Virtual Racing 101

A man running outdoors on a track.
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Although runners were hopeful that the second half of 2020 would bring more racing options, most in-person races around the country are still on hold. As an alternative, there’s been a growing trend toward virtual races.

While virtual races are done “virtually” as opposed to in person, they vary dramatically in how they’re structured. In general, virtual races are self-timed and completed at your own pace, whenever and wherever you choose. Even though the experience feels quite different, you still receive a race bib, t-shirt and medal with your registration.

For runners who are motivated to continue training, virtual races can be an ideal way to test your fitness. In addition to helping you stay active, many events also benefit charitable causes and are a great way to get involved.

If the thought of a virtual race doesn’t inspire you — or you have no idea how it works — here are some tips for giving one a try.

Virtual Racing Options

More and more options have begun to appear for racing virtually. Some are just like a regular race, with a set time frame and distance to complete. Typically there is a window of time you’ll have to run the race (rather than one specific day), and you may have options for a variety of distances — 5K, 10K, half marathon or beyond. Some races also use the opportunity to raise funds for important causes.

Other virtual races rely on cumulative miles over time. They may simulate racing across a state, like the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee, or completing a distance equivalent to a specific trail, such as the Vermont Long Trail. These types of races allow weeks or months to complete the distance, depending on the length. Some also factor in elevation gain to add another challenge.

Virtual race directors have gotten creative with their formats. One race used Olympic Running Coach Jack Daniel’s VDOT formula (based on your maximal oxygen uptake, known as VO2 max) to adjust for age and assign a score based on fitness. Runners won based on their performance and effort in the race, rather than by a specific time. A “March Madness” style event uses increasing distances and gradual eliminations, while virtual relays allow for a team of runners.

Ultra-endurance events have gone virtual too, with races like the Quarantine Backyard Ultra. In this event, runners had to cover just over 4 miles starting every hour, on the hour, until the last runner was left standing. The event started with over 2400 runners and ended 63 hours later! There seems to be no limit to the type of events that can be created virtually.

Virtual Race Opportunities and Challenges

While the obvious difference in virtual races is the lack of immediate competition, there are other factors that make them distinct. You may be able to run a known course if you’re doing a virtual version of a race you have done in the past, but most will require setting up your own route. For longer races, you’ll also need to consider some sort of aid station, which can mean looping past your home or a set location for accessibility.

If you’re running solo, it can be harder to motivate yourself. Having competition racing next to you naturally pushes you to compete and run harder than you might in training. Crowds of spectators are also encouraging in the late stages of longer races, so you may need to invite family or a close friend to cheer you on for your effort! Be sure to follow all COVID-19 safety guidelines while doing so.

Tom Ward, Vice President of Operations with Track Shack Events, notes this major difference: “In a virtual race, one has to either run alone or invite friends to run in the same location and time as you (social distancing of course) similar to what a group training run is like. In a virtual race, one has to create their own internal excitement that happens naturally at the in-person event.”

How you approach a virtual race depends on your mindset. You can also treat them more formally by setting up your route, aid, start time and pacing strategy, and sticking to it as if it were a true race. Keep your watch running even if you stop for food or drink, just as you would in a timed event.

Virtual races can also be an opportunity to push yourself to a new distance PR, as long as you have trained appropriately. If you’re new to running a longer distance, use the motivation of a virtual race to push yourself without the time constraints of an in-person race.

Why Run a Virtual Race?

If you decide that virtual races aren’t for you, there’s no reason you can’t continue training until more in-person races become available. But given the variety of options, a virtual race can be a great way to test your fitness and have fun.

Consider the following benefits:

  • You can run anywhere and on any surface (road or trail)
  • You can run solo or with a trusted training partner to help push one another
  • You can sleep in for some: not all virtual races require a specific start time
  • You can pick a route and date that best suits your needs
  • Try for a PR at a known distance or push yourself longer
  • No one is watching and there are no set time limits to complete the distance
  • Pricing is usually more reasonable

Virtual races can be an opportunity to motivate yourself and break out of a training rut, so check out the available options and see if there’s one that’s right for you.

Did you know AdventHealth partners with Track Shack on local races? Visit the events website to find a virtual race today.

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