Should You Run a Virtual Marathon in 2020?

A group of marathoners running, photographed from an aerial view.
Stacey Shackford/Getty Images.

If you're like many runners, you probably had big plans for 2020. Maybe you were going to run your very first marathon or go for a personal best. Or, maybe this year would've been your 10th marathon. Or perhaps you picked a special race in commemoration of something or someone. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic turned the world topsy-turvy and your big race day was canceled. 

While it may feel like a big disappointment, you don’t have to let all your training hours go to waste. Virtual marathons exist, and as strange as they may sound on the surface, they can actually be quite fun.

Prior to COVID-19, there were plenty of virtual races available every year. However, that offering has expanded significantly as many traditional races went digital this year due to public health concerns. 

If you missed out on your marathon this year, consider running a virtual race. Here you'll learn if it's the right choice for you, how to choose the best race, how to prepare, and how to properly tackle the day.

Is a Virtual Marathon Right for You? 

Anyone who would sign up for a regular marathon can sign up for a virtual marathon. As long as you feel adequately prepared both physically and mentally, running a virtual marathon is a great way to experience race day without crowds.  

However, there are a few things you should consider before committing to a virtual marathon. Before hitting that sign-up button, ask yourself these questions to make sure you’re ready. 

1. Have I stuck with my training plan even though my race was canceled? 

There’s certainly no shame in easing off of your marathon training plan after learning that your race is canceled. However, you should definitely take an honest look at your training status before signing up for a virtual marathon.

If you’ve continued running consistently, even at lower mileages, you’re probably good to go—but if you haven’t laced up your sneaks in months, you may want to wait till next marathon season or simply choose a virtual race that’s several months out. 

2. Do I have a safe route to run on? 

This is a big one. If you don’t have a safe place to run 26.2 miles, a virtual marathon may not be the right kind of race for you. During traditional marathons, busy streets are barricaded and traffic is diverted. Those luxuries don’t come with virtual marathoning, so it’s critical to map out a safe route before committing to a virtual race.

3. Am I able to set up water stations or carry enough water to last the race? 

You absolutely must find a way to supply yourself with water during your marathon. During a regular marathon, you can easily stop at water stations and take a quick swig. You’ll need to recreate this somehow, whether you set up your own water stations or wear a hydration pack of sorts.

Hydration needs vary from person to person, but you safely assume you’ll need four to eight ounces every 15 to 30 minutes. Plan accordingly! 

4. Am I able to space out snack stations or carry enough fuel to make it the whole way? 

Equally as important as water is food. Nearly 30 miles is a long way to go without any sort of fuel, and with a virtual marathon, it’s entirely up to you to figure out how to fuel yourself.

If you can set up water stations, you can stash some quick snacks and race gels in the same locations. Alternatively, you can carry some small but calorically dense snacks to get you through the race. If neither of those options sound feasible, a virtual marathon might not be your best bet.

5. Will I be able to use the restroom? 

This might not be top-of-mind when planning your virtual marathon, so consider this your friendly nudge to put it on your “to-think-about” list. A marathon can take anywhere from just a couple of hours (for elite runners) up to five or six hours—and if you’re human, you’ll likely need to take a potty break at some point.

So, do you have adequate bathroom options along your planned route? Or will you be forced to hold it or risk getting glimpsed on the side of the road?

6. Do I have an emergency contact who can help if anything goes wrong? 

Before signing up for a virtual marathon, you should appoint someone as your emergency contact. Ideally, this person will be able to clear their schedule on your race day and be available for any and all mishaps.

This person should have a mode of transportation in case you need to be taken off of the route, as well as have a first-aid kit on hand. You may also want to equip your emergency contact with extra snacks and fluids in case you need more along the way. 

7. Can I enlist someone to meet me at the finish? 

This one isn’t absolutely necessary, but it can relieve a bit of virtual marathon anxiety. Knowing that someone is waiting for you at the finish line of your route takes some mental strain off, because theoretically, this person will have food, water, and sports drinks for you.

Ideally, your finish line friend will have enough time to hang around while you recover from your race and can transport you back to your car or home.

8. Can I confidently time myself to get accurate results? 

If you aren’t concerned with your time, you don’t need to worry so much about this. But, if you’re running a big race and trying to qualify for another race, you need to have confidence in your ability to time yourself accurately.

Most runners will use a GPS watch or device which is fairly accurate. It is up to you if you want to stop you GPS at water or bathroom stops, but you wouldn't have this option on an actual race. You may also consider having a friend start a timer at the starting line and meet you at the finish line to capture your time.

9. Are you happy with the virtual race options available to you?

This is more important than you might think. Race sign-ups aren’t cheap, so make sure you’re happy with the race options available to you.

If you’re not, it might be worth saving your money until you can find a virtual race that better suits your needs and wants or holding off entirely until you can run in person.

10. Is the best option for me to hold off until I can run a traditional marathon? 

Look, we get it. Runners want to run. But sometimes, not running is the best choice a runner can make. It sounds counterintuitive, but there are plenty of good reasons to postpone your marathon until next year (or whenever it’s safe to run marathons in person again)—and there’s no reason to feel bad or guilty about it either. 

Maybe running a virtual marathon isn’t the best choice for you right now because:

  • You’re not in the right headspace (there’s really a lot going on this year). 
  • You don’t have an emergency contact or the ability to design a safe route. 
  • You fell away from your training plan and aren’t sure if you can complete the full 26.2 miles.
  • You want your first marathon to be more traditional experience of running with other runners in front of lots of spectators.

If any of the above—or any other reasons—apply to you, perhaps the best move is to sign up for a marathon in 2021 or another later date. And, be confident and happy in your decision! Instead of feeling guilty about “skipping” your marathon, feel proud because you made a smart choice. 

How to Choose a Virtual Marathon

Choose your virtual marathon based on your needs and goals. Keep the following factors and questions in mind can help you come to your conclusion: 

  • Flexibility: Does the virtual marathon allow me to run anywhere, at any time?
  • Location: Is the virtual marathon open to anyone in any country? 
  • Awards and Swag: Does the virtual marathon give out medals, t-shirts, or other items I want? 
  • Qualification: Is the virtual marathon more of a fun run, or can I use this race to qualify for other, bigger races? 
  • Community: Does the virtual marathon have a community of runners that I would like to join?
  • History: Does the company behind the marathon have a history of putting on good races?
  • Price: Can I afford to sign up for this virtual marathon? 
  • Charity: Does the virtual marathon support a charity I align with?

Where to Run a Virtual Marathon

You can run a virtual marathon anywhere that’s safe and has adequate opportunities to stash food and water. Try to avoid big, busy streets, and always run facing oncoming traffic. You don’t want to be blind to cars hurtling toward you.

Ideally, your route will consist mainly of sidewalks or pedestrian trails with few or no major intersection crossings. 

You’ll also want to look for a route that has public restrooms or, if you’re running trails, discreet places to use nature as your bathroom, if needed. 

Tips for Running a Virtual Marathon

Run a virtual marathon just like you would run a traditional marathon—after making sure you have all of your necessities in place, that is. Once you have your route planned out and marked, dotted with snack and water stations, you can hit the pavement. Keep the following tips in mind along the way.

Staying Motivated

It might feel tougher to run a virtual marathon because you won’t have hundreds of people running by your side and crowds of excited bystanders cheering you on. Unless you set speakers up yourself, you also won’t have encouragement over loudspeakers. 

You can, of course, wear headphones to listen to your favorite running jams, but for safety reasons, it’s usually recommended to avoid headphones. You can try bone conduction headphones, which sit in front of your ear opening rather than in it, or keep one earbud out. 

For those who miss the motivational signs lining the route, consider putting up your own! If you have the space, time, and means to create signs (enlisting a few friends can make this super fun), doing so can recreate a beloved element of in-person marathons. 

Many people who run marathons have friends who also run marathons, and everyone knows that running with friends can help with accountability and motivation. Try to convince a couple of besties to sign up for a virtual marathon with you to increase fun and safety.

Finishing Strong

Keep some standard marathon tips in mind as you embark on your virtual marathon:

  • Get a good night’s sleep the night before race day.
  • Eat a healthy, nutrient-dense, but not too filling, breakfast.
  • Warm up thoroughly and try to remain calm at the start. 
  • Choose a pace you can stick with, even if it feels slow in the beginning.
  • Wear clothes you’re more than comfortable in, and wear the same shoes you trained in.
  • Stop regularly for food and water.
  • Refuel quickly at the finish. 
  • Stretch, foam roll, and partake in other recovery methods at the finish.

Which Virtual Marathons Give Out Medals?

There are lots of virtual marathons out there, but not all of them give out medals. If you’re dead-set on getting a medal for your efforts (we totally get that!), make sure to do your research before signing up for a virtual marathon. 

Here are just a few places around the web where you can find virtual races with medals:

A Word From Verywell

We understand how disheartening it is to have big running plans and get shorted of the ability to follow through. However, we also know our readers are smart, adaptable, and determined—if a virtual marathon is on the table for you, go into it with an open mind.

You might be surprised at how much fun you have. The sense of accomplishment will still be there at the finish line. And, who knows? You might score that personal best after all.

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