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The Psychology of Virtual Reality-Based Training

The scenery in virtual reality-based training programs like Zwift may be computer generated, but the results you get aren’t.

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The scenery in virtual reality-based training programs like Zwift may be computer generated, but the results you get aren’t. So kit up, log on and play on, player.

It was supposed to be a one-hour-long, mellow recovery spin. You climbed onto your trainer, logged into Zwift and thought, “I’ll just pedal at the back of the group for a bit.”

Seven minutes later, sweating from every pore, you’re mashing your gears and muttering, “Must (huff) catch (gasp) that (wheeze) guy!”

Virtual reality-based training is becoming an addictive hobby for endurance athletes. Zwift, which boasts the largest social platform of all the VR training options, has more than 230,000 registered users, or Zwifters, and virtual “group rides” can have 2,000 cyclists or more. The Sufferfest, a library of videos that accompany workouts, can place you on course with the elites at Challenge Roth, or send you grunting up a climb in the Giro d’ Italia. TrainerRoad, meanwhile, pushes you through interval sets while a coach pings you with encouraging messages.

What all three platforms and their scores of loyal subscribers have figured out is that racing others, even computer-generated avatars, lights a collective competitive fire under our Lycra-clad backsides. But because VR-based training is a relatively new enterprise, large-scale research on its benefits has been sparse. Finally, that’s changing.

“There are now enough studies to make us reasonably confident that VR-based training can be motivating for athletes,” says David Neumann, Ph.D., a professor at Griffith University in Australia. In January of 2016, Neumann published a study in Psychology of Sport and Exercise showing rowers on stationary machines paddled both farther and with more power when hooked up to VR simulators. When researchers added a competitive aspect to the VR platform, the guinea pigs pushed even harder. Remarkably, these athletes didn’t rate their perceived effort as being higher for the VR-enhanced tests, even though metrics showed they’d ratcheted up the intensity.

It’s studies like this one—and the idea of going hard without even realizing it—that make coaches wary of VR platforms; the aggression they spark can make their athletes lose sight of each session’s specific goals. “For recovery rides especially, I tell my athletes not to go on Zwift,” says Jen Rulon, a triathlon coach based in San Antonio, Texas. And if you must log on, she advises that you “let your ego go. Remember what your goals are versus what the group’s goals are.”

Furthermore, since only about 20 percent of Zwift users identify as triathletes, know you’re mostly racing cyclists, and “those are two very different sports,” says Rulon. After all, the guy crushing the KOMs may have a rest day tomorrow, but you’ve probably got runs and swims to crank out before the week is up. It’s also possible that fellow competitors aren’t being truthful about their weight, which could skew how the computer computes their power-to-weight ratio. So far, user-run vigilante groups have been pretty good at identifying Zwift dopers, but it’s still something to keep in mind. If the thought of virtual doping makes you squirm, switch over to using a video-only platform; The Sufferfest even offers recovery videos.

On days when you need to hammer, Rulon gives her blessing. “Within two months I saw a real difference for one of my athletes who started using Zwift,” she says. “His FTP [functional threshold power] was improving,” even when he just used the program once a week for interval work.

Rulon’s client was probably benefiting from his new, inexhaustible list of frenemies to chase, says Neumann. Studies have shown that VR programs that provide scenery help lower perceived effort a bit, but those with other “players” hold the ticket to lactate-producing, leg-screaming motivation. Neumann says that having another human to race against—even if you can only see them on a screen—can boost performance by 10–15 percent.

He adds that preliminary research seems to show that real humans are more motivating than video foes, except in one case: “We just completed a study that showed having a too superior competitor increased motivation for the first couple of minutes but then decreased motivation and performance after that because the participant simply couldn’t keep up with the competitor.” While software coders can write you a partner who lets off the gas every time you almost get dropped, that’s never going to happen in real life—or virtual life with avatars backed by real humans.

Beyond chiseling away at the outer edges of your max power, training while plugged into a simulated environment may have other benefits too. For one, you’re more likely to find your workout fun—a constant problem for those of us who refer to indoor training as the seventh circle of hell. A 2008 study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise found that participants rated exercise as “more enjoyable” when they used an “exergame” simulation versus simply walking on a treadmill. Neumann says that it isn’t clear yet whether realistic environments are more fun to traverse than, say, a galaxy far, far away. However, it is proven that better quality graphics are more motivating than rudimentary ones.

One other cool thing: VR-based simulations might be able to help reduce race-related anxiety. Tim Herzog, a mental performance coach based in Annapolis, Md., uses video imagery to help counsel his clients through stressful sport-related situations. “Imagery exposes people to stimuli that might make them anxious, and that gives them an opportunity to become accustomed to the stimuli,” he says. For example, if the exhaustion you feel when leaving T2 messes with your mind, running on a treadmill while watching footage of this section of a race may help. Sufferfest’s Chrysalis video readies you for exactly this scenario, with intervals split between Challenge Roth’s bike and run course. “Using the provoking stimuli can help you learn to bring your focus to where it needs to be,” Herzog says. In other words, it helps you set a new PR for time taken to get to your happy place.

Before you go out and buy a smart trainer and a subscription to every VR-based training platform, know that because this industry is in its infancy, the science surrounding it isn’t 100 percent settled. “We need to be cautious about making too strong conclusions,” says Neumann. “We still need to know how much the improvement in motivation is due to [the] novelty of using something new. We also need to know more about the long-term use of VR-based training and whether this motivation is sustained over time.”

Until then, though, Rulon says it’s fine to use social platforms like Zwift, or video services like The Sufferfest if you find them enjoyable. But don’t just mindlessly log on. “Be specific with what your goals are for the day. Find a workout that matches those goals and stick to them.”