Review of the NYRR Virtual Trainer

I’ve been using the NYRR virtual trainer to help me train for two half marathons. In this review I’ll go in-depth on what the virtual trainer is, the reasons to use or not use this program, what to expect and of course the big one: if it’s worth the price.

Introduction

The New York Road Runners, often referred to by their acronym “NYRR”, started out as a small local running club some 60 years ago. Nowadays they are known for organising the largest marathon in the world, held every first Sunday in November in New York City. Next to this well known, international event, which attracts well over 50.000 runners, the NYRR organizes many other races and runs all around NYC, from half marathons like the famous Brooklyn 21km to 10K’s and charity runs.

My running before I got to know the virtual trainer

My running hobby started in 2010, and over the years I have ran 7 half marathons. In the beginning I was amazed I could run this far, but as I got more serious and did it more a second and then a third time, I wanted to improve and get better at it. In 2012 I set a goal to finish the 21.1 km within 2 hours. I prepared for the Amsterdam half-marathon for months and months, but long story short: I never finished any half marathon under 2 hours.

In 2017, just after I moved to New York, I signed up for the Brooklyn half-marathon. I dusted off my home-made running schedule powered by Microsoft Excel which I’d assembled from free templates on the internet and advice on running forums. I felt I was doing a good job. When preparing for a this race, I ran about 3 times a week, starting some 3 months before the race day. Every weekend I increased my long run by 10% of so to not injure myself, but I didn’t really have a sense of how fast or slow to run, when to “taper” before te race, and did a lot of the same 5K loop during the week.

That Brooklyn Half was not a success. I was glad I made it over the finish in well over 2 hours, and didn’t find it as much fun as I’d hoped. After that I stopped running races for a while and focus more on the fun of running and not having a goal. But as it happens I signed up for the NYC Half lottery in late 2018 and got picked to run!

NYRR Virtual trainer: sign up and overview

After signing up, emails and promotions on the NYRR website tried to upsell me to the virtual trainer program. Obviously I asked Google to see if it was any good, but I found surprisingly few reviews. My curiosity and hope run faster than 2 hours finally won, so I paid the $30 and signed up for the 10 week program.

Upon signup, you will be asked some details like your age and running history and based on that you will be recommended to try a level. For me that was the conservative program, but for more experiences runners there is an option to go for a moderate program as well. I did that one the second time I used the virtual trainer, and the difference is that you basically run more often, 4 to 5 times a week and longer distances.

Configuration of the training program

After you sign up you get to see the full 10 week schedule plus an estimated finish time. The premise is that the virtual trainer is an adaptive program that can adjust itself during your 10 week training based on your progress (or injury!) to optimise your experience. This way you aren’t stuck with an unrealistic program if things don’t go as planned, and let’s be realistic: things rarely do.

The 10-week schedule is pretty simple, but varied program made up of a few types of runs to make sure there is enough variety to keep things engaging and fun. You can set which days you want to run so the schedule keep that in mind. One of those days is your long run, typically this will be on the weekend. You can set if you want a summary email every day or week, so you know what’s coming up.

Training days and workouts

Every training day has a good explanation of what’s expected of you and tips and tricks for your training overall and race day. Each day centers around a distance, pace and intensity of the training. Most often you’ll do a few regular, easy or tempo runs during the week, and a long run on the weekends. Mixed in are some runs where you should either leave your watch at home or just ignore it, and run “As You Feel”. In the moderate level program you’ll also get more speed training in the form of interval training where every two week or so you’ll do mile repeats and pretty challenging runs that are meant to increase your speed.

You can view the schedule by day or week, or see the entire schedule in one screen. This is an example of a training and the info given:

Logging results

You can log your run either manually or using Strava. I own a Garmin VA3 smart watch which automatically uploads all my runs to Garmin Connect and from there I have connected Strava. You’ll need to make sure each run in Strava is viewable by everyone, which I found a bit of downside of the virtual trainer. In case you are privacy conscious, you can always revert the Strava activity to private after importing into the virtual trainer.

As you can see, one important part of the log is the perceived effort. This is a scale from 1 to 10 ranging from no exertion to maximum exertion. I have found this way of thinking and training next to just pace to be helpful to better understand my body. For your long runs you should keep the pace and effort to about a 4, while for regular runs you can go to a 5 (moderate) and tempo runs go up to about a 7 (hard). Based on the effort, pace and distance you enter the virtual coach will give you feedback and adjust your training pace and expected finish time.

If you don’t run, for example on rest days or due to injury, you should also log that. After a few days of missing training due to a small injury I was shown this message for example:

The Facebook support group

As part of the virtual trainer you are also invited to join a closed Facebook group. There were about 120 people in the groups I joined and many of those posted updates or questions and shared their progress. Even if you don’t and just follow and read what other do, that can be motivating!

After your goal race and the 10-week program is over, the FB group is closed down and you are invited to join an Alumni group, which includes all former virtual training friends. It’s a fun way to keep in touch with likeminded runners and see how everyone shares updates on their goals and races.

Education and Technical and trainer support

I contacted support a few times with questions about my schedule or a technical question, and every time I got a prompt reply from coach Steve. Technical glitches are rare, but when Strava changed something and the abilty to upload runs broke, it was fixed in a day or two. Nothing much else I can say about this part. It works very much as I would hope any paid service does.

There is a large section of FAQ, education and more info on things covering the training program, but also extending beyond. This part is mainly self service and you can read or refer to it as you please. Topics include training nutrition, strength training, race strategy for the race you signed up for and a glossary. The info is short, but very to the point and factual andI found this section helpful.

Analysis and comparing yourself to other runners

The virtual trainer has a tab that helps to gain some insight into how you compare to the other runners that have ever used the platform before. The page is not super actionable, but I found it reassuring to know how I compare, and that I’m on the right track

The runner most like me

A fun analytics feature is the part that picks the one runner from the platform that is most like you. In running I generally don’t like to compare myself, as everyone is different it’s mostly about improving myself. Nevertheless this is information which fun and reassuring at the same time.

Things to improve

Overall, I have been very happy with the virtual trainer but there are a few small things to know about which could be improved:

  • As this platform is USA based, the virtual trainer is built around the imperial system, using miles. In most places, but not all, the pace and distances are converted to kilometers and minutes/kilometer, but it’s not 100% consistent. Especially the descriptions on plain text and days like interval training are more complex this way than they should be. There is a pace calculator on every page to help out, but still I find it hard to convert a pace of say 8.17 minutes per mile to something that makes sense to me in the metric system. Next to that, most distances are in converted from miles, which can look weird if you are asked to so a 8 mile run, as it converts to 12.9 kilometers.
  • You can only log 1 run per day. Not so much an issue for me, but could be for more advanced runners or if you run another 5 miles after doing a 5K race in the morning.
  • The application has some minor caching issues when you the site it on multiple platforms. I log my runs on my phone, and then when viewing the site on my laptop very once in a while, the last few days still look like they need to get logged. This is simply fixed by viewing each day separately so that the browser can update the cache, but it’s a small annoyance.
  • After signing up and connecting Strava, the import button didn’t show up or me on a run. The advice given in the FAQ is the log out and then back in again. It worked, but that should be easily fixable in software the right way.
  • You can customise your avatar and upload your own picture, but for me that just shows a broken image, no matter what photo I use.

Pricing

The nyrr virtual running training programs are priced according to how long the program lasts:

  • $29.99 for a half marathon plan, lasting 10 weeks
  • $49.99 for a full marathon plan, lasting 12 or 16 weeks
  • $199.99 for a 20 week marathon plan that includes e-coaching
  • The first two options also have an upgrade option to more personal e-coaching and direct access to the trainers of the New York Road Runners after you have bought the program

My overall recommendation and final remarks

I have used the virtual training program twice now, both times for a half-marathon. Based on my experience I recommend this program as I have found it fun and effective. The main reason for me to use a schedule like this is to focus on the running instead of the planning the training. The result of the first 10 weeks were above all my expectations as a run the NYC Half in 1:53 and a bit, crushing my personal best. The predicted finish time that the virtual training gave me before race day was 1:57 which I thought to be optimistic. Of course you still do the running yourself and there is no guarantee.

So, the big question: is the program worth the cost? I would say, if you are on the fence, for this price: yes, definitely try it out. Put it into perspective of all other things that you will inevitably pay for to do your hobby and to run this (half)marathon. This training program will help improve yourself and make your preparation and race day more fun. Investing in yourself, just like with any education is the best investment you can make, and I don’t think this is any different.

I’m hoping the NYRR are also reading this: there are definitely some things that can be improved as I have noted already. A few simple tweaks and bug fixes would go a long way to make the virtual trainer feel more polished and remove some small annoyances. Consistently displaying either miles OR kilometers in distances and pacing would go a long way for any runner that is more used to the metric system.

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