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Zwift Rolls out Running Pace Partners: First impressions

Run6

Last week Zwift announced that Pace Partners for running would be arriving on the platform this week, and indeed, as of earlier today they have now arrived. For those unfamiliar, Pace Partners were launched on the cycling side of Zwift earlier this year and have essentially morphed into giant almost-always-on group rides. I really like them, and think they’re one of the best new things Zwift has done in quite a while.

But till now they haven’t been available for running. In fact, this would mark really the only major new running feature since almost exactly a year ago when the new running track was added. Of course, there have been new roads added that Zwift runners can take advantage of as well, but the majority (all?) of new features have otherwise been on the cycling side. And that’s probably no surprise given Zwift’s CEO noted recently they’re going to be focusing more on cycling than other sports for the foreseeable future. Still, I’ll take a new feature when I can get it.

Thus, it was off to the DCR Cave for a late night treadmill test. Ironically, the weather was exactly the kind of crap-filled-winter fun that you’d want to be using Zwift on a treadmill indoors for:

RainyNight

Nobody wants to be out running in that. Or, riding as it was in my case.

The Details:

After selecting to start with running, you’ll land yourself on the main Zwift selection screen. It’s here that you’ll first choose Watopia, and then down in the ‘Join your friend’ section, you’ll select Pace Partners:

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The first time you launch this it’ll show you a few quick tips to get started:

PacePartnersiOS

Then you can choose the pace partner that best matches your ability:

PacePartnersIOSNames

Interestingly, on Zwift’s release notes, they narrow it down to a very specific pace:

Alton Able is an A category runner who will keep a spirited pace of 14.6kph/9.1mph (4:07/km, 6:36/mi) around the Dust in the Wind route.

Billie Benoit
is a B category runner and loves the Big Loop route, targeting a speed of 11.9kph/7.4mph (05:03/km, 08:06/mi).

Cara Cadence
is a C category runner holding a speed of 9kph/5.6mph (06:40/km, 10:43/mi) around the Sands & Sequoias route.

Dax Diesel
is a D category runner who feels most at home on Jon’s Route at a conversational 7.2kph/4.5mph (08:20/km, 13:24/mi).

And that specific pace was my experience as well tonight. There was no actual range or oscillation. It was just a flat as-is pace. For the ‘B’ category that worked out to exactly 7.3MPH the entire time. But more on that in a second. First, I found it interesting that on Apple TV the fastest pace was named Alton Able, while on iOS it was named Ash Athens:

PacePartnersIOSNames Run2

In any case, after confirming your selection, you’ll see the pace partner you’ve selected show up down below:

Run3

This would be an ideal time to start your warm-up. Because once you click to start running, you’ll immediately join your pace partner with no forgiveness on pace. Speaking of things that would be ideal – it’d be great if Zwift would show the pace partner’s speed range again here (or, just the actual current speed), that way I could match that on my treadmill and not have to try and remember the exact speed or range again.

Once you’ve started you’ll be running along next to the colored translucent ghost of your choosing. For my first run that was with Billie Benoit:

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Initially there were exactly zero other people running with me. But after about a mile another woman joined us for perhaps a mile before leaving:

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And that’s probably to be expected for now. The feature literally just launched a few hours ago, and unlike cycling with often tens of thousands of concurrent cyclists, the number of concurrent runners is far less. Then the number of people who would run that very set/specific pace even less again. Still, my guess is that give it a few weeks and we’ll see it increase.

Once cooking along there are a few notable differences to Zwift’s cycling pace partners:

No shifting of pace: On the cycling side the pace partner meanders within the pace range (w/kg), however here that never happened. It stayed exactly the same – even going up and down hills.

No Drop Bonuses (points): Unlike the cycling side which awards you bonuses for staying close to the pace partner, that doesn’t exist on the running side. Though I suppose given the pace doesn’t actually change, it’s basically just setting your treadmill for that pace and as long as your legs/lungs hold up – there’s little tactical attention required compared to the cycling side where you’re constantly oscillating pace/speed/output as well as navigating the draft effect.

Yet there are also things that are the same:

Routes are static loops: Each pace partner operates on a known loop, day in and day out. The assignment of partners to loops doesn’t change – just like it never does on the cycling side. This is an area where I really wish they would mix these up on the cycling side.

It’s Watopia only: All four of the Pace Partners are within Watopia, and none outside of it. Again, an area I wish they’d reconsider.

After I was done running a few miles with Billie Benoit, I switched over to Alton Able, the fastest of them:

Run9

This got off to a rocky start as I failed to let my wrist-based pace (from the Virtual Run profile the FR745) stabilize/catch-up at the beginning, compounded by me trying to take screenshots/photos. I stupidly forgot to plug-in the NPE Runn on the treadmill before I started. Thus, I was playing catch-up from the outset as my pace meandered the first 20 seconds. But eventually, after some suffering, I caught back up:

Run10

However, this ultimately made me realize (or concrete my existing thoughts on it) a bit more:

The pace ranges are super specific: Many have commented that the four pace partners have huge jumps between them in terms of pace, and that’s definitely true. For me there wasn’t really a good option. The ‘B’ pace partner was too slow for a long run pace, while the ‘A’ was far too fast for such a pace. While the ‘A’ Pacer was more ideal for a tempo-run pace for me, that ran into the next problem (more on that in a second). Not to mention the gap between B & C is even greater than A & B. For most runners, a 30 second/mile pace swing is a huge amount. So to have minutes between the pace groups is kinda big.

Inability to warm-up: Since you start each partner, literally, running out of the gate, there isn’t a warm-up concept here. Sure, you can do as I did the first time I started and do a warm-up before hitting start on Zwift. But doesn’t that kinda defeat the purpose of logging miles in Zwift? And sure, you could also do a throw-away session, but again – nobody wants to upload a disjointed run session. Ideally there would be something akin to a starting pen option, allowing you to warm-up and get credit for it, before hitting to join the partner.

The same challenge with intervals: Since we’ve established that pace partners are basically static paces, that means they’re only ideal if your planned run is exactly that pace. Whereas for intervals or other structured workouts, they don’t convey. And that’s fine too – this doesn’t have to solve every problem. But, it would be cool to see the same concept as rubber banding in workouts where basically you could enter a recovery interval and not lose the pace partner forever. Again, I don’t have a specific programmatic solution here. I’m just pointing out my first impressions on using it.

And while one could try and imply these same problems exist on the cycling side – the reality is that they don’t in practice. This is an area that one has to recognize that running and cycling are fundamentally different. Unlike in cycling where you have the massive impact of the draft or the bigger impact, that doesn’t exist in running to anywhere near the same degree. As such, you can’t recover in the draft, nor can you leverage that to perhaps go beyond your abilities with a faster group.

Which isn’t to say that pace partners are bad. Hardly at all – it’s just to point out that I don’t think they’ll be as successful as on the cycling side simply because the way people run isn’t the way people cycle. Just like in real life where I find most group rides have a far more broad speed range during the ride, group runs tend to be hyper-specific and stable once they start (save an interval workout of course).

Run6

Like I said – where I think pace partners could be most valuable is actually tempo runs, where you’re pushing out of your normal pace ranges, but can’t quite make an existing group run fit schedule-wise. For me, the ‘A’ pace partner would be perfect for a tempo run, once I warmed up pre-joining.

With that – go forth and run!

Thanks for reading!

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41 Comments

  1. Benedikt

    “and unlike cycling with often tens of thousands of concurrent runners, the number of concurrent runners is far less.” seems to be riders, not runners

  2. I guess that the number of pacers will increase as it gets popular enough to avoid “loneliness”.

    Also it would be nice if the pacers would just cross each others, and in a synced way. All of them at the same place, or 1-to-1, whatever. Some time before that happens. you could decide to switch or not. Like the transit options are advertised on a bus or something. 😀 The two (or more) groups meet, and “exchange some runners”. The show goes on.

  3. It would be good to have an in Companion App – “Join Pace partner now” button and just have A / B / C / D boxes that put you beside the partner you’ve chosen. So ideally you could warm up with C partner and once warm tap the join B partner and just go straight there. This would make it much more versatile for a wider group of runners.

    Also it would be good to have 5 groups instead of the cyclists 4 –

    Example
    A = 4min Kilometre
    B = 4min Kilometre
    C = 5min Kilometre
    D = 6min Kilometre
    E = 7min Kilometre

    Anyway you get the idea…and remember that running is only in Zwift because John wanted it in the beginning – LOL!

  4. Rijckaert

    Since we are in a lockdown with our gyms closed I cannot try these new race partners myself. My concern is about maintaining such a specific speed on a treadmill. Do you have to constantly adjust the speed on your treatmill or is there a little bit of rubber banding or drafting that keeps you in the pacer’s slipstream?

  5. Kevin L

    I think these are a great idea but echo your comment that a minute between pace groups is far too much. My endurance pace falls between B and C and will I can run at B pace for 5k distance, this isn’t how I’d like pace partners to run.

    So let’s have more pace partners with 30s gaps please.

  6. Brett

    Perhaps the pace partners could be set up such that they train you to a specific goal. E.g. To train towards a 3hr, 3:30, 4hr marathon there are different pace runs over a period of time that would be recommended (taking something like Running Worlds marathon training program which provides a specific pace over the duration of your training program and the different types of training runs); or alternatively is based on a 5K or 10K threshold run (which is another way for those pace times to be set up). These can then be adjusted for the various types of runs: tempo, long distance, recovery etc.

  7. Will

    For me a better implementation of this would be in a structured workout. Partner executes the workout exactly as per the plan, you then need to manually control the treadmill to keep up.

  8. Marcus Zurhorst

    Isn’t Zwift controlling the speed (and incline) of a smart threadmill? I am confused about the comments regarding manual control of the speed.

    Generally, the pace partners seem slow. I would expect that this kind of training is for enthusiasts, and those should be way faster that 7min/km.

    My wish would be a tailored pace partner. You specify the speed at a certain distance, incline, warm up, cool down etc.
    This could be public, shared with friends or private. (ideally even with a track profile imported from a GPX track. This profile could be rendered into a virtual, artificial landscape). A bit much, but this is what I would love to see.

    • Will

      most treadmills in use don’t have this connectivity I believe.

    • Dave Lusty

      The treadmill manufacturing community are using safety as a reason to avoid innovation so almost every treadmill out there won’t allow external control the way you’d want it, and it’s really rare to find one that even transmits anything useful to anywhere useful. I have a “Bluetooth” one from Decathlon which only works with their proprietary app, it’s really disapointing but it is better than most others I found.
      Personally I don’t buy the safety argument. It’s far safer for me to not reach out and push buttons while running, and if I was pushing myself I’d consider using that useless red cord nobody uses 🙂 It’s funny because I’d definitely pay a premium for a machine with better functionality. I’m sure they’re out there but every time I look I get shopping fatigue looking through the 10,000 almost identical models out there.

    • Marcus Zurhorst

      And now I also found the reply button. 😂

  9. Alex Masidlover

    The lack of warm up is the big issue for me – I rarely use the cycling ones as I like to have 4-5 mins warm up but for running it can take me 15 minutes before I’m fully warmed up. I wouldn’t be that bothered about warm up and main run being recorded as two sessions, but having to close Zwift and restart it completely rather than just go out to the menu and back in is painful…

  10. Marcus Zurhorst

    I am not on Zwift, yet. I am unsure whether I should invest into a treadmill or a Wahoo Kickr.
    And therfore, I am also unsure whether Zwift would be my choice, or maybe Kinomap.
    As far as I understand Kinomap, what I do expect is actually what they offer with their integration of interactive treadmills.

  11. Matt

    Ray,

    You’ve got the tidbit about the cycling pace partners wrong.

    They do not oscillate within a pace range — they ride at a constant watt target always.

    • Hmm, I’m not so sure. I’ve seen numerous places (including Zwift themselves in many places) state ranges. I don’t disagree that in my experience with Coco on the flats in cycling, it’s pretty constant – but what makes it all un-constant is the draft affect of others around them.

    • Renato Nardello

      I agree. The do not change and that’s pretty bad. If you ride with D. Diesel, for instance, it’s almost impossible not to lose the group on the hill following the sprint, unless you get almost to a standstill 1.5w/kg uphill.

  12. Heiko

    Even Garmin watches from many years ago had a „virtual partner“ where you could set the pace. This is absolutely ridiculous and makes the features close to useless. My only guess is that 99% of Zwift developers are working in the riding department and there is one lonely guy in the basement who could complete only this super limited version.

    • Frank

      its not avail either on cycling

      tbh Zwift is just a limited product at the moment,

      they are maybe working on something “BIG” which probably going to be canned with some lame excuse again… zwift is just a constant disappointment, I am only hoping the alternatives are goign to get more popular at this point

  13. Ken

    I don’t know a single runner that talks about their speed as mph. Everyone, including some run clubs & races, quotes it as pace – x-min, y-sec per mile for their pacer signs. Some longer races do it via finish time (3:30, 3:45, etc, for a marathon) but I’ve NEVER seen one as mph. Even the treadmill I used at the gym showed min/mile pace not mph. The cycling bias shows thru on their choice of speed measurement display.

    • Totally depends on the treadmill. Mine only shows KPH (because it’s European), and if I toggled my Zwift account over to metric, then it’d match up perfectly.

      I agree though that for the pacing list, it should show running paces, not MPH. Whereas inside Zwift, having both (as they do, pace is shown at left, speed at top) is handy depending on your treadmill.

    • Tim Grose

      I have run on Zwift for some years now and speed not pace is very much what we all talk about – largely as that is what treadmills show and how you speed up or down.

    • I used to have a printout next to my treadmill with all the pace conversions. Got tossed in the move from Paris to Amsterdam, but gotta print that out again at some point.

  14. I guess I don’t really get it. The lack of interactivity and gamification of the pace partners for runners makes them seem completely pointless to me. If you want to run with people, go to May Field. I already set-and-forget my pace on the treadmill and don’t need a pace setter to keep me on that one very specific pace.

    That said, I’m happy with any addition to the running game. I am looking forward to seeing how they expand upon these pace partners. There’s a lot of potential. I am worried that they are going to leave the running portion of zwift out on the vine to whither based on their recent comments about focusing on cycling. This does a little (very little) to assuage that concern, but they need to keep the momentum going.

  15. Tim Grose

    Always tricky with only 4 speeds and a problem we often face with group runs. That said around 14 kph is about my marathon race pace and 12 kph my easyish so I would have 2 good options for some potential company on a “free” run.

  16. william McAnirlin

    echoing what others have said, the paces are just not really workable. I have done the cycling ones twice. I got dropped fairly quickly on a C ride, and on a D ride it was just not conducive to any effectiveness what so ever. If they were just a couple of tenths faster than my normal pace, it would be a good stretch. For the running, I should be able to run the B fairly well, but for a longer run, I might want to slack off just a but, but to slow to over a 10 min mile pace is just stupid. They should have these in 30 sec per mile increments.

  17. Renato Nardello

    I am a regular rider on Zwift but I must say I do not get the runner companion idea at all, not unless Zwift can control a treadmill. Even then I am not sure.
    Of course I can be totally wrong.

    On a bike trainer, you need to vary your effort to keep up with a group. On a treadmill, you first have to adjust the speed of the treadmill and then adjust your pace/speed in response. If you want to run at a constant pace, you can just set the treadmill at that speed without the need of a running bot partner. In riding it is a different thing: you can change your pace (RPM, w/KG) at any instant and a riding partner help you remaining constantly engaged.

    Best,
    R

  18. Steve W

    I’m also in the camp that can’t discern a purpose for this. What does it add over and above just setting your treadmill at that speed – other than robbing you of a warmup? The green guys don’t look to be as much fun to be around as the blue guys on bikes from long ago.

  19. Fab

    OT: wondering how many “ride on” did u collect while testing the virtual partner 🙂
    As for Zwift running: i’ll be using it myself during winter so i’ll test green folks soon. imho it would be more useful a feature for structured workouts than it is now

  20. RTellis

    I’ve ridden with pace partner on the cycling side a couple of times and liked it. But I don’t see the point with running unless your using a treadmill that is powered by your own stride.

  21. GLT

    Seems like a good starting point that will hopefully be taken further.

    With the pandemic there are probably people that would appreciate a synthetic buddy rather than empty scenery scrolling by.

    Perhaps the SHIFT team will make bolt-on robotic fingers to up/down trainer speed & incline buttons.

  22. Billy McCullins

    Thanks

  23. EBigarella

    It looks like your avatar is either having an out of body experience of being chased by an evil spirit 😂

  24. David B

    Did a 5k run yesterday with “Billie.” Started out solo but was shortly joined by 5-6 other runners. The lack of warmup was definitely an issue! I couldn’t exactly match the 8:06 pace so at times, I was at 7.4 or 7.5 on my standard issue lifetime fitness with Runn pod. I think I would try it again as it nice to run with some other “real” people!

  25. Denis

    I imagine you can do intervals with the Bot by picking a pace that is fairly comfortable and then do intervals by increasing the incline for a set period and then return to the flat level and repeat

  26. Francis C

    Ever since they did this update, all my rides and runs keep getting dropped. I don’t think they did a good job incorporating the running bots. Wish they would take it out and put it back in once the program doesn’t affect connectivity.

  27. Patrick

    I don’t even run on Zwift, but I added the running pace partners to my follow list because I was always curious what the run-only sections look like. So if I’m doing a recovery ride, I just view what a pace partner is doing. There’s some cool stuff to see in the run-only parts.