Man running in tracksuit
Photo credit: Tikkho Maciel

Virtual Racing: What It Is and How to Get Started

With spring races all over the world postponed or canceled, athletes are turning to virtual runs and rides to keep themselves fit and still test their mettle against others.

Virtual racing can vary from comparing 5K times with a few friends to going up against others online in real time. No matter your level of intensity, setting a virtual race day is a great training motivator.

Some event organizers have created monthslong challenges to track real-life miles along far-off virtual routes.

The interest in virtual and online racing has never been higher, so the competition is there if you want to join. No matter what you’re looking for, these workouts and races are a great way to sate your competitive streak and leave your legs so thrashed you’ll want to reach for some recovery gummies.

strava watch check lifestyle

Virtual Races: Sign Up and Start Training Today

The easiest on-ramp to virtual racing is to sign up for a virtual 5K or 10K. These races are often tied to a charity and have flexible start times. When you’re done, simply submit your results online to see how you measure up to the other participants. You can even collect a medal.

For many, the main part of a race is setting a goal to train toward and then going out and doing your best. By doing this virtually, you trade subtleties like racing dynamics and cheering crowds for ease of access and time savings.

Virtual races are a great way to practice your race prep routine or test out new gear. Even if the event has a flexible start time, decide on your own the night before and toe the line on time. They’re also about fun and community. Disney fans have made its virtual series a success, and all four races are sold out this year.

For a more serious race experience, sign up for a virtual race that requires GPS tracking through apps like Strava or MapMyRun to prove results on a set race date. This is how the canceled 2020 Boston Marathon will handle its virtual race for registrants.

4 New Ways to Race All Summer

To replace many canceled summer runs, organizers have issued bigger objectives to keep you logging miles virtually into the fall.

  • Rock ‘n’ Roll Series: This popular race series created a virtual run club that combines training, challenges, and virtual races that work with a variety of existing fitness trackers. They set the distance, you set the course.
  • Virtual 6 Program: New York Road Runners’ series of virtual runs is set up to help you build race experience and gain entry to larger events. Completing six of the 11 races should be enough to guarantee entry to the Popular Brooklyn Half.
  • Great American 5000: This is a team-based summer race (June 14 to September 14), where any distance tracked puts your crew closer to the goal of 5,000 km, replicating a course from San Francisco to New York City. You can also donate to Feeding America, the race’s charity.
  • The Florida 100K Challenge: You (and maybe a team) have until Halloween to complete the Florida 1,000K & 300K Challenge, presented by Best Damn Race. Four checkpoints award badges and swag as you progress, virtually, from Amelia Island to Key West.


zwift-photo-cycling trainer

Go All Out With Online Virtual Racing

If you miss drafting and chasing down other racers, jump on a treadmill or stationary bike to race online.

Set aside your preconceptions about virtual rides and runs. When you’re done hammering out a climb or finish-line sprint, your legs and sweat will know the effort was very real.

Indoor race platforms are seeing a boom thanks to more responsive exercise equipment and more interest in training indoors. The popular virtual racing app Zwift saw record numbers of riders and runners in January, with 14,812, only to more than double participation by April with 34,940 simultaneous users.

Smart trainers and treadmills communicate speed and power data wirelessly with a racing app on your phone, laptop, or TV. Avatars respond to those output numbers, and the app tells the bike trainer or treadmill to increase the difficulty to replicate virtual hills or rough roads.

What you need to plug into racing online:

  • A smart bike trainer or treadmill that communicates via ANT+ or Bluetooth
  • An indoor smart trainer, available from Tacx, Wahoo, and Saris
  • RunPod on your shoes to connect at home or the gym
  • A virtual racing app for your phone, like ZwiftRouvy, or RunSocial
  • A large fan for your setup — because there will be lots of sweat

What to Expect From Online Rides or Runs

Virtual renderings bring new scenery to your workouts. You can select a popular marathon or cycling course, or compete in a completely virtual scene not based on a real place. There are even off-road options.

Beyond these standard routes are some challenges and time trials on steep scenic hills, which are harder to come by in the real world.

Yes, the virtual climbs will make it harder to pedal in real life. Compared to real-world rides, climbs should feel a bit easier and the downhills less so.

After a few rides or runs, the apps can match you against others with similar power output numbers. That way you’re not rubbing shoulders with the pros right away.

To add to the fun, some races offer sprint and climbing point rewards within the race, awarding the winners special gear for their avatars. There are also modes that offer power boosts on the course, making your workout more like Mario Kart — and hopefully as addictive.

zwift run richmond

Sign Up for a Long-Term Goal

Race times aren’t the only way to measure your fitness against friends and get a boost in motivation. Invite friends to a monthslong challenge to accumulate the most mileage, elevation, or just consecutive days of exercising.

Strava Challenges include a variety of cumulative monthly goals for runners, cyclists, and swimmers. Unlike a one-day race, these encourage being active as often as possible. If you have an off day, no problem, go out there the next day.

For instance, riders can “Everest” by repeatedly climbing a hill until they gain 29,029 feet, the height of Mt. Everest. Mark Cavendish, a pro cyclist revered for his sprinting abilities, used Zwift to virtually Everest with a time of 10 hours, 37 minutes, 32 seconds. “I take my hat off to anyone who’s completed it in whatever capacity, it was grim,” he wrote on Twitter.

With his planned races canceled, ultrarunner Zach Bitter turned his attention to the breaking the 100-mile treadmill record, which took him 12 hours, 9 minutes, 15 seconds; just a bit slower than his 100-mile records on track (11:19:13) and trail (12:08:36).

For a monthslong objective, consider tackling an iconic trail. Ultrarunner Bryan Williams set up a Colorado Trail Challenge that gives you until September 3 to complete the 500-mile course (minus the elevation change).

The challenge lets you learn about the trail along the way and offers team relay options. Even neighborhood training runs count, as long you’re tracking them with a GPS app.

Strava Chicago_Run lifestyle photo

Indoors or Out, You’re Putting in the Work

Virtual racing is a fun way to compete without the hassle of fees and commutes. However, once you get over your first few sessions, you’ll realize that tracking your fitness indoors has its own merits. The controlled setting lets you compare workouts and track progress more accurately.

Not every day is race day. Just like your regular training, you don’t want to go all out every time you jump on a bike or treadmill indoors. Consider dedicating one day to training indoors to focus solely on your own efforts. Here, the consistent environment helps you get in touch with your body’s conditioning.

Another advantage of working out from home is that you can dive into hill workouts or fartleks with the flip of a switch. When it’s over, just step away. There’s no wobbly-legged walk home.

Those big efforts will require recovery, which is a major part of any training. It’s how your body repairs itself after a taxing effort and builds new muscle.

After you finish cranking out your best and seeing how you stack up against your friends, take care of yourself. Kick up your legs and start the healing process with Recovery Gummies from Charlotte’s Web.

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This article is sponsored by Charlotte’s Web. Find out more about high-quality hemp extracts with naturally occurring CBD and other products here.