What’s next for indoor training apps?

Indoor training apps have come on a long way since they first arrived - how much more real can they get?

Indoor apps lifelike
(Image credit: Future)

As a coach, I sometimes hear athletes protest about training sessions being ‘boring’. I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this - if you want to excel in endurance sports (or indeed anything in life!), you need the mental strength to persist through the tougher times, not just when you feel like it. Growth doesn’t happen in a comfort zone! 

When it comes to indoor training, though, even the most dedicated athletes can be forgiven for saying that it’s boring to stare at the garage door. In the past decade, indoor training apps like Zwift have revolutionised the indoor experience. A far cry from my first memories of a 2D Mario World, the 3D world of Zwift is so immersive that you’ll be squinting to stop the dust getting in your eyes. 

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are becoming more and more common in the gaming world; are these what’s next for indoor training apps? We spoke to Chris Snook, Director of Public Relations at Zwift, to find out more.

More fun, more fitness

It's often stated in reviews of the best turbo trainers that the ride quality is "realistic", but there is such as thing as being 'too real'.

“‘More real’ isn’t necessarily what we are aiming for,” reveals Chris Snook, Director of Public Relations at Zwift. “At Zwift, we are focused on making Zwift more fun and more immersive,” he continues. “The best training plan is the one you actually want to do, right?” 

“Zwift uses gamified elements to motivate users, such as power ups, levels, and unlocking jerseys; visual arches during training mode are all part of our efforts to make it more fun,” explains Snook. “Currently, we are looking at ways to incorporate fitness testing into rides. The idea behind this is to help users to set their fitness baselines without having to feel like they are doing a test.” 

What do users say they want?

We took to Twitter to ask users what they wanted...

“I dunno if I want them to get more real? It’s nice to have the climbs of Ven-top and the Alpe, for example as I don’t know if I’d ever ride them IRL. But for it to be more real? I think it would lose its appeal…”

@PusherOfPedals (Myles Warwood)

“AR/VR is most likely the next frontier for training apps. Have you heard of @MojoVisionInc?”

@ersbecker (Eric Becker)

Better selection of bikes! It really pains us having to ride the competition brands. There should be as many bikes as there are kits!” 

@FLiDistribution (Ben Dransfield and Col Williams)

“I’d rather they got less realistic. I want Mario Kart style power ups, banana skins, and red and green turtle shells! #gamify

@AndyBrooke11 (Andy Brooke)

More immersion, more enjoyment

“Eight per cent of Zwift users will do at least one free ride a week,” reveals Snook. “The virtual world offers users the opportunity to escape and explore the comfort of their own home,” he contends. 

“This is particularly appealing to users during winter.” And, I would add, it was certainly the case during lockdown - many of the athletes I coach were on the platform when using free ride options when it just wasn't possible to be outside. 

“In terms of new features,” continues Snook, “Zwift is getting ready to launch a new virtual world next month, ‘Neokyo’, which will be connected to Yumezi and will feature fast, flat roads.”

Steering in the right direction

Turbo trainer, exercise bike and accessory brands have been busy adding steering, gradient pitch and braking to their armoury in recent years - but can these features even be used in virtual racing realms? 

“Zwift has also been exploring other features that could make indoor training feel more like cycling outdoors,” discloses Snook. 

“Through FutureWorks, our platform for select members of the community to help with testing the latest innovations, we have been testing out steering,” he continues. 

“With Elite riser block or a Wahoo Kickr bike, you can turn your bars,” he confirms. ‘This means you could take a racing line around a corner, rather than following the set path set by the platform. It might work better on some virtual roads than others, so it’s still in testing mode,” says Snook. “We know that smart indoor bikes have brakes, so that could be another avenue to explore.”

What about virtual reality?

Virtual reality tools could place users right in the centre of a virtual world - the idea is certainly enticing, but it turns out it's not particularly easy to action. 

"We used to have a virtual reality (VR) build that we took to events, but it posed two challenges,” reveals Snook. “Firstly, the practicality of wearing a headset while working out meant riders got very sweaty, steamy  glasses!” he laughs. “Secondly, when people would turn corners, they would physically lean to either side, so it quickly became a danger hazard!” he exclaims.

Evidently, these are current problems to VR indoor training, but what about the future? One Cycling Weekly reader pointed us in the direction of California start-up Mojo Lens, a company which has developed a contact lens that overlays digital information onto your vision using a tiny micro LED display and smart sensors. While this technology is far from being part of your standard indoor training set-up, we will keep an eye on how it develops (no pun intended!).

riding indoors

(Image credit: Future)

The verdict

“Like any modern company, we endeavour to evolve our indoor training app for the benefit of our users,” advises Snook. “New worlds, new roads, new event types, new content experiences – we aim to continue to provide variety for users and improve ease of access,” confirms Snook. “Across training, competing and exploring, the core principle will remain the same – it’s got to be fun!”

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Deena Blacking is a cycling coach and sports consultant at drivetrain.cc