- What is your motivation?
- What distance will you run?
- Virtual running medals and other rewards
- Planning your calendar and virtual running training schedule
- How do virtual runs work?
- Create your virtual race route
- How to run a virtual race
- Kit for your virtual race
- Pacing your virtual race
- Building a support crew
- Staying mentally strong
Finding your virtual race
Think virtual racing is a passing fad? Think again.
Following the impact of Covid-19 and the relentless advance of wearable technology, virtual races are happening all over the world. Try searching for virtual races in your region, state or country and you’ll likely be deluged with options catering to different speeds, distances and experience levels.
In 2020, the world-famous Boston Marathon switched to a virtual event. A couple of months later, the New York City Marathon followed suit. Little wonder, then, that online virtual race directories are now packed with events.
Whatever you’re searching for, it won’t be hard to find.
What is your motivation?
Completing a virtual race requires dedication and commitment. Come race day, there’ll be no big crowds cheering you on. No adrenalin buzz to be shared with fellow runners. It’s just you, your thoughts and your smartwatch.
Keep going or give up: the choice is yours, because there’s nobody there to judge you. So you have to be your biggest motivator, your fiercest critic and your emotional support – all rolled into one.
Key to success is to understand why you are competing. Why are you going to put yourself through the logistical and emotional tests of a virtual race?
Are you aiming for a performance goal? A new PB gives you something to target and provides motivation in the final stages. So too does a negative split. Or maybe you’re looking to run a distance you’ve never completed before.
Other motivations could be losing a certain amount of weight through the course of your training or claiming the material rewards (medals, T-shirts, etc) on offer. Indeed, Running USA found that 33% of those competing in virtual races in 2019 did it for the swag.
American long-distance running legend and On Athletics Club (OAC) coach Dathan Ritzenhein says adaptability and mental flexibility are key to sticking with your training schedule, no matter what’s happening in the world.
“The good thing about running is that you can always get better,” says Dathan. “You’re stacking layers upon layers and you become better every year. Make the most out of any situation. The consistency in building that base is what makes great races. Just do the best you can in the given situation, and the next race will be even better.”
What distance will you run?
Virtual races cover all abilities. From free virtual fun runs through to virtual marathons, the choice of available running challenge is as wide as ever. So whether you’re setting your sights on a virtual 5k or you’re picturing something much more intensive, the options are definitely there.
Australian trail runner Kirra Balmanno says it’s wise to consider what a virtual run means for the length of race you’re planning. Longer runs, for example, may need extra planning – particularly in terms of mid-race support.
“A virtual race is a whole different game to a regular race,” says Kirra. “There are no aid stations and paramedics dotted along the course. You’re out there on your own, so it’s imperative to ensure that you can make it home again – and that requires a slightly different approach.”
Because of the isolation of virtual races, Kirra recommends sacrificing speed for distance during training. “Instead of pushing to the limit, perhaps make the route a little longer to extend your endurance threshold or increase the verticals,” she says. “That way you are still challenging yourself but hopefully not to the point of collapse.”
Virtual running medals and other rewards
The good news for virtual race runners is yes, that element of competition is still there. Even when you’re not running next to your peers or in front of encouraging crowds, the clock is still ticking.
But for many competing in virtual races, there’s a growing realization winning or setting PRs is not always the driving force. In 2020, lockdowns and the widespread postponement or cancellation of the running calendar forced us to reassess what we value in running and racing. The answer, for huge numbers of people, is the community.
T.K. Skenderian, director of marketing and communications at Coventures, was part of the team that put on the first ever virtual Boston Marathon in 2020. During that event, he saw runners from around the world embrace social media and online running communities.
Instead of celebrating together at the finish line, they cheered each other online and shared their experiences in a way that made them truly understand the value of the running community.
“Nothing can replace the excitement for race days,” says T.K. “But once the gun fires, you’re generally on your own – surrounded by strangers all plodding in one direction. In a virtual race, you’re still on your own – and while the space is nice, the silence can be difficult. But the community thrives online, as it has for over a decade since photo-sharing on social [media] really took off.”
Planning your calendar and virtual running training schedule
The explosion in popularity of virtual races means you can pick and choose events to suit your fitness and calendar, regardless of where the original in-person race was scheduled.
In the UK, for example, Exeter-based City Runs has hosted everything from 400-metre virtual races up to full virtual marathons. England Athletics, meanwhile, introduced a Weekly30 Run Challenge, where competitors had a time rather than distance restriction. Each virtual runner had 30 minutes each week to run as far as they could.
Once you know what distance you’re covering, it’s time to devise a structured training plan – and make sure you keep to it. For shorter distances, this is relatively straightforward. But if you are stretching yourself over a distance you haven’t previously attempted, you’ll need plenty of time to build up the endurance and stamina you’ll need.
Our 12-week half-marathon training guide is a great place to start. If you’re going even further, our marathon training schedule for beginners will help you get the best possible preparation – whether you have one, two, three or four months to prepare for the big day.
If you’ve really taken the leap and pushed yourself out of your comfort zone, you might even find yourself doing something completely new. Our guide to trail running will take you from road to trail in just four weeks.
If taking on the trails is your plan, then training isn’t just about clocking up the miles. It’s a vital step in preparing you for some of the challenges you’ll face on race day. Altitude, for example, is a common issue for new trail runners.
“If you’re planning on getting really high, so to speak, it’s important to acclimatize properly before beginning,” says Kirra Balmanno. “Knowledge is definitely power in the high mountains, so take time to educate yourself on the signs of acute mountain sickness.”
Planning your virtual race
How do virtual runs work?
Before the race day, virtual races work in largely the same way as traditional in-person races. As a participant, you’ll have to choose the distance you want to run and find an appropriate virtual race. But you’ll have more geographical freedom than before, because you’re no longer restricted by the site of the race. So if you fancy running a race held in Texas, but you’re in Maine, you’re free to do so. That’s the beauty of virtual races.
Once you’ve found your race – and you’ve checked that you’re confident and have enough time to execute your training plan – it’s time to register and pay an entry fee just like you normally would.
So far, so familiar. It’s on race day itself where things are unrecognizably different.
Create your virtual race route
Instead of joining hundreds or even thousands of others at the start line, you’ll be alone with nothing but your own thoughts for company.
For some, that isolation brings significant benefits. You have the freedom to choose your own route and – more importantly – your own starting time. For many of the world’s biggest races, participants expend a ton of nervous energy and adrenalin travelling in the very early hours of the morning to get to an often-inconvenient start line.
But with virtual races, you can run at whatever time of the day suits you best – and often on whatever day of the week. In fact, more than a quarter of respondents in Running USA’s 2020 National Runner Survey said not having to travel was a key attraction of virtual races.
Virtual race runners are normally given a one-week window to run their race and submit their GPS data. “Planning the route is the most fun part of virtual racing,” says U.S. ultrarunner David Kilgore. “You’ve got the opportunity to make the most exciting course for you at this particular moment in time. Curate a course that better fits your skill set and is something you’re really excited to go and do.”
How to run a virtual race
Running a virtual race poses plenty of challenges, from the mundane to the downright crucial. There are four main areas where you’ll need to have everything in place.
Keeping safe is the number one priority for anyone planning a virtual race – regardless of whether you are road or trail running. Anyone running a virtual race should carry ID, share route details with friends or family, and make sure they have a way of being contacted while they run.
Take time to plan your route in advance, considering all possible dangers along the way. FATMAP is a great tool for this. You can download maps to use offline and, for those considering trail running, it even provides information such as snow depth.
It’s important, too, to consider what types of elements you may be facing. As race day approaches, check weather apps religiously. Kirra Balmanno looks at several other areas of risk: the potential for electrical storms, the likelihood of encountering aggressive dogs, understanding if there are any exposed trails, and whether scrambling or climbing skills will be needed.
If you’re running a road race, traffic will be a major consideration. “Don’t plan on running the actual course,” says T.K. Skenderian. “Road-race courses are closed to vehicles on race day thanks to public safety officers, barricades, and signage. Every other day of the year, roads belong to cars and cyclists. There’s no one out there to protect you.”
We all know keeping fueled and hydrated is essential in any race. But what do you do when the usual support stations disappear, and you’re left to fend for yourself?
That’s the dilemma facing virtual race runners. And it’s not always easy to solve.
David Kilgore recommends “playing with what you need in practice runs”. Come race day, you’ll need a way of carrying all the gels and water you want. Alternatively, if you’ve got some particularly loyal friends you could ask them to be ready on your route as a makeshift aid station. This is much easier if your route involves running multiple laps, because it’s means your friends do not have to travel as far.
Remember, too, to always have a few bars or gels hidden in your vest for just in case moments. “I always make sure I have an extra stash of calorie-dense food for emergencies and mapping mistakes,” says Kirra Balmanno.
French trail runner Marion Delespierre adds: “I know myself and what I need for a run. I put my stuff in a belt or a bag. I also have a special pouch that allows me to quench my thirst whenever I need to.”
Take care to think about some of the logistical issues that could go wrong. For example, how will you get back when your race has finished?
Road runners have the benefit of being able to plan a course that finishes at home. From there, it’s just a few more steps to a soak in the bath. But trail runners might find their course finishes a long way from where they started. So you’ll need a plan. Make sure it’s a good one.
Other questions to consider include:
- How far am I from help if something goes wrong during the race?
- Will you have phone signal for all sections of your race?
- How long is the longest stretch of your route without human contact?
All these issues tie back to safety. You must let someone know your route, your anticipated arrival times and give them a way of checking on your ongoing wellbeing.
Even then, unexpected things can and do still go wrong. Kirra Balmanno once had a headlamp die in the middle of a night run in the Himalayas. She had hours of her route still to go and had to rely on the flashlight on her phone. Yeah, that’s not ideal.
Recording your race is critical. Get this wrong, and you could find all your training and your virtual race run going to waste – simply because you cannot prove you did the epic run you say you did.
The most common way of recording your route – and your time – is with a smartwatch. Check with your race organizers for details of which platform they are accepting. If you’re looking for the safest option, Strava is the platform most likely to be accepted by any well-organized race. Check whether you need to send a raw data file from your watch, or simply share the map and timing of your run through your Strava account.
Thinking of putting gravity to your advantage and running the distance all downhill? Check the rules first. Some races will also want details of your cumulative elevation gain. You may be allocated a ‘Calibrated Time’, which takes into account both your distance and your elevation gain, to prevent runners taking advantage of plotting a largely downhill route.
When it comes to both the designated platform and any issues surrounding elevation, each individual race sets its own regulations. Double-check you are using the correct platform before race day. And make sure your time is actually being recorded when you start your run.
Finally, GPS isn’t perfect. Strava recommends running an extra 0.5km on the end of your race to make sure your route definitely passes the distance threshold you are targeting.
Running your virtual race
Kit for your virtual race
Assemble a kit that will give you all the protection, warmth, freedom and storage you’ll need to complete your virtual race.
Depending on the climate and conditions you’ll face, consider the Performance-T, Tank-T, Lightweight Shorts, Race Shorts and The Low Sock. Our most popular racing shoes including The Cloudflow, The Cloudflyer, The Cloudflash and The Cloudboom.
Ultimately, it’s about what you feel comfortable in – and what helps you get across the finish line. That’s all that matters.
Pacing your virtual race
Without nearby competitors to provide natural rhythm, it can be easy to start too strongly in your virtual race. This can derail months of training and dash hopes of a new PB (if that’s your target).
Running a virtual race is a completely different experience to running a traditional race. “If you’re competing in a virtual race, knowing that you might not have the same nervousness, excitement or butterflies that get you out of the door for a normal race, don’t set yourself the exact same goal you normally would,” says Dathan Ritzenhein.
“Start a little bit more conservative. You’ll catch the fire as things go and start to think ‘wow, this is way better than any training run I’ve been on recently,’ Slowly, you build momentum.
You say, ‘I’m going to get the best out of myself today.’ That’s all that racing is. If you put your best out there, no matter what the preparation was, you know you did your best that day.
One advantage of virtual racing is that you can play music through your earphones. Build a playlist with a consistent rhythm and the music will give you a way to maintain a set pace and provide a valuable distraction when the going gets tough.
And if you’re desperate to mimic normal conditions as much as possible, consider piping cheers through your earphones on the final straight.
Building a support crew
Running might be a solo sport, but we all benefit from the encouragement and support of our friends and relatives. Build excitement among your close circle by sharing your ambitions and motivations (without becoming that friend who only ever talks about running).
Getting buy-in from your friends and family will help them to be understanding when you have to train. And it will also put you in a great position to access support during your actual race, especially if you’re covering a long distance.
Meeting two or three different groups of friendly faces along the way will lift your spirits. More importantly, having them there as makeshift aid stations gives you a great chance to refuel and replenish lost liquids.
Staying mentally strong
We’ve all had those moments. The moments when the doubts sprint from nagging questions to overwhelming fears. When the pain seems so intense you wonder if your body will ever recover. When you push and push and push – and then wonder if you’ve pushed too far, and if the finish line will ever really arrive.
With no crowds to provide encouragement and no fellow racers to run along with, virtual races can be particularly grueling on the mind. The key is to accept the lows as inevitable but understand there’s nothing inevitable about giving in to them.
“Long-distance endurance runs require a lot of mental strength and self-sufficiency,” says Kirra Balmanno. “I think through practice, you get better at this. Positive self-talk can be an incredibly powerful tool for making it through the lows and coming back out of them quickly. Remain adaptable, trust yourself and step up to the challenge. You can do it.”
“Just keep going and keep on smiling,” says David Kilgore. “You’re already out there because you love this. You will continue to break down walls and enjoy the moment at hand.
“Every time I’m in a rough spot on the trail, I just look around and I’m usually just like ‘wow, this is still really incredible to be out’. I’d also recommend doing things – maybe even call a friend – to break it down and make it fun.”
Celebrating your virtual race
Reaching the finish line of any virtual race is a major achievement. From the beginning, you’ve had nobody but yourself to keep yourself motivated. So take a minute to really take in your achievement. You deserve it.
After that, it’s time to get creative and make memories you’ll keep forever.
“Share your journey in funny and creative ways that celebrate your accomplishment,” says T.K. Skenderian. “Have your kids build an aid station, hug your dog at the finish line, have your boyfriend create a post-race party for two - whatever!
“Just find the race hashtag, scroll around, and push the like button a lot. If you can’t high five a stranger in real-life, write a nice comment on someone else’s photo. Just because we’re apart doesn’t mean we can’t celebrate each other.”
You’ve read the guide. You’ve got the gear. So what are you waiting for? Sign up for your first virtual race today and keep your adventure alive.