Try as they may, sometimes Robin Roberts and Matt Lauer don’t feel like welcome company. You’re at the gym and on a treadmill, squeezing in and sweating out some miles ahead of another workday, and the whole endeavor feels solitary. No matter how many Today show smiles you see on the club TV just above you, the televised folks just aren’t breathing hard. No matter that you’re running alongside a guy pushing through a workout on the treadmill next to yours.
But the lonely days of indoor-running might soon end. And the advantages of an emerging technology might even make you think twice about running outside on any but the nicest of days.
Why? The answer is Zwift, a gaming app that for two years has turned indoor cycling into a video game played around the world by at-home riders pedaling their avatars over virtual mountains. Now Zwift may soon come to running. Earlier this month, ZwiftBlog.com reported that Zwift lead game developer Jon Mayfield has been running fictional roads—via treadmill—that until now have been dedicated to cycling. Check out the screenshot of Mayfield’s avatar, above.
I believe that Zwift could very well overhaul the experience of indoor running. It certainly has transformed the experience of indoor cycling. I’ve spent the better part of a year cycling on Zwift, and my story about the experience will appear in the October 2016 print edition of Outside magazine.
Here’s how Zwift works. I set up my own bike on a trainer and position it to face my computer screen—as do Zwift “gamers” from around the world, all of us riding together on one of several courses that are exotically scenic and surprisingly realistic (Zwift rotates the venues).
Thanks to a bit of wireless wizardry delivered by Bluetooth and ANT+ technologies, pedaling gets harder when I’m climbing a Zwift hill, and easier when I descend. When I’m chasing a bunch of other Zwift riders, whether or not they’re real, I think less about the effort and more about keeping up. I’m exercising, having fun, and weird as it may seem, feeling like I’m part of a community. Barrier to entry has its costs, as a “smart trainer” can run many hundreds to over $1,000. Zwift membership costs another $10 monthly.
Mayfield’s Zwift runs haven’t been some poorly kept secret—he posted his workouts, plus images, on the sports-oriented social networking site Strava. Obviously Zwift is working on the requisite technology, which likely involves considerable communication between running treadmill and software. Since Zwift already employs electronics to control the resistance on that stationary trainer for cycling, it’s a safe bet that they can pull off the same effect on a treadmill. You could run hills at home.
Zwift runners would enjoy more than community during their workouts. Not to sound old and a little paranoid, but imagine runs where you don’t have to worry about dogs, cars, or cyclists. Where you never trip on bad or broken pavement. Zwift roads never have black ice, and you won’t have to carry pepper spray, no matter what time of day you run. Run any pace you like, and you’re guaranteed to go, uninterrupted, as long as you want, and past trees and beaches. You’ll probably be able to wave at other runners, who like you never before thought that gaming and exercise could successfully co-exist.
Company insiders say more running-oriented news from Zwift should come in the next two months.