Running a virtual race? Here’s how to mentally prep

Part of the fun of marathons is the energy — water volunteers, bands, friends and family cheering along the path, and fellow competitors. On race day there’s no shortage of people pushing runners to finish.

That boost is especially important in the last six to eight miles of the race when many runners hit the proverbial wall. If you were planning on running a marathon this year, completing 26.2 miles virtually may seem daunting and not nearly as exciting.

Yet it’s exactly what runners are facing this fall with events such as the Chicago and New York marathons going virtual in light of COVID-19. Registered athletes will attempt to replicate marathon conditions in their hometowns, arguably more of a mental challenge than a logistical one. That’s because it’s relatively simple to lay out a route, but it’s more difficult to simulate the interactive experience.

“Like so many things with COVID-19, we have to take the alternative route,” says Bridget McLaughlin, a six-time marathoner planning to race the 2020 New York City Marathon virtually in Phoenix. “Once you get past the disappointment of the cancelation, you realize the novelty of a virtual race is exciting.”

Here are five ways to help you mentally prep for a virtual race and persevere to the finish line, even without the fanfare.

1. Stick to the program.

Experienced marathoners know the importance of following a progressive weekly training regimen that builds to longer runs of up to 18 to 20 miles. Training is a mostly solitary pursuit in normal times, so focusing on that will make it easier to mentally prep for a virtual race. On the upside, a virtual race makes it even easier to visualize the event since it likely will include long stretches of hometown running that you already run during normal training routes.

“Success in any event comes down to trusting your level of preparedness,” says EXOS performance specialist Natalie Kollars. “You know what you’re capable of, regardless of whether there are fans, people at rest stops, and constant stimulation.”

2. Simulate the race.

Account for hydration, nutrition, and perhaps post-race transportation if the route is not an out-and-back course. These logistics are typically handled by race organizers, but in a virtual race it’s up to you.

If your route goes past the homes of friends and family members, stash your hydration refills there and recruit them to cheer you on, or even invite them to run a few socially-distanced miles with you, something that’s not typically allowed in normal races. If you have children or younger family members, let them fire a starting horn and stage the finish line.

“Mentally you could end up with a more meaningful atmosphere with a few people you know well rather than a lot of people you don’t know,” Kollars said.

3. Find a social network.

There’s also nothing stopping you from connecting via social media or word of mouth with others training for the same virtual race and competing together, socially distanced, of course. They can also serve as training accountability partners in the weeks leading up to the marathon.

On race day you won’t have the constant mental focus of passing and getting passed by other runners, which can be motivational. Your casual running buddies likely won’t be able to stick with you for an entire virtual marathon. It might be easier to station a running friend at a four-mile stretch later in the race for pacing purposes.

4. Control the noise.

Many runners go without their headphones in marathons, figuring there’s more than enough stimulation along the way between cheering crowds and live bands. But you might want to consider a music strategy for a virtual marathon.

“If the beat is what drives you, find something that matches your running cadence,” says Tiffany Grimm, EXOS director of recovery. “Find songs that inspire you.”

Grimm notes that for those who like silence, it’s just as important to find a rhythm with breathing, perhaps matched to a song in your head or a mantra repeated throughout the race. “When you get into those moments of despair and want to quit, focusing on something rhythmic helps,” she said.

5. Discover internal motivation.

During an in-person race, you might feed off the energy of the crowd and the other runners. This lack of external motivation has been an issue for all athletes during the pandemic, but professional sports teams have coped by playing stadium sound effects, piping in crowd noise, and even putting cardboard fan cutouts in the stands.

Since you probably don’t want to carry a sound system playing cheering crowds during your run, you’ll need to adjust mentally to a lack of external motivators. But this could make completing a virtual marathon more satisfying. After all, how many people ever go out and run 26.2 miles virtually alone?

“If you normally feed on these external things, maybe this is going to open up a different part of yourself that you’d never explore mentally,” Grimm said. “You know that you can do it alone and that’s going to inspire you to reach the finish line.

Ready to run your next virtual race? Check out these ways to reduce your risk of injury before, during, and after your marathon.

About the Author

Pete Williams

Florida-based writer Pete Williams is a longtime editorial contributor to EXOS.

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