The Complete Guide To Virtual Races: How To Run a Virtual Race

Given the current global state of affairs, marathons and other races everywhere are being canceled – and are being replaced by virtual races.

Until things can return to some form of normality, it’s likely that virtual races are most distance runners’ best option if you want to get your racing fix in.

Today, I’m going to walk you through everything you need to know about virtual racing – what they are, how they are tracked, how to find one, how to run a virtual race, and perhaps most importantly – how to prepare yourself both logistically and mentally – two areas that come to the forefront when we get into virtual races.

What Is A Virtual Race?

A virtual race is a competitive footrace in which each competitor registers online, then goes out and runs the required race distance in their own time – choosing their own start line and route – then they upload their race data or finish time, and the organiser mails them out a certificate and finisher’s medal.

Virtual races have existed for years in fairly niche sections of the running community – whether through things like High School regional runner competitions or more recently through online channels ( I like to think of Strava segments as mini-virtual races).

The main benefit of virtual races is that it removes many of the barriers that prevent people from making traditional races – runners can complete a virtual race in their own time, on a route that suits them. That means that virtual races remove the need to travel, and can be worked into a runner’s personal schedule.

Virtual races allow races to be held without a large crowd gathering too – something that’s critical in today’s world.

Some of the potential drawbacks of virtual races are that they are naturally harder to police, that every runner is competing under slightly different conditions (weather, underfoot conditions, etc.) and that a lot of the race-day buzz of a regular race is lost – which actually can acutely affect your race day performance.

Why Run A Virtual Race?

While nothing can quite compare with the genuine buzz every runner feels at the start line of a regular race, virtual races are currently our safest option if we want to continue to participate in running events.

Training for a virtual race mirrors the training for a traditional race – there are no special measures you have to take in your physical preparation.

However, there are a few steps you want to take to ensure you’ve prepared logistically and mentally.

Virtual races provide a lot of the same long-term benefits as regular races:

  • The training is great for our health, in terms of weight loss, muscle development, cardiovascular fitness, bone strengthening, to name a few.

  • Having a goal to train towards can be incredibly motivating and stimulating – especially in today’s uncertain times.
heading out for a virtual race

How To Find a Virtual Race

At the time of writing, most cancelled major races – such as city marathons – have announced virtual alternatives.

If you’ve already signed up for a race that has since been canceled, check the organizer’s website to see if they have a virtual race lined up.

Otherwise, you can start searching online or through running communities to find a virtual race that suits you.

A great place to start is the FindARun.com Virtual Race directory, which has races listed from all over the world which you can take part in.

Likewise, the British site Virtual Runner UK has a huge directory of virtual races – sorted by distance – which you can sign up for using their own app.

Once completed, you upload proof of completion, such as Garmin or Strava screenshots, and you’re all done!

Tips For Planning Your Virtual Race

Although virtual racing gives you the freedom to run the race distance whenever and wherever you want, it also lacks a lot of the support structure found in regular races.

Things that each of us take for granted at regular races – like aid stations, toilets, route markers, medical support, pacers…even the buzz from other runners – is completely missing in a virtual race.

In a virtual race, you essentially become your own race director – which means you call the shots when it comes to route planning.

So don’t just jump in with both feet and start running!

Here are my tips for planning out your virtual race:

1. Choose a Familiar Route

You’ll likely be running solo for your virtual race, so it makes sense to choose a running route you’re familiar with.

For many of us, it makes sense to plan your route around your home (or that of a friend) – which can serve as an aid station and toilet stop.

This can mean that your route might involve a few out-and-backs, or smaller loops that bring you back past your makeshift aid station several times over the route.

A while back, I ran a virtual marathon while on vacation in Portugal – I used our vacation apartment as my aid station, and had my girlfriend meet me with water at planned stops too.

It took a little co-ordination and extra en-route communications, but it worked well.

2. Ensure You’ve Got The Distance Right

There’s nothing more frustrating than planning out a challenging route, getting to the finish point, and realising that you’d miscalculated the distances involved!

Use Google Maps, or your run history, to measure your planned route as accurately as possible.

And a good GPS watch is practically essential for virtual races – no-one else is measuring how far you’re running!

3. Plan Your Nutrition and Hydration

Just like in a regular run, you’ve got to map out your nutrition and hydration in advance.

During training, figure out what you’re going to be eating – and how frequently – and map that into your aid station strategy.

One of the few benefits of virtual race aid stations is that you can fill them with whatever you want – so stock up on a few different food options from the kitchen!

4. Enlist Your Support Crew!

Without doubt the most important element of planning a virtual run is enlisting your support crew!

Whether it’s your significant other, running buddy, or family member, make sure you pick someone dependable and organized.

You want someone who will follow your progress, be ready with whatever support you need ahead of time, and be prepared incase you need some unplanned assistance.

Before you begin your virtual race, sit down with your support crew and map out roughly when and where you’re going to be at each part of the run, and have them check in with you regularly.

lady running her virtual race

Tips For Running Your Virtual Race

So you’re physically prepared and got all your race day logistics in place…all that’s left is to run the distance!

But when it comes to virtual races, there are a few things you need to bear in mind – things which you might not need to worry about so much in a traditional race.

Here are a few pointers:

Running Alone Is Mentally Tougher

Race day buzz actually counts for a lot .

The groups of runners, the music, the momentum, the crowds . . . the whole atmosphere can buoy you, and has been shown to improve performance – especially towards the tail end of your race.

In a virtual race, all that is gone.

You’re running alone.

No fanfare, no distractions from other runners . . . and running alone has been shown to be associated with more negative sentiments.

In other words, virtual races are mentally tougher – which can affect your performance (as your Rate of Perceived Exertion is linked to your mood).

Having your race goal clear in your mind can help and give you something to focus on – whether it’s simply making it to the finish line, or beating the sub 4-hr marathon mark.

Stay Safe

Racing virtually means running alone – which some people may prefer, but can many of us feel slightly uneasy – especially when we’re really pushing hard.

Use a tracking tool like Strava Beacon to share your live location with your support crew, and keep in touch via regular messaging.

Pace Yourself – Be Mindful Of Your Pace Strategy

Another drawback of running alone is that it can be harder to stick to a sustainable pacing strategy.

Regular races often have pacers, and you often gravitate towards other runners who have a similar speed to you.

When you’re running alone, all of that pacing support is gone – it can be harder to moderate your speed when you’ve got no-one to run with.

That’s why it’s so essential to have a good pace strategy.

As part of your race prep, you should define your race goals, and figure out what your pace strategy is going to be.

If in doubt, pick a reasonable – and achievable – pace and try to maintain it throughout your entire run.

More: Why Marathon Pace Is So Important

Choose The Right Time (Even If You Have To Wait)

Perhaps the biggest benefit of running a virtual race is that you can choose when you run it.

This means you can plan your race in line with your training and personal schedule.

So if you’re a few weeks out from race day and start to develop a nagging knee ache, there’s no need to try and push through it – you’re free to hit the pause button and address the injury, then resume training when ready.

You can also run your virtual race at whatever time of day suits you.

This means no more ridiculously early alarm clocks and anxious journies to the start line.

You can wake up, eat a good breakfast, prepare in your own time, then head out when ready.

There’s no ‘dog and pony show‘ with a virtual race – it’s just you and the road.

Some of us might even find that a little reassuring!

Have you run a virtual race? I’m interested to hear how it went, and of any issues you might have faced – and how you overcame them!

Drop me a note below!

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and good beer. More at his bio.

4 thoughts on “The Complete Guide To Virtual Races: How To Run a Virtual Race”

  1. I just ran a virtual marathon on Saturday, and I definitely agree that a support crew is vital! I asked people to meet me at miles 12, 18 and 24 to buoy my spirits and replenish supplies. I couldn’t have finished without them! I wish I had asked more people to stop by, if I do another, I will have more “visitors”. The other option is to run the whole race with a partner.

    Reply
    • Hey Heidi, congrats on the virtual marathon !!

      Yep, having people meet you rocks and really boosts your energy levels towards the end!

      Reply

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