The virtual race is nothing new, but its popularity really exploded during the COVID-19 pandemic, when both big and small races moved away from in-person events. Now, even though some major races will be held in person this year, a number of them—including big ones like the Boston Marathon—will still take the virtual stage (at least partly!).
So if Global Running Day (June 2) has inspired you to take on a new challenge—whether it’s a new distance, a faster time, or even your first race—this type of event is worth looking into. For virtual races, you typically sign up and run the distance of the event (be it a 5K, 10K, half, or full marathon) anywhere in the world. And you can usually do it within a range of dates, rather than a set day and time. That makes it an attractive choice even if you do have the option of an in-person event.
Virtual races do lack what Maryland-based running coach Lisa Levin calls race-day magic—that special feeling that comes from big crowds, loudspeakers, and volunteers bestowing finish-line medals. Still, there’s a lot to be said for an event where you’re in charge of everything and can even change your plans based on how you’re feeling or what the weather’s like.
Plus, putting a goal on the calendar and working toward it brings a sense of structure and purpose, not to mention a reason to get out the door regularly. “There’s a lot in our world we have no control over,” Denise Sauriol, a Chicago-based running coach and author of Me, You & 26.2: Coach Denise’s Guide to Get You to Your First Marathon, tells SELF. “But this is giving us something to put our energy into.”
Having a successful virtual race starts with knowing your purpose. “We tell people to find their why—there’s got to be a reason that you are choosing to dig deep and race alone in this environment,” Julie Sapper, who coaches with Levin at Run Farther and Faster, tells SELF.
Just as with in-person events, you can choose from a wide range of motivations and goals, from getting the best out of yourself to supporting an organization you care about. Here’s what running experts have to say about tapping into your motivation for virtual racing, managing the logistics, and having fun along the way.
1. Choose an event that excites you.
When you’re no longer bound by geography, your race options are wide open. If there’s an event you’ve always wanted to try, or one you have an emotional connection to, it’s easier than ever to take part. Some events aim to stoke your competitive fires, while others engage your mind as much as your legs.
For instance, The Race is a half marathon and 5K that highlights and supports Black-owned businesses, neighborhoods, and charities, and typically draws about 1,500 people to Atlanta. Last year its fully virtual event had a similar number of participants, race director Tes Sobomehin Marshall, who’s also the founder of Running Nerds and Run Social Atlanta, tells SELF. This year the planned in-person event—scheduled for September 30 to October 3—will still feature a remote option.
And even the Boston Marathon—which also plans a smaller-than-usual in-person field on Oct. 11—will include a virtual option for 2021. Normally, entering this prestigious race requires running a qualifying time. But the virtual event is open to the first 75,000 runners who sign up, giving all runners a chance to earn a coveted unicorn medal. The Falmouth Road Race, an iconic seven-mile event on the coast of Massachusetts, will have both in-person and virtual options this year as well.
Then there are events that aren’t exactly races but combine running with other types of activities. Take BibRave’s Run to Escape: Mission Mt. Olympus, a six-part, 27-mile challenge you can do anywhere, anytime, that’s essentially the athletic, virtual version of an escape room. You’ll log three- to six-mile runs, complete with audio cues, in the Runkeeper app; afterward you’ll get clues and a puzzle to solve to unlock the next challenge. Finish, and not only can you claim the role of hero in a mythological narrative, you’ll also earn discounts on headphones, sunglasses, and other gear.
2. Contribute to the greater good.
Many virtual races support nonprofits or have a charitable component. Between event-related restrictions and economic distress, the pandemic has been hard on these organizations, says Marshall, whose company has put on virtual events for Girls on the Run, Back on My Feet, and other groups.
Entry fees and donations fill much-needed budget gaps, Morgan Jaldon, a Seattle-based running coach, tells SELF. And even if your virtual race doesn’t specifically support a nonprofit, you can fundraise on your own using tools like Charity Miles or GoFundMe. “That’s a way to add a little more heart and incentive to your race,” Sauriol says.
In addition, races and other racing and running-related businesses themselves are struggling. Marshall says she’s lucky—her business doesn’t have a physical space, and she’s been able to easily pivot. But those with leases and other significant overhead costs haven’t fared as well, with some laying off staff and others folding entirely.
So another great motivation to race virtually is to ensure your favorite races—and all the businesses that support them, from timing companies to medal manufacturers—make it to the other side, Marshall says.
Finally, if you’re a seasoned racer, now is also a great time to pace someone else across their first finish line. You might feel a sense of accomplishment that meets—or even exceeds—the thrill you feel when you crossed your own first finish line, Sauriol says. If you have a friend who’s new to running or considering giving it a chance, reach out and ask if they want to sign up together, so you can take on the challenge side by side.
3. Keep your goals in perspective.
Running a fast time is just one possible goal for a race, but if that’s what motivates you, it’s important to consider how virtual races differ from the usual. Sapper and Levin coached many runners through last year’s virtual Boston Marathon and other online races.
“We always go into the race prep saying, ‘You would be able to run faster if you were in a real race,’” Levin says. “It’s just that adrenaline, those other runners around you.” Plus, you won’t have all the same amenities you would on an official course, such as closed roads and water stops, Jaldon points out. All this could slow you down a bit.
But even if you’re a few minutes or more behind where you’d like to be, you might find the experience surprisingly rewarding. “We get a sense of self-awe when we achieve something,” Sauriol says. For her, that’s been heightened when fewer people are watching. “What I found is you have a richer sense of accomplishment because it’s all you—you’re not getting the parade.”
4. Chart your own course.
“The great thing about do-it-yourself races is that you get to be the race director,” Sauriol says. Instead of showing up at a specific time to run a designated course, you can choose your own route—one that sets you up to achieve the goals you’ve laid out.
For instance, if you want a fast time, choose a flat road instead of a hilly one. Or if it’s scenery you’re after, you can scout a new, adventurous trail. You can even run your race on a treadmill, if that’s most convenient and comfortable for you. (One option to amp that up: The RunBetter app, which provides the incline changes and other cues for many popular race routes, for a subscription of $5 a month).
If you’re racing outdoors, you’ll want to think through your logistics. Plan your route ahead of time, and maybe even do a practice run or two; you can map it out on apps like Strava or MapMyRun. Sauriol recommends a loop centered around your house, car, or a spot like a doughnut shop. That way you have easy access to water, snacks, bathrooms, and other essentials.
5. Train—but don’t strain.
Even if your event’s virtual, the effort is real. If you’re not running regularly already, if your race will cover more mileage than you do on your regular route, or if you want to run a fast time at any distance, you’ll still have to prepare.
Exactly how you approach training will depend on your starting point and your goals, Levin says. To work up to a faster pace or new distance, seek out a training plan or a coach just the way you would for an in-person race. (SELF has plans for the 5K, 10K, and half marathon right here.)
But Levin and Sapper caution their runners against overdoing it when preparing for virtual events, especially if they have big race goals for the future. Adding the pressure of hard training on top of pandemic-induced stress might be a recipe for injury or burnout if you’re not careful. Plus, the last thing you want is to get hurt right when in-person racing resumes, they point out.
6. Plan for how you’ll track your time, if that matters to you.
Many virtual races offer the chance to upload or submit your results, and some even offer rewards for top finishers. If you find competition motivating, that’s something to look for when you’re signing up for an event. “That’s getting a little bit closer to feeling like a race,” Marshall says.
For these events, make a plan beforehand for how you’ll keep track of your time. Some races will require a file from a smartwatch or an app like Strava or RunKeeper. For others, you’re on the honor system, so you could even track with an old-fashioned stopwatch.
A few races, such as The Race, use an app like Charge Running, RunSignup, or RaceJoy to make events more interactive. “You can jump into the app, and you’re running with everyone who’s doing the race, you’re hearing the music, you’re seeing your name on the leaderboard,” Marshall says, all of which can be highly motivating. Just double-check if you need to do the race at a set time for the full experience, make sure you download the app and sign in before you head out, and also plan to run in a place with good cell service.
7. Show up on social.
Some larger races offer virtual expos—online versions of the typical prerace events, with presentations, special deals on running gear, and giveaways. Checking out these offerings can make you feel more connected to the whole experience, Marshall says.
Others host live events on Instagram, Facebook, or other platforms. And of course, you can engage with the race by creating your own content. Posting photos of race swag like medals and shirts, sharing live updates mid-run, or recording recap videos afterward can add energy to your event—and also spread the word to your friends about races worth supporting.
8. Add a touch of race-day magic.
While no remote event can truly match the mood of a live celebration, you can still aim to make the day special. For instance, many runners post a photo of their clothes, gear, and bib number the night before an IRL race, often hashtagged #flatrunner because it’s typically laid out on the ground in close to anatomically correct position (shoes and socks below shorts below top, for instance). There’s no reason you can’t do this for a virtual race, Jaldon says.
If you’re vaccinated and feel safe running with others, you can coordinate with others who are running the same event and add some flair. For last fall’s virtual Chicago Marathon, Sauriol celebrated with some of the runners she coaches by bringing therapy dogs to the start line and opening confetti poppers at the finish.
Finally, share your plans with local friends and family—even nonrunners—and let them know you’d like support. Maybe ask them to make some creative signs or to hand you some water or Gatorade. Just be prepared: They might ask to join you next time. “You never know who you might inspire from your cheer squad,” Sauriol says.
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