In 2018, almost 1.3 million people ran a marathon somewhere in the world − up almost 50% in a decade. And despite lockdowns, people have kept on running.

From indoor marathons on treadmills, to back-garden circuits and after-work sprints around neighbourhood streets, runners have found a way to keep lacing up their trainers.

Some have simply wanted to exercise to support their mental health at a challenging time: 78% of runners questioned for one large study said that being active during the pandemic had made them feel “more sane and in control”. As the World Economic Forum puts it, “there is a plethora of evidence to show that running makes you healthier, happier and even smarter”. It might even make you a better leader, too.

Others have been motivated by fundraising goals, and helped by event organisers quickly upgrading their technology to create virtual races. This meant that runners could still compete and raise money, but race in their own time and place.

From fitness to mental health, running has many benefits. Source: Shutterstock

Running, virtually

Indeed, what has united many lockdown running experiences is technology.

Thousands have used or signed up for race-tracking apps like those used by the London and New York marathons, as well as Lidingöloppet, the world’s biggest cross-country run.

Features enabling runners to track their progress and be part of a wider community have helped keep people moving, and the spirit of racing institutions alive.

But the disruptions of the pandemic still pose significant challenges to runners. How can they keep fit and focused when life as they know it is on hold? Can virtual events ever make up for what’s been lost?

To explore these issues, TCS and Lidingöloppet hosted a webcast, bringing together a diverse panel of athletes and artists − all united by their love of running.

Real challenges

There’s no escaping the fact: training alone, and in lockdown, can be challenging.

How do you keep motivated to train when you don’t know if a race you’re preparing for will happen? It’s what broadcaster and running enthusiast Kristin Kaspersen, who hosted the event, wanted to know.

Track and field athletes Malin Ewerlöf and Simon Sundström explained the challenges of the situation. In the past, they said, the unique rural course and atmosphere on the island of Lidingö had definitely boosted their motivation.

Training for a marathon can be tough when you’re not sure the event will even happen in these uncertain times. Source: Shutterstock

On the other hand,  Mustafa Mohamed, a Swedish marathon record holder, told the panel he views the current disruption as a chance to keep in shape, so he can compete with confidence when the next opportunity presents itself.

The musician, Petter − a marathon veteran − also flagged up new possibilities. “The pandemic has changed my working schedule radically,” he told the panel. “Cancelled tours have given me more time to exercise.”

Expanding horizons

A member of the TCS sponsorship family for five years, TCS Lidingöloppet is now part of a group which includes the TCS Amsterdam Marathon, Virgin Money London Marathon and New York, Chicago and Boston Marathons.

Like other events, Lidingöloppet has apps that help people to run alone, over a course of their choosing, and keep track of their own time.

But without the physical presence of other competitors and supporters, are solo events second-best when it comes to fitness and training?

As former athletes Sanna Kallur (hurdle-race) and Magdalena Forsberg (biathlon), see it, such concerns might be missing the point. When it comes to exercising in general, they say, the best training is the one that actually happens.

It is better to do a quick session for 20-30 minutes, for example − one that almost anyone can fit into their daily schedule − than to strive for perfection and maybe achieve little.

Technology has helped runners participate in marathons virtually this year, from anywhere in the world. Source: Shutterstock

‘ThisRun’ thinking

The idea at the core of all these virtual races is ambitious but simple: how can we use digital solutions to help us through the tragedy and disruption of the pandemic? TCS sums this spirit up in a social hashtag accompanying events like Lidingöloppet: #ThisRun.

At a time when races might otherwise have been cancelled, setting back training regimes for athletes and part-time runners too, apps have helped participants stay connected across innovative and memorable events.

“We have always thought that ‘we change, we do not cancel’ and put the runner in focus,” says Cecilia Gyldén, Secretary General of the Lidingö race.

In fact, there are signs that events might actually have grown stronger in some respects.

“What we have seen is that we are attracting people beyond the classic target group,” Gyldén explains. “We have had many more women run than in previous years. There are also slightly more older women running with a friend or colleague − which is fun.”

The musician Petter sees virtual events as an opportunity to shift ways of thinking: “I’ve been able to stay motivated because, for me, training is about challenging individual goals, so the competition isn’t against others.

“It’s a mindset I think can help people to adapt in their working lives, as well.”

As TCS puts it: “When reality is virtual, ThisRun unites us”.