Mentally Ace Your Virtual Race

Coaching

You don't need a crowd or the competition to reap the rewards of crossing a finishing line. You just need this motivation plan to help you get there.

Last updated: December 21, 2020
How to Approach a Virtual Race

As race after race got cancelled this year, something interesting started to happen. Rather than abandoning their training, many runners began to plan their own races or sign up for a virtual one in honour of a scheduled event. In fact, about 30 percent of runners who had registered for a live race are switching to virtual, says Jeff Matlow, the CEO of Running USA. Some virtual runs are seeing up to 50,000 people, while prior to 2020, a huge turnout would have been up to 15,000, he adds.

Still, only 7 percent of people feel that completing a virtual race—where you sign up online to run a certain distance, then do it on your own time—is the same as finishing an actual organised one, according to Running USA's 2020 National Runner Survey. And let's be honest, it's not. The difference is less about the race programming (most running apps, including Nike Run Club, can help you map out your distance). The real challenge is, how do you stay motivated and on your game when you no longer have the camaraderie, cheerleaders or competition to keep you going?

"You're not limited to the rules of someone else's race, you're making the rules for your own race. In a lot of ways, that's liberating".

Chris Bennett
Nike Running Global Head Coach

If you put the effort in, you can find a new type of inspiration from a virtual race, says Lennie Waite, PhD, a certified mental-performance consultant (and Olympian) who recently completed her first one. "You're the race director and the participant", she says. "That sense of control could boost your performance". Nike Running global head coach Chris Bennett agrees. "You're not limited to the rules of someone else's race, you're making the rules for your own race", he says. "In a lot of ways, that's liberating".

Here's how to get your mind on track so you can race your heart out—and enjoy it.

How to Approach a Virtual Race

01. Shift your perspective.
"The reason most people run a race is to affirm something positive about themselves, which is that they can start and finish a challenge", says Waite. And trust us: A virtual race is the ultimate challenge.

Why? Waite says the temptation to bail on a run can be more intense or frequent than ever. This is partly because virtual races have built-in flexibility, but mostly because not having an energising event to look forward to can make you feel like the whole journey doesn't matter as much. So it takes even more grit to keep tacking on the miles. Instead of letting that extra burden get in your way, use it to empower you. "It's an extra level of badass to say, 'I'm going to run a half marathon or a marathon, and I may do it alone'", says Bennett.

If you still question what it's all worth, Waite suggests writing down a list of what inspired you to race in the first place. You'll remind yourself that even with no fans and maybe no finisher's medal (some race organisations will post you one), you're chasing a goal you set for yourself, she says. You don't need a single other person or object to do that.

02. Gut-check the distance.
Just because you were signed up for, say, a marathon in the autumn, doesn't mean you have to do a virtual marathon in the autumn. Reconsider everything given your circumstances—maybe you're dealing with a full load of online classes or you haven't been able to work out the way you used to—and choose a distance that excites you now. Perhaps that means going for a mile-long race so you can test your speed, or committing to a less body-taxing distance, like a 10K. You're more likely to stick with your training and enjoy race day if you pick something that really sparks a fire in you, as you'll need that passion even more now to keep you going, says Waite.

03. Stick to the plan.
If you're creating your own race, don't take that to mean you can go rogue. "Otherwise you can wiggle your way out of it", says Waite. "A start time and planned route that you take seriously are part of what will make it feel more 'real'", and they can help you avoid extra nerves on race day. So if you determine that the "gun" will go off at 7:30am, make sure you're outside warming up by 7:15am.

04. Visualise the newly tough parts.
"When you remove the other athletes and the crowds, it can be even easier to lose focus, feel sorry for yourself, or beat yourself up", says Bennett. That's where visualisation comes in. Imagine yourself crossing the finishing line, but also anticipate how you'll handle any hurdles that might pop up. Will you have a mantra at the ready? Or picture that list of your reasons for doing this? When you get mentally challenged during your virtual race, you'll be less likely to throw in the towel despite no one watching.

05. Maintain your pre-race rituals.
"If you act like it's race day, it's amazing how quickly the body and the mind get into that experience", says Waite. Lay out your shoes and outfit (put your name on it if you want to) and snap a pic for social media. Eat a healthy dinner and go to bed early. Wake up and have your pre-race meal. "Those are the things that generate excitement and the good anxiety that you get before a race". Also, virtual doesn't have to mean totally alone, so set up cheer stations for friends and family at points where you anticipate hitting a wall.

06. Celebrate!
Grabbing a pint after the London Marathon or celebrating with a deep-dish pizza in Chicago are no-brainers. After Waite's virtual race, she and her training partners hung in a local park with their dogs and enjoyed a glass of wine later. Says Waite: "If we can picture that positivity and celebration afterwards, it can reaffirm why we are doing a challenge and serve as a reminder that the effort will be worth it in the end".

How to Approach a Virtual Race

Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on recovery, as well as mindset, movement, nutrition and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club App.

Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on recovery, as well as mindset, movement, nutrition and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club App.

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