Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling—Where Zwift Needs to Go Next, and Why

In the final retrospective, by continuing to innovate and commit to a proactive approach in the area of Extreme Dieting, Zwift will impact the lives of a staggering number of virtual cyclists.

In 2021 the Zwift Cycling Esports Commission made amendments to its ruleset that marked a meaningful step toward ensuring eracer safety in the area of Extreme Dieting.  

 

By eliminating public weigh-in verification and reducing the time window for private submission to two hours before each event, Zwift made a significant commitment in resources and an ideological shift towards evolving to become the standard in responsible virtual cycling event organization.  

 

Zwift is worthy of acknowledgment for taking the initiative in addressing the issue of Extreme Dieting. A year has passed and little more has been done to take a proactive approach to ensure the safety of eracers on the Zwift platform. However, by prioritizing education, it will transcend to become the leading standard in eracing. 

Editor's Note

In April 2021, I wrote this article as a follow-up to the Extreme Dieting in Virtual Cycling series, but circumstances prevented its publication. Some of the information, data, and comments reflect the time of writing with edit for timeliness and relevance.

The Future of Extreme Dieting Policy Change

Several well-respected key Esports influencers feel that there is another primary step in the short term to ensure sustained long-term success.

 

Martin Carew of WTRL Race Control, co-founder and promoter of arguably the most popular, prolific, and innovative race organization on Zwift, is adamant in the following priority.

“At some point, we need to stop and ask ourselves who is responsible for the athlete... As an emerging sport, many athletes in the realms of Zwift do not have physio, doctor, nutrition, and general access to advice due to cost and the fact that eracing is not truly regarded as a professional sport. What is important here is education—NOT rules.”

Martin Carew, May 2021

Dr. George Gilbert, the Chair of Zwift Cycling Esports, is of a similar mindset.

“Whilst Zwift doesn’t have full visibility over what happens within teams, it’s obvious that many are not sufficiently equipped to manage this tricky area with the knowledge and expertise required—a volunteer team manager doesn’t have access to the same resources as a pro cycling team with an army of physiologists, dieticians, and other medical experts who work closely with the coaches and riders to look after everyone’s health. Where we are absolutely aligned is on education.”

Dr. George Gilbert, May 2021

Education is a Priority for International Sports Organizations

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine described “educational programs as the best method for primary prevention of eating disorders.” (1) 

 

The National Athletic Trainers’ Association Position Statement on disordered eating (DE) prioritized as an Immediate Action Item to “design mandatory structured educational and behavioral programs for athletes, coaches, certified athletic trainers, administrators, and other support personnel to prevent DE.” (2) 

 

In the book “Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders” Thompson and Sherman contend that “the focus of education should be less upon EDs and more on information related to sports such as nutrition, body weight, body composition, and sports performance.  While specific information on EDs is needed, it is more pertinent to sport-related personnel who work with athletes rather than the athletes themselves.” (Thompson and Sherman #148) (3)

 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and international sports governing bodies have acknowledged a managed duty of care to protect the physical and psychological health and safety of all athletes.  Consequently, the importance of early detection of ED behavior has been stressed by all of the major sports organizations worldwide.  

 

They, therefore, recommend the mandate that all participants in the performance of athletes should be provided with specific knowledge and problem-solving skills to better detect, manage, and prevent extreme dieting. (4)  

Early Identification is Key in the Prevention of Extreme Dieting

The most effective way to reduce the incidence and consequences of Extreme Dieting among cyclists is to prevent them from occurring in the first place.  

 

A valid screening instrument with the ability to predict at-risk athletes is an important step towards prevention through early detection.  Only then can the proper steps be taken to prioritize the necessary measures to ensure competitor safety.

BEDA-Q questionnaire

The Brief Disorder in Athletes Questionnaire (BEDA-Q) has been validated in athletes. 

 

If prior to participation all athletes competing in Zwift racing events are required to complete a self-report questionnaire of this type, early identification can be achieved, and the steps to promote eracer safety and protection can be put in place.

Creation of a Zwift Esports Extreme Dieting Questionnaire

Once this initiative has been instituted, and its importance realized, the creation of a proprietary Zwift Esports screening instrument with a virtual cycling focus is recommended. The vast subscriber database can be utilized to test its reliability and further propel Zwift to the forefront as an innovator in the virtual cycling industry.  

 

See the following purely as an example, which after formal testing to achieve validity, will put Zwift in a position unique to any other virtual cycling platform.  One which places a high premium on athlete protection and has the means by which to do so.  In a way that no other virtual cycling platform does, giving athletes confidence in Zwift as a trusted race venue.

Extreme Dieting Self-Assessment Tool

extreme dieting screening tool

With risk assessed, early identification, and detection measures taken, establishing an education and training program for all athletes and those who participate in their performance is the next step.  

 

The following is an example of how Zwift’s Extreme Dieting education and training framework may look.

Extreme Dieting Education Module to Identify and Prevent Disordered Eating Patterns of Virtual Cyclists

This training tool was developed to help members of the virtual cycling community better understand harmful extreme dieting practices that can arise, either through purposeful dietary changes or subconsciously, as part of their utilization of the Zwift platform. 

 

The training provides critical and best practice guidelines, and tools members can use to self-identify concerns related to extreme dieting, its causes, and consequences.

Completion of Online Training:

Completion is mandatory for all virtual cycling competitors who intend to participate in a race on the Zwift platform.
Purpose:

This will ensure that all virtual cyclists competing in structured races will have completed basic extreme dieting principles and understand disordered eating patterns and its risk. Further, since races and series are/will be team-based events, this provides an opportunity for academic discussions amongst team members, significantly increasing and maintaining awareness. It is well established that active learning through team-based projects effectively improves content knowledge and, more importantly, its application.

Education modules are open and optional to all virtual cyclists participating on the Zwift platform.

All athletes are at risk of developing disordered eating. Many virtual cyclists have likely taken up the sport for weight loss and management reasons; thus, proper education on extreme dieting practices is advised and encouraged.

Educational Framework for Athletes

Module 1-Define extreme dieting and how it affects virtual cyclists of all levels
Module 2-Recognition of extreme dieting habits and disordered eating patterns
Module 3-Promote healthy-weight ratio and practical strategies to improve the power-to

Educational Framework for Coaches/Race Organizers

Module 1-Define extreme dieting and how it affects virtual cyclists of all levels
Module 2-Recognition of extreme dieting habits and disordered eating patterns
Module 3-Promote healthy and practical strategies to improve the power-to-weight ratio

Extreme Dieting Risk Amongst Virtual Cyclists-By the Numbers

To further emphasize the magnitude of the changes made by Zwift Esports, and to underscore the importance for further progress towards the initiative, observation of the potential as a function of total athletes affected is interesting to consider.  

 

Data from a 2020/21 random sampling of Zwift Esports top performers based upon ZwiftPower ranking over several categories and age ranges were analyzed.  

 

The total number figures shown are approximations based upon assumptions at the time of writing and are not meant to be definitive, but do present the potential impact that Zwift’s acknowledgment of and commitment to advancement will make towards ensuring the safety of its competitors and touching the lives of those that care about them.

Approximations Based Upon the Following Assumptions

Random Sample of Top Performing Zwift Esports Competitors

Total Number of Athletes at Risk for Eating Disorders

The numbers are staggering when envisaging the profound magnitude of the negative consequences of this ubiquitous problem.  Approached from an optimistic viewpoint, however, the dedication shown by Zwift to allocate resources and promote innovation allows for the opportunity to positively impact a large proportion of their eracers and a portion of their subscriber base.  

In doing so, the equity they build in the faith and trust of the “vocal minority” race community will pay dividends in the future as esports options widen and other virtual cycling opportunities present themselves.  That thinking aside, it just seems like the right thing to do.

What do you think?

If you had the opportunity to help a fellow cyclist by providing them the information required to make a sound solid decision, would you?  What elements would you like to see in an education and training module which weren’t included in the example above?

Bibliography

Thompson, Ron A., and Roberta Trattner Sherman. Helping Athletes with Eating Disorders. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics Publishers, 1993.

 

  1.  “Prevention of eating disorders in female athletes – NCBI – NIH.” 12 May. 2014, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4026548/. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.
  2. “National athletic trainers’ association position statement: preventing ….” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18335017/. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.
  3. “Helping athletes with eating disorders. – APA PsycNET.” https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1993-97116-000. Accessed 10 Jun. 2021.
  4.  “How to minimize the health risks to athletes who compete … – Pub Med.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24115480/. Accessed 30 Mar. 2021.
  5. “The development of the brief eating disorder in athletes questionnaire.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24504432/. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.
  6. “Body Image Disorders | BodySense.” https://www.bodysense.ca/body-image-disorders. Accessed 30 Mar. 2021.
  7.  “Likelihood of suffering from an eating disorder in a … – Pub Med.” https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33292590/. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.
  8. “Disordered eating and eating disorders in male elite athletes: a ….” https://bmjopensem.bmj.com/content/6/1/e000801. Accessed 29 Mar. 2021.

Acknowledgment

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

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Zico Torre
Zico Torre
1 month ago

Thank you for this. Being a male who suffered from anorexia 10 years ago, recovered from it and having evolved into a performance oriented cyclist and zwift racer today, I still struggle with extreme dieting sometimes, I think this is very pertinent and very important work.

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