What is a Virtual Race and Should You Run One?

A trend that’s offering flexibility & competition for runners
man running a virtual race

As the majority of races across the country have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, runners of all shape, size and age have turned to the concept of “virtual races.”

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Gone are the pre-race jitters and porta-potty lines. There’s no race day traffic or starting gun. And unfortunately, there’s no post-race beer or banana.

“Virtual races offer a more flexible race experience,” says exercise physiologist Katie Lawton, MEd. “Runner’s sign up for a race, run the distance on a specific date or by a deadline, then they upload their finishing time online and are mailed a medal a few days later.”

Some races even offer race bibs to make it feel more official or provide swag bags to their participants.

But why would someone want to run a virtual race?

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, including those who love to participate in physical races. And since people can’t run together right now, many are finding it challenging and fun to participate in a simulated race instead.

This version of racing gives runners from beginners to veterans something to train for and work towards. Often times, races act as motivation to stay active, which is important, but even more so now in the midst of a global pandemic.

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It might not be the same experience as before, but it might be just enough to motivate someone to continue being active, says Lawton. It could be the jolt of inspiration you need.

Other people like the flexibility that a virtual race gives them. Maybe you hate physical races due to the ungodly hour you have to get up at. Or maybe you work weekends and couldn’t attend most races. Now, you can race in the evening, or maybe you prefer a quick 5K at lunch during the week.

“Some people also find physical races intimidating, so a virtual race might be a great option for them,” says Lawton. “And virtual races have been around for a few years now but are now gaining more popularity in the age of COVID-19.”

If you’re a competitive runner, these virtual events are a great time to experiment with new training plans or even equipment and nutrition strategies. A virtual race can help you practice for your actual race, almost like a dress rehearsal (because yes, eventually this pandemic will end).

Treat your virtual race just like you would a physical race. Determine what clothes you will wear, lay out aid stations and water stops and plan a route that is exciting to run. Have some fun with your race and get your family involved, either running some of the distance with you or positioned at cheering stations on your course. Maybe even route your race by a friend’s house.

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You can also get creative in your post-race festivities. Plan a special dinner that night or simply enjoy that post-race beer or banana in your backyard as if you were at a real race. To make things more interesting, encourage friends to sign up to compete against. Putting a small wager on it (like the loser has to mow the winner’s lawn) could be the competition you’re craving.  

So where do you race at?

With a virtual race, you get to call the shots and act as both a runner and race director. The organizers will typically give you a deadline for when you’ll need to complete your race (or set a goal to run a certain amount of miles in so many days), but ultimately, you can decide when and where you run.

You can run in your neighborhood, on a treadmill, on a track, at a park, at the beach. You choose the starting line and map out your route to cover the distance. You can also pick the day and time you prefer to race.

At the very least, even if you don’t like it, trying a virtual race will give you something to do during quarantine!

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