Zombies, Run! started over a decade ago, with over 10 million runners fleeing the undead since 2012. Saying that it’s motivating isn’t exactly breaking news, but I’d personally never tried it because I assumed it targeted couch-to-5K runners.
Then the ZRX app added licensed Marvel Move missions with some of my favorite superheroes, so I dove in to try both the superhero- and zombie-themed missions. And as a new member of the Abel Township, I regret waiting this long!
In his weekly column, our Senior Editor of Wearables and Fitness Michael Hicks discusses the world of smartwatches, apps, and fitness tech related to running and health, in his quest to get faster and more fit (and help you do the same).
I’ve tried listening to audiobooks while running, simply to break up the monotony of the same paths over and over. It works in short bursts, but novels I’ve listened to before are too relaxing, while new books are too distracting. Either way, I end up wanting to walk and listen, not run faster.
Zombies, Run! and Marvel Move essentially are radio dramas with full voice talent and sound effects, but they’re designed to be listened to in short bursts that don’t overwhelm or sidetrack you too much before letting you go back to your playlist or the sounds of nature.
If you sink into them, the stories themselves push you to run harder, motivated by fellow (virtual) runners or your favorite superheroes. You can also use virtual zombies to scare you into running faster — the Chase feature that ZRX is famous for — but I found that it’s the positive reinforcement that helped me run faster more than the negative.
How ZRX and Marvel Move works
For the uninitiated, Zombies, Run! has ten full seasons of missions with full voice acting, focusing on your unnamed runner character (Runner Five) as you try to keep the post-apocalyptic community Abel Township alive.
You also have radio stations, supply missions, and even customizable training plan calendars for 5K, 10K, half-marathon, or marathon races — similar to a coaching plan on a Garmin watch.
Naomi Alderman, an acclaimed sci-fi novelist (“The Power”), wrote the zombie plotline, and the first missions I ran were full of what I’d expect from the genre: mysterious mutations, searches for the cure, human betrayal, tragic losses, and tons of intrigue.
If you’re burned out by Walking Dead-esque narratives, meander over to the “Venture” section of the app where you’ll flee from dinosaurs, lava, alien monsters, and other motivating dangers from different genres. It’s included in the Zombies, Run! membership, which is $39.99 per year.
Marvel Move, which costs about $6/month annually, is much more bare-bones than Zombies, Run! by virtue of existing for months instead of a decade. But it already has tons of variety, with campaigns like X-Men, Doctor Strange & Scarlet Witch, Thor and Loki: Trials of the Ten Realms, and The Incredible Hulk.
You’ll also find race events like Flerken Race and Captain America: Turkey Trot. In each case, you’re an anonymous character, so you’re not pigeonholed as a specific gender or personality. Thor calls you “mortal,” while you’re an unnamed SHIELD agent in other stories.
I’m really impressed with the voice cast for these dramas. Sandra Saad, the voice of Kamala Kahn for Square Enix’s Avengers game, reprises her role, and while the rest of the cast isn’t anyone notably famous, they really take to their roles without sounding like poor imitations of their Hollywood counterparts. They keep me invested in the drama.
How Zombies, Run! and Marvel Move helped me hit two PBs
To test out how effective Marvel Move and Zombies, Run! are for motivating you, I ran at the worst possible spot for a 5K: a track. There’s nowhere harder for me to get into the zone than a place where you’re seeing the same surroundings over and over, slowly counting down the number of laps left.
I set my Garmin Forerunner 965 to a 5K workout, aiming for my Race Predictor time of 22:30; that’s an average pace of 7:15, so I gave myself a target window of 7:00 to 7:45. I’ve improved my VO2 Max over the past few months, which lowered my estimate to a time I haven’t come close to hitting since my high school days.
Wearing my Shokz OpenFit so I stayed aware of my lane-mates, I turned on Monarch of the Crows, a creepy Halloween-themed Virtual Race involving magic rituals, leylines, undead scarecrows, and an evil druid. I have no idea if this is “canon” to Zombies, Run!, but even without context, it got me invested in the mission despite the campiness, as it eked out new story beats and twists every half-kilometer.
I ended up hitting 22:23, just slightly under my estimate, with the final dialogue about joining hands and racing for the destination giving me the push to sprint to the finish.
My previous fastest 5K time in Garmin Connect was over 25 minutes, though this only referenced the last few years; after checking my old NYRR race results, my fastest record was 22:33 in 2016, back when I was much younger and faster! So this really did help.
Flerken Race, a Marvel Move Virtual Race starring the heroines from the underperforming film The Marvels, was a blast, too. I used it for a 10K training run on the trail, rather than a true PR test, but I still ended up running it faster than most of my actual 10K races of the last few years, simply because I was enjoying the narrative and trying to run fast.
My favorite storyline that I’ve returned to is the Thor and Loki campaign. I won’t spoil any of the story beats, except that their banter is predictably fun and that the story keeps my mind off of my tiredness.
I’m not quite as big of a fan of ZRX’s famous “Chases.” The concept is fun: you preset how many zombie encounters you want per hour and what percentage faster you have to run to escape them. But the instant fail mechanism punishes you for running too quickly during the non-chase portions, and sudden sprints aren’t always suited for non-aerobic training runs.
If Marvel Move incorporates the concept (it hasn’t yet), I hope they treat Chases like an optional challenge where the higher your speed percentage increases, the more enemies you defeat or Bifrost energy you gather, or some other in-universe concept. It should reward you for success, not punish you if you’re not feeling up to the challenge.
Android Central included Zombies, Run! in its best fitness apps round-up years before I started writing for the site, so I’m happy to say I agree with the assessment. The question is whether or not it’s worth subscribing to ZRX instead of (or in addition to) a more traditional running app like Strava or Runkeeper.
I’ll say that these missions are generally suited to couch-to-5K runners who need audio guidance and motivation. As someone who’s reached the point where I can run easily, I don’t need ZRX and won’t use it with every single run.
Despite that, I do plan to continue using it as a vital change of pace instead of the same high-tempo music playlists over and over. And I’m looking forward to more Marvel Move missions in the coming years to build up its running motivation the same way that Zombies, Run! has.