The Latin root of “compete” means to “strive together.” But with opportunities to come together restricted, runners are turning to virtual races and learning how to strive and compete alone.
Continuing to challenge yourself is important to staying happy and reducing anxiety in stressful times, says Dr. Stan Beecham, sports psychologist and author of Elite Minds. But trying to replicate the benefits and feelings of a traditional race does come with new challenges. And it will take new approaches both in the lead up to the race and in the race itself to get the most out of a virtual event.
Know Your Purpose
The first step when planning your virtual race is to decide exactly what you want to get out of it, says Dr. Justin Ross, a clinical sports psychologist in Denver, CO.
For some, it may be to replace a race that was cancelled. For others, it’s a way to gauge current fitness. Or it may be a way to connect with friends and fellow runners. Ross says, “People going into [a virtual race] need to be pretty clear about what it is that they’re pursuing in order to maximize it.”
Wear Your Race Director Hat
Once you have decided on the purpose of the virtual race, it’s time to start acting as a race director—beginning with deciding on a location for your race.
If your goal is to PR or get an accurate gauge of fitness, it’s hard to beat a track. It’s a flat, accurate route that won’t have interruptions from things like traffic lights or be subject to GPS malfunctions.
If a track isn’t practical (either because of lack of access or because of the race distance), you can map out a road course that meets your needs. You can try to mimic a race course you would have been running, or pick a route that gives you your best chance to run a fast time.
Either way, remember that your virtual race doesn’t have the benefit of permits—so road crossings and traffic lights will need to be considered. Consider what pedestrians you’ll need to avoid—now more than ever—and schedule the time when you can run with as clear a path and single focus as possible.
After deciding on a location, pick a date and time and be ready to stick to it. This will help you identify it as a meaningful race and not just another speed workout. It will also keep you from bailing when the going gets tough.
Ross says, “One of the best ways to treat it like a race is to structure it just like you would a normal race, and not giving yourself the flexibility to say, ‘well, I’ll do it sometime on Saturday when I’m up for it.’” If it helps solidify the specific time and place, pin on an old race number, or print one for your own race.
Telling others about your race is another way to make it more concrete and keep you accountable. When you’re virtually racing, this makes the race real—rather than a personal construct—and may help keep you honest and not scale the goal down when you need to reach into the well.
One final step is to make sure that any technology or timing devices, like GPS watches, are working properly and you know how to use them. Also, double check how the event is measuring your results: what systems they are using, what data they accept, when you should start and stop your watch and the like. Just like any good race director, you don’t want a technical glitch to impact your race.
Brag, Praise and Complain
With the details set, get others involved if the social aspect of races is part of what you’re hoping to capture with your virtual race. Just because you’ll be doing the running by yourself doesn’t mean that it needs to be a solo endeavor. Social connection is an important part of racing for many that can still be captured in a virtual setting, according to Beecham.
Even at in-person races a lot of the social interaction doesn’t occur while the clock is running. “A lot of times in races our paces are so different that we’re really connecting before the race and after the race with our friends on how they did,” Ross says. “And I think virtual races offer that same opportunity.”
At the least, tell your social media friends about your results, the challenges and the successes—like you would when milling around the finish area rehydrating and recovering. Ross suggests even going so far as setting up a conference call or video conference right before the race with the runners, signing off with one minute—or so—to go until the start, and racing to see who can get back on the call the fastest.
Find Out How Good You Are Today
The actual running part of a virtual race also presents new challenges, the most obvious being that there won’t be other runners to gauge off and compete against. “You have to concentrate more,” says Benji Durden, former elite now masters runner who competed in the virtual Three Creeks Half Marathon on April 1. “In a road race, you can pick out a body to focus on—that guy up there in the orange singlet, I’m going to try to catch him. Whereas today I had to look at my watch every few minutes to make sure I wasn’t letting my focus drift. I had to keep pressing.”
This may not be all bad. Having others in a race is a benefit for some, says Beecham, but for some, other runners can be a distraction. “They might find that they actually perform better because their mind is less distracted, and that in turn might allow them to get into flow easier,” he says.
Beecham says the important thing to remember is that you’re running to find out how fast you are, and that competition with yourself doesn’t require other runners to be present. Instead of racing to beat others and judging your progress by your place in the pack, you need to find ways to keep yourself focused, to keep pushing and caring about your result.
To increase your chances of a good performance, Beecham says it’s important to challenge yourself with a goal time that you believe you can achieve if you run to your full potential. “Have a goal, pay attention to it during the race, and commit to running that pace for as long as you can,” he says.
Ross agrees that having a specific goal and race plan is important—especially for when the race starts to hurt. “The clearer and deeper the internal motivation, the more likely you are going to be to fight for it,” he says.
Pushing through that pain might be harder in a virtual race because of the reduced structure and lack of physical competition. “The flexibility of a virtual race is going to lend itself to cognitive flexibility at the same time—the flexibility to talk yourself out of hard things when maybe you don’t feel like doing it,” Ross says.
Knowing others are running a virtual race at the same time or are waiting to hear your report can help push you through the challenging points in the race and the feelings of “why should I hurt anymore” and “maybe I’ll try this again tomorrow.”
“The question is ‘how good am I today?’” Beecham says. “Answer that question. How good I might be tomorrow or next week, that might be different.”
Appreciate New Skills
Although it may be tough to deal with these challenges and a new approach to racing, the good news is that it will make you a better runner.
“It creates a really unique opportunity for people to work on their mental game,” Ross says. “That idea that without actual competitors out on the course, you’re going to need to come up with the internal drive to be competitive and to push yourself. You can build upon those skills and access them when you get back to racing as we know it.”
Celebrate and Close the Season
At the finish line, the traditional pomp and circumstance of a road race will be missing. If your virtual race is replacing one that was scheduled to be the end of a long and challenging training cycle, Ross says that you need to be mindful that there may not be the same sense of closure to the training cycle.
But the community celebration and connection doesn’t need to be absent. Whether it’s a virtual version of a large marathon or an impromptu race put together among friends, Beecham sees the social connection and follow-up among participants as vital and says you can still share a beer over video conferencing when the race is done.
Likewise, you can compare results, celebrate victories and give excuses and commiserate on the tough sections. If you enjoy seeing pictures of yourself in the throes of competition—and, let’s be honest, most of us do, as it affirms our effort—try to get someone to snap one in the final stretch.
Ultimately a virtual race should be a tool to help replace what you’re missing from running in these times, according to Ross. He recommends looking at what the sport provides you in your life and asking yourself what you need to feel connected to that.
And despite the restrictions and limitations currently in place, Beecham reminds us, “For those of us who still want to do difficult things and challenge ourselves, that hasn’t changed, you can still do that.”