Virtual Road Race Strategy 101

In these times of Coronavirus, most endurance athletes are taking one of two options.  The first option is base-building.  These athletes are putting in the training volume, mostly easy, as they anticipate a fast fall (and hopefully one filled with numerous races from which to choose!)  The second option is to have fun with some virtual races.  These athletes are also working on consistent mileage, but they are incorporating some virtual races on their calendars as well.

Lately, our Facebook feeds and emails are overflowing with ads for virtual races.  We see 5k’s, 10k’s, half marathons and full marathons.  There are backyard ultras and virtual triathlons (which are really duathlons at the moment, with no pools open.)  There are so many options that it can be overwhelming to choose!  Let’s look into picking, and ultimately racing, the perfect fit for you.

woman in white t shirt walking on concrete road

Photo by Guillaume Hankenne on

What distance should I pick?  Here is where you want to tread carefully.  Pick a distance that you feel comfortable with.  This is not the time to charter into unknown territory.  If you have been running all 5K’s and 10K’s, do not opt into a full marathon.  Why?  The risk of injury is high, and although virtual races are fun it’s not worth risking your fall season.  Also, the weather plays a huge role in long course races.  If you run your first full in the blazing heat of late June or July, it’s going to make for a miserable experience and leave a bad taste in your mouth.  Save that epic first marathon for a fun spring or fall event with thousands of your closest friends once the world reopens!  On the other hand, if you are a big endurance junkie I would avoid targeting a fast 5K in the very near future.  Going straight into speed work to prepare for a hard, short course race is also going to raise the risk of injuries.  So choose wisely and go with a distance you enjoy and that you have done often.

Now that I know the distance, which race should I pick?  The choice is completely yours on this one.  If medals are of utmost importance to you, shop around to see which medal and swag catches your eye.  You can stay local and support your local race companies.  For example, our local company RaceRise has an upcoming virtual half marathon that has attracted over 2400 runners from at least 44 states.  If you are very results-oriented, you can look at the big name companies like Ironman that host large fields with frequently updated leaderboards.  Beware though, as the cheating can be rampant.  Always think of these events as a race against yourself if you want honest results.

How do I plan my course?  This is the tricky part.  You want a route with as minimal traffic as possible.  If you have a park with a two mile (or longer) loop, that can be ideal.  If it is a popular park plan for a quieter time of day, such as an early morning or week day.  Long bike paths that you can run as an out and back are a smart choice. Another option is to search for certified race courses in your area.  For example, we have a rural half marathon outside of Lexington, KY that is on quiet roads and would be a nice option.  And the terrain is up to you.  Find as flat as possible for maximal efficiency.  You can do it on the trails if you prefer.  And if you are sadistic and love hills, go ahead and plan a painful route.  Of course, not many routes could be as painful as Pan Shancu’s recent course.  He ran 31 miles around his living room while in lockdown in China.

How should I warm up?  Warm up just as you would on race day.  Eat your typical race day breakfast at your regular time.  For example, I eat a small bowl of oatmeal 2.5 hours before a longer race and then sip on a watered down sports drink until the start.  Dress in your race day outfit, and wear your fast shoes if you have them.  The shorter the distance, the more of a warm up you’ll need.  For a 5K, you might warm up anywhere from 1-3 miles. Include drills.  I suggest side shuffle, skipping, butt kicks and a few wind sprints.  For longer races such as a half or full, 5-10 minutes of easy jogging will suffice but drills are always beneficial.  After your warm up, make sure and reset your watch so that you will have the accurate distance of your virtual race.

How do I pace my virtual race?  This is the million dollar question, but the answer is relatively easy.  Virtual racers will be at a handicap compared to actual racers.  We do not have the adrenaline and crowd support.  We will not be surrounded by our competitors.  We are probably not fully tapered and trained specifically for this event.  Unfortunately, all of these factors can often set us up for failure.  They make an incredible difference.  So, rather than going out at your usual race pace, I suggest using the triathlon pacing rule of thumb.  Double the distance, and think of your race pace for that specific distance.  For example, if you are running a 5K, aim to go out at your 10K pace. Running a 10K?  Aim for your half marathon PR pace.  A half?  Dial it in by trying to perfect your marathon pace.  If you are feeling good as you hit the second half, give it a little gas.  But there is no reason to be a hero in a virtual race, so I suggest finishing with a little more to give.  Do know that the longer the race, the tougher this will be.  Holding marathon pace for 13 miles is no easy task and would be a very challenging key workout in a marathon build.  But, using this strategy should set you up for success.  And finishing with a negative split is always a huge confidence booster!

After your virtual race, take an easy day or two of rest and/or active recovery.  If you enjoyed the experience, you might want to start searching for another event.  If you are targeting a goal fall race, be mindful of giving yourself plenty of time to get in quality training mileage between events.  Just like in real life, racing every weekend or two can be detrimental to achieving your best results.  But if having fun is your goal, that’s a different story.  It’s important to remember we all race for different reasons.

photo of man running during daytime

Photo by Tembela Bohle on




About erinrockrun

Erin Rock is a master's athlete, NASM personal trainer and USA Triathlon certified coach. She and her wonderful Irish husband Damien have two fur babies. When not on the bike or roads, she can be found plant-based cooking, reading non-fiction, or trying to break the world record for number of grocery bags carried on her arms in one trip.
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