Ready to run from Bordeaux to Paris? Or how about taking on the Inca trail next month?

With no big race days on the horizon or chances to travel, runners have had to adapt

In recent weeks I have been discussing goals with the runners I coach. This year our focus has moved away from traditional races towards more creative virtual goals, something that wasn’t even on our radar a year ago.

A bunch of our runners have just left Bordeaux and are currently ticking off their 1,000km slowly and steadily as they make their way to Paris, following Le Tour de France route. Others are planning to climb Everest in the coming weeks, and some have already completed the Inca trail this month.

Winter Nights

There are no limits to where you can run if you use your imagination and run virtually.

The virtual challenge

Nothing has spurred on the growth of virtual running (and walking) challenges than our worlds becoming smaller due to Covid. With no big race days on the horizon or opportunities to travel, runners have adapted to find something else to inspire them to keep getting out the door. Today, there are many websites where you can join a virtual challenge to suit you. Some are purely commercial, whereas others have a charity element. Race organisers, charities and individuals have all got involved to design events that keep people engaged.

How does it work?

Running virtually somewhere exotic is not the only type of virtual running challenge. Many runners choose to set monthly mileage targets or indeed create a fun challenge such as running every street in their town. The beauty of a virtual challenge is that the activity is spread over a week, month or even an entire year, keeping the momentum and enthusiasm going long past a traditional race day goal. Most challenges have online support, with virtual communities and a leader board to follow. They also have online hubs to see your progress on a map, and some even send virtual postcards to you as you pass key landmarks on your journey. Of course, the fancy medals can be an attraction for many runners and walkers too.

Why they work

Those who took part in 2020 challenges tell me they are going back for more again this year. They enjoyed having a focus, motivation, targets and deadlines. Camaraderie was also a big factor as many signed up with friends and ran virtually together. The challenges gave a distraction from all the Covid cancellations of their running races (and everything else) and provided some sense of control over their own running journey. Many admitted that without the challenge they may not have kept running consistently. I’m reminded of two of our runners who set a challenge to complete 100 runs within the year. When you have clocked up 95 runs and it is mid-December, it certainly focused the minds of these women to finish their running year in style.

What to consider

If you do like the sound of these challenges, it is worth spending a little time finding the right one for you. It has got to inspire you, but not be so hard that you give up early on. It needs to have a little leeway so if that if you have a setback, you can recover as time goes on and catch up on the miles. These challenges are not just for runners. In fact, a combination of running and walking is the type of challenge that would attract me most. I know I will be disciplined enough to run three times per week, but getting out the door and making time for a walk each day is something that can tend to slip down my priority list. Having a mileage target rather than pressure to run more would make my walking more consistent.

Where to start

Firstly, do the maths rather than picking a random distance or location. What distance is practical for you to cover each week both via walking and running? If you have never done anything like this before, start with a one-month challenge (or shorter) to see if you enjoy it. A mileage goal for February would be a good option. To save you taking out a calculator, 100k would be a 5k run three times per week with an extra few walks each week. Would that help you keep you focused and finish the month fitter, stronger and more energised? Whatever you decide, you will need some incentive to keep it going. Moral support from friends and family will help most of us more than just online encouragement. Get others involved too. Having a charity element to your challenge can also really help you stick to it.

Find your virtual event

Once you know that it is possible for you physically, try and match your goal with an organised event if you would like the support, structure and rewards that go with it. There are plenty of options online. Companies such as Popup Races, Irish Bling Hunters, Excel Sports and MyRunResults are all popular with Irish runners, as well as the more international Conqueror Events. But look locally first too. There might be charity options close to home that would appreciate your support. Ray's marathon challenge (for LauraLynn charity) and the 100 miles in February (for Mater Foundation) are just two that spring to mind. There must be plenty more out there too. And if you are more of an "offline" runner, you can still create your own personal challenge. Just because it is not linked to an official website doesn't mean you cannot raise your funds or invent a fun project to keep you inspired this year.

Create your memories

We can pine for parkrun and keep our fingers crossed for races to return, but until that happens, we have to do what we can to help keep the spirits and fitness up. Keep yourself motivated and moving by giving your head a little escapism and your body the benefit of consistent fresh air and movement. There are no limits to what you can do virtually when it comes to walking and running. We might not be travelling, but we can certainly pretend that we are. And some day when we do start to travel again, we can remember the time we virtually ran the same paths.

Mary Jennings is founder and running coach with Her book Get Running, published by Gill Books, is out now 

Sign up for one of The Irish Times' Get Running programmes (it is free!). 
First, pick the eight-week programme that suits you.
- Beginner Course: A course to take you from inactivity to running for 30 minutes.
- Stay On Track: For those who can squeeze in a run a few times a week.
- 10km Course: Designed for those who want to move up to the 10km mark.
Best of luck!

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