you spin up the hills with less resistance.

You can experiment with TD over time, e.g. as you get stronger you may want to increase it so that you get more used to how it feels on real-life hills with real-world gears), by don’t go up too high too quickly.

Ride On!

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heart rate monitor is crucial! get one of those for sure!

trainer difficulty… i set it to 30-40%. it just means i shift less often.

give riding in a group a shot. there’s a number of benefits:

  • you go faster in a group because of the draft, so you cover more miles/km. doesn’t really make you stronger, but might help you with the mental game, and might encourage more time in the saddle
  • riding with other people usually makes you put more effort in than riding solo
  • chats, trying to keep up with others, more visual interest tends to make the ride feel like it goes by faster
  • to me, it’s just generally more fun to ride with others, and so that keeps me coming back

you can sign up for one of the group ride “events”, but you can also just drop in and ride with a pacer bot. if you’ve never done it before, you might try to stick with Dan Diesel bot first. see how long you can hang with him! shoot for 10 mins to begin with, and keep adding on. there’s always a sizeable group with each bot, so you instantly have a group to hang with!

i’ve been working my way up to riding with Bowie Brevet pacer bot. in the beginning, i could do 10-15 mins with him, and now i’m up to 45+. it’s an easy way to measure your own progress, and suffering alongside others makes it seem more do-able!

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This is a long reply… apologies for that but hopefully it is helpful. :slight_smile:

My background so you know where my advice is coming from: I’ve been on Zwift for a few years, have experience with group rides, races, workouts etc. Since Christmas I’ve been working hard to get fit again and lose weight after doing almost no exercise last year with lockdown, and am doing ok at it.

As others have said, leave your trainer difficulty around 50% for now. As you learn more you can play with it if you want but for now it will give you a decent amount of low gears that you can change down into as you ride uphill.

My advice is - you’ve been riding 5-6 weeks and improving your riding and enjoying yourself. This is all good. Time to take the plunge and try and test where you are now in regards to fitness. This might sound scary but it doesn’t have to be. Its about putting a stake in the ground so you can see where you are, and give you something to measure yourself against. I do not recommend you do a FTP test. These are hard to do, especially if you are new to riding, both mentally and physically. I do recommend you do a ramp test. You can select this from inside Zwift, inside the workout menu. Zwift has two different ones depending on how much you weigh. As you are new, even if you don’t fit into the below 60kg recommendation you can probably get away with doing the Ramp Test ‘Lite’ version. These can look scary but you don’t need to worry. You are not expected to ‘complete’ a ramp test. Instead you’ll select the ramp test from the workout menu, I’d put your FTP down as equal to your weight for now, make sure that ‘ERG mode’ is selected in that menu and then hit the ‘ride’ button. ERG mode will control the resistance of your trainer for you so all you need to do is concentrate on pushing the pedals around. You’ll need to stay seated for the duration, no standing up! Even when it gets hard! It’ll start off with some free riding where you can warm your legs up a bit and get yourself to a nice pedal cadence that you enjoy pedalling at. After that ERG mode will engage and the resistance will start being controlled for you. It’ll feel nice and easy at this point. Your job now is to just try and keep seated, and try and keep your pedals turning as long as possible. Every minute the resistance will increase and it will get progressively harder. This is where ramp tests are good because you don’t need as much experience to get something useful from them as you do from a FTP test. You literally just need to keep pedalling until you physically can’t any more. Once you stop pedalling, after a bit, Zwift will realise and move you straight onto the cool down section. And that’s all you need to do. Ramp tests are over quickly, most of it is fine with the last few minutes feeling horrible. But you’ll get through it :slight_smile: And practice at ramp tests also helps you do better on your next one so it’s ok for your first one to be not as good.

Importantly doing the ramp test will give you your first FTP value. This is really useful to measure your progress and also to help with all the other things that Zwift does such as workouts, group rides, races etc. It’ll say your FTP value during the ramp test but to be honest you might miss it, if you do, you can always see it in that workout menu that you went into before.

Congratulate yourself for getting through the ramp test! You might want to give your legs a bit of a rest the next day as it can tire them out!

Next I suggest that you try the ‘Zwift 101: Cycling’ training plan. This is a short introduction to how workouts work. Workouts are scaled to your FTP value - so they should be challenging for you, but not so hard that they are impossible. This is why I recommended a ramp test to you - getting a start on understanding your FTP helps so much in other areas. The Zwift 101 workouts are quite short and give you a nice introduction to workouts. It’ll also give you a bit of a taste of some structured rides so you can see how you like it. I recommend that you do the workouts in ERG mode so your trainer takes care of the resistance for you. You want to keep a nice steady rpm value through the entire workout. Try and use your legs to push harder on the pedals rather than just speeding up the pedals.

As I said, knowing your FTP value is your gateway to lots of things.

  1. Its a measure of your progress. You can do a ramp test in a few weeks time and see how much you’ve improved. And if you are just starting riding like it sounds from your post you should expect quick improvement. Newbie gains are a very real thing! :slight_smile:
  2. Take your FTP value and divide it by your weight in kg. This is your W/kg value. Let’s say your FTP comes out at 100W and your weight is 80kg. 100/80 = 1.25W/kg. i.e. on a really good day, you should be able to ride just under 1.25W/kg for about an hour. Most group rides will advertise what pace in W/kg they expect the ride to be at. So you can use your W/kg to see how you might compare to their advertised pace. Don’t get discouraged by seeing lots of rides at higher W/kg values than you. There are a bunch of slower ones as well. They are there :slight_smile:
  3. If you like the workouts you’ve tried, you could also try a group workout. In a group workout, Zwift will scale the workout to your FTP just like before, but it’ll also make sure that everyone in the group workout stays together on the ride, regardless of their power output. Group workouts are a really good way to ‘workout together’. You may find some chat in the group workout but often it goes quiet when the workouts get harder :slight_smile:

Ultimately you’ll get better at riding the more you ride so doing things that are fun and keep you riding is all good. And after a few more weeks of riding and having fun do the ramp test again and see how much you’ve improved! :slight_smile:


trainer difficulty = use 25-50% (100% is for masochists, you don’t want to be changing gear every 2 seconds it’s just annoying, but dont be lazy and use 0% either otherwise no point of having a smart trainer)

get a heart rate monitor and learn about training zones. the guys doing 2+ hour rides are doing them at a relatively slow/steady pace (for them), you need to figure out what your heart rate zones are then you can train at the correct intensity for the duration you wish to target.

other minor tips: fuel well for every ride, keep hydrated, have some snacks/gels to hand, have a high protein meal afterwards, and make sure you get adequate sleep/rest in between big rides as recovery is just as key as the work that you put in when it comes to making phat gainz.

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Thanks for the reply Chris! I’ll try 50% so I have more gears available for climbing as you mentioned. Silly question (for you and anyone else experienced with cycling, but)… when I’m going up a hill, should I be shifting to make the gears “easier” (pedals easier to turn) or should I be standing up on my pedals in a harder gear. I don’t ever stand up so I feel like I’m probably doing something wrong.

thanks Steve!

Thanks Dan!

This was super helpful thank you Kat! The only thing I am not sure of, is what gear I should put my bike into for the ramp test, or does it not matter?

thanks Ben!

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If you don’t already have one, open a free Strava account and link your Zwift profile to it.

Strava allows you to compare your rides and easily see your progress.

The trouble with cycling is that it doesn’t get easier, you just get faster. So sometimes you will do a ride and feel like crap. Afterwards when you look at your data on Strava you see that you have smashed your old PB’s and it makes you feel a whole lot better about yourself.

Another important thing when training are recovery rides. Low paced leg spins for say 20-30 minutes the day after you have had a hard session. I normally do an hour on a pretty flat course on a Monday after a big outdoor ride on a Sunday. It really helps your legs to recover from the previous efforts.

Don’t be scared to try a quick FTP test and then a workout programme. If you don’t like it, just stop. Nobody will know and at least you will know a little more about what they are like.

But most of all, enjoy!

Ride on.

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Oh snap! I’ve been looking forward to longer rides with less leg-burning :slight_smile:

So in terms of pacing, what do you aim for on a normal day/workout, versus on a recovery ride? I assume you’re referring to RPM?

You shift to find the gearing that is comfortable for you. If a long climb, you want to be able to sustain the effort. Some like to spin and some like to grind. Seating is preferred but for sustained efforts stand every now and then to work different muscles. Only need 10-15 seconds or so. Shift into a harder gear to stand.

Monitor your heart rate and wattage. If you know your AT, that is half the battle. If you do not, it is approximately at the point where you can no longer sustain a conversation and/or gasping. Note your wattage in that area.

For example: my AT is ~142-144 (I am almost 60). When riding well I can sustain 200-210 watts for a long period. I can estimate how long I can go over those limits without blowing. Right now I am coming off an illness/sever allergies and am not at those levels and I can feel it. I went hard up one of the dirt climbs in Makuri…sustained efforts over 250 watts…I cruised for the next 40 minutes at 140-150 because that is all I had left.

Point is learn your limits and then work to increase them. You seem to be focused on RPM but it is minor to HR and Power. IMO of course.

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Thanks Chris. How did you go about figuring out your anaerobic threshold (AT)? I have a Garmin Fenix watch, and it can do a ‘Lactate Threshold’ which I think is the same thing, but only via running outdoors and I’m not a runner at all.

Hi Nathalie. If you are in ERG mode it doesn’t matter what gear you are in (for workouts or the Ramp Test). In ERG mode the trainer will take care of the resistance for you. So just put your bike in a gear where the chain is relatively straight and start pedalling. You shouldn’t change gear when in ERG mode, just keep a nice steady pedal rpm.

The great thing is that when you are just beginning your journey of getting better at cycling as long as you ride and push yourself to ride a little bit longer each time or a little bit harder you will get better quickly and you have huge potential. I doesn’t have to be complicated yet. Just make sure that you eat a good diet and drink lots of water when riding indoors (you sweat a lot riding inside!) and you’ll be fine. By all means if you are interested you can research into nutrition if that interests you now and to prepare for the future but at your current level as you’ve described it you don’t need to worry. ‘Nutrition’, ‘Fueling before rides’, ‘gels’, ‘energy bars’ are all things that you’ll start to need to think about when you start riding for longer than about 1.5 hours. For now, you won’t burn enough calories to really have to worry
If you’ve got a heart rate monitor then by all means use it. Its another tool in your toolbox but you said you had a Kickr smart trainer so you already have a great way to measure yourself with power. What I’m trying to say is that don’t feel like you need to spend more money on a heart rate monitor if you don’t want to yet.
Let us know if you try the Ramp Test and how you get on :grinning:

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Thanks Kat! I did my first ramp test light earlier today! :slight_smile: My results are below.

I only got to the 8th-minute increment, I don’t know if this is normal but the minute increments prior felt more gradual in how much harder it got, but when it got to the 8th minute the pedals were so hard to press I just couldn’t pedal and had to stop (like power-wise, unless I stand maybe but I really couldn’t spin the pedals - it got so hard suddenly)

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That’s fantastic! Yep… Ramp tests as I said in your other thread basically are “This is easy… I’m ok… I’m ok… I literally cannot turn the pedals”. :rofl: As I said, they are basically ‘horrible’ for only a minute or a couple of minutes at most which is why they are nicer to do than a full FTP test. You should stay seated on a Ramp Test so don’t be tempted to stand. Ramp Tests are designed for us all to fail at some point so don’t worry about it. Your experience is what is meant to happen.

108W is a great start point :slight_smile: So 108W divided by your weight in kilograms will be your W/kg value. And now you have something to measure yourself against and to appropriately scale a workout for yourself if you want to try one of those (as I said earlier - I recommend the Zwift 101: cycling plan to see workouts that are good for a beginner like yourself who is just starting out) and you’ll also have an idea about where your W/kg level is for group rides.

Your legs might feel quite tired tomorrow after today’s test. It feels like they shouldn’t be as you’ll think you’ve only done ‘a little bit of effort’. I always think that as well. But it’s really surprising how tiring they are on the legs so don’t worry if yours are a bit sore. Take the day off and then ride the day after if they are feeling more like themselves again. :grinning:

Once again - fantastic effort on the Ramp Test. I’m so glad you tried it as often people don’t as they think it is scary… but really its not. It’s over quick and it gives you a huge amount of benefit going forward having an FTP number you can work from :grinning:

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A number of years ago I joined a Lifetime Fitness and as part of the membership they hook you up to a machine that reads the gas content of exhalation. That test gave me pretty definitive number (144 i think). As my fitness rises and falls I artificially adjust the number. At one point I think I was using 148-150. Now older and less fit, I use the low 140’s.

You can self test to estimate (I think). You will have to Google.

Thanks so much for your support Kat! Yes tomorrow and prob next few days are rest days - tomorrow I get my 2nd covid shot, so that’s why I rushed to get the ramp test done today since I wasn’t planning to workout for a few days :slight_smile:

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