As the COVID-19 pandemic has halted road, track, and trail races for the foreseeable future, virtual races are soaring in popularity. Runners flocked to virtual races as a solo alternative to their cancelled races. Virtual races lack many of the features that make racing special. However, they do offer an alternative to assess your fitness and indulge your competitive edge when normal races are not an option. You can maximize your virtual race experience, both from a performance and enjoyment perspective, with appropriate planning and mindset.
Map Your Route for Minimal Interruptions
In an ideal scenario, you will run your virtual race without any stops, just as you would in a normal race. A track (if open), paved loop, or multi-use pathway makes for an ideal virtual race route. Think of anywhere you would normally run speedwork (and here are some ideas for where to run speedwork without a track). If an uninterrupted route is unrealistic, map a route with minimal interruptions. (If you are reading this during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, please be mindful of proper social distancing)
Stops not only pose tricky logistical issue (should you pause your watch?); they also can interrupt your pacing and mental state of flow. You will enjoy your race experience more and feel better if you can avoid heavy traffic areas with frequent stops.
Have a Flexible Plan
Are you going to focus on covering the distance? Try to PR? Run a time trial? No matter what your goal, you want to go into the virtual race with a pacing plan. Your plan should be adaptable, of course, but also enough to motivate you.
Plan for the details as well. Will you take fuel or fluids? How often will you check your pace? If you have always wanted to race without looking at your watch, now is the perfect time.
Follow Up With Appropriate Recovery
Even if you did not push to a full race effort, you likely pushed harder than you would for a normal weekly workout – and your recovery should reflect that. You may not need a full recovery period, but you might need a cutback week or at least a lower intensity week. Give yourself a few days of only easy runs before completing your next long run or hard workout.
How you approach the virtual race affects your recovery. If you focused on finishing or treated it as a time trial, you will likely recover faster than if you raced a new PR. A few days of easy running might be enough to feel refreshed after a 5K time trial, while a half marathon PR may require an entire cutback week.
If in doubt, opt for an easy week of lower mileage after a virtual race. It is always better to be under-trained than even slightly overtrained.
Practice Your Mental Toughness
The group effect of racing makes it easier to push yourself. In a virtual race, you have no spectators, no competitors, and no pacers; it’s just you and the clock. This requires more mental strength than a normal race. Without other runners, it can be easy to slow down when the race begins to feel hard.
To counter this, have an arsenal of coping techniques before your virtual race. You especially want to do this if you are prone to negative thoughts. These can include smiling (which reduces perception of effort), positive self-talk, and other mental strategies. For when you want to slow down or stop, have a plan to run for just one or two more minutes.
Know Your Racing Personality Type
Runners respond differently to race scenarios. Knowing your personality type can help you set realistic expectations for a virtual race and maximize your experience.
I work with some runners (and am one myself) who thrive off competition and a clock. These are the runners who can capitalize on race day magic for a “did I really just run that?” finish times. They often have a unique capacity for tolerating discomfort in a competitive situation. Typically, these type of racers cannot easily replicate their best races in a virtual race. If you are this type, do not get bogged down if you run slower than you normally would. Think of the virtual race as less of a race and more of a time trial.
Other runners may thrive in virtual races, especially those prone to race day anxiety. If you are this type of runner, embrace the virtual race as an opportunity to see what you are capable of, without pressure or distract.
For others still, racing is about community. A virtual race may seem unexciting without crowds, other runners, and a medal at the end. If you are that type of runner, find a way to bring community into your virtual race. Sync your watch to start with a friend at the same time (while not running together) and text them before and after the event. Use Strava or other social media to engage in community support.
Set Specific Goals
It is difficult to PR in a virtual race, especially if you thrive in a large race environment. However, you can still satisfy your competitive nature and feel accomplished after a virtual race by pursuing other types of goals.
One approach is to choose an area of weakness. Do you lack a finishing kick? Struggle with consistent pacing? Set a pacing related goal for the race, such as running even splits or a negative split. You might focus on pushing yourself as hard as possible in the final mile to make it your fastest.
Another approach applies best if you plan on participating in multiple virtual races. You can treat each race as a time trial and focus on improving your time with each race – even if just by a few seconds. You can run the exact same route each time, eliminating any course comparisons. Especially if you are unable to race for a prolonged period of time (such as during the COVID-19 pandemic), this approach tracks your progress.
You can also think of virtual races as their own set of PRs. You would not compare a road 5K race to a trail 5K race, so it makes sense to put virtual races into their own category.
Have you participated in a virtual race?