“That rider is cheating at e-racing (Zwift)!” seems to be a common utterance among virtual e-racers (Zwift, RGT, Rouvy, Bkool, FulGaz) regardless of what platform they’re using. Without a doubt every platform has cheating issues that they’re working hard to remedy and I’m sure there is significant progress being made. However, the rider could simply have executed a weight cutting regimen and is enjoying a significant performance boost. Weight cutting for e-racing is something new to the game but not really new to many sports like Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), Wrestling and Juj Jitsu.
The logic is relatively simple regarding weight cutting and virtual e-racing. Compared to the real-world, bike drag-coefficient is standardized. Yes, there are nuances and upgrades and such but for the most part it’s all the same. E-racing requires minimal hand- eye coordination and advantages from positioning via managing risk and reward is nonexistent. That makes the athlete's weight and power output the two most important variables for performance. The power output is earned with training over the months and weeks leading into an event or series which leaves the athlete weight as a quickly adjusted variable that dramatically influences performance.
It should be stated that there is no sanctioned standard practice for weight cutting, anywhere. The primary reason is that it is UNSAFE and UNHEALTHY.
The primary goal for cutting weight for an e-racing weigh-in is identical to every other weight cut sport: The athlete should weigh as little as possible for the weigh in. It’s that simple. Get the weight low, weigh in officially, then return to the normal weight as fast as possible. In MMA and such they do it to make an often-predetermined weight class. E-racing differs in that there is only one weight class and it’s all inclusive. The difference lies with the platform’s recognition of the all-important power to weight ratio (remember that wind drag is standardized). More power and less weight are best. But how much of a difference is there? An athlete at 70kg with a functional threshold power (FTP) of 300W= 4.29w/kg. If you drop 5% of your mass with a weight cut, now you’re at 300W with 66.5kg or 4.51w/kg. The difference is a watt per kilo at FTP that is 5% better or 16W to make up the deficit. In a sport where 1% is a big deal, 5% is an ‘unreal’ improvement and could be the source of cheater talk.
Eat a salty dinner and you’ll feel bloated. Train on a hot day and you’ll find yourself down a few pounds from sweating. The primary driver for short term weight loss is dehydration which makes sense as water weight is the fastest and easiest way to gain or lose a few pounds quickly. Indeed, weight cutting has taken this to an extreme with a typical loss around 5% of body mass and a couple studies that have seen 8% body mass cut short term. The amount of weight loss targeted should consider a calculation of how fast you can effectively reabsorb that same amount of fluids and the time between weigh in and competition. A miss-calculation could land you in the hospital with a dehydration related illness or cut your performance substantially during the competition. Minor to moderate dehydration (<5% body mass) may not be associated with performance loss but it definitely doesn’t help improve performance.
Short term weight loss is a physical and psychological stressor and it’s not something that should be undertaken, ever. Furthermore, the cadence of weigh-ins can affect the severity of the acute weight cutting. If an athlete is competing in 2-3 events weekly that require weigh-ins then it would seem extremely ill-advised to undergo this demanding process so frequently.
Cycling is a sport where many races tend to reward athletes with lower body mass. As such it is already primed to reward those who tend to value control over every aspect of their body making it rife with eating disorders. To some degree this tendency could have been muted by a need to perform in high energy demand and long duration events in the real world while traveling. There appears to be an unintended open lane for a rapid influx of eating disorders and other health related issues associated with rapid weight loss in the sport of e-racing due to its nature of relatively short and intense work output. This should be addressed via systematic introductions of policies and rules that look towards other weight-cut sports for guidance.
About the Author: Adam Mills MSED, RCEP has raced at the elite level since 2002 and graduated with a Masters Degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Kansas in 2005. His true talent comes with his ability to combine his vast experience with his knowledge of sport. He is indeed a student of science, sport, athletic performance, strategy, and tactics. He continuously educates himself by keeping up to date with current research trends and methods in sport and his clients have reaped the benefits from this work with over 17 national championships in 11 disciplines on two continents. Adam is able to incorporate these attributes on a daily basis to help his clients reach and exceed their goals whether they are a beginner or a seasoned professional. Learn more about Adam and Source Endurance here.