I have been testing out Zwift Running. Zwift focuses on making indoor cycling more fun and it’s is very successful doing that. Just like competitors such as Peloton, the company has expanded into the world of treadmill running now as well. To check out this new experience I got myself the Zwift app, a compatible footpod and got running.
Treadmill running vs outdoor
Let me start by saying that ‘m not a huge fan of running on a treadmill. I prefer the experience and flexibility of going outside to run, but there are a few cases where treadmill running is just more practical. Most of time for me the reason is that outside conditions aren’t favourable because of immense heat or huge amounts of snow and ice outside. Running in the gym is the best alternative in that case to keep active. I hoped that Zwift would make indoor running a bit more enjoyable. The graphics looked promising at least.
To start running with Zwift all you need the app and some way to measure your running speed. They are working on integrating their software directly into treadmills, but for the time being you’ll most likely have to get a footpod that can connect to the Zwift app. There is no direct integration here with running watches or apps yet, so you’ll have to use your Garmin or Apple watch next to Zwift if you care about things like your heart-rate if you don’t also get a separate heart-rate strap for Zwift.
Step 1: get a compatible footpod
To measure your running speed there a few different options out there like the STRYD footpod, the Polar stride sensor or the Garmin footpod. They use use either Bluetooth or ANT+ to connect to the app. Zwift also markets it’s own device, the Zwift Runpod, formerly known as the Milestonepod. Zwift bought this company in 2018 and rebranded it. The main advantage of this particular footpod is it’s price of $30
Step 2: Get the Zwift app
This is the easy part. Get the app from your app store and create an account to get going. At the time of testing the Android app was still in beta, and unfortunately that caused issues for me as I repeatedly got logged out with no option to log back in. I had to switch to using my iPad and hope they’ll iron out the Android issues soon.
In my brief struggles to get the app working on my phone I did encounter a big drawback: the main Zwift app is hard to use on a phone for running, especially while running . The app opens in landscape mode, just like it does on a tablet with no way of changing the orientation. The screen and controls are small, and hard to use on a small screen. The pages and dashboard basically looks like the shrunken down version of a full desktop or tablet app and the controls aren’t well adjusted for mobile usage While standing or sitting still perhaps, but while running: no way.
Step 3: Calibrating the footpod
Treadmills are simple things. You can set a speed and an incline and start running. As you can’t use GPS indoors, you won’t know how fast you are running. Don’t trust your treadmill’s speed setting as whatever the speed setting is, it’s a different experience anyway from running outside. If you care about the speed setting on your treadmill being the same as what Zwift shows you in the app, you can calibrate so that the numbers match up.
In the Zwift app you can click a calibration button, which will then guide you through the process. You’ll be prompted to run at three different speeds. Zwift wants you to run for 40 seconds at 10.1 kph, 11.6 kph and then 8.6 kph It seems easy, but as the app can’t control the treadmill speed you will have to change those yourself. Depending on the controls this can be no simple task. The controls of the treadmill I was using aren’t that precise, so it meant either hitting a touchscreen and adjusting 5 times to get to the exact speed or changing the speed by 0.1 km/h at a time by pressing a button.
Trying to calibrate the Zwift runpod was super frustrating experience. I had to restart the process 10 times or so, as either I couldn’t get to the recommended speed fast enough a few, or if I did, the footpod lost it’s connection times. In the end I got through the entire process. So, I’m 30 minutes into the Zwift experience and my excitement is pretty much gone by now.
Step 4: Using the Zwift app for runs
Your first actual run on Zwift is a guided run. This run will explain you how to use the app, controls and get familiar with the overall experience. Instructions appear on the screen and all you have to do now is run.
The run starts by walking, and only gets to running after too many minutes. By this time I was eager to get going so I ignored the “walk slowly for 800 meters” and got off to running my first run on Zwift. This is what I was here for. My running speed kinda matched up with that of the treadmill. Not quite what I expected after doing my best at calibrating before, but hell, I was finally running now and hoped my frustration would fade.
The graphics are nice, but if you really want to watch your avatar and surroundings while running, you better get big screen. The ideal would be a 42 inch TV (or larger) right in front of you, just like the promo video on the Zwift website. This is where my previous advice of using an iPad comes in. You will have no zero fun looking at your phone while running, no matter the graphics.
I was wearing headphones, and Zwift has done a nice job at creating an immersive experience with sounds to match your environment. I think that this could be a large fun of a running experience that is more fun, but it requires a bit more than just a footpod to get started.
Step 5: Connecting to Strava
Zwift can publish it’s running results to Strava by connecting logins. Just like Zwift, this app is mostly used by cyclists, but it supports running fairly well now. Strava is a great way to track your runs, see your progression over time and make the experience a bit more social even if you are not running together.
Publishing my runs from Zwift to Strava wasn’t a success. I also use a Garmin Vivoactive 3 watch to track my runs, and I ended up with duplicate and slightly different entries in Strava. As I care more about my heart-rate data than a nice map of my virtual run in Strava, I quickly decided there is no benefit in connecting Zwift to Strava for this purpose. This part of the Zwift experience is up for a lot of improvement.
My initial excitement to start using Zwift for treadmill running has faded. After trying it a few times I have now abandoned Zwift for indoor running. The runpod’s bluetooth connection regularly drops and it’s just more frustrating than anything. This problem was supposed to be solved using new firmware, but I’m still seeing this happening.
If you do decide you want to try out Zwift for running and you get a footpod other than the Zwift Runpod, I would recommend using a large screen, such as an iPad. Using the app on a phone will be a bad experience.
The Zwift Runpod can also be used outdoors with the Milestonepod app to track metrics such as ground contact time, cadence and leg swing which I’ll review in a different post.
I will keep an eye on Zwift and will retest if when the experience changes, hopefully for the better.