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5 Ways to Stay Mentally Strong During a Virtual Race

You need more than just physical strength to make it through 3.1 or 26.2 on your own.

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Even the term “virtual race” can sound tedious. But as storied races parlay their events into digital offerings (entrants to this year’s Boston Marathon ran the race’s virtual marathon this past week), both seasoned and recreational runners alike are joining in on the trend.

And while virtual races sound like they’re drained of all of the feel-good race energy (the crowds, the spirit, the post-race high), run coaches and sports psychology experts say they have real benefits—and that you have the opportunity to make them into exactly what you want them to be.

Even more? A virtual race could even be a chance to have your best race yet. “It allows the runner to craft a race that’s perfectly suited to him/her,” says Amanda Nurse, an elite runner and running coach based in Boston, MA.

Think about it: You can be flexible with when you run, what weather you run in, and with your schedule. You can scout out a perfectly flat course or run the route you’re most accustomed to. You can stock the course with your favorite fluids and fuel.

“This can be the perfect time for you to take starting line wishes like, ‘I wish I was just running the route I do every day,’ or ‘I wish there wasn’t so much pressure,’ and bring them to life,” says Emily Saul, a licensed mental health counselor and sports psychology coach based in Boston.

Most importantly? “A virtual race forces you to look inside and say ‘why do I run?’” says Nurse. Without crowd support or professional photo finishes, it becomes more about intrinsic motivation than extrinsic motivation.

Of course, from time-to-time—and mile-to-mile—all virtual races will call for some serious willpower and mental toughness (after all, no one said plowing through solo miles was going to be easy). So how can you set yourself up for success? “The ongoing practice of being mentally tough is developing internal tools and using them during the difficult moments to successfully overcome the challenge, one little step at a time,” notes Saul.

Here are some virtual race tips and where to start. 

Have a few successes to lean on.

As the miles roll on, trying times are inevitable. The good news is that you can prep for them. One way to do that: Before the race, think of a few big “wins” you’ve had along the way (a time you persevered despite big challenges or a solid race finish). Have them teed up in your mind. “We need to experience patterns of success in order to build the tools, strength, and confidence to be mentally tough,” says Saul. In other words: Thinking back on what you’ve been able to do in the past can help you move through challenges in the future.

Think back to your why.

It’s a simple fact: You’ll work harder and longer at something you care about, says Saul. So, in tough moments, remind yourself why you chose to train for and run the race, find a phrase or mantra that inspires you, or think about the people who matter most to you. “Use these as ‘mental focal points’ to return to any time during the race to give you new energy,” suggests Saul. “Especially if you’re struggling or feeling discouraged, remembering that this race has meaning, purpose, and value can help you feel strong, empowered, and inspired throughout the race.” Also? Staying present and positive has a huge impact on how your body reacts physically to stress, notes Nurse.

Break the race up into segments.

You’re capable of more than you realize—and by focusing on small pieces of the race, you tap into your confidence, elevating performance, notes Saul. “The trick is to find the size of those pieces—distance or time—that if you had to do only that one piece, you’d say confidently, ‘heck yeah I can do that!’” That might be one mile or it might be 10. For Nurse, it’s an out-and-back mentality. “ I think about the race in two parts. I just need to get to the turn around at a certain pace, then I think the second half as another race.” No matter what segments you choose, give yourself permission to think about only running that segment, suggests Saul. “Focus on one piece at a time and when you’re done focus on the next one.”

Maintain competitiveness throughout.

It’s easy to feel like competition is absent in a virtual race. But there are many ways to bring a competitive spirit to virtual miles. First, you have to know what motivates you to work hard, says Saul. 

Motivated by the quality of the experience? You might feel most competitive if you plan your location, timing, and amount of support (aid stations and cheer squad). “Run your favorite route at your preferred time of day and don’t be afraid to ask your friends to make signs and ring cowbells for you,” suggests Saul.

Motivated more by the competition of the pack? Consider creating a “racing situation” no matter where you are, she says. “Use anyone else out there to race toward, like you would ‘chase down’ someone on a racecourse,” Saul suggests. “Even if they’re not also running, challenge yourself to catch them quickly.” You could also ask friends to jump in for some of your miles, adds Nurse.

No one on the road? Visualization can come in handy here. “Imagine someone trying to catch and pass you, then decide to make it as hard for them as possible,” suggests Saul.

Or? Attempt to beat some Strava Segments on your course or set smaller time goals throughout your run, suggests Nurse (e.g., “I want to hit this 5K split in 22 minutes”). “This will keep you engaged and working hard throughout the run.”

Return to your form. 

Thoughts getting dark in the race? “Bring it back to your form,” suggests Nurse. Relax your shoulders, loosen the grip of your hands, engage your core, and push off all of your toes with each step. “These tweaks will not only make your form more efficient but will keep you present and focused and probably will make you feel a lot better too.”