Pros and Cons of Virtual Races, According to Fitness Experts

Pros and Cons of Virtual Races

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

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Getting outdoors for a run or a brisk walk can feel refreshing and participating in a more competitive running or walking event can keep you motivated. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many activities have been canceled and postponed.

Such is the case with many popular running and walking races and marathons. Even though you may not be able to head out for a 3k, 5k, marathon, or 10k, many of those events are now available virtually. And while the experience may be different in some ways, you may end up really enjoying the virtual race experience. 

We turned to some fitness experts for their take on the pros and cons of virtual races.

Pros of Virtual Races

Flexibility

In-person runs are great, but they have definitive start times. Alternately, most virtual races can be done anywhere and at any time, making them great for those who may not have a traditional schedule or are overbooked (as many of us).

"My schedule has been all over since the start of the pandemic," says Samantha Parker, author, certified yoga therapist (C-IAYT) and certified personal trainer, who has worked with special forces and active duty military, professional athletes. "I love having that flexibility. I can run them when I get the time," she says.

Convenience

"There is an ease to virtual races because you don't have to travel to the race, worry about parking, or spend the night in a hotel," says Gretchen Zelek, partner at Donuts & Pie Fitness, AFAA Group Fitness Instructor, and a Functional Aging Specialist (FAI).

Zelek loves crowds and the usual jostling at the start of a road race, but she decided to give a virtual race a try because of the pandemic. "I ran the seven mile Virtual Falmouth Road Race on the Cape Rail Trail, a 25-mile paved trail through woods, cranberry bogs, ponds, and marshes. I look forward to running more virtual races," she says.

Accountability

Parker admits that though she isn’t a fan of running, she does so because she knows it is good for her. “I especially do not like running long distances," she says. "But these races help me with accountability in working toward my goal.”

In fact, in an analysis of 14 studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, researchers tracked the health of more than 200,000 people for between 5.5 and 35 years. Any amount of running was associated with a 27% lower risk of death from all causes for both men and women, compared with no running.

"For longer virtual challenges, try setting a monthly target or taking it on with a team, says Mimi Otto, content marketing manager for Run The Edge, a company that offers virtual challenges without the pressure of a race. "It can help keep you accountable and motivated."

Connection With Others

While virtual races may seem solitary, you can enlist others with a little creativity, and it can be a group sport. “I have friends that I used to run half marathons with while living in Europe, and this helps us all to run together no matter where we are currently living,” says Parker.

Plus, organizers are supportive and keep participants informed. They send emails to remind runners to tag and post photos on social media to make it a fun experience and create a real race community,” says Zelek.

Great for Beginners

Having other runners around in an in-person event can create a competitive feeling that keeps you going, which may not work for everyone, especially if you are a newbie.

“Virtual races are not as intimidating for a first time runner,” says Zelek. 

Make it a positive and fun experience by getting friends and family to sign up with you, says Angie Webb, president of Moon Joggers, a global online running and walking community. " They can help you feel like you are a part of something."

Less Expensive

The tab can add up pretty quickly for a traditional race, especially if the event is out of town and you need to book lodgings. “There is the entry fee, festivities, travel expenses, hotel, food,” says Parker. Alternately a virtual race usually only involves an entry fee.

Cons of Virtual Races 

Lack of Motivation

"Some people miss the big race crowds and the community they feel when doing live races with other people," says Webb.

“I love running with my friends, says Parker. "There is just something about the positive energy we contribute to each other we provide each other that just isn’t the same when doing a virtual race,” says Paker.

To combat that feeling, Zelek recommends charity based races. “Not only do you get the satisfaction of finishing the race, but it is also for a cause,” she says.

Webb agrees. "Our virtual races all benefit different charities, and so far, we have donated more than $800,000 to charity! So we are making a difference... one race at a time," she says.

No Spectators

Since you are on your own, you may feel lonely as there may be no crowds, signs, or cheering. And while there is no official time or awards ceremony or party at the finish line, you may still get swag or a finisher's medal, albeit delayed.

“For me to run a full or half marathon or 10K, I need to have some bling waiting for me at the end. Even though I may not receive it at the end of the virtual race, I love seeing it in the mail. There is just something satisfying about holding a medal,” says Parker.

No Medical Support

“Fortunately, I have not had to use medical assistance when doing a race, but if you are on your own, make sure you have water and a phone that is fully charged just in case,” says Parker.

Check-in with your healthcare provider if you are new to exercise and running to ensure that running a virtual race is a good idea for you.

Unequal Courses

John Honerkamp, an RRCA and USATF certified running coach and celebrity marathon pacer, points out that during virtual races, runners can't compare their performance to other runners like you can after in-person races. He notes that the ability to choose your own course makes it difficult to have "an apples-to-apples true race."

Specifically, he says that in a virtual running race, some runners might run a downhill course while others who might be running on a hilly course or at altitude. This lack of consistent course structure makes it very difficult to objectively evaluate how your performance compares to other runners in general or other runners in your age group.

No Team Running Opportunities

Many runners look forward to in-person races because it gives them the opportunity to run with their team mates. In a virtual race, you are likely to run solo. To solve this issue, Honerkamp developed a concept called RUNchute, a platform that allows runners to compete on the same course at different times and capture their results using their GPS devices. RUNchute also allows runners to compare their results more accurately. Honerkamp also says that he hopes the platform helps provide local teams with a renewed sense of purpose and community.

A Word From Verywell

Even though the COVID-19 pandemic has changed many things about how we live and conduct ourselves, we can still find ways to connect while limiting our contact.

Virtual races may seem off-putting if you long for in-person connections to motivate you. But they can still be fun and provide motivation, help you meet goals, and keep you feeling strong. Plus, you may just find that you like the ease of participating as they are adaptable to your schedule or other perks you didn't expect.

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