How To

Footpods Demystified

on July 03, 2020

By far the most common way to get your avatar moving in game is to use a footpod: a small device clipped to your shoe which measures the movement of your foot and transmits that data to the Zwift app.

But what exactly is a footpod? How does it work and which one is right for you?

In the Beginning

It’s easy to forget that at one time, the satellite systems surrounding the world didn’t exist. There was no GPS, GLONASS, or GALILEO. For a few years, the way to calculate speed and distance was to use a device called a Speed and Distance Monitor or SDM.

These devices were effectively the original footpods. It was a very simple clip-on device, consisting of just one sensor (called an accelerometer) which measured movement and orientation. They were apparently around 97% accurate in most situations.

Once the American GPS array was made available for widespread use and Casio released the very first watch with built-in GPS in 1999, SDMs gradually fell out of use. However, Garmin did release the Forerunner 50 in 2007, which had no GPS and came with a footpod.

Many runners still own the classic Garmin footpod, the latest version of which was only officially discontinued in 2019.

Over time GPS became the standard for measuring speed and distance. While some kept using their footpods for more accurate measurement of cadence (steps per minute), most were happy to accept cadence and pace data from the watch itself.

For 10 years very little changed. The Garmin footpod remained the standard with ANT+ being the live data transfer method. However, smartphones were about to change everything.

Bluetooth Smart

We may think of ANT+ as old school and Bluetooth as the new kid on the block, but Bluetooth has in fact been around longer. ANT+ was developed in 2004 by Dynastream and was bought by Garmin in 2006. It was developed specifically for use in sports tech.

The initial concept for Bluetooth goes back as far as 1989, although the name ‘Bluetooth’ was not used until 1997.

Like ANT+, Bluetooth is a way for devices to communicate wirelessly over short distances. The use of the protocol really took off with the advent of the smartphone, since Bluetooth allows phones to communicate easily with headsets, speakers, watches, and other devices.

It wasn’t long before developers began making sports apps and suddenly ANT+ had a rival. Casual runners were strapping their phones to their arms and using apps like Runkeeper to record their activities. Manufacturers began making Bluetooth-compatible heart rate monitors and footpods to tap into this emerging market.

Smart Footpods

These new Bluetooth smart compatible footpods were far more advanced than the ANT+ devices of old. As well as an accelerometer, these tiny devices packed in altimeters, barometers, and magnetometers. The additional sensors gave consumers a wealth of extra features and information and, in theory at least, better accuracy.

Companies like Polar, Nike, Runscribe, Milestone, and Stryd all developed their own version of a footpod. Meanwhile, Garmin released the confusingly-named Run Dynamics Pod, which is not a footpod and doesn’t measure speed or distance!

Stryd

One very interesting new feature, developed in parallel with the reemergence of footpods, was Running Power. For many years cyclists have measured their effort level in terms of watts generated, using power meters fitted to their bikes.

Stryd, as well as Runscribe, developed a way to estimate power for runners. Traditionally runners measure effort in terms of pace or heart rate. But these can be inconsistent and fluctuate depending on terrain and elevation. Power has the advantage of staying consistent regardless.

The Stryd footpod offers a multitude of metrics for runners including a brand new way to quantify effort using power. Furthermore, the Stryd broadcasts in both Bluetooth and ANT+.

Zwift RunPod

The Zwift RunPod was originally the Milestone footpod. With the development of Zwift Running came the need for an affordable way to get your avatar moving in game, and the Milestone footpod was perfect. Many Zwift runners adopted it as the go-to footpod for use in game.

Zwift purchased the company in 2018 and the Milestone footpod became the Zwift RunPod. It has remained the best budget option for runners wanting to try Zwift Running.

Connecting to Zwift

Zwift Running was released as a pre-beta product in late 2016. Originally it was only available on Zwift for iOS. If you wanted to run on Zwift in the very early days, you had to have a Bluetooth footpod.

These days Zwift Running is available on all Zwift platforms (PC, Mac, iOS, AppleTV, Android). Bluetooth continues to be the preferred way to connect, and there are now a number of compatible devices that allow you to get your avatar moving. But if you own an ANT+ only footpod, what do you do?

Bridging Devices

There are certainly some people who still own and use ANT+ only footpods. Happily many of the latest Android devices support ANT+. However, connecting an ANT+ only footpod to Zwift on iOS requires a little more work.

If you own a Garmin 245, 945, or Fenix 6 watch, you can connect your footpod via ANT+ to the watch. Using the Virtual Run profile the watch will then rebroadcast the signal in Bluetooth to Zwift.

Read our "Using the New Garmin Virtual Run Profile" how-to for details

You can also use the North Pole Engineering CABLE or Viiiiva 4iiii heart rate strap as a bridge to convert the ANT+ signal to Bluetooth.

Heading Outdoors

If you purchased a footpod specifically for use with Zwift, you can still use the footpod on your outdoor runs.

If you own a Stryd, you can connect it to your watch via ANT+ and it will give you the option to record your speed, distance, cadence, and running power.

An increasing number of watches allow you to connect devices using Bluetooth. If you have a compatible watch, you can connect your Zwift RunPod or any other Bluetooth footpod to your watch and it will also record your speed, distance, and cadence.

If you don't have a treadmill, but want to try out Zwift run, you can actually use the Zwift app on your phone while running outside. Connect your footpod as normal to the app and off you go. Just don’t look at the screen as you’re running! (You can use the Guided Access feature on your iPhone to prevent accidental touching of the screen while running.)

Which Footpod Should I Buy?

This is a question only you can answer. In terms of accuracy and features, it is generally agreed that the Stryd footpod is the best option. It works well with Zwift and is a great option for use outdoors. But it is an investment.

If you are looking for a Zwift-only device or you would like to try Zwift for the first time without committing too much, the Zwift RunPod is a great option. It is good for steady-state runs where there is minimal fluctuation in pace.

If you already own an ANT+ Garmin footpod, there is no reason why you can’t continue to use it outdoors as usual, as well as using it indoors on Zwift using a computer or Android device, or via a bridge to an iOS device.

Conclusion

From the very basic SDMs which were essentially odometers, to today’s multi-sensor Bluetooth Smart devices, footpods have taken a leap forward. They are now more accurate and ubiquitous than ever. Whichever footpod you own or choose to purchase, you can be sure it will continue to be supported on Zwift for years to come.

 

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