Lifestyle12 Sep 2020

Virtual races: are you up for the challenge?


Preparing to run (© Mark Clinton Johnson)

Athletics competitions are slowly returning as we all adjust to the ‘new normal’. And if you thought the world’s top athletes might need a few warm-up competitions to get into their stride…no way!

We’ve already seen world records shattered and others on borrowed time. And, as ever in athletics, talented youngsters are bursting on to the scene and leaving the established stars no room at all to rest on their laurels. Far from becoming a little rusty, the lack of competition seems to have fired up the world’s elite athletes into unleashing formidable performances.

Road races too are returning, and until mass participation as we’ve known it is allowed to resume, virtual races are the way to go. And like the world’s elite athletes, if you thought the return to competition for amateur runners would be softly-softly, not a bit of it!

Incredibly, this year’s 40th Virgin Money London Marathon on 4 October has sold out all its 45,000 virtual places. And on 17 October, what promises to be the biggest half marathon in history will see recreational runners all over the world race virtually alongside the world’s best at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships Gdynia 2020 in Poland.

So how do you approach a virtual race, and get the very best out of yourself? For sure, it’s a very different beast to physically toeing the start line with many thousands of other runners. But with a bit of forward planning, virtual racing can be an exciting experience of new challenges and pushing the boundaries. Here are my five top tips to help you prepare.

1. Your race course

If you want to run fast, choose a fast course! Corners, hills and uneven surfaces will all slow you down. Recce your course in advance, and be sure it’s the correct distance. Multiple laps on a loop course is a good option – it makes picking up drinks simpler, and you won’t be too far from home if trouble strikes.

2. Your personalised start time

Many virtual races give you 24 hours to complete your race, so you’re free to run whenever you please – what a bonus! As well as considering if you’re a morning lark or a night owl, pick a time when the streets will be quiet and the weather favourable.

3. Staying focused

Running alone for stretches in a long-distance race is tough, no doubt about it. But there are things you can do to keep your concentration. Setting yourself small goals like reaching the next traffic light; focusing on your breathing or steps; and counting in your head, are all popular mental tricks to help get through bad patches.

4. Kit and fuel at the ready

A virtual race is still a race, which means all the logistical things need to be thought through and prepared in advance. What kit and shoes will you wear? What will you eat and drink, and when? How will you get to and from the course? Will you be ready for all weathers?

5. Have a goal

No matter what kind of challenge you’re taking on, a goal is essential – it helps with getting through bad patches, provides a way of measuring your effort, and gives something concrete to work towards. Of course goals can be adjusted – not every goal is always met.


A virtual race is like a debut marathon in that it is a leap into the unknown. But if you approach it with an open mind and a willingness to learn, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you can achieve, and discover that you can do things that you thought were impossible.