Using the “Trainer Difficulty” Setting in Zwift

Using the “Trainer Difficulty” Setting in Zwift

“Trainer Difficulty” is absolutely the most misunderstood Zwift setting (Menu>Settings). Zwift’s help video says:

This adjustment won’t change how far or fast you ride, but it will change how climbs feel…

settings-difficulty-50
Default setting: 50%

This setting is really a “gradient scale.” Zwift is constantly sending current gradient numbers to your smart trainer, and the trainer adjusts its resistance to match the gradient you are riding. The Trainer Difficulty setting scales the gradients sent to your trainer.

Trainer Difficulty is set to 50% by default, which is why Zwift says it “treats the gradient as half of the true grade.” So when you hit a 10% climb in Zwift, your trainer is only giving you the resistance of a 5% climb.

Bump your Trainer Difficulty up to 100% and you’ll feel the full gradient. Set it to 0% and you won’t feel gradient changes at all!

How Trainer Difficulty Affects Your Ride

settings-difficulty-100
100% difficulty: not recommended unless you’ve got a high-end trainer, a penchant for shifting often, and a need to punish yourself!

Lowering your Trainer Difficulty decreases resistance changes on hills. You still have to put in the same amount of power to get up (and down) the hill, but you will “feel” the hill less.

Another way to look at it: Trainer Difficulty determines how much shifting you will need to do. Where you might typically use ~7 of your gears when riding at the default 50% setting, lowering it to 25% would let you ride and only use ~4 gears, since the incline changes are less dramatic.

Increasing your trainer difficulty, on the other hand, will force you to use more gears. So instead of 7, you may use 10 or 12, since the hills will feel steeper and you will need to shift more to maintain a healthy cadence.

What It Does Not Do

settings-difficulty-0
Set to 0%. You won’t feel any terrain changes on this setting.

Changing Trainer Difficulty does not change the power needed to get up the hill. You still have to put out the same watts to move the same distance as before… you’ll just be doing it in a different gear.

“Trainer Difficulty” really is a misleading name for the setting. Perhaps “Gradient Feel” or “Trainer Realism” would be better.

Frequently Asked Questions

Doesn’t a higher Trainer Difficulty make racing harder? Am I “difficulty doping” by running it lower?

A higher Trainer Difficulty will typically result in a higher VI due to more resistance fluctuation. For many riders this may result in an overall effort which feels more difficult since maintaining steady power is easier than doing intervals.

But this isn’t true for everyone, and skilled shifting can reduce or eliminate the effect of resistance fluctuations.

In the end, watts are watts, and your Trainer Difficulty setting doesn’t change the power needed to cover any particular stretch of Zwift tarmac. So set it wherever you’d like!

I’m spinning out on descents. Can Trainer Difficulty help me here?

One common complaint from smart trainer owners is that they get dropped by other riders on downhills. Especially if you’re running Trainer Difficulty at 75% or more, steep gradients simply won’t offer the resistance needed to put power into the pedals. It’s the same outside!

The problem comes when you’re racing against others who have their Trainer Difficulty set low, or perhaps are riding dumb trainers with a constant resistance. These riders will have the resistance needed to go hard on the descents, while you’re spinning out.

Trainer Difficulty can help here. Try lowering it to 25-40% when racing. This will make hills seem less steep, and allow you to put more power into the downhills. Give it a try and tweak the setting until it feels good to you.

For more on this topic, read Trainer Difficulty On Descents: Did You Know? and Hanging with the Group Over Gradient Changes. Also–don’t forget the Supertuck!

I have a KICKR Climb, but it doesn’t respond to gradients because I’ve lowered my Trainer Difficulty. Is there a workaround?

There’s a pretty simple hack for this–see KICKR Climb Wheelsbase Hack for details.

Why don’t I see “Trainer Difficulty” in my settings?

The slider is only visible once you’ve paired a smart trainer as a “controllable trainer” in the pairing screen.

Should I Change My Trainer Difficulty Setting?

No need to change the setting if you are happy with the “feel” of your rides and aren’t struggling with yo-yoing in and out of the pack on group rides. If you think you’d like to adjust it, though, go ahead and give it a try–you can always set it back to 50%.

About The Author

Eric Schlange

Eric runs Zwift Insider in his spare time when he isn't on the bike or managing various business interests. He lives in Northern California with his beautiful wife, two kids and dog. Follow on Strava

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James Gehan
James Gehan
1 year ago

Thanks Eric for this article.

It helped clarify what this setting does. I was training at 50% (the default I think) and last spring, when I went outside to real hills, some of them kicked me pretty good. So I want to up the trainer feel of the hills for climbing so that when I go outside, there isn’t as big a difference.

Thanks – I am bumping up the setting to see if it helps with this.

Bob Ashby
Bob Ashby
1 year ago

I have the Kickr Core. Why don’t I feel the cobblestones, dirt, or wooden planks when I ride Zwift? Is there a setting I’m missing somewhere? I have already paired with bluetooth and the Controllable trainer.

Mikael Skoglund
Mikael Skoglund
1 year ago

I don’t like the TD-setting at all, to me there shouldn’t be any other option than 100 %. What’s the point and sensation in going up the Alpe du Zwift without feeling its true gradient? When I started Zwifting about two years ago I didn’t have a clue about TD and it took me a while before I became aware of it. Now I always use 100 % because it’s so much more real, and fun, and anything else feels rubbish to me. Everybody is of course free to use which setting they like but I think there are a… Read more »

Mark Allan
Mark Allan
1 year ago

I always ride with setting at 100%. Personally I like the regular shifting. It turns what can be a rather monotonous task into one where you’re constantly having to pay attention to what’s happening (I use for general fitness over winter rather than training for races). With trainers in the past I’ve required music, etc., to overcome the boredom. I now usually ride 1.5 hours with nothing other than the zwift screen in front of me. The necessity to be on the ball keeps it interesting and the miles fly by.

Jason Brown
Jason Brown
1 year ago

This article really helps clarify what the slider is used for. Up until this point I thought that it was increasing or decreasing the resistance across the board. Does anyone know if this is available elsewhere? The issue I’m having is that my mountain bikes gearing is not great for riding many areas in Zwift. Even with the slider at 100% I find myself operating in the highest two gears 80% of the time. I believe that a way to increase overall resistance or a virtual shifting feature would help out a lot of riders who are not using road… Read more »

Paul
Paul
3 months ago
Reply to  Jason Brown

Just increase your weight in the game

Csabi
Csabi
1 year ago

Hello.
I have been using Zwift for 2 days.
I use Elite turbo muin smart b+ indoor trainer.
I can’t see the trainer difficulty setting in the settings menu. Why is it?
I use Zwift on my computer(Windows10) and on my Ipad.
I am still using the trial version.
Thank you.

Csabi
Csabi
1 year ago
Reply to  Eric Schlange

Unfortunately I can’t pair my trainer in the controllable trainer box. 😞
Thank you.

Csabi
Csabi
1 year ago
Reply to  Csabi

My trainer only transmits power.

Geoff S
Geoff S
1 year ago
Reply to  Csabi

Csabi, and that is why you can’t find the slider. It affects the feedback. Yours doen’t have feedback from the programme to your trainer at all, so adjusting it isn’t an option.

Edu kaleto
Edu kaleto
1 year ago

Hello Eric, in the app of my iPad does not appear this function, why? Thank you

Edu kaleto
Edu kaleto
1 year ago
Reply to  Edu kaleto

forget it now i see it sorry

Andy A
Andy A
1 year ago

Thanks for writing this up! I have a gravel bike SRAM 1×11, typically using the top 3-4 gears only, and can spin out on the descents. If I’m understanding this correctly, if I increase the TD setting to 100%, I will probably use more of my lower gears to climb. However I will probably still spin out on descents, unless my bike had higher gears. Does that sound correct?

Frank Morison
Frank Morison
1 year ago

This may be a minor point, but does Zwift send gradients to the smart trainer, or does it send the required brake force (or maybe brake torque) based on all of grade, wind resistance and rolling resistance, the latter two being calculated by Zwift based upon the riders speed. Or maybe it sends both so the Kickr Climb can do it’s thing?

Frank Morison
Frank Morison
1 year ago
Reply to  Eric Schlange

That interesting (and surprising). Since all of those factors ultimately result in that single number (brake torque), it would allow for simpler design of trainers and for Zwift and its competitors to bring in sorts of different factors that they might imagine to make the experience more like IRL. For example, I think if Zwift could just transmit the brake torque it would be easy to implement draft feel.

James Morcom
James Morcom (@morcs)
2 months ago
Reply to  Frank Morison

The separate values could improve simulation, e.g. having the trainer physically incline or adjusting fan speed to simulate the wind.

milly
1 year ago

Thanks for explaining how TD settings impact on the experience. One thing I’m finding out reading your post is that one has to shift through a climb… I’m confused as I thought that ERG mode was taking shifting out of the equation on rides. The times I’ve tried shifting gears made a slight difference for a few seconds, but after that, no notable difference from cycling in the previous gear.

milly
milly
1 year ago
Reply to  Eric Schlange

thanks eric, didn’t know this! does Zwift shift you automatically to SIM mode on regular rides?

T.B
T.B
1 year ago
Reply to  Eric Schlange

HI Eric, I am new to Zwift and this comment is exactly what I have been searching looking for. I have been receiving mixed messages about exactly this. So in workouts (training- FTP tests,and plans, etc..) I do not need to shift- Zwift will automatically take care of that..,…however in Routes in Watopia, etc..I do need to shift my gears?

Noel
Noel
6 months ago
Reply to  Eric Schlange

Thank you! I’ve been on Zwift for a few months. I’ve read tons of articles and watched hours of video, yet the basic notion that you have to SHIFT during regular rides totally escaped me! I feel like an idiot but I’m also excited to apply this knowledge on my favorite Innsbruck climb!!

Pete Staylor
1 year ago

My mph seems way off. I am new to Zwifting, however, not new to riding and I know what speed I am capable of riding. I tried the calibration method and it still is not close. Any suggestions? Thanks

Alan Watosn
Alan Watosn
1 year ago

Is there an easier way of going into the menu, instead of starting your ride first then pausing to bring the menu button.

Dan
Dan
1 year ago

You must be kidding. I thought everyone rode with trainer difficulty at 100% or you were cheating or certainly not preparing for the climb outside of equal difficulty. Really some riders go at 50%?? I missed that note. Got it now.

Ronnie
Ronnie
1 year ago

Zwift why don’t they sell a turbo trainer that sends a code to set the resistance when you click the button to start a race. Every one would be riding to the same resistance setting that would be a game changer😀

N.CRX
N.CRX
1 year ago

Hello! I use zwift since 2 years. I always let the setup at 50%. My ftp is 270. I go quite strong on flat TT, performing exactly what is expected with such http://ftp... But in Alpe du zwift, I cannot go beyond 220/230w continuous or I totally overheat. I thought it was because of lower pedalling speed, or anything else. But yesterday I touched the setup, put it at approx 25%. And surprisingly, today I was way faster, climbing over 250w. The feeling in climbs is much easier at previous speed, the difference is huge. This is not supposed to… Read more »

L. Hunter
L. Hunter
1 month ago
Reply to  N.CRX

Trainer difficulty would change your watt to actual gear ratio relationship, any improvements would be due to you and/or your bike being more efficient operating withing a smaller range of gear ratio fluctuations.

Rob
Rob
1 year ago

Eric, do you know if TD could be changed during a race and if so, is it allowed? As this would /could have major consequences.

Rob
Rob
1 year ago
Reply to  Eric Schlange

Thank you Eric,
That is very good to know, but you say it has no consequences?
What about recovery after a steap climb @ say 5% followed by a descend @ 100%?
IMHO it has major consequences that way

Rich
Rich
1 year ago

There is one important piece to this that needs to be made clear. At some point, when the gradient becomes very steep you will have an insufficiently low gear to enable peddling at comfortable cadence. The gradient this happens at changes depending on trainer difficulty. Ie you may find that going up Alpe du Zwift with difficulty set to 50% is possible in your lowest gear at a reasonable 70rpm. However, set this to 100% and you cadence may drop into the 40’s! which is hard and very like real life. While it is true that pushing the same watts… Read more »

Renato Nardello
Renato Nardello (@renato-nardello)
9 months ago
Reply to  Rich

Great point, and this is what people talking about “cheating” do not understand. I have an 1x drivetrain and could not possibly go up the Radio Tower and keep a decent cadence (not even,say, 50 RPM standing). Reducing TD is the only way. In a way, reducing TD is like moving your front derailleur to a smaller chainring 😀

Andrea
Andrea
1 year ago

I think the TD wants improved or removed. It is not natural that if I want to simulate the outdoors I have to change gear 60 times per minute. In my opinion it would take a slider that regulates the speed of the changes slope and not intensity slope

Andrew
Andrew
1 year ago

Hi Eric, I can not seem to find intensity adjustment when using iPhone to drive program. I can Only see option to calibrate smart trainer. I can see ability to adjust intensity when using Apple TV (but prefer to drive program through iphone), if I adjust intensity Though Apple TV will it revert to default 50% when I close program through Apple TV? Is there a way to adjust using iphone.
thanks in advance
AB

trplay
trplay
1 year ago

Help. I moved my slider to 100% as I thought it would help me on downhills. I ride a Neo. Last night in a group ride on Harrogate A friend who I outweigh by more than 10KG went flying by. I was was doing 183 watts (above my threshold). I clicked on her stats and she was doing 73 watts. What do I do to catch the draft of these speedsters? It just doesn’t happen.

Wayne Siepman
Wayne Siepman
11 months ago

What happens if you turn the trainer difficulty to the OFF position?

Joel
Joel
11 months ago

Perhaps this setting is too complicated for me…and if so, and the reasoning below is incorrect, I’d love to get a _mathematical_ explanation for the setting. I do not understand why Zwift and others continue to say “This adjustment won’t change how far or fast you ride, but it will change how climbs feel…” There’s simple math involved here, and if at 50% it “feels” 50% easier to turn the crank than at 100, then the rider is not putting as much power to the crank. Or if the 50% rider “feels” that he’s putting the same effort to the… Read more »

Scott Kelly
Scott Kelly
10 months ago
Reply to  Joel

The physical explanation for the trainer difficulty setting is kinematic decoupling. Bicycles in the real world have a fully kinematically coupled drivetrain in the forward going direction. Kinematics describes the physical operation of the drivetrain without consideration of any forces. One turn of the pedals results in a certain number of rotations of the rear wheel due to the kinematics of the drivetrain. Tire slip on the road surface is negligible, so forward speed of the bike is determined precisely by the pedaling cadence and by what gear you are in. The only way to change the kinematic relationship between… Read more »

Joel
Joel
9 months ago
Reply to  Scott Kelly

Thank you! I realize now that my (obvious) mistake was thinking that when everyone said “it will ‘feel’ different but nothing will change” that “nothing” excluded _cadence_. To maintain the same power (and so speed) at a lower Trainer Difficulty, the rider will need to spin up the cadence.

Puppy Lander
Puppy Lander
1 month ago
Reply to  Joel

What they mean is that the work needed to complete the climb remains the same. Work = Force x Distance For example, you can have two hills that both take 100Joules to complete. One is steep but short (10N x 10m). The other is less steep but longer (5N x 20m). The person who finishes the work (100Joules) the fastest is the winner. (Incidentally, power is in watts. Watts are Joules/second. So power is the rate of work.) So one hill is half as “steep” but you have to cover twice as much “distance” to do the same amount of… Read more »

Frank Takeda
Frank Takeda
11 months ago

So if I set TD as zero, it would be the same of enabling ERG mode? I will not need to change gears?

Wayne Siepman
Wayne Siepman
11 months ago

What is the setting “Workout Pain Effect” for?

Neil coles
Neil coles
11 months ago

Is it not the case that max incline and power are good indicators of a trainer’s capacity to handle lower resistances too? I would guess an elite drivo ll is going to be happier at 9% than a flux S at the same even though both are capable? You don’t buy a car and redline it everyday if you want years of troublefree use. On top of that I’ve seen that manufacturers clarify these limits by speeds so a trainer with max 25% presumably has more flexibility for hard climbs in big rings too?

Eugene j Kaub
Eugene j Kaub
10 months ago

Hi Eric, i currently have a 25T easiest gear cassette 32T front, while doing the Epic KOM and Radio Finale, i was in 32/25 and barely made it up @ 50% TD i think i was at 17rpm cadence, would setting a lower TD essentially give me easier gears to spin with? should i just get a bigger cassette and call it an investment for the bigger routes to come.

Stuart Tunney
Stuart Tunney
9 months ago

Hiya, I am using Zwift and a Wattbike, I am 77Kg and FTP 215. Yesterday I had to do 2.5-3W/Kg 200-220W to stay in a group who were 1.5-2W/Kg. Why am I having to work harder? One bloke who was 6ft 2 and 215lbs av. 190W….please help!

Steve
Steve
9 months ago

So as of July 2020 a hack is the only way to get the KICKR Climb to work accurately with Zwift???

twain
twain
7 months ago

Great article; your site is awesome. I was riding with the difficulty set in the middle but then maxed it out because I was interested in “Veresting”. What I’ve noticed: when you hit a climb, even just 2% grade, the resistance increases dramatically. That said, it doesn’t seem to increase much more as the grade increases. It’s sort of like it hits hard when there is a climb of any sort but it doesn’t really matter how steep it is On descents, though, it’s amazing. You pick up speed really rapidly It would be sweet if there was a way… Read more »

B Moe
B Moe
5 months ago

I have a wahoo kickr and no matter how fast I pedal, my trainer will not go over 12/13 mph on straights and 13/14 mph going downhill. How can I fix this issue? Please don’t say pedal faster!!!🤣🤣

James Kenney
James Kenney
5 months ago

I don’t know if this is an appropriate place to ask this; but I don’t have a “smart trainer”, is there a way I can follow along on my old trainer & just approximate by using my resistance levels. Just want to try this out to see what it’s all about?

Angela Estep
Angela Estep
4 months ago

I just recently got the Kickr Snap smart trainer…I bumped my trainer difficulty to 100% and when i am doing a training session in ERG mode I feel absolutely NO inclines or declines. It is as if I am at 0% the entire time. What am I missing here? In sufferfest I can feel the resistance in workouts, but not zwift…I really like zwift but I can’t figure this out. Any suggestions? Does resistance only work with certain workouts?

Tracey
Tracey
2 months ago

I’ve got mine set to 80% hurts my knees on 100% some says it cheating , i disagree as I personally find this allows more gear choice.

Tracey
Tracey
2 months ago

Can I please ask how I get released from the naughty step.. back in 2019 I started riding then Zwift entered my life…. I had an account but used to use the Wattbike in my local gym. The trainers that I used couldn’t have been set properly. In the last month or so I have signed up to ZwiftPower to race online with my bike club. I hadn’t realised being a newbie that I have unknowingly been riding out of Category… didn’t understand the jargon… I had no clue what a FTP let alone what watts were !!!!! I have… Read more »

Craig Avery
Craig Avery
2 months ago

How does this effect sprinting? I hit much better powers on Sufferfest on anything form 1 to 30sec. Zwift seems to just top out (looking at power graph on bottom of screen. Sprinting in 52/13 cadence shoot up, ie. resistance is low

Patrick OBrien
Patrick OBrien
2 months ago

New to Zwift so getting caught up on all the settings and features. If I understand correctly, it appears trainer difficulty alters the elevation profile that the rider experiences. Set to 100% the rider feels the change in resistance simulated by the actual elevation profile shown on the screen. Lowering the trainer difficulty flattens the elevation profile resulting less varied resistance.

Ove Mogård
Ove Mogård
2 months ago

How come I’m not able to adjust Trainer difficulty when I´m using AppleTv or iPad?

jason
jason (@jasonm75)
1 month ago
Reply to  Ove Mogård

Are you on an Elite trainer? Mine seems to keep going back to 50% (instantly) as well on the Elite, but the Wahoo doesn’t…

L. Hunter
L. Hunter
1 month ago

Interested on how this Trainer Difficulty setting compares semantically to Erg-Mode. Seems like finding similarities between these two technological circumstances would aid in the understanding of how TD effects the rider vs how it effects the “ride”

Puppy Lander
Puppy Lander
1 month ago
Reply to  L. Hunter

I was originally going to say that there’s no useful comparison, but actually…

Power = Force x Velocity

ERG holds Power constant. It adjusts Force in response to changes in Velocity (pedal velocity, cadence).

vs.

Work = Force X Distance

Trainer difficulty holds Work constant. It adjusts Distance in response to changes in Force (specifically, one variable of the Force calculation: grade).

L. Hunter
L. Hunter
1 month ago
Reply to  Puppy Lander

I was watching a YouTuber “Everything is Photogenic” and from her critique of Trainer Difficulty I feel confident in referring to the setting as VIR “Variable Inertial Realism” 😉

Puppy Lander
Puppy Lander
1 month ago
Reply to  L. Hunter

Haha. Well, at that point, you might as well call it “Trainer Difficulty”.

To be serious, I think yours a good description with respect to Zwift races.

When it comes to the ways non-Zwift-racers use Zwift, it hardly matters. Functionally, it’s more like a cassette change. It doesn’t map 1:1, but with so many other fudge factors, the discrepancy is lost in the noise.

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