Zwift Community

Zwifter Spotlight: Overcoming Anxiety, One Pedal Stroke at a Time

on February 02, 2021

Steve Wheeler started 2020 with overwhelming anxiety.

His business, the result of a lifetime’s ambition and work, had collapsed. He and his wife had opened the cocktail and craft beer bar in 2017, and now it was closing its doors for the last time.

“While I was working at the business I knew I was stressed, overworked and unhealthy but was far too busy to stop and think about my mindset,” Wheeler says. “So after we closed the bar and I had time to reflect, it all hit me in terms of my mental health.”

For Wheeler, this took the form of social anxiety. He struggled to leave the house, feeling panic when he ventured away from home.

“It got to the point where I couldn’t see a way out,” recalls Wheeler.

Until he got back on his bike.

“I knew I had it in me”

Before opening the bar, Wheeler had been a cyclist for several years. The business took up so much of his time and energy, though, that for 3 years he didn’t touch his bicycle.

After the bar closed, he read that exercise could be a great treatment for anxiety and depression. Wheeler had missed cycling and decided he wanted to take it up again.

So he got back in the saddle. It wasn’t a smooth ride at first.

“I really had to battle with myself to get out on my bike, as the fear of leaving the house grew with doing a long bike ride and riding miles away from home,” says Wheeler. “Also it was the British wintertime, so riding isn’t always appealing in sub-zero (Celsius) temperatures.”

Wheeler pulled out his barely-used Wahoo KICKR, bought shortly before he started the business, remembering the Zwift subscription that he never bothered to cancel.

Then he loaded up Zwift and began riding indoors. As he got used to riding longer and longer, he found that outdoor rides “became less of a drama.”

“Cycling is so consuming that you forget about your problems,” he says. “You’re so focused on breaking personal records or achieving goals.”

He started riding 10 miles at a time, trying a few short workouts and just exploring the virtual roads.

Read "6 Tips for Amazing Free Rides"

Then Wheeler spotted Alpe du Zwift , Watopia’s biggest climb. The summit became his goal, and one day he started to climb it. When he made it to the top without giving up, “I knew I had it in me to fix myself.”

If he could withstand the physical suffering that it took to climb that mountain, he knew could get through his mental suffering, too. And when he was focusing on the efforts of his body, the anxiety in his mind began to fade.

Goals and Challenges

Most of Wheeler’s early rides weren’t as epic as the Alpe climb. He kept up the shorter spins, and over time, they got longer and longer.

“I’ve never entered an official Zwift race or group ride but found myself racing myself every time I went on it,” he says. “Trying to get the green jersey, trying to up your FTP, getting up a mental climb like Ven-Top. There are so many ways to challenge yourself.”

Wheeler enjoys cruising at an easy pace and then finding someone to “race.” He’ll get on their wheel and speed up, and then the other person will speed up, and to Wheeler they are now in an unspoken race.

“It’s all friendly, but it’s a great way to push yourself harder than you would if you were riding on your own,” says Wheeler.

Sometimes they’re competing for a Zwift leader’s jersey. Zwifters can earn these briefly by getting the best times through certain timed lap, climb, and sprint segments . Someone like Wheeler might try to take the top spot, challenge themselves to make it into the top 10, get a better time than others they’re riding with, or just beat their own 30-day personal record.

Want to challenge yourself the same way? Get tips on:

You’ll know that a timed segment is about to start when you see a glowing dashed line on the road. If it’s a sprint, you’ll want to wind the power up several seconds before you get there! The end of a segment will be marked by a banner or arch.

If you want to test your legs on Alpe du Zwift like Wheeler did, the Road to Sky route is the shortest path there. You’ll need to be at least level 6 to get there on your own, but anyone can join an event that goes up the mountain.

“Wiser people have said to me, ‘Always try and ride with stronger riders than yourself, as you will push yourself harder than you ever would if you’re with average riders,’” Wheeler says. “Zwift gives you that opportunity 24 hours a day, because it doesn’t matter how good you are, there will always be better riders than you to challenge yourself against.”

If you just want to push yourself to ride a certain time or distance, set a weekly or monthly goal in Zwift Companion and watch the confetti drop when you achieve it. Or join a challenge and keep track of a long-term goal.

A Way Out

After a summer of riding outdoors, when the days started getting shorter again, Wheeler came back to Zwift. He set his sights once again on Alpe du Zwift and beat his first time by more than 30 minutes!

“That was only the second time up Alpe du Zwift, because after the first struggle I was scared of it,” he says, “but seeing the progress I’d made from the first time really buoyed me on.”

These days, things are looking up for Wheeler. He has a new job in London, where he commutes by bike for 70 kilometers a day. And he feels better about getting out of the house, at least when it’s safe to do so.

“Before the second wave of COVID-19 I could take my wife out for dinner,” Wheeler says, “which, to be honest, was unthinkable to me earlier in the year as I didn’t think my anxiety would ever let me.”

He still struggles a bit with anxiety, but he’s happy to say that he has a handle on it now. He had been taking a prescription medication and found that he didn’t need it once he started riding consistently.

For those who might be feeling lost in the same place he was, Wheeler offers encouragement that it does get better. Just keep moving until you find a path forward.

“At one point I really thought I would never be able to do any of the things I used to enjoy, as I would just have a panic attack, but there is always light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “Put your nervous energy into something constructive. I picked cycling and never looked back.”