Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling, Part 3: The Five Point Plan

Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling, Part 3: The Five Point Plan

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


Weight-sensitive sports like wrestling, judo, and rowing have realized the potential dangers extreme dieting poses to their athletes, and have asked themselves tough questions and made difficult decisions. The result? Policies which better ensure the safety of athletes through the acknowledgement and mediation of the risks involved. 

Although the following plan may seem ambitious, it is consistent with the policies of other weight-sensitive sports and is meant to swing the pendulum towards change.  If it eventually settles in a place where the greatest number of athletes are protected while the integrity of and ability to promote the sport is maintained, the goals of all involved will be met.

Point One: Education and Prevention

The International Olympic Committee and the American College of Sports Medicine have recommended that national and international sports federations put policies and procedures in place to eliminate harmful weight loss practices, as cited in the journal article referenced by Dr. Gilbert, the Chair of The Zwift Cycling Esports Commission, in Part 1.  They emphasize that attention should be focused upon the risk factors which are most easily affected, specifically, the pressure on athletes to manipulate diet behaviors and body weight in the belief that it will enhance performance.1

Prevention of extreme dieting, disordered eating, and eating disorders can be broken down into three phases:2

  1. Elimination of the onset of extreme dieting and disordered eating development through education designed to prevent the onset.
  2. Focus placed upon early identification of at-risk athletes with appropriate follow-up performed.
  3. When treatment is required, refer the athlete to an appropriate healthcare professional with a firm knowledge of the challenges of the association between dieting, energy availability and nutrition, body composition, and performance.

Zwift must require that all athletes participating in The Premier League and other elite events, as a step in the pre-registration process, complete an education and instruction module delivered by health professionals with the knowledge noted above. 

The instructional reference material should be made available to any athlete competing or riding on Zwift with public promotion of its availability.  By awarding each rider an in-game badge or incentive, this can become part of the many ways that Zwift motivates its subscribers to engage with the platform.  

Point Two: Creation of a Extreme Dieting Prevention Passport

As a requirement for pre-registration, athletes competing in The Premier League and other elite events must establish a baseline of several body composition data metrics.  Weight, body fat percentage, body mass index data, assessment of menstrual cycle, bone density, to name several options, should be taken and recorded by a trained healthcare professional while the athlete is determined to be in an adequately hydrated state. 

With that baseline, a periodic schedule of reassessment is put in place throughout the season or year, and a negative deviation from the baseline of greater than a predetermined percentage will be considered significant and trigger the steps taken in Point Three.

Point Three: Alarm and No-Start Criteria

Once an athlete has been determined to have deviated from the Extreme Dieting Prevention Passport baseline a series of steps known as the Alarm and No-Start Criteria will be implemented.  Alarm and No-Start criteria is based upon the idea that athletes who present with signs of disordered eating or an eating disorder are deemed “injured.”  Athletes who have triggered the alarm will be unable to resume competition until they have been cleared for competition by a trained health professional.

The specific guidelines for Alarm and No-Start Criteria can be broken down into two phases:3

  1. Yellow light, or relative criteria, indicate active assessment from exclusion of competition for a short time and may include, for example, amenorrhea for more that six months, Body Mass Index below 18.5, and/or less that 12% body fat in women and less than 5% in men, in combination with low testosterone levels.
  2. Red light, or absolute criteria, indicate that the athlete should be excluded from all competitions, upon fulfilment of the clinical diagnosis of an eating disorder.

Point Four: Pre-Race Weigh-In Timing

A weigh-in time of not more than two hours prior to competition should be implemented.  By doing so, the possibility for an athlete to exhibit the extreme dieting behavior of calorie and fluid restriction prior to weigh-in followed by binging, similar to a bulimic, will be prevented and avoided.  This is not the case when weigh-in is permitted 24 hours prior to the event (Zwift Esports’ current policy).

Point Five: Pre-Race Weigh-In Procedure

As a prerequisite for competition in each race, athletes competing in The Premier League and other elite events would perform a weigh-in while transmitting the video virtually in real time, via Zoom or other video conferencing option, during a previously scheduled appointment falling within the timeframe in Point Four. 

The athlete weighs themselves utilizing a Zwift-approved device which transmits the data directly to Zwift while the video conference is being conducted.  While improving the veracity of the data and decreasing the urge to manipulate it, this also provides the assessor the opportunity to observe the racer for any signs of extreme dieting health-related issues. 

Shining a Light

As Zwift strives to achieve the goal of leading the Esports industry in providing a legitimate and trusted competition platform, it has an obligation to protect the athletes on which it is building its reputation and revenues.  As is the case with many hidden dangers, extreme dieting remains in the shadows of denial by athletes and promoters alike. 

It is time that Zwift and its peers in the industry shed some light, because if one athlete suffers the life-altering effects of an eating disorder… that is one too many!  

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 International Eating Disorders Helpline for guidance and support.

Acknowledgement

I would like to take this opportunity to offer my sincere gratitude to Adam Upshaw, PhD, the Coordinator of the Sports Nutrition Program and Professor at Niagara College. Without his expert opinions, research, and guidance, the thorough exploration of this important topic would not have been possible.

Thank you for the cooperation and forthright responses to difficult questions provided by George Gilbert, Phd., the Chair of Zwift’s Cycling Esports Commission, for his willingness to consider change to help grow and improve Zwift’s governance in this area and remaining at the forefront of best-practice.

I would also like to offer my thanks to an anonymous source, who due to the sensitive nature of the anecdotal information providing insight into the darker side of virtual cycling, has chosen to remain nameless and faceless, but not without a voice.

And Kayla Slater, MS RDN ACE-CPT, the founder of Plant Based Performance Nutrition and Run Coaching, for putting some things into simple terms even I could understand.

Bibliography

  • Skarderud, Finn. “The Malnourished Athlete-guidelines for Interventions.” Tidsskr Nor Legeforen, vol. 132, no. 17, 2012.
  • Sungot-Borgen, Jorun. “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. “How to minimise the health risks to athletes who compete … – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24115480/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  2. “How to minimise the health risks to athletes who compete … – PubMed.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24115480/. Accessed 12 Feb. 2021.
  3. “The malnourished athlete – guidelines for interventions | Tidsskrift ….” 18 Sep. 2012, https://tidsskriftet.no/en/2012/09/malnourished-athlete-guidelines-interventions. 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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Pierre
Pierre
1 month ago

Thanks Chris for this series of articles. Maybe another point should be hilighted, which may limit the incentive to loose weight for elite athletes : for all of us, their is an optimum weight. Below a certain point, you loose more power than you are loosing weight and decrease your W/kg ratio. When I use to have an elite level, I remember that below 65kg if I reduce my wight of, let’s say 2%, I will reduce my power by 5%. Idem (or worst) a deshydratation of 1% will reduce my watts by 10%. I believe that if all athletes… Read more »

Kate
Member
Kate (@ninjaess)
1 month ago

I wish that were actually true…. as a climber, I hate to say I’m faster when I’m underweight to some extent. It’s a hard line to balance.

Kevin L
Kevin L (@kevin)
1 month ago

There are some very good points in the series about athletes taking extreme steps prior to races. But I feel it misses the mark, and doesn’t consider the prevalence of eating disorders in our society in general and therefore in the athlete community too. The recommendations will only serve to further drive this kind of illness further underground as it seeks to identify, label and further stigmatise athletes with existing eating disorders. I note the final throw-away paragraph about there being “no shame” in having an eating disorder, but this is absolutely the wrong language to be using.

StuartH
StuartH
1 month ago

I think that Zwift have a big part to play in this, the speed bias being set to w/kg as heavily as it is (evidenced by 11 year old children hanging in mens B cat race packs at 100w). With a more realistic power vs wkg bias on flat speeds, then weight wouldn’t be the determining factor as often.

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

I have to say this isn’t my experience at all.
live done a few rides at say 2w/kg on the flat courses and even at 3.5-4 W/kg km not even close to staying with the group. I know a lot of groups raised faster than advertised but looking at those around me I need to put out far far higher W/kg on the flat than heavier riders.
live actually weight doped up to allow me to put out a few more watts in some flat races!

Paul
Paul (@paul-mcneil)
1 month ago

I got caught up in the craze of low carb and intermittent fasting a few years ago. I lost 30 pounds (i’m 6ft tall) and my weight was 170. I was lean, but I was terrified of food and gaining weight. I had developed a disordered eating pattern and as a male I felt even more shame in that. I was lethargic, moody, unable to train and constantly sick.It took me some time but I sought some help and got back to feeling somewhat comfortable with food. I still feel shame when I eat at times but I’m now at… Read more »

Eric
Eric
1 month ago

Agreed. I’ve treated eating disorders for 20 years as a physician and they are a struggle.

Zee Kryder
Zee Kryder (@zkryder)
1 month ago

Great series. Especially when you stated, “This is not the case when weigh-in is permitted 24 hours prior to the event (Zwift Esports’ current policy).” A dangerous policy I hope will change soon.

Neil Townsend
Neil Townsend
1 month ago

Many thanks for this series, both for highlighting issues and for making constructive suggestions. At the core, it seems to me that Zwift cannot resolve societal issues. But what it can do is eliminate any practice which can encourage (however unintentionally) practices and habits which become destructive to the individual. Using clear markers (BMI, body fat, etc) to trigger deeper investigation has a lot of merit, especially at the elite level, However, it becomes harder to enforce at lower levels, as it requires resource. Could zwift impose some more black and white requirements for competition at lower levels?

Neil Townsend
Neil Townsend
1 month ago

Keep up the good work!

Sara Lance
Sara Lance
1 month ago

Chris, thanks for this series and also your solid suggestions on ways to move the platform/ sport forward to helping to better manage this. Your work is crucial to bring a voice to this problem and to help change the narrative and help the experts be creative to find solutions. The more we talk about things like this and hear people’s stories , the more impetus there will be to find ways to solve it will emerge and hopefully be implemented. You make each of us better by providing the means to enable us to confront the topic in a… Read more »

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