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in: Health & Sports, Running

• Last updated: September 7, 2020

How to Run a Virtual Race

A man is running on a road.

Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Jason Fitzgerald.

The coronavirus pandemic is shifting more and more of our lives online. From happy hours to kindergarten morning meetings and even first dates, we’re doing more things virtually than ever before.

And runners are not exempt from this transition. Gone are the days that we crowded into packed corrals and blew snot rockets near other athletes. Instead of drafting behind our competitors and high-fiving at the finish line, we’re left to run our miles in isolation with not a race scheduled for months.

But one type of race is gaining traction: the virtual race.

Unlike a traditional race with a certified course and timing system, throngs of other runners to push you to new personal bests, and an announcer firing the gun at the start, you’ll be all alone before, during, and after a virtual race.

A virtual race is a solo time trial that’s compared to other runners’ solo time trials. This is all made possible by advancements in GPS technology and platforms like Strava.

Just run the distance at your best effort, make sure your GPS watch records the run, and upload it to the web. The virtual race organizer takes care of the rest and you’ll soon know how you performed compared to everybody else who participated.

Results will be tabulated according to time (even though everyone’s course was different) and you may even receive a medal (virtual or otherwise) and race tee — for a price, of course. 

Obviously, virtual races aren’t “real” races for many reasons:

  • GPS watches aren’t 100% reliable so the time and distance of your run isn’t completely accurate (official, sanctioned races are on USA Track & Field-certified courses with automatic chip timing).
  • There are no competitors, making it very hard to achieve peak performance because there’s nobody to try to catch and beat.
  • With no announcer, course markings, or encouraging spectators, a virtual race is the very definition of an “unsupported” race.

But despite virtual races not being the precise, peak performance-generating events that runners are used to, there’s still a lot of value in them.

They give runners a goal to work toward; they test our fitness; they get us running, if not as fast as in a real race, then faster than we do in regular workouts; and perhaps most importantly, they connect us to the broader running community.

And that connection is what all of us need right now.

To run a great virtual race, you have to do a bit more work upfront. Below I’ll walk you through what that involves. 

Choose a Good Course

Runners who compete in a virtual race have the responsibility of planning the course they’ll take to complete the designated distance. If you want to run fast, it’s critical to plan a fast course.

Many virtual races allow you to do the race on a treadmill; rather than uploading GPS data to record your run, you just send in a report of your time. However, with races that require GPS data, the readings you get on a treadmill aren’t always accurate (unless you have a fancy specialized watch), and you’ll want to do your run outside. Even when you don’t have to use GPS to submit your race results, I’d still recommended running outdoors rather than indoors to give the race a more real-world feel.

When picking your course, follow these guidelines:

  • Plan a course with as few sharp turns as possible (90-degree or 180-degree turns cost energy and slow your pace).
  • Choose a flat or slightly net downhill course (running big uphills will only slow you down).
  • Avoid stoplights, which could force you to pause your watch (which slows down the overall timing of the race).
  • Don’t run near any GPS dead spots that will give you inaccurate pace and distance data.

A mostly straight, flat course without any GPS dead zones or stoplights will give you the best opportunity to race fast.

But what about the surface? Different surfaces affect how fast you’re able to run — concrete is the hardest material we can run on so it returns the most energy. While this is advantageous for speed, it’s also jarring on the body. A higher energy return means that we’re experiencing higher impact forces with each footstep, meaning the risk of running injuries is higher.

A moderate approach is likely best: a combination of asphalt (the road) and concrete (the sidewalk) will give you the best ability to run fast and finish strong with negative splits.

On the other side of the spectrum, soft surfaces are slower because they absorb the energy of each foot strike. Avoid thick grass, the beach, or gravel paths for this reason.

Make It Feel Like a Real Race

There’s no doubt that running a maximum effort race is difficult without crowd support, other competitors, and the “magic” of a real race atmosphere. The body and mind simply aren’t primed for a peak performance effort.

But we can do the next best thing by treating a virtual race like an official race:

  • Rest more in the days leading up to the race so you’re fresh and ready to run hard.
  • Wear the same clothes that you normally race in — ideally, clothes that make you feel fast!
  • Eat a similar breakfast as you would before a race (remember: no surprises on race day).
  • Start the virtual race at a similar time of a real race (usually first thing in the morning) rather than waiting until later in the day.
  • Wear your racing shoes (we’re racing, after all!).
  • If you’re racing a longer distance, plan your hydration and fuel ahead of time (there will be no on-course support during the virtual race). 

Clearly, virtual races require more planning. With no organization behind the race, many preparations must be done by the individual rather than the race director.

But with some advanced planning, we can do a better job of convincing our mind that a virtual race is just like a real race. That will make any runner treat it more seriously, put forth a higher effort, and give the race the respect it deserves.

Ultimately, that will help you race faster and finish strong with negative splits.

Practice Your Mental Skills

Even after treating a virtual race like an organized, official race, runners will still struggle more on the course. There are no cheering fans, no mile markers, and no announcer getting the racers excited about the event.

For these reasons, we have to rely more on our mental skills to cope with the disadvantages of virtual races.

While there are numerous performance psychology strategies that can boost your mental toughness, some of the most effective are:

  • Visualization: create a sensory rich experience of what you’ll see, hear, smell, and even taste on race day. This gives you a “mental blueprint” of what you’ll experience so there aren’t any surprises.
  • Use body language like power poses to increase your confidence before starting the virtual race.
  • Personal affirmations or mantras can distract you from the discomfort of racing, boosting your confidence and taking your mind off of the fatigue.
  • Slow, deep breaths before the start of a race can calm pre-race nerves and get your head right before a maximum-effort performance.

But it’s important to remember that just like physical training, mental training only works when practiced consistently over a relatively long period of time. In other words, one session of visualization isn’t going to help your performance much. It must become a consistent habit.

Despite a virtual race not being official, pre-race anxiety can still feel debilitating. If you regularly experience a high level of stress before a race, expect a virtual race to be similar. Using these strategies to help you feel less nervous will help you run a better race:

While virtual races aren’t official and don’t have the same support as a sanctioned race, they’re still good opportunities to test your fitness and participate in the sport with the broader running community.

Work hard toward a good performance and when we’re all able to congregate together again, you’ll give your competitors a much faster run for their money.

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Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and USA Track & Field certified coach. Get the latest training tips at Strength Running – or sign up for a free email course on injury prevention and how to run faster.

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