(Boss note from my Wife during her proof reading… “do you really want people to know just how bonkers you actually are”)?

Ok… so back end of last year and it was dark, dreich and miserable out but I was still training my athletics squad from Thurrock Harriers and a number of other athletes I work with at differing levels/differing distances.  Whilst good progress was being made here (with everyone in my squad achieving at least one quality PB in Q4 last year and many of them securing 2/3 – many in actual competition – yes… there were a few), my own training was starting to suffer – principally due to the roster of operating smaller groups and having to find innovative terrain on which to train (less busy with dog walkers, still challenging but ultimately, safe to train on).

Those in the know will understand that my personal preference is to run and compete over a longer distance.  I’m no speed freak and so I like the nature of ultra-distance running (anything over a Marathon).   However, with other coaching commitments and my business portfolio work away from athletics, much of my own training came down to a firm schedule of half marathons typically run at or after 21:00 in the evening after my other commitments had been completed… January suddenly started to hold a very real prospect of feeling even more of a miserable experience!  So how did I get my Virtual/Treadmill running to work for me?

So… let’s start with my set up.

Many will know that I actually do like training on a treadmill (and during the earlier Lockdowns, I ran a considerable distance including virtual races to complete the GVRAT out and back, mostly on the treadmill).  I also like the treadmill because I have a deep interest in Sports Science and know that when the correct programme is put together (I’ll post some treadmill training plans next month for those interested – for now… just remember that you should avoid running on a treadmill with the incline set to anything less than 1% to avoid the prospects of injury or strain on your lower legs), you can learn to love the ‘mill and get the most from it… A one of my other roles is in Feature Film production, it also afforded me the time to work my way through and watch a combination of the streaming platforms and the significant volume of ‘For Your Consideration’ screeners that come through this time of the year ahead of the Awards Season.

Now… just to reiterate before I explain my set up… I do enjoy running on a treadmill, and, I really do want to see the development of apps to help athletes be the best versions of themselves with their training regimes…  That’s why I indulge in the setup I have!

So… to support my treadmill activities, I use a variety of apps and devices to ensure that I can, as far as possible, record my work out for the benefit of later analysis.  I use a Pro Form treadmill that has several thousand miles on it now but is still pretty good but for some issues with belt stretch and the motor struggling with accelerations and interval work.  I have several ‘Alpha’ testing devices I utilise including an Ant+ device that is at MVP level that controls the incline of my machine using a splice in the control panel so that I can use apps such as Zwift to run a virtual route but the treadmill will adjust the incline in a pseudo terrain following mode.  Works… but very clunky at the moment.

I use an arm-worn Bluetooth HR monitor which transmits my HR to Zwift and I use a Stryd Footpad to measure both power and transmit pace and cadence to Zwift.  It also records separately to my Garmin (which also records my wrist based optical HR so that I can compare notes between the different sources).  For those yet to discover the benefits of running with a power meter – its perhaps one of the best innovations in training for the last five or so years.  Because I also cycle, I know how useful it can be to run to a power model rather than a purely cadence or pace model.  The Stryd calibrates itself in the real world and then ignores the speed of the treadmill instead transmitting your actual pace and cadence to Zwift and the other apps I use (more on this later).  I also use an NPE Runn module to further back this up although this is mostly to allow me to determine that everything else is on track and working as expected.

My personal wearable is a Garmin Marq Athlete but I also use an Apple Watch conterminously (due to participating in alpha and beta software testing programmes for the Apple Watch sports apps). 

App wise, I have already mentioned the exceptionally good Zwift app – I’ll do a separate post in this, but for runners, this is perhaps one of the best Virtual Running environments you can use and includes virtual pacers, competitions and training plans.  I also use KinoMap, Rolla World and RunGo to capture runs.  For processing data, I use RunGap and Elevate (free browser plugin to give Training Peaks type analysis of RSS/TSS/Fatigue/Fitness/Form).

Place Shifting and other such ‘SciFi’ concepts

As mentioned above, for many of the apps I use, and often because of the sheer volume of running I normally rack up, I participate in their alpha and beta testing activities.  This, as you’ll discover later, isn’t always helpful.  In December last year I became hooked on an interesting hybrid model of running outdoors then transitioning onto the treadmill and recording the entire activity as a ‘place shifted’ run.  Confused?  I’ll explain… place shifting is where, in an effort to work around privacy issues with Strava recording run locations, the start/finish and route/frequency etc. are masked with a proxy route (if you want to know why this important, ask the military how problematic Strava has become from a security perspective).  In such runs, you are able to run a route that uses your actual outdoor run to progress you around the virtual course… this can be completed outdoors or on a treadmill or in my case a hybrid of the two. Add in the mix that I am a habitual user of the excellent RunGap app and you’ll see my approach was designed to ensure I get an authentic read on my virtual training activities.

Sounds, complicated – it isn’t, it just means that in my case, I have a lot of interdependencies to make it operate effectively.  But what have I learned? 

Well… as a starting point, the recorded differences in the reporting by the treadmill, the Garmin when outdoors, the Stryd, and the Apple Watch running RunGo.  So RunGo frequently ‘robbed’ me of around 5-8% of my virtual distance compared with a combination of Stryd/Garmin (this is compared both indoors and out so isn’t just as a result of the treadmill).  RunGo using the Apple watch GPS is reasonably accurate, perhaps a little off the accuracy of the Garmin but to add insult to injury of course, at the start of this year my Garmin had a brain burp and suffered, as many Sony chipset wearables did, in that its GPS suddenly demonstrated a significant GPS drift so my mix of technologies was demonstrating some interesting results that could show anywhere up to 8-12k missing from the course of 50-70k run!

Its great whilst it works… but it doesn’t always work!

What I also discovered was that a lot of these apps struggle if the battery fails on the device or the app crashes.  Zwift over Christmas/New Year would frequently crash on my old iPad mini and it would frequently sync the crashed segment with RunGap which in turn would sync it to Strava before I had completed the entire run!  I ended up having delete the part completed run since it blocked Strava from accepting the eventual run as the run has an ID that matches a previously synced event.

Again, my system setup was designed to allow me to use all this data to validate and test the veracity of the data from differing devices/apps. You’ll already know that alpha/beta testing is designed to progress the software towards a release candidate that will eventually support athletes getting the best from their technology in support of training progressions and adaptations. Don’t you just love being a Guinea Pig?

I also learned that some of these Apps have exceptional support and others… well… let’s just say, less so.  Zwift helped me massively when, as discussed above, for some reason at the start of January, it started crashing on my trusty iPad and severing runs by not picking up the ‘in-play’ fragment correctly when restarted.  This was made worse by the automated syncing of Zwift with RunGap which then posted automatically to Strava!  Good grief… as if running 70k plus isn’t hard enough that you then have to start deleting entries and fishing out the actual activity from the inner workings of Zwift or elsewhere so you can sync the correct activity.  Because of this, I started using the RunGo app so I could start my run during coached training sessions I was working on with my squad and then continue it on the treadmill when home.

A live case study…  The Virtual Montane Spine

Coming into the start of the year then I decided that I wanted a challenge to kick start a new training period and the Virtual Montane Spine starting on the 1st of January seemed a sensible(!) challenge to pursue.  The 1st arrived and off I went… at first, I thought I might be able to tackle the distance, some 435km, in four to five long ultras run as a combination of treadmill activities in Zwift and on the road during my training sessions with the athletes I coach.

This rapidly descended into farce when due to issues such as fatigue and having to run at a faster pace than I was comfortable to help my squad progress with their speed endurance work, all started to take their toll on me.  Stepping off the machine or looping the block was playing havoc with RunGo but I was losing patience with the Zwift crashes that sometimes abandoned whole earlier activities (from my pre-crash run)… Swapping to RunGo seemed to be the best way forward but this didn’t capture heart rate but no worries there as I could connect my arm based HR monitor to broadcast it to RunGo on my phone… oops no… according to support, they’d like to implement HR recording on the virtual run element but they hadn’t yet got to this.  Crap!  So… I started to record using my Garmin but that wouldn’t merge using RunGap and sometimes, I completely forgot and relied on the arm-based monitor and put my Garmin over my Inov8 jacket to allow me to seal myself in during the cold and sometime wet weather. So… no heart rate at all! Add into the mix that running 70k-90k per day was wearing me out and sitting there in the wee hours of the morning trying to work out what was going on, conversing with support teams in half a dozen countries for half a dozen apps, was just adding to my (very real) misery and slowing down my recovery.

I rattled on and realised at the end of day two, I was losing some 6-10k or so per day!  I have no idea where, but for some reason the algorithm in RunGo wasn’t accurately capturing my pace and cadence and ignored connected sensors such as Stryd or via the accelerometer in my phone!  Double crap!

By the time I finished… I was in first place, but literally crawling around the house after each day, trying to fix the tech and make it all work, admitting defeat and writing off ‘lost chunks’ of activity and in one case losing an entire run for several hours until the app’s support team could locate it on the backend and sync it to Strava for me!  I even tried using an Android tablet for a day with Zwift but it kept failing to pick up the HR monitor via Bluetooth… Joy.

Good grief – this really was miserable!

So… moral of the story, some great apps out there but probably best to work with one early-stage app at a time until confidence can be secured in the veracity and accuracy of the app.

Special thanks to my wife and family putting up with me getting more than a tad irritated at the circumstances and trying not to laugh as I quite literally started tearing out what little hair I have left whilst searching for fragments of missing runs.  Thanks also to support at Zwift, RunGo and Strava.  I got there in the end.

2021 will be a great year for Virtual Running… I am a big fan of this system as it does support the mix of on road/off road and Treadmill mileage that makes up my own training regime, but anyone following my setup, think again before using software not quite ready for the market!

Yes… as I said at the start and can now confirm re-reading this piece, my Wife is quite right,  I am in fact mad as a box of frogs!