An end to the dreadmill? Zwift launches a running platform


The hugely popular virtual cycling platform now has a version for runners. But can running through a virtual world persuade a treadmill-phobe to hop on the belt?






Zwift runners: just keep going.

I have a theory about treadmill running. Much as a dog year supposedly equates to seven human years, so a mile run on a treadmill equates to seven run outdoor. It doesn’t matter what tricks I try to make it more interesting, time on a treadmill passes slower than a snail on Valium through molasses. But could a saviour finally be at hand (or even foot) with the launch of Zwift running?

Keen cyclists will probably already be familiar with the hugely successful virtual platform. Launched in 2014, there are now 500,000 cyclists signed up, averaging 1m miles a day between them. Zwift is essentially a platform that gets you fitter, with a game element. You link up your home turbo trainer to a computer (or TV) using a speed or cadence sensor, and then, when cycling, you move – at the same speed you are cycling on the trainer – through a hyperreal virtual world. Alongside you are other athletes doing the same. That’s one of the platform’s USPs: all the people you see around you are “real” – there are no bots put into the game just to make it look busier. You can ride with a “real” group – or with a friend who happens to live on the other side of the world. Some of the big group events attract up to 3,500 participants.

That model for cycling is now available for runners. To speed on foot through the virtual worlds (there are three, which rotate day by day) you will need a footpod – available from about £30. This allows the platform to calculate your speed in the same way as the speed/cadence meter does for cyclists. And if an admittedly brief experiment using Zwift with a treadmill was anything to go by, it’s pretty accurate – the footpod and the treadmill speed counter were always within 0.1km/hr of each other.

Then, of course, you need a screen. This can be a Windows PC, a Mac, an iOS tablet or Apple TV. An Android version is in development. Some hi-tech gyms will have treadmills that are “Bluetooth ready”, meaning you don’t even need the footpod – and this is likely to become increasingly common.

Setting up in Zwift is very quick and easy, although if you are so inclined, you can spend time selecting and customising your own avatar in the game. Then you can explore the many options for your actual runs – setting a goal for yourself by distance, choosing an interval workout or logging in at a set time to join a group run. These group efforts are broken down by pace, so you can chose one suitable for your own level. Completing all these activities accumulates points and allows the user to move through levels, unlocking more virtual options. Zwift also has plans to collaborate with brands such as New Balance and Hoka, meaning that such rewards could also become tangible.

Running through a virtual landscape.



Running through a virtual landscape.

Zwift Run is still a beta product, so updates and tweaks are undoubtedly going to be rolling out, and bugs spotted. But like the cycling version, it is already integrated with Strava, meaning those (including myself) who log every mile can keep doing so. However, it’s hard to imagine that pursuing Strava segment records in a virtual world will have quite the same appeal for runners as for cyclists – who are likely to be averaging much longer sessions with multiple shots at a segment record on a lap course.

So does it work? Does it make a treadmill run seem, well, quicker? Yes, to an extent. Moving through a virtual landscape is far more immersive and enjoyable than squinting at a badly positioned TV screen showing terrible music videos with no sound. It cannot replicate the feeling of moving through an outdoor landscape, but it gets a lot closer than you might imagine and takes your mind off that slowly-moving timer.

You need to be careful how you position your screen or you risk spending your run in a somewhat awkward downward-looking posture, which can’t be good for your shoulders or back – but the same applies to gym TV screens anyway. Where it undoubtedly helps is when trying to do treadmill intervals, something I would usually rather pull out my own fingernails than attempt. Running fast until you reach a landmark – albeit a virtual one – seems to go much quicker than simply running against time.

Where Zwift seems to come into its own is in making a virtue out of necessity. I would never chose indoors over outdoors, but when needs must (ice on pavements, for example) then Zwift will be a sanity-saver.