If you use a Smart Trainer in combination with Zwift, you may or may not be aware of the “Trainer Difficulty” setting slider. Zwift essentially describes this slider as the ability to scale the feel of your climbs from 0 to 100%. This has no effect of on your speed, as you still use the same power to move your avatar. Zwift routinely considers the gradient to be half of the true grade.
What this means is that your default setting on Zwift is at 50%. To put that in real world terms, it would essentially make a 10% gradient in the app feel like a 5% grade on the road. We are not sure why Zwift goes this route, but it may have something to do with the fact that some trainers are only able to reach certain grade maximums.

When you lower the Training Difficulty setting, hill resistance is decreased. You will still exert the same level of power when tackling a hill, but will feel less resistance when you arrive at said hills.

Let’s imagine for a moment that you have a 7-speed bike, and that you use all those gears when riding at the 50% setting. Moving the slider down to 25% would likely mean only using 3 gears, as the hills would not feel quite so steep and challenging.

If you increase the setting, you may now feel the need to use more gears, which would mean using a 10- or 12-speed bike.

What Zwift Trainer Difficulty Setting Does Not Do

Before you start messing around with the Zwift Trainer Difficulty settings, you need to be aware that the power output in your ride will not change. You will still use the same amount of power to move the same distance.

The Zwift trainer difficulty setting may be something of a misnomer, as it really is more about adding realism than any sort of degree of difficulty. Some users describe it to be more of a cadence control function.

 Some smart trainers have more issues with trainer difficulty than others, with Wahoo KICKR users once of the more vocal about it. The powerful flywheel effect on the KICKR is often blamed for getting dropped by other riders while on a downhill ride.

It really all seems to boil down to resistance. Smart trainers constantly update the resistance to match the terrain, while dumb trainer riders maintain a constant resistance. The former does all it can to match the feel of a real-world ride, which means its tougher to maintain power when going downhill. Dumb trainer riders offer no real change in uphill, downhills, and flats, causing a lot of unnecessary power to be expelled in a downhill.

The opposite effect comes into play on uphill’s, which is where smart trainer riders pass the dumb trainer riders, as the latter need to switch to a tougher gear to keep pace with the smart trainer riders. Dumb trainer riders are generally quick to figure this out, and learn to shift accordingly.

This all adds up to things being a little tougher for smart trainer riders, as they have no other option but to spin out on their hardest gear when going downhill, but it’s something Zwift has to deal with if they want to keep bringing new riders to the platform.

Zwift riders quickly become accustomed to passing other riders when going uphill, only to be passed by riders when going downhill. It can be a little frustrating, and can lead to riders losing touch with the group they are riding along with.

The solution here is to move the Zwift Trainer Difficulty setting to between 25 and 40%. Hills won’t seem quite so steep, and you will be able to power through downhills. Try different settings to see which one delivers the best results for you. If you are already happy with how Zwift feels on the default setting, and don’t mind the constant passing and being passed, then leave the setting as is.

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