Australia

How to make a virtual race feel like a real one

During the past six months, runners across Australia have faced several challenges to their training.

Restrictions on mass gatherings including outdoor sporting events, limits or bans on group training, outdoor exercise time limits and five-kilometre travel zones have seen hundreds of running events adapted, postponed or at worst, cancelled.

Don't let your winter training go to waste, says running coach Kellie Emmerson.

Don't let your winter training go to waste, says running coach Kellie Emmerson.

While some states and territories have eased restrictions on mass gatherings, in Victoria and NSW there remains no clear recommencement date for outdoor sporting events. As the uncertainty continues, many event organisers are pivoting to virtual races including Sydney’s iconic City2Surf and the 100km Oxfam Trailwalker.

Virtual racing 101

Kellie Emmerson, HOKA ONE ONE elite athlete and running coach, says signing up for a virtual race is a great way to not let your winter training go to waste.

“The main benefit of taking part in a virtual race is being able to still set a goal and work towards achieving it,” says Emmerson.

“It is very difficult to stay motivated if you have nothing to train for. Virtual races help bring drive and structure, and some level of sanity during this strange time.”

Dual Olympian and Red Bull endurance athlete Courtney Atkinson agrees and adds that a virtual race is a strong driver to maintain your training and fitness.

He says there are many pluses to racing virtually. “The beauty of a virtual running event is that you can do it from your doorstep. Another benefit is that the runs are either free or have reduced registration fees.”

Brisbane-based marathoner and personal trainer Paul Gourlay, was training for the Gold Coast Marathon when the physical event was cancelled earlier this year. When the Gold Coast Marathon Running Festival went virtual, he registered for the half marathon.

Dual Olympian Courtney Atkinson during the seventh edition of the Wings for Life World Run.

Dual Olympian Courtney Atkinson during the seventh edition of the Wings for Life World Run.

“I’d always intended on running a time trial, so to be able to run a virtual race and finish in first place made all the training and effort much more rewarding,” adds Gourlay.

The upside of virtual racing

He says taking part in a virtual race is better than no race at all. “Virtual racing has played an important role in maintaining my motivation for running during a period when I know many people have lost their desire to run.”

Melbourne-based runner, fitness trainer and founder of Happy Go Lucy, Lucy Young recently completed the lululemon SeaWheeze 10km virtual race. She says while it was disappointing to not be able to share a fun race with friends, virtual racing still allows for a sense of community – without physical contact.

The challenges of virtual racing

While Both Young and Gourlay had positive experiences racing virtually, they say there are downsides too.

“The lack of crowds – both runners and supporters is a big difference,” says Gourlay. “It’s much easier to run in a group and to keep pace than it is to run by yourself. When the race starts to get difficult and you get tired there is no one around to gee you up or shout your name. You really have to dig deep mentally to keep going on your own.”

Young adds that unfortunately a virtual race doesn't offer the same sense of excitement. “In virtual races, you don’t get the butterflies before the start gun goes off, or the rush as you try to keep up with someone in the race, or the post-race high as you cross the finish line and collect your medal.”

While nothing quite compares to the atmosphere of race day, here are some tips to help overcome the unique logistical and mental challenges of racing virtually.

Melbourne-based runner Lucy Young says virtual runs still allow for a sense of community.

Melbourne-based runner Lucy Young says virtual runs still allow for a sense of community.

Run a real race route Running a virtual race takes a little bit of planning and strategy. Head to Strava and find a previous official running event in your hometown or find routes that runners near you have completed.

Atkinson suggests choosing a virtual format that interests and motivates you. “There are lots of new ideas out there about what a virtual run can look like. From the Wings For Life World run, to 5km time trial challenges, to the ‘run the streets challenges’ where you draw images with your GPS route. In this new environment, the limit of your race route is only your imagination.”

Set a goal Treat the virtual run as if it’s a real race by setting a goal and training consistently. To increase your chances of a good day out, Emmerson recommends challenging yourself with a new personal best time. “Have a finish goal and commit to working hard to achieve it.”

Wear a reliable GPS running watch Real races have professional timing, but you can still chase down a PB during a virtual race by wearing a good quality GPS running watch that shows your pace, splits, elevation, heart rate and other important metrics. Young says, “having an accurate measure of how quickly you’re moving enables you to know when you need to push or pull back and can help you strategise your way to achieving a PB.” Good options are the just-released Apple Watch Series 6, Polar Vantage M or Garmin Forerunner 245 Music.

Recruit a fan crew If COVID-19 restrictions allow, invite friends along to take part in the event and encourage them to make signs and cheer you on. If not, you should still let people know when you are planning to run your virtual race.

Pump up the music Large-scale running events often have bands, DJs, cheerleaders or radio music blasting along the course, which keeps your energy levels high and can give you an extra push. As this isn’t available during a virtual race, Young recommends creating a playlist of your favourite upbeat music (with a high beat per minute average) for your run.

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Get social Join the social media build-up and post about your training, challenges and wins along the way. Follow other runners who are also taking part in the same virtual race and chat with them about their goals and experiences. At the very least, tell your social media friends about your results and celebrate the run – just like you would when milling around the finish area rehydrating and recovering.

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