Virtual Insanity

I first started writing this blog two and a half years ago to document my progress whilst undertaking a 4000 km virtual triathlon across Chile. The idea was that I could record all my swim, bike & run training miles throughout the year to accumulate enough distance to cover the world’s longest country, without the time and cost expense of actually spending a year there (although I did manage 3 weeks which was great!).

Prior to the Chile Challenge I had completed a few triathlons, although I never really had a proper training strategy, but came across the concept of virtual racing the year before whilst on a fitness website called Fitocracy: a kind of social media game which involved logging your workouts and being  awarded ‘points’ which seemed to be based loosely on numbers of calories burned with which you could compete against others. For various reasons I ended up getting bored with the site, but one thing I did take away was the virtual races, where you could challenge other members to see who could cover the most distance in a week or month, which of course helped me get the idea for my own event.

It was also towards the end of the Chile Challenge that I tried my first spin class, which I quickly became addicted to and has probably been my main training method ever since. I mentioned on here a few weeks ago that the cycle studio in my gym has recently had an upgrade, and we now have a shiny new projector and speaker system, meaning they have been able to introduce a whole new range of classes based on video coaching and on-screen racing, the kind of thing futuristic thing that would not have seemed out-of-place in the 2017 of Back to the Future Part II. Obviously being a keen rider I have had to try a few classes to see what it was like.

les mills virtual

The first class I tried was Les Mills Virtual, which is quite simply a recorded RPM class, with a number of master instructors teaching a session that you can join in with. The tracks and choreography are by the book, exactly the same as you would get in a live class for say RPM 70. Being the top instructors they do look like they have just walked off the set of Zoolander, with white teeth, big arms, and the obligatory Kiwi accents (Les Mills is an NZ company). One of the guys looks like he could play Hugh Jackman’s double in the next Wolverine film. It was fun, in that of course I like any RPM class so I have no complaints about the video itself, but I did come out with mixed feelings.

virtual RPM

The most apparent benefit to both the club and members is we can have a lot more classes than ever before. We have been lucky enough to have a purpose-built cycle studio for a few years now, with a few different bike based classes including Les Mills RPM, Sprint and normal Group Cycling, but no more than around 20 sessions per week, with a fair few taking place during the daytime which those of us with jobs do not really count, and I know for example we had been asking for ages for the Sunday evening class to be reinstated, after it was taken off during the (traditionally quieter) summer period last year.

Cycle studip timetable

They have of course been able to sort this now, as well as significantly increasing the volume of classes so there is something on nearly every hour, pushing to well over 80 classes in the same timeframe (see above), meaning it is a lot easier to have some sort of coached session at just about any time of day. They are also going to rotate the timetable, so you don’t get stuck with the same class each time if you can only go at say 6pm on a Monday.

Talking of timings, it is a little strange as the system is fully pre-programmed, so with German railway-like timing, the projector screen will automatically start dropping down at 5.58pm for the class, the video will start and play through regardless of who is in the room (I assume some actually play to empty rooms) and it will then disappear at the end until the next time. This is useful as you know it will always be on time, but can be a bit disconcerting when you are having a conversation with an instructor at the end of a session and a screen starts plummeting from the ceiling towards your heads for the next class!

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Another problem with the ending is they seem to have dispensed with any sort of warm down. The last track ends and bang, the screen is immediately starting to retract. Now this is not a huge problem for experienced riders, as we can take care of ourselves, but for anyone new to the classes they could end up with an injury or slower recovery if they just get straight off the bike and walk out. Again, it may just be the classes I have been to, but having tried both the short 30 minute, and full 45 minute versions, neither has any kind of cool down or stretches after the last track, which is usually a big hill climb.

Clearly a big aspect of this is the significant cost saving for the club. I am not sure what our spin instructors charge – although in terms of the classes I frequent I am of the opinion that they earn every penny – but it means there is next to no additional cost to hold all these extra classes, other than the licenses they have to buy for the videos. I am sure they will say this will be passed onto us as members – not by reduced fees I would assume, but perhaps investment in new equipment and tech.

There is however a bit of a downside in having so many classes, in that it seems to spread people a bit more thinly. Because there is now so much choice, the 30 odd people who might have fancied a mid-week ride might now be split into up to half a dozen classes rather than just one, so instead of having a really full class with a lot of atmosphere (and sweat!) you end up with quite an empty room. Now it may just be coincidence, but the few virtual classes I have done have never had more than single figures present and in one I was absolutely on my Jack Jones. Now I am used to training solo so don’t actually mind this, but it could put others off. To make it worse though, they have squeezed an extra 7 bikes into the studio as part of the refit, making it a little cramped and seeming even more like a the Marie Celeste when it is not busy. It should help a lot next New Year, but I dread to think what it will be like in the summer.

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One final moan about the class is that on a couple of occasions during my sessions people actually wandered into the room mid-class to either set up their bikes for a subsequent session or even just have a gawk – possibly this is just the novelty as it is something they would not dare do if it was an instructor-led class, so hopefully will wear off before too long.

My main fear really is that this technology might end up replacing some of the existing instructor led classes and we will end up with something like the hologram tennis instructor Sharon Stone has in Total Recall, but for now at least we seem to be safe. As mentioned this is not because of the quality of the production, as ultimately the tracks are the same and the trainers are perfect, but it is down to the interaction. In a real class, a decent instructor will be able to tell when to talk, when to motivate the group, when to help struggling individuals or challenge you to the next level. They will be able to mix up the tracks and take requests, start and stop when needed, and generally be trained to hold the thing together. Basically, you can’t replace them with a pre-recorded video!

virtual tennis

So overall what do I think of the classes? Well if I gave the impression I did not enjoy them that was not my intention – I love RPM and an opportunity to do a few extra classes per week is a good thing – I just have a few concerns over how things could turn out in the longer term. But for now at least they are a great compliment to an existing training plan, giving extra variety and making excellent use of a studio that might otherwise have been empty. Those of you with eagle eyes may have noticed from the timetable earlier that the new range of classes does not end with Les Mills though. There is another big name on the scene which I am going to talk about next time… Sufferfest!

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