For motivation and love of sport, there's nothing better than toeing the line with other athletes. But what if there aren't any upcoming events near you, or you have other obligations on race day?
That's when virtual races come in. You sign up online and complete challenges on your own schedule, but you still get many of the benefits of a real-life competition, including accolades, community support, and a virtual competitor, egging you on.
"If you're a competitive person, it can be as motivating and fulfilling as a 'real' race," says Matt Dubberley, a former professional cyclist who competes in virtual running and cycling races on Strava. "The community sees what you do and can be engaged in your activities, even thought they aren't with you while you're doing them."
There are plenty of companies out there offering virtual racing services—some for running, some for cycling, some highly competitive, and some just for fun. Here are our favorites, and why you should give them a try.
Best For: Real-Time Competition
Log in to this iOS app and pair up against other runners from around the world. Choose your distance, and the app pits you against new competitors or old rivals, feeding you audio and video updates about your standings as you run.
After each race, you can review your results—including how far ahead or behind your opponents finished. You can earn more than 25 different achievements, and compete for spots on six different leaderboards.
ODDyssey Half Marathon
Best For: Awesome Medals
The organizers of this Philadelphia race created a virtual version last year after their medal—which doubles as a wall-mounted bottle opener—was featured in Runners' World. They were inundated with requests for the award, even after the race sold out. After a successful first year, the second annual virtual race opened for registration on January 6.
To participate, runners must run 13.1 miles in one stretch, anytime before December 31, 2015 (it's encouraged that they run on the actual race day, June 14), then post proof of the run—a screenshot of the route or GPS watch works—on the group's Facebook page. Follow those steps and you'll receive a medal.
Don't want to run a full half marathon? Check out Nerd Herd or U.S. Road Running, both of which offer a variety of virtual 5Ks and 10Ks, complete with points you can use toward future race entries, and medals for every participant.
Zwift Virtual Training Platform
Best For: Indoor cyclists
This new platform turns your indoor ride into a multi-player video game, and connects with your existing trainer, power meter, and computer. You create an avatar, choose from a variety of real-life routes, and start riding with (or against) anyone else currently logged onto the same course.
If you've got an electronically powered trainer, your resistance will change as the course does—and even get easier when you're drafting off other avatars in front of you. High performers earn bonus points, and may eventually be able to redeem their wins for real-life goodies. And if you think you've got what it takes to go pro, Zwift may be your ticket to stardom. Later this year, it plans to sponsor an American Idol-like virtual challenge for cyclists, with the winners getting the chance to sign up to top international teams.
Best For: Outdoor cyclists and runners
All you need to join these (free!) virtual competitions is your phone's GPS and an open road. The Strava community offers lots of ongoing challenges for both runners and cyclists, letting you compete against anyone else riding or running the same route at any given time. Each "segment" has its own leaderboard, with participants constantly battling for top slots and KOM (King of the Mountain) status.
Break the top 10 for a certain route or get a personal best with Strava, and all of your followers will be notified—and if you break a current course record, the former record holder will be notified, as well. "It is good fun, and often excites little battles where people try to get their record back as soon as possible," says Dubberley, who currently holds the top slot for a highly competitive segment of Santa Barbara trail called Inspiration Point.
In addition to specific routes, Strava also hosts ongoing challenges that can be completed anytime, anywhere. For the Gran Fondo 100 (which currently has more than 81,000 participants), for example, you have to ride 100 kilometers in the month of January. For Strava's Climbing Challenge, cyclists are asked to climb 20,150 feet of elevation in one month. Finishers unlock the potential to buy limited edition jerseys and gear.
Best For: Treadmill runners
The first-generation Paofit app is relaunching this month as RunSocial with 10-plus video routes for treadmill runners to choose from—think Killarney, Ireland, or Death Valley, California. As you run, the app senses your pace changes, via the treadmill's vibration, or a bluetooth connection with Life Fitness treadmill consoles, and speeds up or slows down video playback in response. (There's also a manual control, as well as a separate sensor coming soon.)
Much like Zwift, joining a course means competing with anyone else who's logged in at that time and racing against their avatars on-screen. This year, RunSocial plans to partner with iconic marathons and allow runners from all over the world to (virtually) join the fun. Up first, the London Marathon.
iFit Subscription Service
Best For: Boston Marathoners
This annual subscription service allows you to run routes all over the world (including routes through 20 national parks, 5Ks in all 50 states, and the world's most prestigious marathon), or upload your own training route using Google Maps. You can log miles outdoors using the app on your phone, but the magic really happens when you're on an iFit-compatible treadmill, stationary bike, or elliptical machine. You get high-quality video of your chosen route, and your incline or resistance changes with the terrain.
The Boston Marathon course, for example, is broken down into five segments, so you can focus on a different stretch every day or run several all at once. iFit also lets you challenge others in the community to virtual races, and provides real-time updates of your current standing, the leader's pace, and the average pace for the course. iFit works with NordicTrack and Proform machines, including the official Boston Marathon treadmill and the Tour de France bike.