As so many of us are acutely aware of right now, the world-wide response to COVID-19 has meant that almost all endurance events have been cancelled or postponed thus far in 2020. Even just ten short years ago, this type of widespread cancellation would have meant that exactly zero racing events were taking place.
But, it is not 2010. It is 2020, and virtual training platforms not only exist now, but their use has skyrocketed over the last several years. This has made it so that racing isn’t 100% off the table, even when in-person, large group races are unable to take place. Many of the athletes I work with have participated in virtual events over the course of the last eight weeks, and for many of them, it’s been a welcome outlet during this time when not much else feels “normal.”
Virtual events are wonderful and can be a great inclusion in athlete training plans. However, they are tricky in terms of HOW to plan to include them. What do I mean?? Let’s dive in:
Just because a race or an event is virtual doesn’t mean it’s “fake.” Yes, everyone’s equipment might be different, and yes, the same “leveling” standards don’t exist for a virtual event since the event doesn’t take place in a singular, fairly-controlled environment. Ultimately, it’s this diminished view of virtual events (that - for many reasons - they aren’t the “same” as in-person races or events) that can be a bit dangerous when considering how to build them into a training plan. Since they are often not viewed as “real,” athletes tend to not give these events their full credit, and they often discount the impact that they have on the body.
I’m here to tell you that virtual does NOT mean “fake.” Virtual events are quite real in MANY ways. One of these ways is simply this: many of you out there (and you KNOW who you are) simply hear the word “race” and it means that you’ll be turning up your effort levels in the event that bears that label. That definitely means that these events need to be considered and managed differently than a “typical” workout in one’s training plan.
Even if you aren’t that person who hears race and turns up the heat, completing any workout does have an impact on the body that needs to be accounted for and managed. Simply put: doing a virtual event is NOT the same as sitting on the sidelines and doing nothing.
This being said, virtual events, by their very nature, do not include the elements that bring out people’s competitive drive, whether the athlete is competitive against other athletes on the course or competitive against their own selves. There are not any other athletes to chase down, you don’t have people cheering along the course, and there are not any warm and happy volunteers to welcome you to the finish line. Therefore, even if athletes might increase their effort levels in virtual events, they often do not rise to the same level of exertion that they would experience in an in-person event.
As you can see, there are a lot of elements to consider when planning for virtual events. In the end, they usually need to be treated as high-intensity key training sessions. From a physical training plan perspective, this means that the workouts leading into and coming out of virtual events need to be structured to be lower in volume and intensity to account for the increases in intensity (and possibly volume) that will take place with the virtual event. From a mental training perspective, it’s important to have the conversation about how these events ARE real and they are not “fluff.” Both of these things are important since an athlete’s number one goal is to stay active, which means avoiding injury. Failure to honestly consider these things will significantly increase the probability of a training-related injury.
Like in-person races, virtual events can be included “for fun,” but just like in-person events that are completed for fun, there needs to be an honest assessment made if the athlete can *truly* do a race just for fun, or if they will increase their intensity during it and race it. It’s 100% fine either way, but the approach in terms of planning for the virtual event does change if the athlete is more competitive in nature when they hear “race” (even if the word “‘virtual” precedes it :) ).
As you navigate the endurance sports world as it exists due to these restrictions resulting from COVID-19, be sure to plan wisely for any/all virtual events you include in your training plans. And at the end of the day, remember that for 99% of us who are not professional athletes, this is FUN!! So be sure to set yourself up for success so you can continue to dive into this endurance sports world and have fun for as long as you want to be active. :)
Coach Laura Henry
Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.