Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling, Part 1: Definition, Prevalence, and Esports

Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling, Part 1: Definition, Prevalence, and Esports

Editor’s note: this is the first in a 3-part series. Click to read part 2 and part 3.


Cycling is classified as a weight-sensitive sport, wherein high body weight restricts performance by making it more difficult to move against gravity.  Therefore, body weight and body composition are crucial performance variables. 

As a consequence, athletes with very low body weight, frequent weight fluctuation, and eating disorders are prevalent as the pressure to gain a competitive edge ever increases.1

Prevalence of Extreme Dieting

In an article published in the British Medical Journal it was determined that male elite athletes had as high as a 32.5% prevalence rate for extreme dieting and cited competing in weight-sensitive sports as the most frequently associated risk factor.2 Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of the American Dietary Association suggests that male cyclists often do not consume adequate nutrients to sustain their metabolic needs, do not know how to identify disordered eating habits, and are therefore at greater risk for eating disorders.3

In 2005 the International Olympic Committee, realizing an equal or greater health risk in women, convened an expert panel to create a consensus statement describing the issue.  The Female Athlete Triad was defined as the relationship between three interrelated components: energy availability, menstrual function (amenorrhea), and bone health.4

It was determined through scientific evidence that the factor most influential in the Triad is Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport.  The syndrome of RED-S, most commonly found in women, refers to impaired physical function including, but not limited to, metabolic rate, menstrual function, bone health, immunity, protein synthesis, and cardiovascular health caused by chronic energy deficiency.

A study of a sample of 4037 cyclists and triathletes from across Spain, published in The Journal of Eating Disorders, showed that 17.9% had a higher likelihood of suffering from an eating disorder.  Females and cyclists presented in a higher prevalence, suggesting that even in non-elite athletes, sport has an influence upon eating disorder risk.5

(For comparison, a systematic review meant to estimate the prevalence of eating disorders in the worldwide general population published in 2013 showed the estimated lifetime prevalence of any eating disorder was 1.01%. The estimated lifetime prevalence of anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder was determined to be 0.21%. The estimated female-male ratio for lifetime prevalence of any eating disorder was 4.2.6)

The Extreme Dieting Continuum and Cycling

The range of abnormal eating patterns seen amongst competitive cyclists is described beginning with what is termed disordered eating (DE) and progresses in severity to clinical eating disorders (ED).  Disordered eating practices, which are found in 20% of female and 8% of male elite athletes, includes the use of short-term restrictive diets (<30kcal/kg per day).  The progression ends with clinical eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and binge disorder.  

Factors specific to cycling, such as dieting to enhance performance, overtraining, and certain regulations have been suggested as contributory to disordered eating.  The issue has gained international attention after the recent admission by pro cyclist Jani Brojkovic who stated, “the problem of eating disorders in the peloton is a major one.”  When describing his personal experience on his website, he stated “It’s about a poor relationship with food-disordered eating, which became an eating disorder, bulimia.” 

Not Only an In Real-Life Problem

Speaking under the cloak of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the issue, an elite Zwift racer who wishes to remain nameless informed me that the issue of extreme dieting is not exclusive to real-life competition:

“A protocol would include short-term starvation and dehydration before taking on just enough water and food to cover the event.  It isn’t against the rules, it is just a part of our sport,” he stated matter of factly.  He went on to say, “Training for six hours on a bowl of cereal, coming back, taking a sleeping pill, and sleeping until dinner is seen as normal, when it is far from it!

Although disordered eating and extreme dieting are definitely not the norm in Zwift racing, it is an existing health risk which can jeopardize the safety of athletes. Sound policies and practices must be instituted from the top down to mediate the risks, and healthy attitudes toward diet and conditioning should be regularly communicated and encouraged.

Contributing Factors for Virtual Cyclists

The health-related risks associated with abnormal dietary practices is not limited to the pro peloton, or even to real-life amature and professional cycling.  Esports and virtual cycling competition, through its nature and governance, creates a unique set of circumstances which pose as significant precursors to disordered eating practices and subsequent deleterious effects to athlete’s health and performance. 

The most significant factors are the Esports weigh-in procedure, the relative anonymity and seclusion of athlete performance, and extreme glorification of w/kg as speed determining metric.

Zwift’s weigh-in process for Cycling Esports Events is documented in their ruleset, which is freely available on their website at Zwift Cycling Esports Rules-Appendix A.  In short, the athlete, while clothed in their cycling kit, follows a basic scale calibration and rudimentary zeroing out process, then weighs themselves, all while a video of the process is taken with evidence of a valid time and date stamp.  The video is then uploaded privately to YouTube and the link is sent to the appropriate sanctioning body, which in the case of the Premier League goes directly to the Zwift Cycling Esports Commission.  Athletes can submit videos as early as 24 hours prior to the race.

Statement from Zwift’s Cycling Esports Commision

When asked to comment on the weigh-in procedure, Dr. George Gilbert, Chair of Zwift’s Cycling Esports Commision, wrote:   

The issues with both “body-shaming” and pressure to minimize weight for competitive advantage are very real, and apply to both real-life cycling as well as online.  Zwift is acutely aware of the impact the requirement to weigh-in for events could cause, and we have therefore already built a number of safeguards into our processes, for example:

  • The requirement that all weight videos for Zwift events are private.  This eliminates the incentive of “peer-pressure” where a group of riders who may be happy to publicly share their weight, try to pressurise others to also do so.
  • The requirement that all riders weigh-in before every race.  This eliminates the incentive of riders crash-dieting before the start of a series to weigh-in light, sitting out the first event while they recover, and then benefiting from their unrealistically low weight for the remaining races.
  • The requirement that all riders are appropriately, and similarly, clothed.  This eliminates the incentive for riders to strip down further to try and gain an advantage over their competitors.

We strongly believe that we are leading the industry in setting the right balance between transparency of rider data for the integrity and accuracy of racing, and the privacy and safety of riders in supplying it.

Follow-Up Inquiry

When asked these follow up questions:

  • As chair of the Zwift Cycling Esports Commission, what experience do you possess that provides you the knowledge required to make decisions with respect to rider safety and health?
  • With respect to the safeguards that you have put in place, was a medical professional who specializes in sports nutrition, disordered eating, and eating disorders consulted prior to creating and implementing the policy?
  • What clinical evidence or medical advice do you have proving that weigh-ins prior to each event eliminates the incentive to “crash diet?”

Dr. Gilbert replied:

The answer to all of your questions is broadly the same:

The need to weigh competitors is a long-established part of many sports where weight is a key factor in determining success-rowing and judo, to name just a few.  The rules and regulations for sports in this area are all backed by many decades of medical research, numerous high-quality peer reviewed scientific papers and sharing of experience and best-practice between these sports. Notably this includes the IOC Medical Commission, and their findings on this are available in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (Br J Sports Med.  2013 Nov; 47(16): 1012-22).

Dr. Gilbert references several other sports in his response, but many sports including collegiate and high school wrestling have undergone wholesale changes to reduce the prevalence of disordered eating in their athletes.  A more substantive response would have been welcomed from Dr. Gilbert, a Cambridge-educated scientist with over 25 years of experience in sports governance. But to his (and Zwift’s) credit, he did include the following:

Aside from the formal scientific literature however, from personal experience (as a former lightweight rower), I’ve been weighed and measured publicly, compared against my team-mates, and seen first-hand the pressures of team managers ordering people to lose weight – I truly get on a personal level, as well as professionally, what the issues and consequences are here. As a scientist, I also understand that scientific knowledge is constantly improving, and new approaches to balancing the needs of the integrity of the sport, and the needs of the athletes, are constantly being developed. Zwift is a new and rapidly evolving sport, and we are keen to remain at the forefront of best-practice – we are very open to feedback, and welcome any new evidence or suggestions for ways we can improve still further.

It is also worth mentioning that, while Dr. Gilbert chairs the Zwift Cycling Esports Commission, he is not a Zwift employee, and by his own admission he does not make unilateral policy decisions:

We have experts at Zwift in a wide range of subjects, with those with masters degrees in Physiology, Human Kinetics, Engineering, Physics, Computer Science etc – we also have coaches, former pro-cyclists and software developers who all feed into the Commission to ensure we have a comprehensive and balanced outlook on all matters. It is not a question of me making unilateral decisions based on my personal views, but about me bringing together the right experts with the right knowledge to make the right decisions collectively.

Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling is a Problem 

Having established the reasons why disordered eating is a serious issue affecting virtual cyclists, in the next installment of this article series I will be examining Zwift’s current Esports policy and where it falls short compared to the policies of other weight-sensitive sports. 

In addition, we’ll look at the circumstances which prompted those sports to make necessary changes for the safety of their athletes.

You Are Not Alone

If you feel you may have a disordered eating problem, or you just don’t know, you are not alone, nor is there any shame in admitting.  Contact the American National Eating Disorders Helpline for guidance and support.

Questions or Comments?

Share below!

Bibliography

  • Karrer, Yannis. “Disordered Eating and Eating Disorders in Male Elite Athletes: A Scoping Review.” British Medical Journal, vol. 6, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1-23.
  • Mountjoy, Margo. “The IOC Consensus Statement: Beyond the Female Athlete Triad-Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport (RED-S).” British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 48, 2014, pp. 491-497.
  • Muros, Jose. “Likelihood of Suffering From an Eating Disorder in a Sample of Spanish Cyclists and Triathletes.” Journal of Eating Disorders, vol. 8, no. 70, 2020.
  • Quan, Jie. “Prevalence of eating disorders in the general population: a systematic review.” Shanghai Arch Psychiatry., vol. 25, no. 4, 2013, pp. 212-223.
  • Riebl, Shaun. “The Prevalence of Subclinical Eating Disorders Among Male Cyclists.” Journal of the American Dietary Society, vol. 107, no. 7, 2007, pp. 1214-7.
  • Sundgot-Borgen, Jorunn. “How to minimise the health risks to athletes who compete in weight-sensitive sports review and position statement on behalf of the Ad Hoc Research Working Group on Body Composition, Health and Performance, under the auspices of the IOC Medical Commission.” Br J Sports Med, vol. 2013 Nov;47(16):1012-22. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092966.
  1. “How to minimise the health risks to athletes who compete … – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24115480/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  2. “Disordered eating and eating disorders in male elite athletes: a ….” https://bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/6/1/e000801. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  3. “The prevalence of subclinical eating disorders among … – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17604754/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  4. “The IOC consensus statement: beyond the Female Athlete Triad ….” https://bjsm.bmj.com/content/48/7/491. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  5. “Likelihood of suffering from an eating disorder in a sample of ….” 12 Nov. 2020, https://jeatdisord.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s40337-020-00350-z. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  6. “Prevalence of eating disorders in the general … – NCBI – NIH.” 26 Aug. 2013, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4054558/. Accessed 15 Feb. 2021.

About The Author

Christopher Schwenker

Chris is a semi-retired physical therapist who, following more than 25 years in solo private practice, considers himself blessed to combine a passion for cycling and creative writing in pursuit of his next life goal. He lives on the North Fork of Long Island with his beautiful wife and two university student children.

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Sara Lance
Sara Lance
1 month ago

Chris, this is an incredibly well researched and thoughtful response to this complex and serious issue and I look forward to reading the next two parts in this series. e-cycling is a very young sport and it truly is its own beast as far as cycling is concerned. Today the technology stack for a virtual weigh in is very immature and is really not fit for purpose where the game depends so heavily on weight as an expression of w/kg depending on the course. I truly hope Zwift can invest some of its resources in optimizing this channel as e-cycling… Read more »

SHARON SQUASSONI
SHARON SQUASSONI
1 month ago

Thank you for writing this. Depressing that one of the articles on the bottom of the page is How to Lose Weight (advice from coaches, some of which is terrible). Maybe someone could work on the algorithms? I never thought about my w/kg until I got on Zwift. Of course, now I am obsessed. And since I’m on the older end of the riding spectrum, much easier for me to lose weight than to gain power. But since I love to eat, no issues there (and no progress!). Looking forward to the next installment.

Carmen
Carmen (@bianca-fdez)
1 month ago

I’ve never been more aware of my weight than in the past year that I started seriously racing on zwift. The w/kg translation to speed on zwift is so unrealistic but with the lack of real life cycling and events, racing on zwift it’s all we’ve had so the pressure to keep the weight down has been strong. I wonder if zwift will consider changes to the algorithms to make this more realistic and factor in power more correctly… we all know it’s just a “game” and it’s our own responsibility bla bla, but the incentive and path to eating… Read more »

Rob GZ
Rob GZ (@robgrootzwaaftink)
1 month ago
Reply to  Carmen

This is so true! I started Zwifting about 1,5 year ago. Before that I never focused on my weight. But now I weigh myself everyday because it is so important in Zwift. Luckily I don’t get obsessed with it, but my weight certainly plays a much bigger part than before Zwift.

Alex
Alex
1 month ago

Very interesting read, thank you! I think there are a lot of people who have been cycling in groups for years but never really got into racing before joining Zwift. Same with running, it’s pretty easy to underestimate the importance of weight on your results if you haven’t really raced in the past. I’m 5’7 and people describe me as lean when I’m 140 -150 lbs. Based on coach’s calculations and personal experience, my ideal racing weight (running & triathlon) is 132 lbs. Especially on hilly bike courses, every extra pound costs time. Zwift has plenty of those hills. That… Read more »

Galen Kehler
Galen Kehler
1 month ago

Zwift could really help here by adjusting their algorithm to be more realistic. Currently weight is too highly weighted compared to real world riding. I understand that disordered eating has always been a part of cycling but the conditions of the zwift environment only make it worse.

ShakeNBakeUK
ShakeNBakeUK (@bakeuk_2)
1 month ago

Very good article. I think one of the big potential issues may also be that it is harder to identify someone suffering from an eating disorder due to the relative anonymity of Zwift. Lack of regular physical interaction compared to IRL sports reduces the chance that someone else will notice it and step in to help before it gets out of hand, making it even more important that Zwift has systems in place to help educate people to recognise the warning signs etc.

JoanneH
JoanneH
1 month ago

Very interesting piece. I am in the position of having come from rowing, where at 165cm I’m short and a lightish ‘openweight’ at around 68-70kg, and largely got away with it due to having a decent power/weight ratio. In Zwift if I do a women’s only race and even a mixed one I’m generally towards the heavier end of the spectrum and very conscious of it (especially when there’s a climb). As a result I have been watching my weight a bit more than usual, although luckily I like food too much to go crazy on it. You mention rowing… Read more »

Neil Townsend
Neil Townsend
1 month ago

Is there any reason why Zwift couldn’t lead the way and set a minimum acceptable weight by height for an athlete. As I understand it, there is quite some evidence that a BMI of below 18.5, is “underweight”. This could give a minimum weight by height, and would stop there being any gain to going below that weight. If someone has a weight below that, still calculate their speed and ascent rates on the basis that they are at the minimum acceptable weight. Obviously, there are slightly more nuanced approaches than classic BMI, but why couldn’t there be a minimum… Read more »

Neil Townsend
Neil Townsend
1 month ago

Thanks, looking forward to it

Graeme McN
Graeme McN
1 month ago

We need to go back to Zwift and find out what’s the reason for having W/Kg shown at all in Zwift and even on Zwiftpower. There was a recent article (05 March 2021) about Red-S and the author, Alice Lethbridge, brought up a good point about this.

https://zwiftinsider.com/red-s-one-athletes-story/

Why don’t we have people grouped into FTP bands and have the W/kg hidden in the background (if Zwift requires the use of this). I think this would be a lot better, but I would like to hear downsides to this, as I see, easy fix?

Thanks,

Shaunna Taylor
Shaunna Taylor
24 days ago

Thank you for this series. I am a practitioner (former Chair of the Canadian Sport Psychology Association), professor, and disordered eating prevention program facilitator for 20 years. I have huge concerns over e-cycling and related platforms. They are a breeding ground for eating and exercise disorders. The pandemic has caused a significant lift in these disorders across Canada (and the world) due to many factors ~ sadly, for many athletes, the format of these platforms is a loaded gun. In particular, I fear for teens, who are building bone mass for life. Eating disorders have the biggest mortality rate of… Read more »

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