If your January fitness kick has taken you to the treadmill in 2024, it might well be the case that you’re starting to get a little bored of indoor runs already. Unless you’re following a treadmill workout plan or have uncommonly high levels of motivation, indoor running can be hard to stick with without some kind of entertainment, and the best free running app for this is Zwift.
I am an obsessive runner who usually logs 50-70 miles a week. I do the majority of this outdoors, but if I do run on the treadmill I will always fire up Zwift to make the run more enjoyable.
What Is Zwift?
Zwift is a virtual training app where you control an avatar that runs through dramatic landscapes. Some of these landscapes are entirely fictional, like the island of Watopia, while others are based on real places, like Paris and London.
The app began catering to cyclists on turbo trainers and connected indoor bikes and it’s very popular. Cyclists have to pay a monthly subscription, but it’s free for runners.
How Does It Work?
To control your avatar you need to either link your treadmill to Zwift, or use a footpod or running watch that can send your pace to Zwift so it knows how fast you are running.
In the past this used to be quite difficult. Most treadmills weren’t directly compatible with Zwift and footpods were expensive, and a bit fiddly to set up and calibrate for Zwift. Nowadays, however, most modern treadmills will link directly to Zwift and they have a tablet or phone holder.
You can check if the treadmill, footpod or running watch you’re using is compatible with Zwift on the app’s website, but I will say the list there is not comprehensive, especially on watches as some newer Garmins have the virtual training mode and aren’t listed.
Linking the treadmill directly to the app is the simplest option if available. If you’re using a watch or footpod you will need to calibrate the pace on it, which is easily done within Zwift via a guided process where you run at three different speeds. The pace readings will not be infallible, especially if using a watch, so you might find you’re running a bit slower or faster than your avatar, but it will still make the run more fun.
Once you’re set up on Zwift, I recommend exploring a few of the virtual worlds at first, then look at the guided workouts available in the app and the group runs. The group runs are divided up by pace so there is an option for runners of all levels, and joining them will mean you get to run with other people within the app. This will help with motivation, especially when tackling workouts on the treadmill.
There are also full training plans for runners on Zwift that you can follow to build up to events like a 5K, 10K or half marathon. If you want to get a full introduction to the app, there’s a Zwift 101 plan that will ease you into your first workouts. I’ve also written a Zwift for runners guide which may be of help.
Finally, if you really want to push yourself, there are races you can join on Zwift, which are graded by ability to ensure you’re not lapping the field or getting left behind.
Find out more about these picks in my guide to the best treadmills.
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Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.