On race day, the energy of competition and camaraderie fill the air. Many of us can imagine the scene of fellow runners warming up beside us, jostling amongst one another as crowds cheer on the runners from the sidelines. Now, picture all of that without the crowds. It may be jarring to imagine at first, but thanks in part to the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual races are becoming one of the most popular trends in the racing world.

Virtual races require participants to sign up to run a certain distance wherever they’re located and they can join whenever they are available (within a certain time frame of days or weeks.) Users log in to complete their run and later they are even shipped their medals.


The Benefits of Virtual Racing & Sports

People have begun to embrace the virtual run for a variety of reasons. They offer an easy entry into the world of racing for recreational runners who may find the sport new and/or intimidating. Participants on the platform can also pledge to run a 5k, 10k, or half-marathon, but the race works with an honor system. After finishing the run, users log their distance and time into the race’s website and claim their medals. For many, planning a training routine is a major prerequisite for starting a race, but many eSports training groups can help prepare participants with virtual racing beforehand. Fortunately, participants don’t have to waste time on a commute to the gym or even the race itself. Essentially, virtual runners are trading the cheering crowds for accessibility and time savings that afford flexible start times.

Virtual races are a great way to practice prep routine for a race or test out new gear. Even if the event doesn’t have a flexible start time, users can decide when they want to join and for how long. Virtual racing emphasizes fun and community, just as do in-person events. For instance, Disney fans organized a virtual series through its theme. It was a huge success and many of its virtual races were sold out this year.

Often, virtual races are linked to charities or sponsored by companies. Many sports brands are jumping on board to support these events. For example, DICK’s Sporting Goods is hosting the Run Your Run my Virtual Race to celebrate National Runner’s Month. Even in a virtual atmosphere, it can be a great way to connect with a niche community with similar interests or support a company or charity.

Another benefit of virtual races is that they allow more people to enter running events more easily than physical races, which generally fill up quickly with registrants. In 2018, the TCS New York City Marathon created its own virtual registration. Five-hundred runners signed on to run 25.2 miles, utilizing the Strava app to log their distance and claim their medals, but also guaranteeing their entry into the in-person 2019 race. In fact, many racing experiences require signing up for a virtual race with GPS tracking through apps including Strava or MapMyRun to prove results on a set race date. That’s how the canceled 2020 Boston Marathon handled its virtual race for registrants. Other groups that organizes the NYC marathon, like New York Road Runners, and offers a series of virtual runs, including a virtual NYC Half marathon and the dog run. 

The Virtual Route

Virtual racing can also introduce new scenery to running workouts. Users may select a popular marathon or cycling course, even competing in a completely virtual scene that’s not based in a real place. Off-road options are also available for those who prefer trail running.

Beyond the standard routes, challenges and time trials help make virtual running events more interesting by including terrain with steep inclines, which is often harder to come by in the real world. The virtual climbs make it harder to run or pedal in real life to sustain a challenging workout. After a few runs, the apps can match users against other competitors with similar power output numbers. This helps build their stamina and ensures they’re not competing with the pros right away.

Some races also offer sprint and climbing rewards systems within the race, awarding the winners with special running gear and other prizes for their avatars. There are also modes that offer power boosts on the course, making running workouts more like a Mario Kart game — and a lot more fun.

Virtual running offers new and convenient ways to stay active from the comfort of our home, at a pace that is convenient for everyone’s personal capability. It’s a fun way to compete without the hassle of fees, commutes and crowds. Once new users acclimate to the first few running sessions, they’ll realize that tracking their fitness indoors has its benefits. An added benefit is that the controlled setting lets users compare workouts and track progress more accurately, while also building upon the endurance they’re steadily building. It’s no surprise that the virtual running market has steadily built upon its popularity during the pandemic and continues to help runners enter a new era of fitness that can be more engaging for a larger athletic audience.