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?
- “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.
- “Hyperthermia and dehydration-related deaths associated … – PubMed.” 9 Dec. 1997, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9480411/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
- “Body-Weight Fluctuation in Collegiate Wrestlers … – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/15173868/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
- “Bulimic Behaviors Among Interscholastic Wrestlers – American ….” https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/91/4/826.full.pdf. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
- “How to minimise the health risks to athletes who compete … – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24115480/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
- “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.