I Can’t Stop Myself! Why Do I Have to Sprint or Go For That KOM?

The psychology and science behind what motivates virtual cyclists to push harder than they want to.

Let’s assume that I am talking to the converted.  You require no convincing that virtual cycling has its merits, and you are all in.  You may not do all of your riding indoors, but you do enough to consider yourself a part of the community.


Then you know what I am saying.  It is next to impossible to cruise through a sprint or tempo climb a KOM.  The term flyer has entered your lexicon, and even though you may disagree with the practice, you understand the theory and almost accept it.


You have asked yourself way too often, “Why is it so hard to do a recovery ride?  A real one!”


I touched on a few obvious potential motivators unique to virtual cycling in this post on Rhabdomyolysis, a severe health condition that affects indoor cyclists.  In this post on the disease, the inability to resist virtual cycling’s many temptations almost cost a fellow virtual cyclist his life.  

Rhabdomyolysis Part One Featured Image

I told of the positive effect that the motivating video game nature of virtual cycling had on an incredible young man with autism named Kieran for an article I wrote for ZwiftInsider.


What if I told you that we are hardwired to exhibit this behavior?  That deep in the recesses of our cortex, there are sprint and KOM “push too hard’ circuits that are extremely difficult to override.  


I touched on it a bit when explaining why it is mentally more manageable for me to race and train when my wife is in the gain cave.  However, it goes much deeper than the Kohler effect and Social Comparison Theory I introduced in the previous post on the “Three things that make racing and training mentally easier for me.”  Much more profound, and you likely aren’t even aware of it.

Three Things that make things easier featured image one

The Theory

Several studies prove that exercising in a group is more motivating and leads to a higher level of adherence than individual programs.  


Even more, research proves that individuals working together at a task consistently improve their motivation for that task. The accepted theory for such group motivation gains is the Kohler effect.


When compared to working individually, the weaker member is more motivated by working together with a more capable partner, especially when the group’s final level of performance depends primarily upon the weaker member (known as conjunctive task demands).


The improved motivation is due to that person’s drive to equal or exceed the performance of more skilled group members, a process known as social comparison.


People evaluate their abilities and attitudes relative to others in a way that significantly affects their self-image and well-being.


In addition, individuals will work harder when they base their own value and the group’s success upon that person’s level of effort, a process known as indispensability.


Unfortunately for many, group exercise programs don’t fit their schedule, and they are too expensive or intimidating. More importantly, most group exercise programs fail to make the members interdependent or reliant upon one another in any way.


That is what I found interesting and relevant about this study. Not only did the authors test the concepts noted above, but they did so using a virtually present partner while exercising on a stationary bike. It was done over a series of sessions while assessing the subject’s confidence in their ability, intention to continue the program, perceived exertion, and power output.  


A virtual partner eliminates the face-to-face group exercise program limiters noted above and prevents loss of motivation which often occurs by the more skilled members.

Rhabdomyolysis Part Two Featured Image

The Study

Researchers randomly assigned fifty-eight female participants to one of three conditions, coactive, conjunctive, and control. They used the Expresso fitness bike (don’t ask me?) with a computer-supported terrain simulation that displayed several performance metrics.  


The researchers maintained each rider’s intensity level at 65% of heart rate reserve –

[(220-age) - resting heart rate] x intensity% + heart rate -

and 70 rpm. The authors collected data for five 60-minute sessions within a 4-week time frame.

In the conjunctive group, researchers told the subjects that the team’s score would be the time of the partner who stopped riding first, at which point the trial would end for both partners.

In the coactive condition, the researchers did not tell the two riders that they were a team, there was no team result, and each should continue for as long as they could, regardless of the other’s performance.

The subjects tracked their partner’s progress during the actual study by watching what was described as a live video feed. In actuality, the video was pre-recorded and looped so that the virtual partner never stopped riding until the participant quit—a real DIRTy trick.

The Results

The results showed that the coactive group, who cycled with a more capable virtual partner but not as a team, exercised 86% longer than individuals cycling alone.

The members of the conjunctive group, who exercised with a virtual teammate, pedaled 19 minutes, or 208% longer than the control group participants that exercised alone.

Despite exercising longer than the controls, members of the above groups did not report higher perceived exertion values. The confidence of the participants in the experimental groups and their intent to continue exercising at the present level were also significantly greater than the individuals training alone.

Not only did the coactive and conjunctive group members ride longer without complaining of a tremendous effort, but they were more confident and likely to continue. In short, the subjects who felt they were training as a team member doubled their performance and remained motivated to do so.

Three Things That Make Cycling Easier two

The Discussion

Much research on this topic has pointed to the belief that exercising in a group is inherently competitive, which supports the importance of social comparison at the expense of indispensability at the onset of exercise initiation.  With repeated group exercise sessions, however, as the members become more defined in their role as team members, indispensability is a more significant factor.


We all know how true it is that “one cyclist is a ride, but two is a race.”  Prior research contends that the combined motivation-enhancing effect of social comparison and indispensability decreases with repeated comparison in face-to-face interaction.  Very few people want to continue competing against an opponent they really can’t beat.  


Not the case in this study.  The researchers normalized the variables to make the virtual partner superior only due to differences in effort.  Not due to superiority in overall ability, which is demotivating.  By doing so, the weaker participant was motivated to increase their effort, a variable they had direct control over.


Another exciting and relevant condition of this study, which differs from others on the subject, is that the participants developed a relationship.  The experimenters may have fabricated it, but it was real in the subject’s eyes.

Cycling motivation


The unique construction of the present study stands alone in substantiating the power of the Kohler effect in group exercise scenarios. It explains the significant motivation gain observed in virtual cycling scenarios.  

The Köhler effect is more substantial when:

  1. Task difficulty is similar between group members.
  2. Group members care more about good task performance.
  3. Group members care more about their group.


Whether you are a member of an online team or community or view all those around you in the virtual world as your collective team or community, there is an undeniable urge to compare yourself.

With so many virtual riders around and ample opportunity to do so, the temptation is difficult to resist. Thereby the subjects felt a connection and worked hard to equal, exceed, or not disappoint their virtual friend.

Sound familiar?


The unique construction of the present study stands alone in substantiating the power of the Kohler effect in group exercise scenarios. It explains the significant motivation gain observed in virtual cycling scenarios.  


There are missing elements to this study that accentuate the behavioral influence of the Kohler effect during virtual cycling. Features that create an optimal environment for maximizing your fitness potential and indoor cycling experience.  


Although the participants believed that their virtual partner was real, there was no interaction.  Therefore the positive effects of encouragement did not exist.  We all know how in-game text chat and Discord voice conversations are potent motivators.


In addition, without interaction, there was no confirmation that the virtual partner was indeed alive and breathing.  Moreover, there was no emotional bond or relationship formed.  


The motivating effect of socially comparing oneself to a known peer or being the indispensable “weak link” on your team of like-minded friends working towards a common goal is real.  And it’s spectacular!


Virtual cycling checks all the boxes—a confluence of social comparison and indispensability fronts colliding to create a perfect storm of performance-enhancing motivation.  As is the case with many social trends and discoveries that push the needle, the unintended consequences prove to be profound and long-lasting.


Riding harder than you planned during your IRL group ride is not unusual.  Nor is contesting every town line sprint like the Champs or peak elevation sign like it’s the Alpe.  I’m sure the virtual cycling platform creators took this into account.


Did they anticipate that the group dynamic of underlying subconscious behavioral and psychological principles would profoundly affect motivation, confidence, intention, and perceived exertion?  


That is an interesting question and one to which I would be very interested in learning the answer.  Anyone?

What do you think?

Comment below!  I’d really like to know.

If you enjoyed this evidence-based summary, check out the others on the Training & Performance page of The ZOM!


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