Challenger to Watch 2019: Zwift

For challenging the “pain cave”

Zwift RunPod 3-1920px.jpg

The world of exercise has changed dramatically in the last decade. After years of grunt filled steel pumping, treadmill pounding and pet-bothering celebrity fitness DVDs, consumers now have access to a spectrum of different experiences.

From the nightclub-cum-spiritualist vibes of SoulCycle, to the friendly “judgement free zone” of Planet Fitness, to the high tech HIIT workouts of OrangeTheory Fitness, a trip to the gym is not like it used to be. Each of these brands (along with hundreds like them) subvert the “no pain, no gain” narratives of the Gold’s Gym generation. A friend of mine swears by a new Aussie themed gym, called Training Mate. It’s like a gym, but apparently everyone calls you mate. Makes all the difference apparently.

At home, the internet and smartphones have created a revolution in fitness that goes beyond Rosemary Connolly and a tin of beans in each hand. Whether you’re stumping for a high end Peloton (guilty) or you’re doing an intense bounce around in front of Joe Wick’s free Facebook live workouts, you are spoilt for choice.

Credit: Zwift

Credit: Zwift

But where general fitness training has been revolutionised, specialist training has lagged behind for years. Say you want to get better at a particular sport, improve your technique, put in an hour of practice. You are still largely limited to what has come before.

Enter Zwift, a game-stroke-training program that has taken the world of cycling by storm. For enthusiastic cyclists, fitness and form is everything… the weekend ride is a hallowed, almost religious experience. But like most things, the more you put in, the more you get out. The fitter you are before the ride, the better the ride turns out to be.

For years, Lycra-clad bikers have forced themselves to find a bit of fitness by setting up stationary trainers in their garages or wherever they can find a spare bit of space. These trainers effectively create the ability to peddle hard against resistance, but they are no-one’s idea of fun. Sweaty and alone, cyclists refer to these training rooms as “the pain cave”. A place to go and be miserable so that you can really enjoy your weekend.

Zwift changes all of that. Harnessing a new breed of “smart trainers”, originally designed to give the biker immediate feedback, Zwift has created the virtual world of Watopia (watts, get it?). This is the cyclists’ paradise, with lush scenery, huge climbs, and most of all company (and with it competition). Zwift has created the ability to jump on your bike and do a quick 50-miler with 20,000 others just before bedtime.

Credit: Zwift App.

Credit: Zwift App.

Like a video game, there are trophies and skill levels. Like a social network, there are friends and groups and likes. And like a modern fitness approach there is fun. This is a thriving, buzzy community of people united by a love of cycling, who want to be as good as they can be. It’s about pushing yourself hard, for a good couple of hours, then watching as the community celebrates your new PR.

It’s taken the cycling community by storm. Rides regularly depart with 3000 riders from around the world cycling together. The Alpes Du Zwift course was ridden 30,000 times in its first 5 days. In data released in February 2018, Zwift announced that over half a million people had gone for a ride on Zwift… which operates on an annual subscription model.

But cycling, while popular, is still niche in the world of sport. It’s an expensive habit to get into, and the kit required to get the best experience can run into the thousands of dollars (though you can get set up for around $300 plus your bike).

To broaden out, Zwift has launched a new running program, aimed at solitary treadmill runners looking to get those miles down as they prepare for 10k’s and beyond. Barriers to entry (provided you already have or have access to a treadmill) are far lower, and you can now find thousands of joggers taking to the sunny uplands of Watopia, competing in virtual marathons, even if they’re in their shed.

In 2019, Zwift has the potential to be the “Fortnite” of fitness… a virtual world populated by thousands of players, connected and pushing each other in a way that was never possible before, and breaking into popular culture. Here’s to bringing the joy to the pain.

Nick Geoghegan is a Strategy Director at eatbigfish.