How to Make the Most of Virtual Running

Molly Hurford
by Molly Hurford
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How to Make the Most of Virtual Running

From smartwatches and rings to smart shoes and clothing, running technology has gotten a lot more intelligent in the last decade. And virtual running — that is, running on a treadmill while synced up with thousands of other runners all over the world on a video game-esque course — might just be the innovation that helps keep you happy and healthy right now. Zwift, the premiere virtual running and cycling world, offers access to different roads, routes, races, group runs and challenges that can keep you feeling excited about running without ever leaving your home gym.

“The best part of running on Zwift is getting to connect and run with countless other people,” says Rachel Schneider, a top middle-distance runner and U.S. Olympic contender who’s currently missing her teammates as she trains solo during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s so cool to be able to run together, while apart, through technology.”

“I enjoy the user interface and the company you get while on Zwift for running and for cycling,” says Stephen Scullion, an Irish distance runner and Olympic marathon qualifier. “It lets me race people for fun, or join a big group ride or run with people. You also get to move around the maps, so you don’t feel like you’re in the one place. There’s different difficulty levels, so you can go easy or hard depending on what you fancy. And then, of course, it’s exciting unlocking new kits and going up levels. It makes it quite addictive while getting exercise in!”

HOW ZWIFT WORKS

On Zwift, you have three options for running connectivity: a Zwift-branded footpod, a Bluetooth-enabled treadmill or Under Armour’s digitally connected running shoes. Wearing Under Armour’s smart shoes allows you to turn any treadmill into a Zwift-friendly one: Simply sync these bluetooth-enabled shoes to the Zwift app on your tablet or computer, and you’re ready to run.

You can also connect your Zwift account with MapMyRun, MapMyRide and other tracking platforms to make sure all workouts get logged. Furthermore, if you’re using UA connected shoes with Zwift, MapMyRun provides data about your stride during and after your run, along with tips to improve it. Running on a treadmill has the tendency to slightly change your stride as you adjust to the different surface and style, it’s important to check in on these metrics during a treadmill workout.

THE BEST WAYS TO USE ZWIFT

Run with Friends
Sure, meeting on Zwift isn’t quite the same as meeting up to run in real life, but this does give you the chance to run with your normal neighborhood crew at the same time, meet up with an old teammate who’s moved across the country, or convince your sibling who lives in a different time zone to virtually join you for a jog. But Scullion warns that for easy runs, stick to your own pace.

“Know your limits, and try to maintain a healthy balance between hard days and easy days,” he says. “It’s great to challenge yourself and race people (occasionally), but not every day.” These buddy runs are a great time to run easy; phone a friend to chat while you run, which forces you to maintain a conversational pace.

Race in Real Time
On any given day, Zwift is hosting dozens of running events, workouts and even races, and you can use these sessions to get in some racing practice while real-life events are on pause. Make them as realistic as possible: Have a normal pre-race dinner and breakfast, wear your go-to racing kit, make a fake bib number, stand at your bathroom door for 10 minutes before you go in to simulate a port-a-potty line, listen to your pump-up playlist… Whatever it takes to make your race feel real.

Join a Group Run with Top Pros
Make new running buddies worldwide on a group run with top pros like Schneider, Scullion and Emily Durgin. (Zwift has also started using Discord technology — formerly reserved for hardcore gamers — to make it possible to chat with fellow runners during your training sessions.) Not sure where to start? Every Friday, Under Armour is hosting live Zwift workouts with one of their pro runners.

“Hosting a virtual run was really fun,” says Schneider. “I loved connecting with runners from around the world and knowing that, even though we weren’t physically all together, we were all sharing in a workout and supporting each other from afar.”

Do a Hard Workout
When running solo indoors is your only option, accountability becomes much more difficult. “Honestly, having a run I was hosting was really nice,” admits Scullion. “Having something pencilled in the diary and a commitment that I had to attend gave me accountability.”

You can schedule your hard workout ahead of time and let your friends know, or sign up for a run that’s a close fit to what your workout is supposed to be. While you’re still doing the hard work solo at home, you’ll feel like putting in harder digs as the runners around you on Zwift are charging ahead.

NAIL YOUR SETUP

Dialing in your treadmill setup is a good idea anytime, but especially if you’re hoping to do well in a virtual race. Here’s what you need to make your virtual effort a success:

Fan
“A good fan is a must,” says Scullion. “I have two fans in my rotation.” If you only have one fan, make it focused on your face and chest to help avoid sweat dripping too intensely. If you have space for two, set one lower so that your legs stay cooler as well. At first, this might feel silly, but without the normal air flow you’d get outside from moving forward and from wind, you’ll be sweating buckets in no time.

Water bottle
Drinks are also important, and you might consider adding electrolytes if you’re sweating more. “Make the most of the controlled environment by practicing race day hydration,” recommends Scullion. “I’d even suggest weighing yourself before and after to check on your fluid consumption. Take notes on how certain drinks taste and how they sit in your stomach — this could help you on race day!”

Towel
You’re likely going to get sweatier than usual, as we mentioned previously. If you’re not wearing a sweat-wicking cap or headband, have a towel that you can easily reach in order to avoid sweat dripping into your eyes.

One-Percent Incline
To better mimic running outside, try setting your treadmill to a one-percent incline: You won’t feel like you’re running uphill, it’s just a slight change that allows for a more natural stride. “I typically set the incline to one percent grade,” says Schneider. “I think it helps my form and makes the effort a little more on par with running outside.” (This is a hotly debated topic in the running community, but research has shown that this is the most natural grade.)

Video Setup
Unless you have a great treadmill with lots of stability, your tablet or phone will likely just vibrate until it falls off of your control console. Set a stand in front of your treadmill — trying to place your tablet at eye level so you’re not looking down for your entire run — for the best running posture and no chance of your tablet ending up cracked on the floor after a particularly tough interval. Another alternative, Scullion adds, is using a laptop for Zwift or, if your treadmill is near one, a smart TV or a TV with an HDMI cable running from the laptop.

Wifi
Make sure your wifi is working well, warns Scullion. And try not to overload any one device in order to prevent crashing. Run Zwift on a tablet, then use the Zwift app on your phone for any in-run messaging. “Stable internet connection is needed, and otherwise, sessions will be constantly interrupted. Wifi extenders exist for the garage!” he adds. “Put time and effort into your set up, and it will massively improve your experience.”

About the Author

Molly Hurford
Molly Hurford

Molly is an outdoor adventurer and professional nomad obsessed with all things running, nutrition, cycling and movement-related. When not outside, she’s writing and podcasting about being outside, training and health. You can follow along with her adventures on Instagram at @mollyjhurford.

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