It's 9pm and I've only just got home. I was meant to fit in an easy 30 minute run at lunch, but having got swept up with work things, it just didn't happen. It's also started to rain, and while a spot of rain isn't usually a deterrent to head out the door, I just don't fancy it tonight. But I'm still determined to get that run in.
So instead I put on my running kit, open up my MacBook and jump on a treadmill. Within a few minutes I'm out running on a road lined with trees and big buildings. Groups of cyclists ride past me on my left as I maintain my leisurely running pace. After a few minutes, it starts to rain, but the only moisture I can feel are the beads of sweat from my forehead.
Essential reading: Is virtual running really the future?
This is the world of virtual running. The concept of turning indoor training into an experience that tries to emulate the great outdoors, without having to step out of your front door.
Since 2014 California-based Zwift has been creating virtual 3D environments for cyclists to train solo, with others, or even compete against other riders without leaving the house. There's even a Zwift Academy where virtual racers have won entry into actual competitions and virtual miles can count towards Strava challenges. Now it's ready to bring runners into the fold, and it's doing that with the launch of Zwift Run Free Access.
Zwift's running mode has been in beta since last year and now that it's officially launched, runners can train, compete and hopefully liven up those indoor sessions. It's free for anyone to try with a subscription service set to roll out later in 2018. There's no firm details how much that's going to cost, but it's likely it won't be too far off the price of the subscription plan available to cyclists right now.
I've been taking Run Free Access for a spin to see if Zwift can replicate for runners what it's created for cyclists - a thriving community of users who come together to work out in a virtual world.
The Zwift Run kit you need
While it may well be virtual running, you do still need a bit of physical kit to make it all happen. For starters, you need a treadmill and ideally one that offers the ability to adjust incline. Unlike the cycling version, you will have to manually adjust the incline on your treadmill to replicate some of the gradients in the courses and routes. It's not essential, but it definitely will add to the experience of running in these virtual environments.
Keep running: Join the Wareable Run Club on Strava
You will also need a Bluetooth or ANT+ enabled foot pod sensor, preferably something like Stryd's sensor or the Milestone Pod, which is how you track movement on the treadmill. It's also the way to pull in your running metrics (like pace, distance, cadence) so the data you'd record on a treadmill is mirrored too. It does also appear to work with smart running shoes as well - I paired Under Armour's Speedform Gemini 2 running shoe - but it's recommended you use Stryd or the MilestonePod as these wearables have been best optimised to offer reliable and accurate tracking.
If you're fortunate enough to have a Bluetooth-connected treadmill or be in a gym that has them installed, you can avoid using the foot pod sensor altogether and let the treadmill do all the tracking for you.
The next thing you need is something to run Zwift Run Free Access on. Currently, it only works on iOS, Mac and Windows devices (Sorry, Android folks). So you can use an iPhone, iPad, Apple TV or MacBook. In our experience, the bigger the screen the better it is to help feel more immersed in the environments. An iPhone works fine, but getting it set up on a TV or being able to mount an iPad to your treadmill are better options. A touchscreen also makes is a lot easier to get through menu screens as well.
It's worth mentioning that you do also have the option to pair a Bluetooth or ANT+ friendly heart rate monitor. So if you want the addition of heart rate metrics, you can make that happen too.
Once you've got that kit together and you've booted up the app and logged in, the last thing to do before you can get running is to pair all of your devices. With the foot pod sensors, it's worth going through the short calibration test to ensure that the tracking of you metrics is accurate as it can possibly be. It only takes 60 seconds of running at a comfortable pace to do it, and it pays off if you really care about that data being accurate.
Let's get virtual running
Now it's time to decide just exactly what you want to do. Do you want to just go for a run (solo or with another Zwifter)? Maybe join a group run, work on a training plan or complete a challenge or a daily target? These targets range from things like trying to burn 300 calories in a session to completing a 5km run. I've decided to keep things simple to start and just decide to get out and run.
When it comes to the environments, it's the same three worlds available to cyclists. That's Richmond, London and the fictional Watopia. You can't simply pick an environment to run in unfortunately and that's because Zwift doesn't want to drop users into worlds with a sparse amount of runners and riders. It's a fair point, even if you do want to run solo. This way, the world feel more alive.
After a bit of a stretch (not by me, by my virtual self), it's time to get going and get to grips with the sheer amount of things that are littered on the screen in front of me. There's the real time tracking data up top with activity stats and KM splits below. The bar in the middle of the screen gives you an indication of your progress, while the add target button will let you add specific challenges for your session.
Over on the right is a list of riders and runners nearby that are also logged in. You can interact with them tapping the names to give them Strava-style kudos. Up top is the map of your route, which is useful for identifying gradients in the course to adjust incline. In the bottom left hand corner is the main menu where you can see running history, adjust settings and check in on your achievements and badges you've unlocked. There's even a menu dedicated to customising your running avatar, which looks straight out of a video game, and will let you unlock virtual goods like apparel and footwear. Zwift has announced it will be collaborating with the likes of New Balance, Hoka and Under Armour to bring its real-life gear into the virtual world.
There's also one last hidden menu besides that orange menu button and this unearths the ability to do things like send a group text to other Zwifters, take pictures and a bunch of others things you probably won't care all that much about while you're running.
So what is it like running in a virtual world? The foot pod sensor I'm wearing takes a minute or so before it synchronises with my virtual runner and he starts to pick up the pace. Now I'm out with the cyclists and the smattering of other runners, some that race past me and I immediately feel like breaking my steady pace to catch them up. The environments can surprisingly feel a little on the basic side, but there is at least nice variety in the routes. At one point I'm up running up a hill where things a lot quieter. I decide to stick my headphones in for and focus on picking up the pace.
Initially, I find that my speed on the treadmill isn't being accurately reflected on the screen in front of me. I'm upping the speed, but my virtual self is simply plodding along at times. I try running in conventional running shoes, the minimalist kind that promote different running styles, but I find this is more temperamental for tracking. When it works, it works well. After a few minutes, I unlock my first achievement and all of a sudden I can start to see the appeal and the motivation increase while I'm moving on my treadmill.
After hitting my 30 minute run goal, I stop the treadmill and save the workout. Looking at my Forerunner 935, the data on the screen is not far off what the Stryd foot pod sensor paired to my MacBook has picked up for the session. My first Zwift run has been completed.
Future of running?
After a few runs with Zwift, I can certainly see the appeal of virtual training, which is something I was initially very sceptical of. If you've got the right equipment and perhaps only need to invest in a foot pod sensor (the MilestonePod is pretty cheap now) then it does have the potential of injecting life into those mundane treadmill running sessions.
Running in those virtual worlds currently feels a bit like you're playing a bit part in a game made for cyclists. Hopefully that'll change over the coming months as more runners enter the Zwift realms to balance out the numbers. I can also see the appeal of running in groups or with other users, even if you don't necessarily want to interact with them. It certainly provided me with more of an incentive to push harder.
As a starting point, there's a good variety as far as what you can do with that running session, which I really like. Now it just needs to keep evolving and growing, whether that's with the addition of more challenges or training plans to really justify paying for that subscription when it eventually lands. It might take some time before the running community in Zwift is as vibrant as the cycling one, but I think there's every chance that will happen and maybe, just maybe, could be even bigger.
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