Tech Savvy: Virtual runs boost workout motivation through pandemic, fall weather

Finding the motivation to work out during a pandemic — and as the weather gets colder — can be tricky. Virtual races might be the answer.

An armband with a sleeve for a smartphone helps keep track of the workout and retains the touch controls. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

Fall has undoubtedly hit the lakes area, as high temperatures drop to the 50s and trees turn from vibrant green to bright shades of red, orange and yellow.

Gone are the long hours of daylight, making way for earlier darkness, chillier evenings and likely a greater urge to stay in at night and curl up on the couch with the new fall premiere of your favorite show or a good book and a hot beverage.

The odd pandemic-driven semi-quarantine stage we’re in right now only seems to add to that onset of lethargy. Traditional fall activities like hayrides, haunted houses and Halloween costume parties are much fewer this year — if not canceled altogether.

We’re sure to see the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue on into fall and winter, but two things I feel we’ve gained during this strange time are a greater sense of creativity and a newfound appreciation of technology. Over the past six months or so, we’ve found ways to have our meetings, teach our children and gather with friends and family virtually. We’ve been able to experience concerts, explore underwater aquariums and essentially tour the world without leaving the comfort of our homes.

Next up on the docket of quarantine adjustments is exercise — more specifically, races. Virtual races, that is.


Annual lakes area staples like the Run for the Lakes and Run for the Walleye went virtual earlier this year to cut down on crowds. That trend continues into the fall, with a plethora of 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons available to take part in virtually.

As local runs like the Crow Wing Energized Move it for Mental Health and the Brainerd Warrior Homecoming run wrap up, those who want to stay active or who need a little motivation to get going can choose from a whole host of other virtual races to get them through the fall.

The premise for these events is simple. After registering online, participants just need to complete whatever distance they chose to run/walk on their own time by a certain date and submit their result. The time and place is completely up to the runner. The run could even be on a treadmill instead of outside. And as winter inevitably comes our way, that option will likely become more popular.

Various mobile apps are available to help with distance and timing.

When I go running, I like to use MapMyRun, which does just what the name suggests. All I do is open it up, hit start, and then start running. As I go, it keeps track of distance and time, and updates me at each mile. When I’m done, the app shows me the course I took — including the average elevation — and lets me know my average mile time. And because I input my height and weight when I set up my profile, it estimates the amount of calories I burned, as well.
The app keeps a log of all my workouts so I can track my progress and it lets me add in workouts I did without the app, too. So if I didn’t get outside but ran on a treadmill or elliptical or did other activities at the gym, I can input those manually so I still have all my workout records in one place.

After a run, I can share my workout details (time, distance, etc.) to social media, via email or any other electronic means if I choose, which is a nice feature for submitting results for a virtual run.

MapMyRun also features virtual workout challenges and includes tailored training plans to help runners achieve their specific goals. And by setting your location, you can see already mapped out routes people in your area have taken.

The app RunGo takes it a step further. Users can search for mapped out routes in their area and then get turn-by-turn directions for that route during their workout. For those directionally challenged runners like me, there’s no need to worry about losing track of where you are.


For beginning runners who might not quite be ready for a 5K, apps like Couch to 5K or None to Run (Apple products only) feature training plans to help build up endurance for those who haven’t run before or haven’t run in a while. Couch to 5K, for example, gives runners three workouts a week for nine weeks, with intervals or running interspersed with periods of walking. Ideally, by week nine, runners should be able to go the full 3.1 miles.

And when getting ready to run, don’t forget a good pair of headphones or earbuds. If you’re running in a city with noisy traffic, odds are you’ll need headphones to hear any instructions from your app. And if you need something to take your focus off the agony that can be long-distance running, you’ll likely need some upbeat music or a good podcast.

I use Sony bluetooth earbuds. They’re not too expensive — about $20-$30 at Target or Walmart — and seem to hold up well. I’m on my second pair in about three years, and that’s only because I lost the first ones. I like bluetooth earbuds because they don’t need to be connected to my phone with a cord, which can annoyingly hit me in the face and blow all over if it’s windy.

Virtual run options

A great resource for virtual runs is . Several fall events are scheduled over the next couple months — like the Bigfoot Halloween Hustle or the quirky Stranger Distances race, based on the popular TV show “Stranger Things” and featuring distances like 3.2, 6.7 and 11.11 miles. Race swag — like T-shirts, certificates and medals — are mailed to each participant. Event fees support charities, like Susan G. Komen and Special Olympics, and each run features a unique hashtag to use with pictures and posts for social media to build a virtual community.

Virtual runs are perfect for a night owl like me because I don’t have to force myself out of bed early on a Saturday to be at a starting line by 8 a.m. I can sleep in and log my run whenever I want.

I also like that I can do the run by myself. I’m definitely what you’d call a casual runner. I’ve been running on and off since my days of competitive high school distance running in track and cross-country. I can usually get a nice stride going for a couple months — whether it’s running outside in warmer weather or visiting the gym regularly — but I always seem to fade out of it for a while before coming back. That means I’m not always in the greatest shape, and I’m definitely not the fastest runner. Sometimes races can be intimidating for those of us who are on the slower side. I have a nasty tendency to compare my abilities with others and can get quite downtrodden when I see more athletic runners speeding past me. I do, however, like running on my own. I don’t have anyone else to compare myself to, so I can go at my own pace without feeling like I’m being left in the dust. I realize not having other runners around isn’t ideal for the more competitive athletes who are in it to win it, but for us more leisurely folks, it’s a nice perk.

And by choosing your own course, the run can be as easy or difficult as you’d like to make it. Beginner? Pick something nice and flat. Want a challenge? Find a few hills and push your limits.

Virtual runs can also help keep up motivation to work out through the winter, when leaving the house at night seems to get harder and harder. even has a Santa Shuffle scheduled for December, complete with holiday swag. Funds raised go to Toys for Tots.


The Santa Shuffle will most likely require indoor equipment like a treadmill, but until then, I suggest finding a fall event and getting outside before the freezing temperatures come.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at .

Sony bluetooth earbuds free runners or walkers from having to deal with a hanging cord to link to the phone and aren't too expensive — about $20-$30 at Target or Walmart. Renee Richardson / Brainerd Dispatch

Theresa Bourke started working at the Dispatch in July 2018, covering Brainerd city government and area education, including Brainerd Public Schools and Central Lakes College.
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