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You don’t need to spend big bucks to significantly upgrade your indoor running experience!

Trivia fact for the day: the first mass-produced home treadmill, the Pacemaster 600, came to market in the late 60s and cost £2,800 – or about £22,000 in today’s money. Prices have thankfully come way down since then but the technology itself has not fundamentally changed – it’s still a moving belt driven by an electric motor. And the experience hasn’t changed much either – let’s face it, running on the “dreadmill” has always been a pretty mind-numbing way to burn calories.

Until now. Recent advances in training software have made treadmill training significantly less tedious – dare I say, even enjoyable?

In this blog, we’ll take a quick look at a couple of the most popular treadmill training apps – together with ways to soup up your tech from Volkswagen to Rolls Royce.

First, let’s review the software options.

Indoor runners are now spoiled with a wide choice of apps – look in the Apple or Android stores, and you will find at least a dozen options. But for my money, two stand out – Peloton and Zwift.

Peloton is, of course, best known for the Peloton Bike, an indoor cycle coupled with a large touchscreen console. It’s been a big winner and (disclaimer – I have one) the hype is justified – it’s a well-executed, easy to use, quality product. It’s certainly not cheap but the customer satisfaction numbers speak for themselves – it’s tough to find an unhappy Peloton user.

Buoyed by the success of the Bike, Peloton then introduced its treadmill sibling, the Tread. Like the bike, it’s a well-designed piece of kit – and similarly expensive.

But the real value of both the Bike and Tread is not the hardware – it’s the software: the thousands of hours of streaming content. Classes both live and recorded, hosted by knowledgeable, engaging, photogenic instructors. The training options are excellent, the music playlists are carefully curated and production standards are high.

But the good news is that you don’t have to have a Tread to make use of the Peloton classes – you can use any treadmill.

But there are a couple of requirements. First of all, you need a Peloton subscription. If you already have a Bike, you’re all set. But if not, you can buy their Peloton Digital membership (£12.99 a month). But the third option will appeal to many – if you know someone with a Tread or a Bike, ask them nicely if they would add you to their family membership, then it’s yours for free (I confess I haven’t tried this but understand it’s breaking no rules).

The second thing to know is that Peloton is a closed system – your Noble Pro will not export data to your Peloton account. You’ll need to save your data elsewhere, such as your Garmin or phone. Or do what I do – export it to Zwift.

So let’s talk about the big Z. Like Peloton, it has a cycling heritage. You bike through a variety of computer-generated worlds. You can do structured workouts, meet up for social rides with friends or race in well-organized leagues and one-off races.

All those same features are now available to us foot soldiers via Zwift Running. You can run in all the same places as the cyclists go with the addition of a number of run specific routes (including a 400m track).

Luckily Noble Pro makes Zwift integration very easy – the treadmill exports your speed data directly into Zwift. If you wish, you can also pair your HRM and cadence data (via footpod) to Zwift to display all your key metrics live on-screen.

And maybe the best news? Zwift Running is free. No subscription fees.

So which to use on your treadmill – Zwift or Peloton?

Personally, I use both. I would probably say that Zwift is my go-to app. The structured training is very good and Zwift racing is an absolute blast. But the Peloton classes are extremely motivational (particular shout out for the HIIT classes which are excellent).

[By the way, for the best Peloton experience I recommend two screens – one for Peloton (so you can watch the instructor) and a second for Zwift to record your data. Best of both worlds!]

And that’s a nice segue to my next topic – all software needs hardware. What are your best options for Peloton and Zwift?

We’ll do Peloton Digital-first because it’s the simplest of the two – it’s just a video streaming app and consequently not overly demanding from a hardware viewpoint. It runs on IOS, Android, and AppleTV. It runs on streaming “sticks” like Roku and Amazon Fire. It runs via a web browser on a PC or Mac. Many TVs and set-top boxes even have it built-in as standard.

[And it should happily run on the E8i console (which is just an Android device after all) but it’s not currently supported – if you’d like to see this, please drop a note to Noble Pro tech support!]

However, Zwift is a whole different ball of wax. It takes a lot of computing power to render those CGI worlds. So, unlike Peloton Digital, don’t expect to see Zwift built into your TV anytime soon (and it certainly won’t run on the E8i console)

However, the good news is that Zwift will run on pretty much everything else…but the quality of what you see on the screen is highly variable and is based on the abilities of the underlying hardware.

To dig a bit deeper…”quality” may be defined by three factors:

  • Graphical detail
  • Screen resolution
  • Frame rate

Zwift’s primary design goal is to ensure everybody gets a good experience, whether you’re running on a 5 year old iPhone or a high-end gaming PC. But the quality of what you see will vary based on the “graphics profile” of your device – Basic, Medium, High or Ultra.

The difference between the four profiles is the level of detail you get. Basic is, well, pretty basic. You get the full Zwift functionality but what you see is somewhat lacking (have you ever noticed that your avatar doesn’t have a shadow?). What’s noteworthy is that if all you’ve ever experienced is the Basic graphics profile then you’re probably quite happy. And nothing wrong with that. You can have a perfectly fine Zwift running experience on a Basic system.

But step up to the higher profiles and…well, it’s a whole new world. Now you have shadows but also beautiful foliage, sunlight streaming through the trees. Extra little nuances like woodland creatures, brilliant details on surrounding buildings, waves breaking on the shore. Those blocky vessels in the harbour? Now they’re finely crafted ships. And as you may have noticed, each new Zwift world is more detailed than the last (check out some of the beautiful graphics in the Makuri Islands) so the case for “going Ultra” gets ever stronger.

But to guarantee a good user experience for all, Zwift HQ only lets you run a graphics profile that matches the abilities of your device – and for most devices, that is the least sophisticated profile, Basic.

Understanding why requires a little understanding of how Zwift works. Zwift actually has quite modest hardware requirements in most regards. It doesn’t need a particularly speedy CPU, a lot of memory, a high-performance hard drive or even a fast internet connection. But what it does need is good graphics performance.

Anything with integrated graphics – phones, tablets, laptops, AppleTV…will get the Basic profile – and also lower screen resolutions (probably 720P or 1080P) and lower frame rates (probably max 30 FPS).

To get anything better requires a dedicated GPU – a graphics processing unit. And in practice, that means a PC-based system that can accommodate a card from one of the specialist graphics vendors like Nvidia or AMD.

The gold standard for Zwift performance is Ultra profile, 4K resolution and 60 frames per second (FPS). That will give you the very best level of graphics detail, the ability to broadcast to a big TV or monitor and smooth stutter-free motion. And the difference is quite striking.

This video doesn’t really do justice to it but it gives you an idea.

[By the way, to kill a popular misconception – the AppleTV 4K will not give you Zwift in 4K. The 4K bit refers to streaming performance – like if you’re watching a movie. For Zwift, the best you will get is a Basic profile, 1080P and 30FPS. However, if you’re happy with that, AppleTV has a lot to recommend it. It’s inexpensive and scores highly as a “just works” solution. Runs Peloton Digital too!]

The good news is that although you’ll need to spend a few bucks to get Ultra/4K/60FPS, you don’t really need to spend that much – certainly not compared to other, state of the art videogames. Your average teenager would not be impressed with Zwift’s graphics – it’s a long way from the photorealism you will see in games like this.

But these high-end games also demand high-end PCs that can easily cost £3,000 or more. Now, if you’re lucky enough to have such a system, it will run Zwift wonderfully – but it’s massive overkill. You certainly don’t require a system that powerful to run Zwift.

For example, I just built my own PC – it looks like this:

  • Second-hand PC tower with Intel i3 CPU – £60 from eBay
  • 8GB of DDR memory – £12
  • 120GB SSD – £17
  • Power supply upgrade – £26
  • Nvidia 1650 Super GPU – £300

This delivers the aforementioned gold-standard performance – Ultra/4K/60FPS – and I could not be happier with the results. Light years ahead of my previous AppleTV.

So I spent about £400 in total – but you can do it much cheaper if you wish. For example, unless you have a big screen, 4K is probably overkill. Dropping down to 1440P requires a much less capable (read: cheaper) GPU which lets you bring your total cost way down.

Also two things here deserve further comment. Firstly, yes – I built this system. I sourced the components individually and put it together myself. I did this for a couple of reasons – one, to save money. Two, to create a system specifically optimized for Zwift. If building your own system scares you, you can certainly buy an off-the-shelf PC but you will almost certainly pay a lot more for a high-end spec that Zwift just doesn’t need. And let me assure you that building your own system is really not that hard – in fact, it’s tremendous fun!

Second, note that the most expensive part of the system by far is the GPU. Be aware that GPU prices are currently out of control. Prices have been driven up by COVID supply chain issues and the insatiable desire for bitcoin mining. That 1650S would normally sell for around £150 – and if you’re prepared to wait, it will hopefully return to that as the market normalizes. But if you’re impatient (like me!), you’ll have to pay a bit extra.

So…after all this – one question: do you need the very best graphics performance? No, of course, you don’t – it won’t make you run faster!

But it certainly makes the experience more enjoyable. And we all spend a lot of money on our treadmills…why not spend a few pounds more on the thing you spend your whole run staring at?

With that, thanks for reading. If this has piqued your interest in building your own PC, here are two links I can recommend.

Start off with this:

Zwift on PC: the ultimate guide to running Zwift at its very best.

And then graduate to the ultimate DIY guide – the ZPCMR (Zwift PC Master Race) Facebook group.. Quite literally everything you need to know and an amazingly supportive community for when you try it and get in trouble!

Good luck and happy treadmilling!

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Steve Mallard
Steve Mallard
Mid-pack triathlete and sports tech geek!

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