Zwift for Runners

This New App Makes Running on the Treadmill Actually Fun


May 17, 2018 Sports and Outdoors : Health & Fitness By Photo by Hunter D. Kelley

If you hate running on a treadmill, the Zwift running app might just help motivate you to knock out those miles anyway. Zwift brings you into a virtual reality world, thanks to a variety of Bluetooth devices and a TV, phone or tablet, and allow you to run in Watopia, complete with sand, road, volcanoes, the jungle and the countryside.

The Good: Thanks to the magic of Bluetooth, you can track your heart rate, speed and cadence on the same screen that shows you running in a virtual world. Pick from a random workout on the road, or a tempo run, or speed work to help make training a bit more entertaining. You can run some of the same roads that you’re used to seeing as a cyclist if you use Zwift.

Who They’re For: If you already use Zwift, this is an easy way to incorporate more running into your training. The running functionality is built into the cost of your cycling membership, but you may need additional tracking devices to allow you to run Zwift via a treadmill.

Watch Out For: You need more than just your body and a treadmill to use Zwift. You’ll need to bring up the app on your tablet, phone, laptop or TV. If you’re lucky enough to have one, you can also load Zwift on a smart treadmill (like the BowFlex BXT116, StarTrac with Bluetooth, LifeFitness T3, True Fitness Performance 300 or Technogym MyRun). You’ll also need a footpod to track cadence (I used a Stryd, $199) and a heart rate monitor (I used the Wahoo Tickr Fit, $80).

The sensors all need to be calibrated before you can get an accurate reading on distance and stride length. There’s not really a prompt to do this in the app, so it’s good to note.

Alternatives: There are loads of treadmill apps out there — most aren’t very good, and many don’t even sync up with your treadmill or any tracking device that you’re wearing. The few we do like: Aaptiv, Nike+ Run Club and Studio. In contrast to Zwift, you can use these apps both indoors on the treadmill and outdoors. If the weather’s nice, what’s stopping you from heading out the door? The other major competitor, albeit in a different income bracket, is the Peloton Tread. The major difference is the price for the Tread itself is $3995 (plus delivery) and then a monthly subscription on top of that.

Review: As someone who despises running on the treadmill, testing Zwift was an interesting challenge. My first experience with it was at the launch event, where there were screens as big as my bed set up in front of a minimalist treadmill — so it was fun to run along and watch everything. Switching gears to the app on my phone and iPad took a little getting used to.

The setup is easy, and if you have the right devices, it takes all of ten minutes. The screen and app experience is very similar to the Zwift cycling experience. There’s a leaderboard on the side, so you can hop around view-wise, from runner to cyclist, watching how fast others are running and where they are on the course.

If you do want to track your run accurately, you’ll need a footpod and a heart rate monitor. With the Stryd footpod, I had to download the app first, and connect it via Bluetooth. It was simple to do and also easy to use on different sneakers with the clip-on attachment. Then I connected my Tickr Fit heart rate monitor easily. You can use an Apple watch for heart rate, but only if you’re on your phone. The heart rate monitor isn’t necessary, but it’s helpful if you’re training for a race.

Once both devices are connected, you’ll want to calibrate your footpod to the treadmill speed. This is not called out in the app, so I didn’t do it the first few times I ran and then was confused why my speed in Zwift was .2 miles per hour higher than the treadmill readout. Calibration takes 60 seconds — set a speed on the app that matches the speed on the treadmill and then the footpod will be set to go.

After that, you’re ready to run. If you want a set workout, hit ‘train’ and then pick from a tempo run, speed work or hills. Each is about an hour long, which is a long time for newbies, but again, if you’re training for a race, having the explanation of each workout is powerful. Make sure to edit your paces so that the run is challenging, but not impossible. When you sign up initially, you are given the option to input your 1 mile, 5K, 10K, half marathon and marathon time, as well as your max heart rate. The app uses these numbers to tailor your workout.

You can pick your route as well. Inspired by the English countryside, and parts of urban London, you’ll spy many familiar buildings in the islands of Watopia. There’s also an inch by inch re-creation of the 2015 UCI World Championship cycling course in Richmond, VA.

If you don’t feel like making all of those selections yourself, sign up for an event. There are group runs all the time, so you’re paced with other individuals in your speed zone. You can also set goals for the week or month (based on time or distance), and you can click on other runners to run alongside them. Whether you know them or not, it’s a great way to push yourself.

To get an accurate read of your speed, the Stryd footpod is an easy connect.

Verdict: Having an app that makes treadmill running less boring is important. That said, I’d much rather run outdoors. If I had a large TV screen in front of a treadmill that I could run through Watopia on, I’d definitely use this app more. When I used Zwift for indoor cycling, I loved using the app — simply because there was a big screen television connected to my bike trainer.

However, if you’re someone who loves the treadmill, this app could make your life more exciting with all of the variety in the programming. If you can, use this on an iPad or larger screen — the full effect of the virtual reality running comes through when you are almost surrounded by it.

What Others Are Saying:

• “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.” — Ben Hobson, Runner’s World

• “But if Zwift can find a frequent user foothold in the market, then we might see treadmills start to cater their hardware to the app, which would likely alleviate some of the challenges of using Zwift while running.” — Ray, DC Rainmaker

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