Virtual Races: The Competition Is Simulated, But the Gains Are as Real as it Gets

Maybe you have the discipline to go hard during every training run. For the rest of us, virtual racing is the way to push yourself anytime, anywhere—without pinning on a bib.
Maybe you have the discipline to go hard during every training run. For the rest of us, virtual racing is the way to push yourself anytime, anywhere—without pinning on a bib. Illustration by Antoine Doré

JUST AROUND sunrise, I snap on a fuel and hydration belt, decide against compression sleeves, and double-knot my laces before stepping outside. The air is crisp and cool. It is perfect for race day. I inhale deeply to calm the jitters.

But this race is different—no bag check, porta-potty crowds, or even a start line, for that matter. That’s because I am running my first virtual race—a 20K. There’s no entry fee, and finishers enter a raffle for a new GPS watch. I have mapped out a 12.4-mile route that takes me along the East River and under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, yet I am racing against people from all over the globe. I think about them when I glance down at my tracker. The challenge is organized by Strava, and the leaderboards are constantly updated, so when I set out, I know the top finishing times so far. After a light jog to warm up, I click “start” in the app and take off. My drive to do well is as intense in the online world as it is in the real one.

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Virtual racing is a logical next step given the success of Strava, the performance tracking and social networking app used by millions of runners and cyclists in 195 countries. Last year, New York Road Runners, the world’s top running organization, partnered with Strava to launch a pilot race series, digitally hosting 35,000 participants from 100 countries in nine events, including a virtual 2018 New York City Marathon.

They’re not the first to do it—the Boston Athletic Association had a marathon in 2014, and Disney has a popular series of 5Ks and half-marathons. But NYRR entering the fray is a big deal, especially since each of the 500 remote marathoners were granted a coveted guaranteed entry to the in-person race in 2019.

And the competition is fierce. In the NYRR Virtual Valentine’s Duo 5K, the first-place finisher was a 20-year-old Australian man who broke the tape in 16 minutes, 15 seconds. On his heels were runners from Great Britain, Lithuania, Brazil, and the U.S.

The parameters for each race differ. Typically, people are given a few days to several weeks to run, meaning the big day waits until you feel great and the weather is ideal. (Some race windows are open indefinitely.) As far as registering your time, for Strava-enabled events, it happens seamlessly when you compete with the app. At the end, press “finish,” and the race is recorded. Not happy with your time? You can redo the run as long as it’s within the race window. Other races ask finishers to send a photo or screen grab of their race time along with a selfie. Still others, like the Tun Tavern virtual 10K and 10 miler, celebrating the Marine Corps’ birthday, operate on the honor system—tell them you did the work, and you’ll get a shirt and a medal with a bottle opener.

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Virtual racing is available for triathletes as well. The Tri to Triumph Virtual Triathlon hosts distances between a sprint tri and a full Ironman, as well as a duathlon.

Effort-wise, virtual racing falls somewhere between training solo and racing in a group. There’s something called the Köhler effect: People tend to work harder when they’re performing a task alongside others versus on their own, explains Eric Bean, a San Diego sports psychology coach. It may be enough just to know that a bunch of other people are competing to give you a bump. “There’s some research that suggests virtual running partners can increase motivation and effort,” he says. “However, one downside is the lack of face-to-face connection.”

Makes sense. A virtual run will never have certain hallmarks of an actual race, like the anxious energy of a corral, or the cheers that buoy runners through tough parts. “I didn’t feel a pull or a push to just keep crushing toward the finish line, because there wasn’t one,” says J.C. Lippold, a personal trainer in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, who ran the NYRR Virtual Marathon, his 20th race at that distance. “It wasn’t anticlimactic. It was just different.”

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I’ve felt a jolt of anticipation before virtual races that I don’t feel when I’m running alone. I was also less vulnerable to negative thinking and fatigue. Imagining other people alongside gave me a mental boost to press through difficult stretches. It felt like people were watching me, and calling it quits was not an option. Though if you’re the kind of person who relies on energy from your surroundings, maybe this isn’t for you.

On the other hand, it’s possible to get too into it. “Every run shouldn’t be a race,” says Pamela Geisel, an exercise physiologist at Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. Over the past several years, some Strava devotees, conscious of peers who will see their times, are pushing so hard that they’re suffering overuse injuries. “You have to respect it like a regular race,” Geisel says. That means not racing every weekend, and respecting the easier pace of a training run, she says. Crazy as it sounds, occasionally head out disconnected—no GPS, no watch. Simply run.

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2019 Virtual Race Calendar

NYRR Virtual Global Running Day 1 miler

  • June 1 to June 9 Cost: Free to $30 2019

Chicago Summer Solstice 6.2 Miler

  • June 21 to June 30 Cost: $9 to $30

NYRR Virtual Pride Run 5K

  • June 22 to June 30 Cost: Free to $30

Biofreeze San Francisco Virtual 5K, Half-Marathon, Marathon, and Ultra

  • July 28 to Sep. 30 Cost: $45 to $205

Tri to Triumph Virtual Triathlons

  • Through Nov. 30 Cost: $39 to $99
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Be a Smart Virtual Racer

1. Use two tracking devices, like a GPS as well as a smartphone.

That way if one malfunctions, you have a backup, Lippold recommends. Oftentimes, there will be a discrepancy with distance. (During Lippold’s marathon, the two trackers he used were slightly off each other.) The rule of thumb is to run slightly longer to compensate for inconsistencies.

2. Recruit a support team.
Bribe a buddy into riding a bike alongside to hand over water, nutrition, sunglasses, etc. He can act as a pacer, and cheer you on if things get tough. Or plan a route where you know there are water fountains, bathrooms, maybe some friends who’ll let you stash some Bloks in their mailbox. Remember, unlike in a traditional race, veering off course still registers your miles.

3. Base your route not on elevation, but congestion.

The worst kind of course will have you stopping at busy intersections or getting stuck behind a scrum of strollers. Opt instead for trails through public parks and forest preserves. For short races, like 5Ks, a public track works great, too.

4. Retain your prerace rituals.

If you always eat a turkey sandwich and lay out your kit the night before a race, do it for a virtual kind, too. The goal is to feel like there’s more riding on the outcome than on a training run, even if it lacks pomp and circumstance.

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