Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling, Part 2: Disordered Eating and Zwift’s Esports Policy

Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling, Part 2: Disordered Eating and Zwift’s Esports Policy

Editor’s note: this is part 2 in a 3-part series. Click to read part 1 and part 3.


During the 1997 American collegiate wrestling season, three wrestlers died of the fatal effects of rapid weight loss practices.  In the hours before weigh-in, the three wrestlers from different states drastically restricted food and fluid intake and exercised vigorously to promote dehydration.  The sudden deaths of these previously healthy, young, well-trained athletes underscored the need to eliminate weight-control practices which emphasized extreme and rapid weight loss.1

Extreme Dieting and Bulimic Behavior Among Elite Athletes

A study published in the Journal of Athletic Training in 2004 showed that weight gains in 668 collegiate wrestlers, only 20 hours after the initial tournament weigh-ins, averaged 3.73kg.  The study also suggested that novice wrestlers lose the greatest amounts of weight before competition and that the techniques used resemble the behaviour of bulimics.2  A study found in the Journal Pediatrics showed that of a study of 713 high school wrestlers, 1.7% exhibited behaviors consistent with bulimia nervosa and an additional 43% engaged in practices similar to those who met the criteria.3

This tragedy prompted NCAA Wrestling to adopt rule changes in 1998 to address weight-loss issues.  Of the six rule changes, two related directly to the timing of weigh-ins, including having weigh-ins performed one hour before the start of each match and establishing weigh-ins for each day of multi-day tournaments, figured prominently in their recommendations.  Therein lies a key flaw in Zwift’s weigh-in policy.

The Key Flaw in Zwift’s Weigh-In Policy

Zwift’s current rules allow athletes to weigh in as early as 24 hours before a race (see Zwift Cycling Esports Rules-Appendix A). But early weigh ins such as this have been identified by weight-sensitive sports as being dangerous, putting athletes at extreme risk. 

In fact, the study cited by the chair of the Zwift Cycling Esports Commission Dr. Gilbert when justifying Zwift’s weigh-in procedure (see part 1) recommends that “a weigh-in time of not more than 2-3 hours before competition should be implemented.”4 

Furthermore, the two sports which Dr. Gilbert mentions when explaining the basis of Zwift’s policy current do the following with respect to the timing of weigh-ins:

  • Lightweight rowing: weigh-in each day and for each event not less than an hour and not more than 2 hours before the start of the race.
  • Judo: weigh-in performed the morning of competition at most 2 hours prior to the start.

Editor’s note: we reached out to Zwift for comment on our critique of their weigh-in policy. Chris Snook, Senior PR Manager, provided the following background/explanation for Zwift’s current policy:

One of the reasons for a 24-hour window for rider weigh-ins was to make them easier for the riders to conduct. Behind the scenes of a Zwift Esports Race, there is a lot of admin involved in the verification process. Three Sisters Ride aside, all riders need to submit weigh-in videos, ensure they dual record power, ensure their power meters are calibrated, and ensure their trainers are on the latest firmware.

In short, there’s a lot to do and it can be quite stressful so we wanted to make it as achievable as possible while minimising the margin for error. These rules were formulated for at-home/remote competition rather than in real-life events, like lightweight rowing and judo, where all competitors can be weighed in quickly by commissaries on the same calibrated scales. This too is possible for Zwift Esports events tasking place in venue and has been employed at past events like the Zwift Super League.

Hidden in the Virtual Shadows

The virtual nature of Esports competition creates an environment of seclusion and relative invisibility.  Without the benefit of feedback and cues from peers, teammates, and coaches, disordered eating practices and the health-related consequences can go undetected and are more easily hidden. 

This can result in a pattern of abnormal weight-control which may become out of control despite the athlete’s intention to the contrary or without awareness.  In such cases, Zwift’s emphasis upon private weigh-ins may actually be detrimental in this respect and further underscore the necessity of policy change.

Glorification of W/KG

Not directly related to Zwift’s weigh-in policy, but of equal importance, is the glorification of w/kg as a speed-determining metric.  Countless blog posts, newsletters, and websites like Zwift Insider emphasize the benefits of being a lighter rider.  Comparisons of light vs. heavy riders, with the former having an advantage the majority of the time, are common and put a spotlight on the element of the equation which can be rapidly changed in the short-term through disordered eating practices.

In a study published in the Journal of Eating Disorders, a sample of 4037 cyclists and triathletes from across Spain was studied for eating disorder risk, and it was determined that triathletes were less likely to suffer from eating disorders than cyclists.  The researchers explained this through the special impact the w/kg ratio has on road cycling climbing performance, denoting that this is not a phenomena unique to virtual cycling.5

Editor’s note: the focus on w/kg is not limited to Zwift, of course. It’s pervasive throughout road cycling due to the simple physics of the sport. Zwift’s Snook provided the following viewpoint:

Yes, in a stand-alone race or test, a lighter Zwift Rider will be faster over most courses. However, what does that look like over two/three seasons of Zwift Racing League? A major factor in the cause of eating disorders, especially amongst athletes, is short-term gains. However, they are long-term problems and are often only caught when too late.

As a follow-up to this series, we hope to feature a post or two from Zwifters who have dealt with eating disorders as part of their struggle for athletic excellence. These stories will encourage us all set aside risky short-term gains in favor of long-term health. If you have a story you’d like to share, please email [email protected].

With Greater Legitimacy Comes Great Responsibility 

As Zwift continues to devote more resources and place greater emphasis upon its goal of being recognized as a legitimate cycling competition platform, its commitment to the well-being of the athletes competing on it must increase equally.  As the stakes get higher, the pressure upon racers to maximize their results at the expense of their long-term health increases.  It is paramount that Zwift takes responsibility in providing the necessary support and implementing policies which optimize the potential to successfully ensure the health of its competitors.

In the third and final instalment of the series, with the assistance of a prominent expert in the field of exercise science and nutrition, a Five Point Plan to amend Zwift’s Policy on Esports will be presented.  It is unfair to offer constructive criticism without devoting similar effort to finding a solution to the problem.  Having proven an issue exists, and that it is recognized by other sports as significant enough to prompt change, the implementation of a revised policy is essential to the future of Zwift racing and its 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 Eating Disorders Helpline in the UK for guidance and support.

Questions or Comments?

Share below!

Bibliography

  • “Hyperthermia and dehydration-related deaths associated with intentional rapid weight loss in three collegiate wrestlers–North Carolina, Wisconsin, and Michigan, November-December 1997.” MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep, vol. February 20, 1998 / 47(06);105-108.
  • 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.
  • Oppliger, R. A. “Bulimic Behaviors Among Interscholastic Wrestlers: A Statewide Survey.” Pediatrics, vol. 91, no. 4, 1993, pp. 826-31.
  • Ransone, Jack. “Body-Weight Fluctuation in Collegiate Wrestlers: Implications of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Weight-Certification Program.” Journal of Athletic Training, vol. 39, no. 2, 2004, pp. 162-165.
  • 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.” British Journal of Sports Medicine, vol. 47, 2013, pp. 1012-1022.
  1. “Hyperthermia and dehydration-related deaths associated … – PubMed.” 9 Dec. 1997, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9480411/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  2. “Body-Weight Fluctuation in Collegiate Wrestlers … – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15173868/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  3. “Bulimic Behaviors Among Interscholastic Wrestlers – American ….” https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/91/4/826.full.pdf. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  4. “How to minimise the health risks to athletes who compete … – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24115480/. 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.

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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James Eastwood
James Eastwood (@jeastwood)
1 month ago

Really important topic to cover and it can affect everyone to some extent. I don’t have any answers but recognising the issue is valuable in itself.

Daniel Pearson
Daniel Pearson (@dpearson)
1 month ago

I’m assuming the Editor’s Notes sections were included as a way to be fair to HQ, which is fine. Unfortunately, I doesn’t seem that the PR guy read his responses before submitting them. If “admin” or “it’s too hard” is the reason for the 24 hour prior weigh in video (which encourages cutting weight), require the weigh in video to be within 2 hours of the event (include date/time from metadata or a phone or whatever), but you only have to submit it if you finish in X top places and you have 12 hours after the event. There you… Read more »

Michael
Michael
1 month ago
Reply to  Daniel Pearson

Why can weight not be cut after the race? Just enter your low target race weight and somehow get there for the video after the race. Much easier and probably even more unhealthy.

J.J.
J.J.
1 month ago
Reply to  Michael

My understanding of what is being said is that the video would actually be recorded prior to the race (in the 2 hour window) and verified by some form of time marking such as your phone screen showing time and date. Then after the race you would only need to send the video in if you finished in a predetermined placing. So dropping weight post race wouldn’t be an isssue.

Alice Lethbridge
Member
Alice Lethbridge (@alice-lethbridge)
1 month ago
Reply to  Daniel Pearson

Hi Daniel, it’s actually to make it easier for us as athletes. Most of us work full time too. Getting home from work in time to get everything set up is quite a challenge and adding in a weigh in to that 2 hours pre event would increase that challenge. For other athletes in different parts of the World, they are racing at 5 or 6 am or in their lunchbreak. The 24 hour rule for the remote racing was designed to help us be able to do one part of the prep in advance. If you made it two… Read more »

Daniel Pearson
Daniel Pearson (@dpearson)
1 month ago

Alice, sure, I think that there are certainly many top level zwifters grinding it out to squeeze in a race. Perhaps there aren’t any cutting weight for big races. But if there are, you should be concerned about that at least as a competitor, I’d think. It’s hard for me to think of a way to prevent weight doping/cutting that doesn’t include a weigh in close in time to a race.

Tony Helmersson
Tony Helmersson
1 month ago

I’m glad to see that this topic is discussed. I don’t know the solution but I do know that I fell “victim” to the W/Kg affect on Zwift Racing last spring and beginning of summer. My performance and results improved dramatically for every kilogram I lost and I was eventually rewarded with becoming an A+ ranked rider on Zwift Power! I was over the moon with joy and pride!! Shortly after that I lost all power and health, I could barley go for a short recovery ride… Today I’m healthy again and my weight has increased with cirka 6 kg.… Read more »

Alex
Alex
1 month ago

Zwift’s official response to a question about the 24h weight in window, which is proven to be encourage unhealthy weight cutting, is the amount of administrative work? That’s exactly the kind of tone deaf response you expect from them these days 🙁

They could just start doing it like the UFC and have the weight ins 36h in advance to ensure riders can cut 20 pounds for the weight-in and gain that (or more) back for the race..

Alice Lethbridge
Member
Alice Lethbridge (@alice-lethbridge)
1 month ago
Reply to  Alex

They mean the admin for us the competitors, not them. Most of us also work full time and are squeezing in races before work / in lunch break / rushing home after work.

Suzanne
Suzanne
1 month ago

The idea that higher w/kg wins races has really eroded (imho) with my experiences with both scratch and ttt races. I’d rather be more powerful and heavier (with a lower wkg) for TTTs (especially flat ones) and I’d rather have better sprint power and timing/tactics than a higher wkg in scratch races. People who are hyper-focused on wkg are maybe racing at much higher level than me (where the margins between racers are slimmer), or don’t understand the true nature of racing, or are trying to get into the next cat up since wkg is the standard metric for advancing… Read more »

Kate
Member
Kate (@ninjaess)
1 month ago
Reply to  Suzanne

This is my experience too. As a light rider I have no chance of staying with a similar W/kg group on almost any course and certainly the race courses which are predominantly flat.

JoanneH
JoanneH
1 month ago

I’m not sure there is a perfect answer to when a weigh-in should happen, if a weigh-in MUST happen. I’ve seen lightweight rowers get up, eat no breakfast, weigh in, discover they’re 300g overweight, and go for a run in several layers of clothes and a bin bag to sweat it off in time to weigh in again. Then they stuff themselves with food and glug down tons of liquid because they didn’t eat properly earlier and they only have 30 minutes until they boat; and then they go and push themselves to the limit for 6-8 minutes. So I… Read more »

Sara Lance
Sara Lance
1 month ago

Chris, it’s awesome how you are laying out all the elements of the problem and highlighting the areas that are at the intersection of eating behaviors and competition admin. I really can’t wait to read part 3 to see the blueprint of what a potential solution is . I really commend your courage to research and present this critical topic with the support of ZI. Kudos to all involved.

Ride On!

Sara Lance

Anne Turner (Zwift handle R.eebok)
Anne Turner (Zwift handle R.eebok)
1 month ago

Such an important topic, thank you for raising this and opening up the discussion. I’ve struggled with eating disorders for most of my life, and it remains a challenge. Compartmentalising that with the weight side of Zwift has been…tricky…but I’m in a place where I can do that although now as I am actively trying to gain weight having to present that openly(ish) for Zwift and ZP raises it’s own battles to fight. Thank you again.

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