Mental Training Using Zwift

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September 6, 2017

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Let’s be very clear here, training for any kind of long distance event is straight up difficult. Period. Now, having said this, as a mental skills trainer I am always working with athletes to stay motivated, focused, consistent, and confident in their abilities. I have trained in a slew of applied techniques to facilitate those critical attributes from my Masters at the University of Utah, however, very few were as effective as the combination of training on the Wahoo Kickr and Zwift.

A bit of a background story

I began my journey in Ironman Training and completion with a call from the Salt Lake Triathlon Club. At this time, my athletic pursuits had slowed to a crawl after a long stint with the game of lacrosse, having played through high school and college, and my body was wrecked. With 2 junk ankles, an ACL repair, and a cracked belief in my body to hold up to anything significant I answered a call from Rory Duckwork, the president of the Salt Lake Tri club, who asked if I would come work with some of the elites in a weekend intensive training down in St. George, Utah. That weekend I covered personal distance records in all three disciplines, came home, signed up for the St George 70.3 (being just 2 months away) and started training.

As I covered in my Coeur d’Alene Ironman Reflection, as a mental skills trainer I felt that the experience would help me understand what the athletes of long distance events go through. I wanted to understand the mindset so I could get closer to understanding those athletes I worked with. One of the first things that I learned is that, when the novelty of training and the excitement of signing up wears off, the mental game comes into play. I am talking about keeping the motivation high to work through 2 a day training sessions, work, family, and everything else that needs to be done in a day. The long and lonely bike rides on roads notorious for popping tires due to the local bull thorn growth. I am also talking about pushing and trusting the body into places it has never been.

I completed the 70.3 at St. George and with the energy of the finished race, signed up for the 70.3 at Coeur d’Alene just 4 months later.

This is when things got real for me.”> If you look at my training peaks data (365 Days), you can see a major lapse in motivation and drive about 3 months out from my 2nd 70.3 race. The panic monster had not set in and the monkey mind had taken firm hold over anything having to do with training. If you don’t know what I am talking about, take a look inside the mind of a master procrastinator. I had to do something to get the fire raging once again. So, like so many, I started buying things thinking that, ‘if I just had a new pair of shoes or a new pair of sunglasses I would be motivated enough to go out yet again’. This worked… for a day…

If you have ever been here you might understand how frustrating it is to KNOW what you need to do but have little CARE to actually do it. Even as a sport psych, knowing all of the techniques to get me out of the funk, I didn’t because I simply did not care. This might be a good time to say that throughout my limited experience as an expert in sport psychology, motivation is the MOST IMPORTANT attribute to develop with athletes. If you do not have the motivation, even ‘knowing’ everything about what you need to do to be successful, you will fall short of what you are trying to accomplish.

After another shopping spree, I had a shiny new Wahoo Kickr and Rory had recommended joining him on this new virtual reality platform called Zwift so we could train together.

Everything changed after this.

3 Reasons I Love Wahoo and Zwift as a Sport Psych

Zwift increases motivation DRAMATICALLY

Ok, so I will put the ‘research behind this here is a second but the fact is that I WANTED to get on the bike day after day after day because it was freaking FUN!

If I were to put the science behind the effect that occurred I would bring in a bunch of research from Ryan & Deci’s self-determination theory which states that there are 3 things we can do to help increase motivation. Increase camaraderie or in other words, go do what you want to do with other people who like to do what you want to do. Increase competency or in other words, learn more about how to do what you are trying to do. Lastly, choice or in other words, allow the person to choose to do what they are trying to do rather than having someone make them…

The combination of the Kickr and Zwift helped me impact each one of these critical elements. I was riding with virtual  Team ODZ, Team SLTC, and about 1000 other riders on the hills of Watopia (Camaraderie). I rode the ‘skillz and drillz’ rides, listened to the experts on a discord group talk nutrition and strategy (competency). And, I raced at least 2 times a week just because I thought it was fun (choice).

Zwift indoor efforts are consistent bringing trust to your training

Mental Training Using Zwift

With every virtual race that I participated in, I saw an increase in my FTP. If you do not know what FTP is, just think of it as the max amount of power your body can produce over 1 hour. Before Zwift and the Kickr, my FTP went from 166 to 187 in 6 months. In the 6 months after Zwift and the Kickr, my FTP climbed from 187 to 217. The fact is, I began to trust my training because I knew it was consistent and deliberate. Check out the structured training in the picture. I could also see RESULTS, which let’s be honest, is what we are really looking for in training that helps drive us forward no matter how process oriented your focus is.

Over the winter months, when the snow was thick and the crappy Utah air was heavy I spent hundreds of hours on the bike. This allowed me to continually see progress even when there is a typical lull in training. Without getting into too many details, the first race of the 2017 season was Ironman Oceanside 70.3. At this race, I was able to drop 30 minutes off of my previous best bike split.

Zwift pushes you past limits through racing

The last reason that I love Zwift from the perspective of a sport psych is the fact that there is no substitute for race day intensity. I personally was able to get into and train a race day mindset 2 times EVERY WEEK! This is so impactful for long distance athletes because races are so few and far between. These athletes previously didn’t get the advantage of competing every week and now they can! A common mental training assignment that I give the athletes I work with is to have at least 1 day a week of training that they focus primarily on getting in the and holding the race day intensity and mindset. This allows the athlete to practice and gain confidence in their ability to control emotion and focus. The difficult part about this is that there is NO substitute for competition energy… It is truly difficult to get into that mindset and energy state without the competition.

Well, as you can guess Zwift solves this problem. I can attest to this because through every race I participated in, I was able to hold an intensity that I never thought to be achievable. I had a whole new ‘gear’ that I was not utilizing and because I was racing, I was not thinking about how my body felt, I simply raced!

In the end here…

I completed the Ironman Coeur d’Alene 18 months after starting the journey. I suffered through 5+ hour rides indoors on a weekly basis and maintained the motivation, again what I believe to be the most important attribute, to achieve this monumental challenge and I owe a lot of it to my Kickr, by allowing me to stay safe and stay out of the weather, as well as the effects of training using Zwift.

Note from Nate

I hope you find it interesting to get a hands on perspective of a trained sport psych as mental skills training can be vague and intangible at times. I personally feel that there is a disconnect between athletes and the experts that they work with in the fact that far to many of ‘experts’ or professionals have little experience in doing the things that they are teaching. Having said this, I personally find that there are new age approaches to helping athletes to train their mental game that can only be seen through participation and engagement.

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