Virtual races have been incredibly popular since the pandemic, as they’re the only racing option in many places. But how exactly do they work? Are they worth it?
I’ve run a couple virtual races (a 10k and a half marathon), so I’ll be sharing my tips for a smooth virtual race, plus a recap of my experiences.
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How Do Virtual Races Work?
Virtual races are run on your own and anywhere you want, rather than at a specific location with other participants. This is what’s made them a popular alternative to in-person races—these much less risk of virus transmission when you’re not gathering in large crowds.
Many in-person races were cancelled and replaced with a virtual alternative, like the Boston Marathon. There are also some brand new races that sprung up in virtual form.
Regardless, the premise is the same. You:
- Pay an entry fee and may receive a bib, medal, and shirt in the mail
- Run a race in a certain time frame (usually a week or so) wherever you want
- Time the race on your phone or watch, and upload the results online
Are Virtual Races Worth It?
You might be thinking: aren’t you basically paying to run where you always do, by yourself? Many runners love to hate on virtual races for this reason. To some people, it seems like a waste of money.
I’m personally not a huge fan of virtual races, but I understand why people might enjoy them. If your in-person race got cancelled, then it seems better to run a virtual version than nothing at all. After all, you trained hard for that race!
I ran my two races because I wanted something to train towards. Races give me a sense of purpose in my training, and I use them to try to PR or just improve my current fitness levels.
Virtual races can also raise awareness and money for important causes. My 10k was in honor of Indigenous People’s Day, and the proceeds went to Wings of America, an organization that aims to build healthy Indigenous communities through youth running initiatives.
Others might do a specific race yearly, and choose to run the virtual version for a sense of normalcy. It’s been a tough year, and having that annual tradition (even in a modified form) can be comforting.
Of course, if you’re still skeptical of virtual races, I totally get you! They’re not for everyone. Some common complaints are:
- It’s not really a fair race since conditions aren’t equal for everyone (elevation, weather, terrain all vary)
- People can pause their watches and look faster than they are
- If you get a PR, it won’t “count” (more discussion on this later)
But if you are interested, here are some of my tips for running a virtual race.
Tips for Running a Virtual Race
1. Don’t feel like you have to pay for an official race
You don’t need an actual organized event to do a virtual race. I did a half marathon completely on my own, and didn’t pay anything. The experience is basically the same—you just don’t get any swag, and don’t see how your time compares to that of other runners (it’s not a fair comparison anyways, as I just mentioned).
This option is for people who don’t need an official event to stay motivated, or those who want extra flexibility in their race date. Sometimes, paying can be an extra push to actually complete the race, as you don’t want to waste your money. The medal can also be a motivator for some people.
2. Pick one that supports a good cause
If you do want an official event, try to find one that supports a cause you care about. There were races for Black Lives Matter, breast cancer, Indigenous communities, human trafficking—you name it.
Just pay attention to the percentage of profits that are donated to the cause. There are some races that use these causes to make a profit, and only give a small amount to charity. It’s really gross (for example, there were some races in honor of RBG, but it didn’t look like any money was going to charity). You can always contact the race director if the info isn’t clear.
Keep in mind that if the race has swag, part of the proceeds will need to pay for that. Race directors and organizers also need to be paid. It’s also important to be realistic about the costs of planning a race, even if it is virtual.
3. Set a race date (but be flexible)
After you sign up for your race, you get to set your own date (within the allowed time frame). You can say goodbye to bleary-eyed, early morning races if that’s not your thing. Run at the best time for you, whether that’s in the afternoon, morning, or evening.
Just try not to leave the race for the very last day of the time frame. That way, if race day comes and the weather is horrible, you can also postpone for nicer conditions.
4. Plan your course
You could just lace up your shoes and run wherever you feel like, but you’ll need to remember that your course won’t be blocked off like in normal races. This means that you need to watch out for:
- Intersections (you don’t want to have to stop)
- Cars, bikes, pedestrians
- Bathrooms (if a longer race)
It can be helpful to plan a race on a loop, or an out-and-back course, as much as we love to groan about those. Some popular places for virtual races include:
- Parks (especially if they have a nice bike path)
- Neighborhoods (less chance of traffic lights, and you can use your own bathroom)
If you can, test out your course on a long run so there aren’t any unpleasant surprises on race day. It wouldn’t be fun to find out that part of the trail is actually closed, or that the port-a-potty that’s usually there is gone.
5. Prepare fuel
If you’re doing a longer race, you’ll need to carry your own fuel, or drop it off along the course. Experts recommend anywhere from 30-90 grams of carbohydrates for every hour that you run longer than 75 minutes, but you should begin fueling before you hit 75 minutes. Test out the amount of fuel that works for you on your long runs, and replicate that for your race.
For full marathons, I also usually take a salt tablet or two to replenish those electrolytes. I sweat out so much salt during these races that my skin is usually covered in salt granules afterwards.
6. Track your run properly
Unless you’ve measured out the course another way, you’ll want a tracking device to know your pace. Your phone and an app like Strava will do the trick, but you might also consider getting a GPS watch if you plan to train consistently. I ran without one for 10 years, but the data you get from having one is really useful for tracking progress and creating training plans.
If you need a GPS watch recommendation, take a look at my list of the best running watches under $200. I personally own the Vivoactive 3 Music and think it’s one of the best-value watches (and I’ve tested 9 of the most popular ones!). If you have a bit more money to spend, the COROS APEX and Forerunner 245 ($300-350) are solid choices, and offer even more training stats. I plan to get the APEX once my current watch dies.
7. Follow local guidelines
Some places have outdoor mask mandates, so be sure to follow local guidelines. Others may want to do a virtual race with friends, and you should definitely pay attention to any limits on gatherings. It’s important to stay safe so that in-person races can return as soon as possible!
Virtual Race FAQs
There are a couple questions a lot of runners have about virtual races, so I wanted to address them. There are opinion-based, so take my thoughts how you will.
Can I pause my watch?
No, I see this as artificially making your time look faster. In a real race, the clock would keep running if you took a break or went to the bathroom, so I think there should be no watch pausing in a virtual race.
You can turn off auto-pause in Strava if this is a concern for you (most phone tracking apps have auto-pause as a default). If your device auto-pauses, you can also turn it off. I personally see no point to the auto-pause feature unless you’re doing a speed workout with intervals.
If I get a PR, does it “count”?
This is really up to you, as PRs are personal. This question is similar to the question of counting training runs as half marathons or marathons. Most people don’t count those since they’re not official races. Similarly, I personally wouldn’t count a virtual race PR, but I can see why someone would. If you didn’t pause your watch and ran the right distance, I think it’s valid for you to count your virtual race PR.
My Virtual Race Recaps
It’s been over a year since I’ve done an official in-person race, so it’s weird to be writing a recap (see my previous race reviews if you want to check out the races I’ve done in Europe and the US).
In the past year, I was dealing with a couple injuries, so I spent most of my time rebuilding my base mileage. I did my 10k in October, and finished in 52:55 (8:31/mi or 5:18/km). My PR is around 49 minutes, so it wasn’t my greatest race, but it wasn’t a bad comeback either.
I did the race at a local park with a loop trail of around 4 miles, and just ran the loop 1.5 times. I didn’t carry any water, but did have a bit of a gel before my warmup.
I was hoping to run closer to an 8 minute mile (5 min kilometer), so I started out at 8:07 for the first mile, and quickly realized it was unsustainable. I slowed down to around 8:30 for the other miles, minus mile 5, which had some hills and put me at a 9:13 (they weren’t so bad the first time around, so I need to work more on hills).
For my half marathon, I ran a 1:55:26 for a pace of 8:48/mi (5:29/km). I was hoping to go for around an 8:30 pace, but also realized it was unsustainable after the first mile and slowed down. I ran in my neighborhood and the surrounding ones, and carried my own water and gels.
The weather was rainy and cold, so I had some pretty blistered feet towards the end. I could’ve waited for better weather, but I just wanted to get the run done. This also wasn’t my greatest race (my PR is 1:44), but I have a lot of speedwork to do before I can hit those splits again.
Ultimately, I’m glad I did these virtual races since they encouraged me to run harder than I normally do. After a year off from racing, I find it difficult to push myself when things get painful, and my pain tolerance will only improve with practice (this sounds so masochistic lol, but runners understand).
Going forward, I’m planning to do more virtual time trials, but probably won’t join any official races unless they’re for good causes.
If you’ve run virtual races before, I’d love to hear your tips and experience. If you haven’t, feel free to drop questions in the comments. Happy and safe running out there!
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