On a Tuesday night in April, 60 or so runners gather around a coach on the edge of a track in Portland, Ore., sweaty and spent, basking in the endorphin rush after a hard workout. They’ve just completed 18 repeats of 200 meters at their mile race pace, interspersed with four 400-meter loops at 10K pace. The coach, Chris Bennett, is waxing eloquent.
“That was a legit workout, and you owned it!” Bennett says. “You showed up. You stepped up to the line each time. That’s what we celebrate! You don’t get many chances in a day to be a badass. You were badasses tonight!”
He sounds like a high school coach motivating his young, fast athletes. But the group here at the Nike+ Run Club (NRC) Portland Speed Run are not all young, or even fast.
Some zipped off the 200s in close to 30 seconds; others took 50 or more seconds. A few are ropy-muscled masters runners in racing singlets and shorts, but the majority are 20- or 30-somethings, entirely new to running, and in cotton T-shirts, basketball shorts, stocking caps or yoga-style apparel.
“I can’t even remember the last time I ran on a track,” says Starbuck Ballner, 29, a Coast Guard corpsman stationed nearby who has been running by himself on rural roads. “I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was able to stick with the fastest group.”
Ballner, like many others, is buzzing from the experience. “The community of runners cheering each other on, giving out high-fives, pushing their times lower by a second or two—and cracking jokes the whole time—was even better than I had hoped for,” he says. “It was only a Tuesday night speed workout, but I felt like it was the Olympic Trials.”
The Nike+ Run Club concept is one of the largest manifestations of a huge trend currently sweeping the running industry. Shoe and apparel companies are seeking to appeal to new runners at the grassroots’ level—and especially non-runners—with a novel idea: making serious running fun.
This approach is precisely what Bennett, the club’s Global Head Coach, set out to create with the Nike+ Run Clubs. After being a standout runner in high school and college, Bennett spent four years as an elite miler with the Nike Farm Team in Palo Alto, Calif., and seven years coaching high school track and cross-country at his alma mater, national-champion powerhouse Christian Brothers Academy of New Jersey. But he began to notice that while passion is strong in the high school ranks and with the elites, something seemed to be missing from the experience of the other 99 percent. Even if they run, they don’t seem to love it. His conclusion was that most have never been presented with the sport, only with an activity.
So when Pat Jeffers, Nike Running brand manager in New York, approached Bennett in June of 2014 with the idea of reinventing the running group based out of the Niketown store, Bennett was ready. He wanted to be sure, however, that Nike would buy into his coaching philosophy, the same philosophy he used when faced with a fresh new class of high school runners. He wanted to get people to fall in love with running—and actually enjoy doing it—and he knew the way to do that was by helping people get better at it.
Bennett jotted down a list of non-negotiable principles, the first of which was, “We are all meant to be runners,” followed by, “All runners need to be athletes.” Nike was on board, and this list became NRC’s founding truths.
“What has always been missing is, people who’ve just started running usually don’t get treated like real runners,” Bennett says. “We’re going to challenge everybody the same way—it doesn’t matter.”
Bennett admits that new runners can be scared that they might get in over their heads, and much of the club’s structure is geared to overcoming that trepidation. But he believes people are even more worried that they’ll be dismissed and ignored.
“I think the real concern,” he says, “The one that hurts, is: ‘They’re not going to challenge me because they think I can’t handle it. They’ll challenge everyone else, then they’ll see me, and they’re not going to challenge me.’”
How does NRC negotiate these competing concerns and present a different experience than a typical running club workout?
To start, you sign up for each session independently: There is no commitment to join the club or to enroll for a 10-week session. It doesn’t cost anything.
“The first goal is to get you to run,” Bennett says. “If you show up and do the whole thing, it’s a training program. If you show up because you only run three days a week, that’s your training program. If you just want to do the speed run simply as a fun thing, that’s fine.”
When you show up, you are greeted and welcomed by the staff, which consists of one or two coaches and about a dozen pacers—all wearing fluorescent yellow Nike shirts. Bennett is the global coach, and shares his philosophy and vision at coaching summits and through frequent communication, yet the coaches in the now 43 clubs around the world (including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, New York City and Washington, D.C., in the U.S.) bring their own passion and style to each city. “It’s the same workout,” says Blue Benadum, coach of the Los Angeles Nike+ Run Club. “But all the coaches see it differently. And we’re encouraged to do that, to bring yourself into it.”
Yet all agree that it is the pacers, most of whom are employees at a Niketown store, who are the core of the program. Far more than just clicking off x-minute miles, the pacers set the tone, talk to individual runners about their goals, fears and pains, and encourage them or rein them in during the workouts. They are the enthusiastic glue that shapes the clubs and holds them together.
After you sign in for a workout, one of the pacers will talk with you about your running experience and speed. Soon you are fitted with a colored wristband that identifies you with a group.
Who you are that day is self-reported, and your self-assessment is accepted. “It’s based on trust,” Bennett says. “If you tell me you suck, I have no other recourse than to believe you. OK, you suck. I want you to suck less. If you come up and tell me you’re awesome, that’s fine. I just want you to be more awesome by the end of the workout. Get a little bit better today, and I want you to get better tomorrow.”
Regardless of your group, everyone does the same workout.
“It adds to the camaraderie,” Benadum says. “It’s this community you get—it doesn’t matter how fast you are—for all of us it’s the same workout. We don’t scale back the workouts, we scale the pace.” In fact, the workout is the same in every city around the world.
As runners assemble, the head coach welcomes everyone and explains the workout’s details, purpose, and how to get the most out of it. A coach-led dynamic stretching session is followed by some agility drills, with instruction on the importance of being an athlete and not just a runner in order to avoid injury.
And then you’re sent off with your group. You don’t need to know what a 200-meter repeat is, or what “rest interval” means. You simply fall in with others of similar ability and follow your pacer.
Grouping people by pace does more than make the workout manageable and appropriate. “When people are around people of comparable abilities, they become way more confident, way more relaxed,” Bennett says.
Newcomer Ballner felt the power of the pace group. “No one took it too seriously,” he says. “But you could tell everyone was feeding off the pack’s energy and had come to improve.” Throughout the grind of the workout, pacers build this energy and camaraderies with high-fives, jokes and encouragement.
After half of the workout is completed, anyone who wants to move up is graduated to a faster group—sometimes the pacer tells them they can and should. “That’s a great moment,” Bennett says, “setting people up for that feeling that ‘I ended better, I’m stronger.’”
Toward the end of the workout, the fun ratchets up. Endorphins are flowing, people are gaining confidence and losing inhibition. They start high-fiving each other and cheering for other groups. Bennett starts dancing during the rest intervals to classic rock and hip-hop blaring from trackside speakers. After the last group finishes through a tunnel of high-fives from the other groups, Bennett gives his pep speech.
“They want to hear something powerful,” Bennett says, about this time after a workout. “You don’t get challenged very often, you don’t get real compliments very often. It’s a nice thing to be able to give, as a coach. None of them have to be there. It’s cool sending them off into the world after a speed workout: A better group of people.”
While the rah-rah format may not appeal to all, it is clear the Nike+ Run Clubs are reaching a group that traditional clubs have not.
“We can’t hold onto people who are at the back half of the pack,” says Richard Lovett, head coach of the Team Red Lizard, a 250-strong running club that has operated in Portland for 19 years. “If [Nike is] giving people who race at 8-minute-plus miles a place to do speed workouts, they are the only game in town,” he says. “They are the only ones to get a critical mass to do that.”
On different nights, the clubs hold “Home Runs” from the Nike stores, some easy recovery runs of 3 to 7 miles, some long runs. They also hold a beginner’s night and a fitness/strength training night.
Bennett and the other coaches also try to connect runners with the sport. Over the past year each location has held special workouts tied to local professional events: Mile time-trials around the Milrose Games in New York; Heartbreak Hill workouts in Boston; a run that ended at the finish line to watch the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles.
Participants also get to meet and interact with Nike’s elite runners like Shalane Flanagan, Dathan Ritzenhein and Shannon Rowbury.
Faced with all of this organization and infrastructure, the obvious question is, “What’s in it for Nike?” You can certainly pick out a few direct connections to the bottom line. For one, the runs provide a chance for people to try Nike’s shoes at each session. And the sign-up process for sessions and the Nike+ app also allow for data gathering and targeted marketing.
Do participants feel exploited? “Not once have I felt that,” says Dan Salzer, a conservation scientist with the Nature Conservancy who has been coming to the Portland sessions for two years and keeps three email accounts to manage privacy. “I don’t feel pressure at all, or expectation to wear Nike.” That said, he has switched to Nikes out of gratitude for the program, which has helped him develop as a masters competitor. “I felt that they earned that,” he says.
No matter how cynical you are, it’s easy to believe Bennett is sincere when he says that Nike is doing this simply because it is in the company’s DNA. “That’s how it started, that’s just what we do,” he says.
Yes, Nike can use NRC for marketing and PR, but to Bennett, that’s not the core of what the clubs are about. “The nice thing is that doesn’t affect the way we have to run the session,” he says. “Because at the heart of it, it’s just getting people to fall in love with the sport. You fall in love with running, that’s good for the sport, that’s good for Nike.”