From Zwift and TrainerRoad to Rouvy and SufferFest, virtual training platforms are nothing new to the triathlon world. However, two weeks ago, a new big player emerged onto the scene - Ironman VR.
As increasing numbers of athletes move their training inside and see races canceled further and further out, the virtual training and racing space is growing in popularity. And with Ironman being the indisputable global leader in long-distance triathlon events, it is no surprise they seized the virtual opportunity presented by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But what is Ironman VR? And what does it mean for all Ironman athletes and their upcoming race seasons? In this article, we will answer some of the most frequently asked questions about what Ironman VR is, how it changes the racing landscape, and the opportunity it provides to those seeking community and race opportunities in today’s everchanging environment.
SO, what the heck are IRONMAN Virtual Club / Virtual Races (VR)?
According to Andrew Messick, CEO of the IRONMAN Group, IRONMAN Virtual Club is “an innovative digital platform that enables our athletes to continue training with a purpose, remain connected to our community, and provides an opportunity to compete through the IRONMAN VR Series.”
The new IRONMAN VC platform allows athletes to track their training, share with the online community, and earn points towards rewards and discounts on merchandise and other IRONMAN perks. Workouts are uploaded through other online connectivity platforms including Garmin Connect, Nike+, Fitbit, etc., with Strava not included.
With the VR platform, athletes can compete in weekly races, competing against those in their standard Age Group categories. The race styles and distances vary weekly, and as most swimming facilities around the US are closed, the races to-date have primarily been in the duathlon format.
IRONMAN VR Races versus Challenges. What’s the difference?
You know all of those challenges you have seen floating around on Facebook and Instagram? Think putting your shirt on while in a handstand or doing ten push-ups? IRONMAN Challenges are just like that but are set up by IRONMAN, a coach, or sometimes other sponsors including Hoka, Santini, etc. Completing the challenges gives you a chance to win prizes, points, or simply boast you did it in the first place.
Races, on the other hand, are just what they are called - RACES. Varying in format and length, races are released Fridays 6 pm GMT and close at midnight GMT Sunday. Athletes have 54 hours to complete the race distances and activities do not need to be completed consecutively. Simply complete the activities as prescribed, upload via your preferred device/app, and voile! You have completed an IRONMAN Virtual Race.
Apparently, you can gain points, rankings, and even World Championship slots with these online races. How is this done?
The IRONMAN Virtual Club points system is strictly activity-based - athletes accrue points by completing training sessions and logging through the online platform. It utilizes connected devices including heart rate, power, and speed to track athlete progress, points, and rankings. As mentioned in the question above, these points provide rewards for athletes through merchandise, discounts, and other special benefits.
Rankings on the IRONMAN VR platform are simply based on race results, just as they would be with any other in-person IRONMAN event (think the All World Athlete program). And while they have advertised allocating IRONMAN 70.3 World Championship slots based on said results, there aren’t many details as to how that will work yet.
It seems like it would be easy to cheat and presents unfair ranking and qualification opportunities to those racing on easier courses. How is Ironman handling this?
This is probably the primary flaw with the new IRONMAN racing platform. Many athletes have expressed concern about how ‘fair’ these races actually are, given that most athletes will ride very different terrain and, as such, those riding on flat courses will have a natural advantage (see the thread on SlowTwitch forum for more). While IRONMAN is brainstorming ways to alleviate this, primarily through online courses on Rouvy and/or Zwift that can sync with smart trainers, there are still no clear methods they are using to eliminate cheating and/or course differences.
Prize money for professionals? What!?
Yep, you heard that right. Each weekend, within the weekly IRONMAN VR Races, there will be professional athlete races as well, where 2-4 pros go head-to-head on a well-known IRONMAN racecourse. For example, in the first IRONMAN VR Pro Challenge, four females and four males raced head-to-head on the IRONMAN Boulder 70.3 racecourse, with live coverage on the IRONMAN Now Facebook page. And apparently, professionals can win money based on their race results. More details on that TBD.
So, is this the next wave of IRONMAN racing? I guess we will have to just wait and see…