Tried and tested: a review of Zwift running

Zwift are offering up something pretty unique that all runners should try at least once

Firstly, let’s call an end to the phrase ‘dreadmill’. This has nothing to do with Zwift, but the treadmill has had a bad rep of late when, with recent technical improvements, indoor training has never been so smart.

And so to Zwift. For those who don’t know, Zwift is an online training ground inhabited up until recently by cyclists. Users log in, sync their turbo trainer up to their iPad/computer/devices and then ride around courses, surrounded by other virtual cyclists from all over the globe doing the same thing. You can simply ride or you can train; built in interval sessions are available or you can just set your own targets and watch the different metrics on screen.

Update Date 09/10/18: 

Zwift have now launched five new running routes and 5km of dedicated, run-only paths on the app. The 5k run only loop takes you on a twisting and turning journey through the heart of Run Valley, down onto the beach path and along a scenic skyway over the ocean, with only runners by your side. 

Zwift ‘soft’ launched running recently and updated the app overnight to include a running tab on the user page, so we thought best to try it out. Armed with a STRYD foot pod, POLAR Bluetooth HR monitor and my iPhone, it was off to the gym.

Account set up is simple (best to do it on desktop first for ease but not totally necessary), then download the app and once you’re logged in you just select the running tab. Then there are options to connect the afore mentioned devices. This is when you need a foot pod, because this how you’re going communicate speed with the app.

Zwift don’t have a dedicate list yet of pods that work, but to summarise: the foot pod needs to be a BLE foot pod if you want to run it on iOS or TVOS or if you're on a Mac/PC, you can use an ANT+ footpod. This translates as such –

ANT+: Garmin

BLE: Polar and UnderArmour Speedform shoes

BLE/ANT+: Stryd and Milestone

As mentioned, we went for the Stryd foot pod as it does just this, but also measures power, which was an interesting metric to throw into the mix (though the pod is quite expensive and a cheaper one will do the job for speed).

Once you are synced up and on the treadmill, the pod will relay speed and cadence to your device and your HR is done via the chest strap (or wrist based optical readers like the apple watch or the new Wahoo TICKR FIT work too). Now this bit is important: there is a small spanner on the paired devices page (see pic above), this is where you calibrate all your tech by running a comfortable pace for 60 seconds. This is important as it allows all the different accelerometers and sensors to recognise what you running at 10kph on a treadmill is like and can then record your metrics going forward. Once that’s done, it’s time to start.

You can either just press start and get running and Zwift will default you to the Figure of 8 route and let you do your thing, or you can change the route to one of the 13 other routes, all of different profiles and lengths. It’s worth pointing out that these routes were created as cycling routes and you see cyclist on the screen as you run; this is intentional from Zwift as they want the run experience to feel populated, however, these are not running specific routes. We haven’t found that to be an issue yet and Zwift tell us running courses will be coming soon (hopefully including a running track). 

Once your course is selected, you can then choose what kind of session you want to run: open session, speed work, tempo runs, 400m repeats and some up-and-down workouts. You can also choose to run with someone you know on Zwift or someone random as other users currently running will be displayed (see pic below), plus in the top right corner of the screen you can see group run options that are available, so you can join those too. Think virtual running club (zwift is big on community).

The major learning upon first testing was when setting up your zones to calibrate how hard each session is, do not use your PB times. This might sound obvious, but when presented with a form to fill in and it says time for mile, 5k, 10k etc, adding PBs was the default response. This was silly as when the session started and the warm up felt hard and the 800m pace impossible, it was obvious what had happened; current form rather than PB form is the place to start.

Once up and running however, it’s much more of an experience than first imagined. On a basic level, it’s a seemingly more accurate way to assimilate indoor training data (that syncs with Strava). Using the footpod and the HR monitor, it helps eradicate the usual disparity between watch and treadmill stats, plus you’re recording an actual distance based on the calibration of the treadmill, rather than just time and effort based on speed. As you start ramping up the session the pace on the treadmill matches what is on the screen and there is a sense of precision that is often lacking when simply trying to convert treadmill speed into pace for a set period of time. The other immediate impact is that though you are not running with anyone so-to-speak, other runners (users) can see you and that adds an element of competition to the session. It doesn’t have to, but it’s not a bad thing; it helps to motivate as running with friends does in the real world.

Training Plans

For extra motivation, Zwift have also added training plans, three of them for runners. There's a fast 5K (six to eight weeks) , a 10K plan aimed at converting cyclists (six to eight weeks) and a 3-days-a-week half marathon plan (eight to sixteen weeks). You simply review the plan, adjust the duration of the plan based on race day and then enroll.  For the best results, Zwift advise you make sure your split times are set correctly by running a mile at your fastest pace possible. Zwift will automatically calculate your 5K, 10K, half, and full marathon pace. They will appear in blue, so be sure to accept these values before you begin the plan. You can find them in your in-game profile from the pause menu.

The only downside so far is that you can only follow one plan at a time so if you were looking to train for a triathlon and use the TT plan and the 5K plan, you can't. 

We'll putting these plans to the test soon, more to come on this. 

Before things get too celebratory, a slice of reality is needed. The view in a gym isn’t always that delightful from a treadmill and you may well stare at the built-in screen already, but trying to operate an app when running has its difficulties, especially one designed for those using static bike trainers. Despite using an iPhone plus, a tablet would be best rather than a phone as when needing to tap the screen and hop on/off the treadmill, the larger the better. A phone is doable, but it needs a mount/holder for it to really work.

This minor gripe aside, the major development that’s yet to be added is that you currently can’t add custom workouts, so these specific speed work sessions that you want to do indoors rather than on the track will have to wait. The functionality exists in cycling mode so the assumption is that it’s only matter of time before it’s added to running but it’s certainly a major aspect of indoor training that would make running with Zwift a big draw for many.

Session complete, you click save and your effort is added to your profile and shared with whatever third parties you wish/are available. The whole process felt more like an outdoor session than previous indoor sessions have and in time I can imagine home set ups to rival even the most dedicated of cycling ‘pain caves’, but for now as another tool in the training workshop of running, Zwift are offering up something pretty unique that all runners should try at least once. They just need to iron out a few creases.