Last August, more than two dozen runners competed in the famed Falmouth Road Race in Massachusetts without ever setting foot near the start or finish line. They ran it remotely, on treadmills scattered in gyms and homes across the country, through a virtual running app that let them see a high-definition, pre-filmed video of the course as they progressed.
It was the first virtual race of its kind ever run. More importantly, it proved what much of humanity once thought was impossible: that modern technology can actually make treadmill workouts bearable.
The app the racers used is called Virtual Runner, produced by the Massachusetts-based company Outside Interactive (no relation to this publication). It offers a selection of more than 10 different running routes, including a four-mile historic run among the Washington, DC monuments, the route of the Mount Desert Island Half-Marathon in Maine, and of course, Falmouth.
Virtual Runner won’t make you feel the wind blowing in your face but, “it makes you feel like you’re making progress on a treadmill. And that makes the time go by quicker,” says Outside Interactive CEO Gary McNamee.
Virtual Runner is just one of an ever-growing list of apps aimed at improving indoor workouts through a virtual experience. Another, called Treadmill Trails, takes runners and walkers on a 30-minute workout down famous footpaths in Central Park, Big Sur, and Yosemite, and on the Appalachian Trail.
“It makes you feel like you’re making progress on a treadmill," says Gary McNamee.
The app RunSocial, which uses the slogan, “How to beat the boredom,” lets you virtually run one of its 15 high-definition filmed courses three different treadmill-bound ways: alone, in a real-time public event with people all over the world, or in a private one organized with friends. Each runner is represented by an avatar on the screen and, like a video game, you can pass them or get passed, depending on your speed. RunSocial recently announced that runners will soon be able to use the app to compete remotely in April’s London Marathon—just as British astronaut Tim Peake did from the International Space Station last year.
Another popular, fairly new app is BitGym which works with just about any cardio machine, including ellipticals, exercise bikes, and treadmills. It offers more than 100 courses, from rugged mountain trails in Northern Italy to the streets of Chicago. BitGym tracks your progress by capturing your movements through your mobile device’s camera, and synchs your pace to the speed of the video. By contrast, Virtual Runner and RunSocial need a separate footpad or pedometer for automatic speed control.
BitGym, which got its initial funding on Kickstarter, is aimed mostly at “people who work out in their homes who know how painful it can be do to on a machine, and are looking for anything that will make it better,” says Alex Gourley, one of the app’s creators. About a third of its tours include recorded video and audio of cardio coaches, who are supposed to motivate you throughout the workout.
McNamee says he’s working on possible partnerships between Virtual Runner and 20 different road races over the next couple of years for virtual entries, like at Falmouth.
“It’s a great way for races to show off and preview their event. For Falmouth, we’re basically giving them a seven-mile commercial.”
It can also mean potentially unlimited revenues for bigger, more famous races, as thousands of people participate around the world from their treadmills, real-time. “How about a million people walking, running, or crawling the Boston Marathon in 10 years?” McNamee asks.