Virtual training platforms like Zwift are becoming increasingly popular among cyclists. If you haven’t heard of Zwift, it is essentially an online gaming platform for cyclists and recently runners, which allows users to compete against other online users in a virtual setting. It has recreated several real routes as well as created some visually stunning synthetic routes and the user can choose to complete a specific workout or free ride with your speed being worked off your functional threshold power. The platform can be an excellent training tool to avoid boredom during times when indoor cycling is inevitable, but can using Zwift actually make you faster?
One of the first research studies in the area of sports psychology revealed that people’s performance levels increase when another individual is present and completing a similar task (Triplett, 1898). This is called the coaction effect and it is most likely the reason many riders feel they can push harder in a group setting or with a training partner than they can when training alone. Zwift may allow users to experience the benefits of riding with others through a virtual setting and this has the potential to led to significant performance improvements due to increased exercise capacity during each training session, overtime that marginal effort increase in each indoor session could lead to more significant performance increases.
Zwift also has the potential to exploit dissociation, or in other words, your brains ability to distract itself from the discomfort you may be feeling during training. Virtual reality software is frequently used in clinical settings to assist patients receiving painful treatments to reduce their perceived pain as their brain switches its focus from internal to external as they become immersed in the VR software (Hoffman et al., 2000; Hoffman et al., 2001). It’s very possible that these effects may also be transferable to a sports setting, in a way, techniques like dissociation are already implemented by many cyclists, for example, going to your “happy place” during hard training efforts to help distract you from the discomfort you’re feeling, again likely temporarily extending your exercise capacity at that intensity. Zwift provides you with not only excellent visuals and audio but also a whole world to immerse your brain in during training, if you compare this to sitting on a turbo staring at your shed door, it’s likely you’ll agree on which setting you would find easier to become distracted in.
Now that we’ve discussed a little bit of the research behind why Zwift may have the potential to make you faster, let’s discuss an experiment in which this was actually tested. A sample of Irish, racing A1 and A2 cyclists were asked to complete a series of 20-minute functional-threshold power tests on a smart-trainer in a lab setting. A functional threshold power test or FTP test for short, is a test that is used to find the maximum power a rider can sustain for 60-minutes, often referred to as their threshold power. The cyclists were split into two groups, group one were referred to as the VR group and group two were referred to as the control group. Each cyclist in both groups completed a 20-minute FTP test and blood lactate readings were taken at baseline and then at 5-minute intervals throughout the tests. In the first FTP tests both groups completed the tests without any additional stimulus, essentially with a blank wall in front of them similar to a standard home turbo set up. In the second FTP tests, the VR group used Zwift throughout the test (see figure 1. below for set-up) while the control group completed a standard FTP test, again without any additional stimulus. In all tests no riders were given any feedback except for time remaining and were directed to ride off of feel but to give the test everything. It is worth noting that all of the riders selected for the study had completed 20-minute FTP tests before and were experienced with pacing.
The VR group showed a +5.39% increase in average power while using Zwift when compared to their first FTP test which the control group showed a +0.46% percent increase in their second FTP test. The VR group showed a +9.69% increase in their max power in their second test while the control group displayed a -8.75% decrease in their max power in the second test. The final blood lactate reading which was taken for the VR group at the end of the second test showed a +18.85% increase in blood lactate which shows that the cyclists in this group were able to push themselves much harder in the second test while using the Zwift software and this is also further backed up by their increased average and maximal power numbers.
This shows that Zwift may have the potential to increase the amount of effort you can sustain in comparison to cycling indoors without any additional stimulus. Although the cyclists using Zwift experienced on average a roughly 5% increase in average power during the test, a 5% increase in power on your indoor cycling rides may lead to much larger accumulations in fitness in the long run. Therefore, for someone trying to get that edge over your rivals on the club run, the training benefits of Zwift may be worth that 14.99$ a month, and even if it doesn’t make you any faster, it does make an indoor cycle a lot more enjoyable. That's why all of our power based coaching offers built workouts that are fully compatible with Zwift and other online training platforms.
So, what do you think? Will you be purchasing a Zwift subscription for the New Year? Or have you noticed any difference in your training since joining Zwift? Is the online platform negatively changing the world of cycling? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments!
• Triplett, N. (1898). The dynamogenic factors in pacemaking and competition. American Journal of Psychology, 9, 507–533
• Hoffman, H. G., Patterson, D. R., & Carrougher, G. J. (2000). Use of Virtual Reality for Adjunctive Treatment of Adult Burn Pain During Physical Therapy: A Controlled Study. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 16(3), 244-250.
• Hoffman, H. G., Patterson, D. R., Carrougher, G. J., & Sharar, S. R. (2001). Effectiveness of Virtual Reality–Based Pain Control With Multiple Treatments. The Clinical Journal of Pain, 17(3), 229-235.