Virtual running: Earning race medals without leaving the house

Didn’t get into a marathon? Maybe there’s another way
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In 2018, a world record number of people – 386,050 to be precise – entered the ballot for the Virgin Money London Marathon, a 50% increase on 2017, making London the most popular marathon on the planet. However, with just 50,000 places available, that's a lot of disappointed runners and such stiff odds raise the question, how are we ever going to tick it off our Bucket List?

London isn't the only oversubscribed race either, the Tokyo Marathon and Berlin are becoming increasingly hard to get into too. But before we resign ourselves to a future of endless ballot-based misery, maybe there's another way. What if wearable technology could help you run these races virtually?

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That's right, we said it. With improvements in virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality, could future technology be about to give those who don't get lucky in the London Marathon lottery the chance to run the final stretch of the race down The Mall — at least virtually? And would we even want to?

Before you make your mind up, here's what the companies at the forefront of a potential virtual running think the not-too-distant future holds.

Out of this world

Virtual running: Earning race medals without leaving the house

In 2016, while on the International Space Station, British astronaut Tim Peake broke the Guinness World Record for the fastest marathon run in space when he ran the first ever Digital Virgin Money London Marathon.

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While Peake wasn't the first person to run a marathon in space – that accolade belongs to Sunita Williams who ran the 'Boston Marathon' in 2007 – what was remarkable about Peake's record run was how he did it. Peake ran his race live, at the same time as the real Virgin Money London Marathon, using a combination of a specialised space treadmill and mixed-reality technology created by running experience pioneers RunSocial.

RunSocial were the first company to combine HD video of the real London Marathon with virtual reality avatars, to create an interactive 3D experience that let treadmill runners everywhere run a digital version of the Virgin Money London Marathon route. Even in space.

While running a virtual 26.2 miles on a treadmill rather than the real event might not be everyone's cup of tea, what RunSocial's first represents is the early stages of a running future where the gap between the real and virtual, the in-person and the remote, is being challenged on many fronts.

Running connected

Virtual running: Earning race medals without leaving the house

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RunSocial's mission is to create technology that makes running – on the treadmill and outdoors – a more social and connected experience. In addition to the mixed-reality treadmill experiences, it offers a GPS tracking app with a difference.

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With RunSocial and RunSocial GPS, users can arrange real time run events where one person might be on a treadmill in a Barcelona gym, while their running mates could be trotting out a 10km along the River Thames. What connects them is that the runner running indoors gets to see the avatar of those doing their miles outdoors up on screen, while everyone taking part is added to a real time live leaderboard for some friendly, motivational competition. This isn't just virtual running, it's real-time, connected, social running on a global level.

Whether you're running in London or Singapore, feeling like you're part of something, being connected with others, is really inspiring

And It's not just RunSocial getting in on the mixed reality action either. Virtual racing has already become a huge trend in cycling thanks to companies such as Zwift, whose platform lets riders plug into a virtual world and ride real-time with people all over the world. Zwift has seen rapid growth and, according to the company, in 2017, 'Zwifters' as the cyclists are known, clocked more than 120 million miles on their bikes. And now Zwift has turned its sights to running too, having opened up its platform for runners. Now you can jump on a treadmill with a compatible foot pod sensor and even a heart rate monitor to track action in one of three virtual environments.

These companies are also challenging the idea that virtual running should involve being whisked of to fully immersive worlds. The future virtual running experience is as much about the real-time running experience as it is about stimulating visuals delivered by AR, VR or mixed reality. Being part of a live, potentially global running 'event' could be the most powerful motivator, says Marc Hardy, cofounder at RunSocial.

"Whether you're running in London or Singapore, feeling like you're part of something, being connected with others, is really inspiring," says Hardy. And it's the live aspect of this whole setup that Hardy thinks sets it apart.

"For me the definition of an event is that it's a real-time get-together of a group of people to do something and share in something. So a virtual event has to be something that's live, virtual but live."

"There are lots of challenges out there called virtual events where people get medals for running in your own time within a defined period of time, at your own convenience and in your own location but these are essentially just challenges packaged as events," adds Hardy.

The rise of the virtual race

Virtual running: Earning race medals without leaving the house

What Hardy is pointing to is another emerging technology-fuelled trend – the rise of the virtual racing community, whereby an increasing number of runners complete 'race' distances in their own time, in any location and, provided they can prove they've done it, still earn medals as they would for finishing a real race.

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Powered, in part, by the fact we can all now track our runs using GPS on our phones or watches, according to Susan Wheatcroft, Founder of UK-based virtual racing community, Virtual Runner UK, what's really driving people to part with money to run virtual races isn't the fact you get a medal (though this helps), but the social media community support that comes with virtual events.

"The future of running lends itself well, particularly for people starting out running, to joining virtual communities," says Wheatcroft. "It offers a way of interacting and learning about the sport that they've just started to get into."

Virtual Runner UK offers virtual races for everything from 5K up to a marathon distance, along with a whole host of challenges based on things such as hitting monthly mileage goals or getting out for a set number of runs in the mornings. For people who want to find like minded runners or build a running support network, these digital events offer a great alternative to the traditional real world running club.

"I think it's popular because you're more likely to find someone that's on the same journey as you and because it's accessible 24 hours a day," says Wheatcroft. "I know most [running] clubs are accessible four if not five times a week but these are at a set time, that may not fit around childcare or sometimes people may feel intimidated by running clubs because they're too fast or they maybe don't know anybody. Behind a keyboard they're more inclined to talk to somebody and actually find somebody that is in a similar position."

Another example of the rise in popularity of virtual participation was social running app Strava's 2017 world record attempt for the most half marathons completed in one day, that tied into the Great North Run weekend. More than 75,000 runners logged 13.1 miles on Strava, a clear demonstration that virtual communities are running strong.

But can Wheatcroft ever see technology convincing us to swap real races for the world of virtual racing alone? Not quite.

"Anything that's going to motivate an individual to get out and run or run more is never going to be a bad thing, and I think they've all got their place," says Wheatcroft. "People need to find what works for them and if being chased by a zombie, seeing a picture of a pretty lake or chasing Mo Farah around a running track, makes you go or go faster then I can't see any reason why that's not a good thing. But I'm not convinced it's ever going to overtake running races because I think you get a different buzz from it. And I can't honestly imagine running 26.2 miles on a treadmill," she says.

Virtually impossible?

Virtual running: Earning race medals without leaving the house

What of virtual reality? Zwift has trialled virtual reality set ups for cycling, Black Box VR recently launched its virtual reality gym experience and we've seen attempts at virtual reality compatible treadmills like the Wizdish ROVR for gaming, but there are some obvious practical problems to strapping on a headset and running on a treadmill. This leads Hardy questions it's viability.

"I think VR in fitness generally is actually a bit of a hyped concept," says Hardy. "To me the definition of VR is something on your head, where you don't see what's around you in the real world, which for indoor running is an impossibility because you'd fall off in a second, most people would get sick and there's the practicality of your head moving around, not to mention getting sweaty."

Advances in augmented reality – where information or visuals are overlaid on the real world – might provide us with better solutions in the future, according to futurologist, Dr Ian Pearson.

"I think augmented reality will make racing much more fun," argues Pearson who suggests future technology could enable us to go for a casual run against the greatest runners from the last Olympics.

Virtual running: Earning race medals without leaving the house

"Eventually you won't have to have a great big visor to do this because we'll have very light wired glasses that are just like normal glasses and, not very long after that, we'll have access to contact lenses which give you access to virtual reality in high definition in each eye."

This could open up possibilities, not just for racing but for more training too. When you're training for a marathon for example, your long run on a Sunday brings different psychological and motivational challenges to your interval speed work. And if you ever take to the treadmill for the latter, technology might be here to help push you harder.

"At RunSocial, we're implementing things like run against your best times," says Hardy. "To some extent it's just about running against someone, a shadow avatar for yourself, so you can benchmark yourself while the video route just becomes an interesting backdrop. This is an area we're definitely committed to developing better."

Pearson takes this concept further still, suggesting that rather than racing against ourselves, the serious athletes among us might one day be able to use augmented reality technology to simulate races against rival runners (we know you all have them) based on their past tactics.

"You could also use this technology to simulate your competitors. You probably know from all sorts of races that your competitors have been in recently, how they run. You could effectively have them running beside you and augmented reality could replay a simulation of exactly how they tackled the race." This, argues Pearson, could help athletes tailor their race strategy better.

We'll give the last word to Angus Nelson, cofounder at Stryd, the company whose footpods are rapidly changing the way runners track their runs.

When it comes to any kind of running technology it has to put the fun in the run, argues Nelson.

"We think the main challenge is a lot of people just run to have fun and they don't really care about the extra tech," says Nelson. "Technology can enhance the running, but you have to build the right technology. The great thing about Zwift, is that no one really talks about technology ruining running because it's so much fun.

"Once you have an experience that really enhances it, that makes running even more fun than it even is, I think that is when you've been successful."


How we test

Kieran Alger


Kieran is a world record-setting runner and one of the UK's most experienced running journalists.

A constant tester of the latest fitness technology, he's always hunting for innovations that can make him run faster, further and generally be in better shape.

Kieran is often found wearing four GPS running watches at once. And to date he's tracked more than 50 marathons, 13 ultras and countless half marathons - including the Marathon Des Sables.

In 2022, he became the first person to run the river Danube from sea to source, a measly 1,830 miles in 66 days. And still had time to test running gear.

Kieran regularly takes running tech to the extremes for Wareable and the likes of Runner's World, Mens Health and Wired.

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