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Competitions in the living room: how athletes are keeping fit digitally

Mar 3, 2021

Due to coronavirus, numerous sporting events have had to be cancelled. For many athletes, that has been a bitter disappointment, but there are still new opportunities for keeping fit digitally – even involving competitions. “Performance sport meets eSport”: how that works is being demonstrated by the digital training platform Zwift.

Whether football matches, tennis tournaments, bike races or athletics events – along with the coronavirus pandemic, a wave of cancellations hit professional sport in March 2020. For athletes who had painstakingly prepared for the 2020 season of competition, that was a heavy knock-back: without competitions and the opportunity of getting together in training camps, at a stroke their entire planning for the year collapsed to nothing. But because giving up is never an option for performance athletes, many of them simply moved their training routines onto the internet. Digital training platforms, such as the eSport app Zwift, have proven to be particularly suitable for this. Using it, runners, mountain bikers and cycle racers can arrange competitions online by connecting their home training equipment with the internet.


Digital training platforms moving in the fast lane

Prior to coronavirus, Zwift was used primarily by elite cyclists to keep fit over the winter. But due to the pandemic, the platform experienced a veritable boom in uptake. Today, the popular sports simulation app is already being used by over two million “Zwifties”. And it is not just the number of users that has increased massively during the pandemic – the competitions on offer have also increased significantly. Hence the virtual indoor trainer now offers practically everything that a cycling-lover could wish for, from straightforward open races anyone can enter to national championships to an official UCI World Championship. You can work up a sweat to simulations of legendary stages of the Tour de France or in brightly-coloured worlds of the imagination, all depending on which race you are taking part in.

Head-to-head racing in your living room - the Zwift indoor trainer makes it possible. © Zwift

However, Zwift is not the only provider benefitting from the social distancing measures imposed worldwide. RGT Cycling, an indoor trainer, and the fitness platform Peloton are other popular choices for athletes frustrated by coronavirus. Both these apps work on the same principle as Zwift, although RGT Cycling is aimed solely at cycling enthusiasts, taking its users over stages from well-known professional races. Conversely, Peloton is looking to create a niche for itself with a combination of spinning, running and body workouts. Unlike Zwift and RGT Cycling, here the athletes meet up in conventional fitness courses where the competitive mind-set stays fairly firmly in the background. However, the use of ‘gamification features’ is common to all three platforms.

The gym for your own four walls: Peloton offers users various cyber workouts. © Peloton

Games as the key to success

Gamification refers to the translation of typical gaming and eSport elements into a new environment. This approach is aimed at giving extra fun on the home trainer, whilst incentivising athletes to perform to their best using rewards typically found in gaming. At Peloton, the gamification elements include badges – digital badges that users can display for accomplishing particular challenges. One popular challenge on Peloton is completing a minimum number of courses in a month, in return for which users receive a bronze, silver or gold medal. For another challenge, Peloton has even entered into a co-operation with the German Football Association’s DFB Academy. Zwift, too, uses similar motivational tricks, and gives out awards for the highest possible power output (watt) scores or long training units. Another gaming aspect are ‘power-ups’. These are small special skills, such as a short-term turbo boost that riders can collect and activate during a race – just like in the video game Mario Kart.

Whether it's spinning or weight training - Peloton gets its users working up a sweat with gamification elements. © Peloton

Professional sport and commercialization

However, the market leader Zwift offers users not only gamification features, but also tough competitions at top international level. This involves races in which amateur riders take part alongside professional cycling teams from the World Tour (the premier cycling tour, organised by the world governing body of cycling, UCI). At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, for example, Zwift staged the “Tour for All” – a virtual Tour de France, organized by the official promoter. Amongst those taking part in the event were the World Tour teams Mitchelton-Scott and EF Education, along with thousands of other Zwift users. In Germany, the Tour for All was even broadcast by the Eurosport TV channel. Some sponsors used the event as a space for advertising – just like the professional races in the analogue world.

Amateurs, professionals and Zwift specialists - the platform brings together a diverse field of riders.© Zwift

The UCI Zwift World Championships (eSports World Championships), staged for the first time in December 2020, similarly caused a sensation. Along with many professional riders, national squads assembled specifically for e-cycling also took part. Familiar with the tricks and gimmicks of the game, they were successful against the professionals, carrying off the sought-after title. The winner in the elite men’s category was German professional rower Jason Osborne, who has been using Zwift for a long time for his training. In a Cycling Magazine podcast, he was quoted saying that many Zwifties view the game not merely as a substitute for training, but now think of it as a separate discipline. Given that, it is very possible that the hype surrounding the fitness game is set to continue even after the coronavirus pandemic is over.

(Stagephoto © Zwift)

In December 2020, Zwift hosted the UCI's first eSports World Championships. © Zwift

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