Zwift Run: What is the virtual running system? How to set it up at home

No two runners are built the same. Some like to lace up the shoes and escape to the nearest woody trail. Others stick firmly to the road. Then there are those who make a straight beeline for the nearest treadmill. Whether that's in the gym or you've splashed out on your own, that time clocking up miles on the belt can get boring at times.

Thankfully, there are now ways to liven up that treadmill time. One of the best ways is through Zwift Run. It's a virtual training platform that was primarily built for cyclists, but is now showing some love to runners who don't want to venture outside. Once you've got all the necessary kit to get it working - which we'll detail below - you can swap staring into space for running in worlds with virtual environments, whether that's on your own or with other virtual runners. 

What is Zwift?

Zwift is an online multiplayer environment for sporty folk where your real-world indoor running and cycling is mirrored in a virtual one.

For running, that means taking what you do on a treadmill and powering an avatar to run around environments inspired by real places - in the US and UK, including London. 

All of your core running metrics - including speed, pace and cadence - are displayed in real-time with workouts saved to Zwift and can also be synced to third-party apps like Strava and Garmin Connect.

You can virtual-run on your own, join another runner, or running groups. There's daily events you can enter, or choose to follow training plans if you've got a (real) race nearing on the horizon.

As you clock up more miles and hit PBs, you'll be able to level up to unlock virtual items, such as running shoes based on real-world shoes, if you like the idea of running in a virtual pair of Hokas.

To do that all, you'll need the necessary tech to track your movement and a suitable device to display the Zwift software. The good news is that the wide support for devices means you can use Zwift at home if you have your own treadmill - or on the treadmill at your gym too.

How much does Zwift Run cost?

Here's the good news: unlike the monthly subscription required to cycle in Zwift's virtual worlds, Zwift Run is currently free for runners to use. Whether that will remain the case longer-term isn't clear.

It appears Zwift's wants to first build-up its community of virtual runners - much like its cycling one - to make it a more vibrant place for people who prefer keeping their feet on the floor as opposed to on pedals.

How to setup Zwift Run

There are few things that make up the basic Zwift Run experience. The first thing needed is access to a treadmill. It doesn't need to be a treadmill with smart or connected powers. A normal, bog standard treadmill is fine. It also doesn't have to be your own treadmill. The flexibility of the setup means you can use it on a treadmill in a gym too.

The first thing you need to do is download the Zwift app, which is free and is available for Mac, Windows, iOS and Android. You might also spot a Zwift Companion app when looking for that Zwift app. That's not needed for the setup process.

Once you've got it downloaded to your device and created an account, the next piece of the setup puzzle is to get what's needed to track your movement on the treadmill to relay it into the Zwift universe. There's a few ways to do this, but the cheapest option is to buy a foot pod sensor. 

These foot pods are secured usually on the laces of your running shoe. The pod houses the necessary sensors to measure metrics like speed, distance and running-specific metrics like cadence.

Zwift provides its own foot pod that's optimised for the platform - you can view it in the official store here (it's the only place to get one) - but you can also use the Garmin foot pod sensor, Polar stride sensor, or Stryd, to do the same job. If you are going to have a Zwift running session at home or in the gym, you will always need this.

Before you get virtual running, you should perform the calibration test to ensure that what the sensors in the foot pod are relaying to the app is accurate. This will ensure it picks up the right speed and tracks distance accurately. Once you're satisfied that it's on the money, it's time to see what you can do.


Run solo, train, team up

So what exactly can runners do in Zwift? There's a fair bit on offer here.

Zwift's universe is made up of six worlds. Three of those worlds are always on offer to run in each day, offering a range of different routes with varying distances to suit how much time you've got to train. You can simply choose to pick one of those worlds and one of the routes on offer and go running.

These worlds do contain both virtual cyclists and runners, but there are now dedicated running routes to help you avoid the wheels, identified by the small running icon when you hover over routes.

If you're looking for something more structured or focused, there are also programmes to which you can enrol with options for new runners and those who are more advanced. So you could be trying to run a faster 5k or you want to build-up training for a half marathon. These options will give you the plans to follow for each running session.

If you're already well versed with your training and want to bring some of the workouts you do outdoors onto the treadmill, you can do that here too. There's workouts built around tempo runs to work on that speed.

Level up

Like your typical multiplayer online game, Zwift rewards you for your running progress. When you hit milestones like your first 5k, your quickest mile, or you simply connect Strava to a new device or app, these actions can unlock XP points - letting you level-up and get access to virtual items.

These items can be viewed from the menu screen that's accessible when you're in real-time running mode. There's virtual gifts like Zwift-branded socks, shirts and sweatbands. There's also running shoes from Under Armour, New Balance and Hoka to add to your rotation.

Take control with Zwift Companion app

Along with the main Zwift app, there's also a Zwift Companion app. It's free to download for compatible iOS and Android devices and is designed to make it easier to control what's happening in your sessions and to see what's happening in the Zwift world when you're not on the treadmill.

Along with showing your real-time map and stats, you can use it to message other runners or give them a thumbs up. There's also group messaging features if you fancy a chat with other runners, along with the ability to follow other runners (pending their approval of the request).

When you're not running virtual routes, the app will also let you view who is using the platform, leave comments, check in on upcoming events and review records, achievements, and see recent activities completed by yourself and other users.

How to upload Zwift Run to Strava

If you're a runner, there's a chance you're already using Strava, which collates running data and presents it in an aggregated and meaningful way.

Fortunately, Zwift has recognised this and makes it possible to sync virtual runs to Strava. To do that, you need to go to your profile in the Zwift app or Zwift Companion app, find Settings and then Connections. From there you'll need to log-in to your Strava account, letting you automatically sync workouts.

How to pair Apple Watch to Zwift Run

Zwift Run does work with the Apple Watch - and that connection enables you to use the smartwatch's heart rate monitor.

The monitor on the Series 5 offers good accuracy from the wrist, so it's a nice option to have if you don't want to invest in a dedicated heart rate monitor chest strap.

If you want to use your Apple Watch heart rate monitor for using Zwift on an iPhone, you need to download the Zwift app for your iPhone and Apple Watch. You will also need to download the Zwift Companion app to allow Zwift access to your Apple Watch. When you launch the Zwift app, you'll have the option. You can also perform a similar process for pairing the Watch with Mac, PC or an iPad

How to pair a Garmin watch to Zwift Run

Garmin has now added a Virtual Run mode for Zwift, letting you send data like heart rate, cadence and pace to Zwift instead of doing it from a foot pod.

That support is currently only offered on the Forerunner 945, 245 and Fenix watches.

When you select that Virtual Run mode, you'll need to open up Zwift on whatever device you have it running on, then go through the pairing process as you would with other sensors. Hit the Start on your watch and you're good to go.

Zwift Run ultimate setup

New Balance Fuelcell Rebel

The good news is that you don't need anything special in the running shoe department to use Zwift Run. As long as there is room to secure the footpod (and there should be), anything goes.

If you are looking for something new that's a good fit for the 'mill, the New Balance Fuelcell Rebel is a good option. These should roll nicely on the belt and give you plenty of miles if you're going to spend most of your time training on a treadmill.


Technogym MyRun smart treadmill

To really simplify the process of getting up and running, you can invest in a treadmill that can send running information to Zwift without any additional sensors. That also means there should be no need to go through the calibration process to make sure it's tracking accurately. 

There are a bunch of connected treadmills that play nice with Zwift. Our pick is Technogym's MyRun treadmill. It currently only works with the iPad version of Zwift, so that's something to keep in mind.

Runn sensor: turn your dumb treadmill into a smart one

If you don't like the idea of having to remember to clip something onto your running shoes to track performance, the Runn is a sensor that mounts on the side rails of your non-smart treadmill using an optical sensor that reads small sensor stickers placed on the belt to track run metrics.

It transmits speed, cadence and even incline into Zwift via Bluetooth or ANT+ connectivity. It can be charged via USB offering 10-12 hours from a single charge.

You can buy it from the Zwift store.

LG OLED C9 TV: A big screen to show off your stats

Zwift thankfully works with a host of screen-toting devices, including smartphones, tablets and computers. It plays nice with iPhones and iPads and Android tablets and runs at a maximum 1080p resolution.

While it's great that screens of all sizes are supported, it's very different running Zwift on an iPhone compared to a laptop. Bigger is always better, so hooking your laptop to a monitor or this top-pick telly via HDMI (or using an Apple TV) will make for a more immersive virtual run.


Polar H9 chest strap

Zwift is compatible with external heart rate monitors that support Bluetooth Smart and ANT+ connectivity. That includes smartwatches like the Apple Watch and heart rate monitor chest straps.

If you value reliable heart rate data and don't want to spend loads on another sensor, the Polar H9 chest strap is a good shout and offers the reliable connectivity support you need to pair it up with Zwift.


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