Could our virtual world lead to a dangerous reality?

Enjoyed by millions of endurance athletes, indoor training platform Zwift has been accused of putting vulnerable players at risk of eating disorders. Tim Heming investigates…

scales-copy_edit

If you haven’t caught the Zwift bug, you’re probably in the minority. The cycling and running platform has become a competitive lifestyle for thousands who love competing on the turbo trainer. 

Advertisement

Is Zwift turning a blind eye?

But while Zwift has made our avatars push faster and harder for longer, is it also turning a blind eye to flaws that could trigger the health risks of disordered eating already inherent in endurance sport?

This is the view of one experienced age-group cyclist who contacted 220 to lay out the dangers he perceives for young riders on the platform. The argument rests on the way Zwift calculates performance, chiefly through power (watts) and weight (kg). The higher the power and lower the weight, the faster you go, especially up hills.

As a computer game it doesn’t (currently) factor in your actual bike position nor handling skills, which places more bearing on in-game metrics such as weight. But the criticism also alleges Zwift is skewed to favour lighter riders even in situations when they wouldn’t have a natural advantage on the road – such as flat time-trials.

Zwift, which is not the only indoor training platform to use a w/kg calculation to determine speed, refutes these accusations. It says a cyclist’s weight is “necessary for the game to function, and in a way that people enjoy” and stresses there’s more to the gameplay, such as kit choice and knowing when to use performance-boosting ‘PowerUps’ for example.

Zwift points out that Under-16s cannot take part without parental consent

Addressing the notion that weight should be removed from the game for children, Zwift points out that Under-16s cannot take part without parental consent and, to comply with international child protection laws, aren’t able to create ZwiftPower (the companion site for racing which shows your personal statistics and racing history) accounts.

Zwift also states that other than at elite level “nobody is forced or required to weigh in… but the more accurate you enter your weight, the more accurate your experience,” aligning it to a WHOOP, FitBit or Garmin device.

Spotting the signs of disordered eating early

Hand-wringing or a genuine issue? Consider how addictive computer games can be alongside the mindset of a competitive cyclist. Through a warped lens, the idea of gaining weight derails performance. And when YouTube reveals a video of a father encouraging his 9-year-old son to scale Alpe du Zwift – the platform’s monster climb – with plenty of commentary about the impact of weight, it makes you think. 

Whether the player, the peer, the parent, the coach, or the platform, there’s a role to play in making sure any tendencies towards disordered eating or overexercising can be spotted early – with research showing late diagnosis is all too common among cyclists.

Advertisement

Founded in 2014, Zwift has grown fast and continues to evolve and create new virtual worlds for its growing number of devotees. It’s a company in rude health, there’s an onus on it to encourage its users to be the same.