The virtual world of running: How competitions have adapted for athletes

Fifty-four-year-old Barry Royden is a well-known face at races across Medway in Kent. A keen runner, who loves the “exciting” atmosphere of races, where the crowds and other athletes help to add to the competitive atmosphere. But, like thousands of other athletes across the country, the Covid pandemic stopped him in his tracks by cancelling all athletics competitions.

Barry, like many other runners, has had to find an alternative way to record and log his running times, like it would have been done at competitions. An app called Strava has been particularly useful, as he has been able to link it up with his smart watch. Barry said that he has always worn a watch but has never logged his times as he now does on Strava.

In 2021 so far, around 76 million people have been using Strava to log their exercise. If you look at the statistics for 2019, which was before the national lockdowns took place, the figure was significantly lower at around 42 million. This shows just how popular this app has become.

Click on the graph to be taken to the source of the statistics

The Garmin watch connects up to his Strava account and he can see his heart rate, time and also calories that have been burnt. “I am actually surprised that I have enjoyed using this app. I have never been one to use a lot of technology, but through lockdown it has allowed me to log my times like I would have done at competitions,” he said.

In his past, Barry has competed in various competitive races including: The Great North Run and even ran for Great Britain when he was younger.

When asked what his greatest achievement to date has been, he said: “I would probably say it was when I competed in the European Cross Country Championships. Being able to compete at big events like that was an honour”. This has now massively changed. Barry trains mainly with his daughter Abigail, who also uses Strava. Both of them are able to stay connected with the running community, even though they are different ages. This shows just how versatile this new virtual training can be, as both young and old athletes are able to use it effectively.

Barry Royden (second in from the right) when he was on team GB

Medway and Maidstone Athletics Club is a local competition team and Barry is one of their top coaches. The club uses the Medway Park facilities in Gillingham for their training sessions. This site is currently closed due to Covid-19 and athletes are now tasked with completing their own training schedules and recording their own times.

Not only does Strava log your training, it also acts as a social network for athletes to record an activity and then log it onto a feed. Friends and followers can see and upload their own workouts to this also. All you need to use the app is a GPS tracking system, like a watch or a smartphone. You can record the time of your workout and also the route you have taken.

How to create an activity on Strava!

1. Click ‘Record’ on Strava

2. Choose your sport and click ‘Start’

3. Complete your activity by clicking ‘Finish’

4. ‘Save Activity’ – add any photos/type of workout/how it felt/privacy settings

5. Look at your workout on your feed and see other user activities!

Strava has been a way for everyone to keep involved in their club. Coaches, like Barry, can also see how some of their athletes are doing. The app even has a way for him to acknowledge his teammates hard work and this is the “kudos” button – which is just like a Facebook like, or an Instagram heart. This interaction is no doubt comforting for many, as everyone is feeling quite isolated during lockdown conditions.

However, one thing Strava can’t replace is official race times. Cancelled competitions has meant that athletes can no longer have their times and results recorded and uploaded to the Power of 10, which is a database where all athlete’s times are listed. Kent Championships, Open Meetings and events like Kent Schools have not taken place. This has no doubt caused a lack of motivation amongst many athletes from all age groups.

The Chairwoman of Medway and Maidstone Athletics Club, Sarah Kenyon, said: “It has been extremely disappointing to not be able to train together as a club and also that many of our competitions have been cancelled. A lot of our athletes rely on events like open meetings, to get their times officially recorded. We all need to come together and continue to train hard, so we are ready to bounce back when competitions resume.”

But while Strava can’t give official times, it can still offer users competitions. Numerous local athletes, including Barry and his daughter, have been using Strava to complete alternative virtual time trial competitions. They have mapped out routes and completed them – logging their run onto Strava. These times can all be viewed by followers and a winner can be decided based on the quickest athlete. An example of a recent virtual time trail was a 5K run that many athletes completed near the University of Kent, Medway Campus. Although these times are not official recordings, it is still allowing athletes to acknowledge their training sessions and see how they are improving.

Here is the route for the 5K time trial around the Medway Campus
Barry and his daughter completing a 5K time trial.

The popularity of Strava and other fitness apps has not just been limited to individual athletes or running clubs. Larger organisations, like Kent Sport, have been holding their own online competitions too.

Kent Sport is made up of the Kent County Council and also Sport England funded staff. They work with partners and networks around the country, “to provide opportunities for everyone to get involved in sport and physical activity for enjoyment as well as wider health and social outcomes”. When asked what they have been doing to support and encourage the resilience and perseverance of some of the local athletes they said: “We have been encouraging everyone to stay active throughout the last year and also have been running challenges where people can log their activities, syncing with their tech.”

The motivation for people to get involved and keep fit during lockdown has no doubt been due to fitness apps and virtual competitions that have taken place. We should all encourage ourselves to get out of the house and stay active. If you would like to take part in a virtual competition, click on the image to see what activites are taking place.

Now athletes can start looking into the near future for in person competitions. Barry is due to take part in a Medway open event, being held at Medway Park on the 3rd of May. This event is going to be extremely popular as Medway and Maidstone Athletics Club has been honoured with the role of hosting the British Milers Club at their open event. The British Milers Club is a prestigious organisation that aims “to improve the world standing of UK Middle Distance running.”

But the real question we have for Barry, is whether he will continue to use his watch and Strava, even when competitions resume?

“I can definitely say I will continue to wear my watch and log my training sessions on to Strava. Any competitive athlete will be able to tell you that it is the training that you put in that gets you the results at competitions. Strava is the perfect way to help you improve and reach your goals,” he said.

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