Like most runners who start to get more serious about hitting quicker times in races, I tend to follow a training plan. I've followed ones provided by charities I've run for and more recently leaned on those available through the likes of Garmin Connect and Polar Flow, which factor your running watch into the equation, making it easier to keep track and on top of plans.
These plans will always involve a mix of running drills, whether it's those big runs you save for the weekend or those horrible (but hugely beneficial) interval sessions to build up your speed. I usually reserve those painful sessions for the treadmill where I don't have to dart through people on the pavement - or a running track if I'm not too far away from one. When it comes to logging those bigger miles, it's all about getting outdoors.
Essential reading: Ultimate guide to Zwift for runners an cyclists
The idea of training for a race where the majority of the running is done on the treadmill wasn't one that spoke to me. So when I was offered the chance to use Zwift - the virtual training platform and use one of its training plans to chase a half marathon race PB - I had no idea how I would get on with it or whether I'd stay the distance with it.
I've ventured into the virtual running realms with Zwift back when it first became a place runners could now join cyclists who didn't want to brave the elements to train. It was only free running sessions then, exploring the worlds and getting a sense of whether this wearable-powered way of training could be something to keep me more motivated and focused for treadmill-based running. This time though, it was time to add some structure to that Zwift time.
The race I was training for was the Vitality Big Half, a 13.1 mile race that starts at that London tourist hotspot Tower Bridge, with runners crossing the line by the Cutty Sark in Greenwich, south east London. We've covered the basics of what you need to get running with Zwift before, but essentially all I needed was access to a treadmill, the app downloaded to a compatible device, and a footpod (I used the Zwift RunPod) to accurately track the run metrics. You can also pair an external heart rate monitor to Zwift if you want more data, but I decided to stick to the pod to give me what I needed.
The first bit of good news is that running in Zwift is currently free, although it's unlikely to remain that way forever. But it's a good way to get people using it now and build up a community of runners just as Zwift as done for cyclists. The plan I was going to follow lies inside of the Training section of the app. There's currently four types of training plans for runners, and the one I wanted was the 3 Run 13.1, a plan based on training 3 days a week with the app.
The plan is designed to last 8-16 weeks, but you can adjust the duration if you've nabbed a race place last minute and still want to get some meaningful training in before the big day
Once you've enrolled in the plan, you can scroll through the entirety of the plan from week 1 all the way to that last session. Zwift will give you guidance on when you need to complete your week's training sessions, so you don't necessarily have to do it on that day, you have a time window to complete it. You can't jump into workouts marked for later in the plan, you'll only be able to view and access them when Zwift unlocks it, which is a good way of not simply picking something you'd prefer to do or getting ahead of yourself with a training session that you might not be ready for yet.
As far as what these training sessions include, it starts from easy 5K, short interval sessions and tempo sessions. But like any good plan as you progress you'll soon be asked to do something I was dreading, which was to do 10k speed tests or, worse, run for well over an hour.
Getting that treadmill setup right
Now that I was committing myself to training with Zwift it meant that I had to think a bit more about what I was taking to the gym floor. I had to remember the footpod was clipped onto my running shoes, I had a device with enough battery to run the Zwift app and that the treadmill would actually accommodate propping up my device to follow the action on screen. While Zwift doesn't rely on a running watch and can share data to other platforms like Strava, I still wanted the comfort of my running watch to track my run as a back up too.
Read this: Best running watches for treadmill training
I mainly switched between and iPhone and a larger screened Android phone to run the app, which can chew up battery life if you're running low. A tablet or even something with a larger display would have been a better fit. The flip side of that is that I would've been hugely conscious of people watching me use Zwift. In those early first few sessions I could appreciate why Zwift is well suited when you have the kit in your own home. Sadly, I don't have the luxury of owning my own treadmill, so it was something I just had to live with.
Having to train in gyms at times when treadmills are at a premium was also a problem when it came to getting set up. I had to pair the pod to the app, but sometimes it didn't work on the first attempt. Then there was the positioning of the phone and the problem of not having enough phone battery to run the app for the entire duration of the workout. There was a lot to think about. It was the reason I decided to remove the external heart rate monitor out of the training equation, because it was one less thing to think about.
When the pod did pair successfully and setup worked, the training sessions were fine. I definitely preferred the smaller, more focused training sessions where I could keep my treadmill time to a minimum and conserve my phone battery, and it was nice to stare at something other than just data on the treadmill. You get that data hit on Zwift too, but there are other things to distract you. The treadmills I tended to run on were Technogym ones, which do offer Zwift integration, although I wasn't taking advantage of those optimised to play nice with the platform.
Post session, the data is saved to Zwift and importantly for me, can be linked to Strava to be combined with other training. There isn't any analysis of the data, but it's easy to view progress and sessions you've notched up a long the way. The biggest takeaway from my training was that the sessions were surprisingly well designed and offered workouts similar to ones included in plans I've followed before. I just wish I had a bigger display to use the app with, which would have made the experience a lot more enjoyable.
I'm not going to give you a full rundown of how the race went. It was windy, very cold, pretty flat, and took in some scenic parts of London. Most importantly though, I did bag that PB. It was a few minutes, but as all runners know, a PB is a PB. After the training is done and you've hopefully put the hours in, it's over to you to show that you've given yourself the best opportunity to chew up 13.1 miles quicker than you have been before.
Like a lot of training plans, once you've completed that last session and it's time for race day there's not a lot of that goes into what happens or what you should think about post race. I appreciate these are plans designed to get you through the race, but recovery is part of that process too and it would have been a nice touch to have had some tips or advice along the way on what you should do once you've crossed that finish line. As I said, it's not just Zwift that doesn't do that, but hopefully it can add those things in the future.
Would I swap more treadmill training for running outdoors?
That is the big question. Before I decided to give Zwift's half marathon training plan a go, my answer was an emphatic no. The benefits of running more outside as opposed to indoors, particularly when you're training for races, are well documented. While I can handle short sessions on a treadmill, on the whole I prefer running outside.
Has Zwift convinced me that I could train largely indoors and stay motivated to do it over a long period of time? Yes and no. I still found the prospect of running over an hour on a treadmill hard to bear, and while Zwift's virtual environments do a nice job of chipping away at that mundane feeling of hammering that treadmill over and over, my mind would quickly wander and want to be out running in the streets.
I think training environment is key here to how effective Zwift can be. If I had the luxury of training in the confines of my own home, where I think Zwift is best suited, I might have been more willing to chip away at those longer runs. It often felt like I was doing a lot of faffing at times in the gym getting set up when I just wanted to get on with the running.
What I did really like though was the structure and variety that Zwift did give me for those indoor sessions. The fact the plan was only based on 3 runs a week meant I also had the option to run outdoors on other days as well and it felt more like a training aid, as opposed to entirely dictating that I had to only train indoors. For someone that does prefer to train only on a treadmill, I think you'd get a lot from these plans even if there's only a handful of them available right now.
Ultimately, I'm grateful that Zwift's training plan helped me notch up that half marathon PB. For my next race though, I think I'll be shifting the focus back to pounding the pavement as opposed to the treadmill belt.