Wondering what the advantages and disadvantages of indoor cycling apps, like Zwift, are, and whether they're worth investing in? James Witts weighs up the pros and cons.
Indoor cycling, facing a wall, straining to hear your favourite playlist over the deafening whirl of your turbo has long proven a greater mental battle than the physical. But, as the likes of elite triathletes Lucy Charles, Jan Frodeno and Jonny Brownlee have shown, indoor training, specifically the gamification of indoor training, is losing its reputation as a necessary evil.
Instead, these virtual-indoor riding packages, specifically Zwift in the case of Charles, Frodeno and Brownlee, have captured the imagination of triathletes around the world. So has gamification truly taken a foothold or do we have another Nintendo Wii on our hands?
This piece uses Zwift as the exemplar because, well, it’s the industry leader. A snapshot of its popularity, as of February 2018, reveals over 500,000 users had used Zwift from over 150 countries. Zwifters rode over 125million miles in 2017 – early in 2018 that figure had risen to a daily million miles and, such is its growth, there’s even an independent website focused on Zwift news.
Zwift’s USP is that it’s enlivened monotonous indoor riding thanks to gaming, competition and interaction. The basic requirement is an indoor trainer, a speed sensor, ANT+ or Bluetooth connectivity and a laptop. If you have the money, a smart trainer calculates further metrics as well as cleverly altering the resistance to suit the terrain. You simply download the app and register for the free seven-day trial, which is £12.99 a month thereafter.
Zwift features five different worlds: the London course that hosts Prudential RideLondon in July; the Richmond, Virginia, route that hosted the 2015 UCI World Road Race Championships; Innsbruck; New York; and the mythical island of Watopia.
Once you’ve undertaken the functional threshold power (FTP) test – recommended by Zwift and by ourselves – you can then accurately follow one of the 1,000 pre-programmed workouts. These are key to Zwift and many of its contemporaries’ appeal. Simply click on a session, either uploaded by Zwift or fellow users, and follow the wattage instructions. These sessions can roll on for hours but it’s the intense, relatively-concise workouts that have broadened its appeal. “Saturation point” was my wife’s summation when I dismounted. Which is all well and good, of course but, physiologically, triathlon demands significant levels of endurance. How can a 30-60min effort boost this key variable of performance?
That’s down to the energy continuum. You have three energy systems – two anaerobic (without oxygen) and one aerobic (with oxygen). The first is your ATP-PC system, which is your immediate energy system and generates enough energy for around 10secs of hard effort. After that you delve into another anaerobic energy system, which can produce enough energy for around 60-90secs of effort. Anything over that requires oxygen.
You’d think, then, that shorter, intense efforts would solely produce anaerobic changes – seen through a performance lens this means greater speed and power – but that’s not true. You see, those rest periods result in a drop in heart rate, meaning you tap into – and improve – your aerobic system. Your oxygen uptake and metabolism also remains ‘aerobically’ high during the cool-down, while your fired-up metabolism will continue to burn fat long after the interval session has been completed.
“Another ‘sell’ is the group workouts,” adds Snook. “Basically group workouts band everyone together – you all train to your zones, but the game restricts the speed of your avatar to keep everyone together as a training group. These are popular especially when led by guest triathletes such as Lucy Charles, Craig Alexander and Tim Don.”
And it’s that competitive feel that’s elevated Zwift above its competition. What’s abundantly clear with the likes of Zwift is that where once the merest domestic distraction would see you halt your indoor effort, now you dig deep to shadow a Zwifter who’s just overtaken you. It keeps you on track.
Motivation is key
Why is competition such a motivator? There are many theories why, including the ancestral standpoint of defending your tribe. One of the most recent theories of competition indirectly derives from Dr Samuele Marcora’s psychobiological model of fatigue, which broadly says that fatigue is far from a purely physical construct. Instead, the brain controls not only the power output but also just how hard it’s finding a workout. Motivation, Marcora says, is key.
If you start questioning the rationale behind pain and the brain decides there’s little reason to continue, you slow down. Humans are task-orientated. We’re also not huge fans of intense suffering. When training alone, the motivation to dig deep is entirely intrinsic (from within), loading a huge amount of personal responsibility to train hard. With competition, the motivation to protect the ego is a large extrinsic carrot to raise the intensity.
Pros and cons
So science supports virtual competition and our experience of Zwift is positive. But, of course, every silver lining is supported by a dark cloud. There’s the general turbo issue of space. If you have a designated permanent Pain Cave, it’s not a problem; if your abode’s a half-million pound one-bedroom cupboard in Soho, there are issues.
Also, no matter how all-consuming and immersive virtual training is, turbo training can’t improve handling or descending. It also doesn’t prepare you for group riding, yet new triathlete Ian Kemp, previously a nervous outdoor rider, says that the confidence gained from riding indoors has better prepared him for negotiating the urban jungle.
“The gamification of training, the metrics and especially the companion app, where you can find mates to ride
with around the country, really appeals and I’ve recently racked up 200 miles in a month that I normally wouldn’t,” Kemp says. “We have two young children and it’s not feasible for me to constantly head out for 2hrs so indoor training is ideal, although I’d recommend a larger 42in screen to project Zwift onto as you don’t really absorb all the action on the smaller screen of a laptop.”
Kemp also says that many of the group rides are categorised by power-to-weight ratios. Kemp’s touching 95kg and, on the face of it, doesn’t fit the different bands of competition.
“I could exaggerate my weight, of course, but that seems like cheating,” he adds. That doesn’t stop some, however, with the impact of inputted weight on competitive outcome and subsequent rewards, like badges and unlocking other features, so significant that there’s a group of Zwift volunteers known as ZADA to monitor the situation. ZADA stands for Zwift Anti-Doping Agency!
The immersive future of indoor cycling apps
Any virtual bike training app is also only as good as its internet provider but hats off to BT during our test period – we only cut out once. And that seamless connection, and possibly 5G, is what’ll be required in the future as it’s hard to see immersive virtual reality units not having an impact.
But not yet according to Zwift’s Snook. “We employed a VR system [like Oculus Rift] a few years ago as an experiment. But it was very easy to lose your sense of balance – at events, we needed to have people supporting riders, as you naturally lean into bends. The other problem is the goggles. Riding on a home trainer generates quite a lot of heat, so you soon steam the goggles up.”
We’ve tried out an Oculus Rift on an indoor trainer at Bristol’s VR Lab, which is currently being tested as a tool to get sedentary people off the sofa and, while impressive, motion sickness was the main issue.
And yet, with Samsung filing a patent design for augmented reality contact lenses and the fact professional cycling teams are already using VR units for course reconnaissance, we can guarantee – okay, predict – that within the next 10 years micro VR units will dominate an ever-growing industry.