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Is Virtual Reality Useful for Triathlon Training?

Very few things have been left untouched by modern technology. Technology has made just about every aspect of our lives more convenient – be it doing our jobs, paying bills, or even communicating with family. It stands to reason that we should use whatever technology is available for triathlon training, right?

Unfortunately, as Lance Watson explains, the answer to this it’s always simple. While technology provides us with more accurate measures of heart rates and power profiles, and even recommends pacing strategies, wearable technologies may sometimes serve to hinder us. “Athletes are not machines… and have different physiologies,” he says, “…technology assumes there are no dynamics on a race course.” Technology can’t be counted on to be accurate 100% of the time, so discretion must be used when determining our use of technology – especially during actual races.

But surely there’s room for technology in triathlon training? After all, technology like virtual reality has been used in the training of various sports. ExpatBets, an online magazine tracking gaming and sports betting trends across Asia, has written extensively about the use of virtual reality when training for sports like baseball, boxing, and even racing. The ability to simulate real-world environments and situations allows athletes to practice their crafts in a safer and more economically friendly way. Can the same be said for triathlete training?

Two-time world champion triathlete Gwen Jorgensen has reportedly used virtual reality to help her prepare for races. In a feature on PopSci, the champion explains that virtual reality helps her mentally visualize the course she’s about to run. Her trainers brought in VR experts to record the route of the racecourse in 360 degrees, converted the recording to MPEG viewable on a Samsung Gear VR headset and allowed her to study the entire route in detail. “It’s completely different than memory,” she says.

Virtual reality has been incorporated into treadmill workouts as well. Companies like Zwift have developed treadmills that offer immersive worlds that take the tedium out of training. Offering structured workouts from elite coaches, athletes of all levels are able to create a workout that suits their needs – be it training for a triathlon, or just getting into the habit of running. Zwift also lets people run laps with friends in real-time, adding a social element to your training even if you’re doing it all from home.

Virtual reality has also helped the triathlon and Ironman communities stay strong despite the pandemic. Although not technically incorporating VR goggles and VR environments, Ironman VR has brought the competition to the virtual world by allowing athletes to upload their times, tracked via GPS, to qualify. The virtual series has made Ironman more accessible, as just about anyone can join from anywhere in the world. Athletes can finish the running and biking goals on separate days in any sequence, provided that each leg is completed in one session, and finishers are rewarded with digital badges.

However, there are just some things that virtual reality can’t account for. While today’s modern treadmills can be programmed to adjust inclines and even display virtual courses, they can’t quite simulate the real experience of triathlons. For example, we’ve yet to develop a virtual reality system that can accurately depict the swimming experience. Even the running and cycling experiences aren’t fully simulated – we can’t simulate ground textures, wind resistance, and weather conditions, for instance.

Virtual reality is just like any other piece of technology: it’s a great complement to training, but it can’t fully replace real-life experiences.

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A triathlete making a comeback and a true blue Scorpio. That sums it up quite nicely :)

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