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Nike Run Club's oddly mindful coach

ADRIAN MA, HOST:

If you're someone who does a lot of running for exercise, there's a good chance you've got a go-to app for that, right? When it comes to tracking miles and planning routes, there's Runkeeper fans and Strava heads and MapMyRun devotees. But none of these apps inspire quite the same emotional or maybe even spiritual response as the Nike Run Club app, and to unpack why, I'm handing things off to my colleague, Scott Detrow.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: The story starts at a meeting at Nike in 2017. The discussion was all about how hard it is to get people to start running, which is obviously a problem for a company that sells running gear. Chris Bennett, a running coach who works at Nike, was still thinking about it as the meeting ended.

CHRIS BENNETT: And I was with a coworker. And I said, I don't know. I don't think it's that hard to get someone to run. And he said, well, what would you do? And I said, I'd go for a run with them. He said, but what do you mean? You can't go for a run with everyone. And I said, well, if I'm in their ears, I can.

DETROW: They laughed, but they also booked some time at a recording studio in the building.

BENNETT: So two days later, I walked in. I went home. I wrote a couple of scripts - the first run, the next run, the first speedrun and the comeback run - and we recorded them.

DETROW: And this would become the special sauce of the Nike Run Club app. They beta tested these guided runs. People loved them. And pretty soon, Chris Bennett was the voice inside a whole lot of runners' ears.

All right. So one of those runners is Me. I had had a long stretch where I had stopped running altogether, and these things helped me get back into it. So to get a sense of what it's like to run with Coach Bennett, we're going to step outside NPR, and we're going to go for a run.

BENNETT: You started. You began this run. You crossed the starting line. We are moving forward. All of this takes guts.

DETROW: Got some positive affirmation from Coach Bennett right there.

BENNETT: Let's make sure we start the run smart. That means easing into the beginning of the run.

DETROW: And this is one of the first little things I appreciated about these guided runs. You're probably starting out your runs too fast, because one of the things he talks a lot about is ending the run feeling good about it. I'm running up a hill as I say this and not ending the run feeling like I'm out of shape, I feel terrible because that is not a way to get yourself out going for another run and sticking with it.

BENNETT: 3.2k done. That's basically 2 miles. And right now, I just want you to do a little breathing check while you bask in your newfound confidence that came from the courage you had to celebrate yourself. How are you breathing?

DETROW: And that's how these guided runs work. He pops in and out. Certain distances, he'll come back in.

BENNETT: Here's a little tip. Take that tip about breathing and bring it into the rest of your day. Sitting in traffic, getting tense? Breathe.

DETROW: You can hear how I feel like I've kind of developed this relationship with this coach over the years, even though we've never talked. You know, it's peak running season right now. People are running marathons. The New York City Marathon is this weekend. And I thought, what better time to finally say hi to the coach who has been in my ear for hundreds and hundreds of miles?

BENNETT: So we run together.

DETROW: We do run together, yeah.

Back in the studio, I asked Chris Bennett, who up until this moment I had only known as Coach Bennett, about the themes that he comes back to in his coaching.

One of them - I've heard you say this in a lot of different places, but I'm just going to read a line from one of your Substacks - let's just skip the part where you tell me you're slow. I already know you're slow. What's with that look you're giving me? Oh, no you don't. Don't pretend you're hurt. You were literally about to tell me how slow you are. Yeah, that's what I thought. It made me laugh because I had already talked to our producer, Connor (ph), about the fact I wanted to ask you about this. And then we were talking about how to put this segment together. And he said, well, I'll record you going running. And I caught myself starting to say, but I'm really slow. Why do you think we do that?

BENNETT: Well, I think because we're just really terrible teammates to ourselves. And I think it's really just a defense mechanism. I think people would rather say I'm not good at this, so then the expectations are so low that whatever happens, they're not disappointed. People come up to me, what they tell me right after they introduce themselves with their name is I suck at running. And I'll say, all right. I believe you. Because this has to be based on trust.

Now, my job as a coach is for you to leave me a little bit better. And if you can't make that leap of faith just yet, then you can keep referring to it as sucking less. The other exercise that usually gets people out of their own heads is to literally get them out of their own heads and imagine everything you say on the run to yourself, imagine saying it to someone you care about. You would never be this vicious. You would never be this cruel. You would never be this derogatory to someone you care about that's trying to get better. So if you can actually treat yourself like someone you care about, you suddenly become a much better teammate.

DETROW: Yeah. I mean, tied up with all of this, some of the themes that you often return to in these guided runs is this idea of reframing the run - right? - like, reframing the context of the fact that maybe you were slower, but hey, did you sleep well last night? Are you stressed? Maybe there's reasons for that. And then also on the flip side, maybe this wasn't my fastest time, but I feel more relaxed. I'm in a better mood. Were things like that hard for you to figure out yourself?

BENNETT: Oh, absolutely. They still are. I mean, I'm a far better coach to other people than I am to myself. That goes without saying.

DETROW: Oh, it's easier to give advice than follow it.

BENNETT: Yeah. For me, especially when I was a competitive athlete, so much of the sport was based on the numbers on the clock that it robbed me of a lot of joy I think I could have had in the sport. And honestly, I think a lot of the breakthroughs I had in terms of coaching came from the fact that my first coaching jobs was it was seven years of coaching high school kids. And my responsibility, which I took very seriously, was to make sure these kids left me better than when they arrived. And if the only way I was measuring that was they were faster, then I would have felt like I failed my responsibility. I had to get them to be aware of the fact that their best day may not be their fastest day. The day that they're most proud of may not end on an award stand.

DETROW: That makes me wonder, though. Do you ever feel like there's any tension in your mind at being somebody who's talking about, hey, you're probably actually running too fast, slow down a little bit, especially at the beginning of the run, doing all of that but working for this massive global company that is selling performance, that's selling self-improvement, that's saying this shoe, this shirt could maybe get you a little bit faster?

BENNETT: Well, I think - no, because I think they should work together. I mean, if your goal is performance, then all of these things should aid to performance. And I think this is where there's like a misconception about being kind to yourself. It's almost immediately equated with being soft or being weak. It is way easier...

DETROW: You can kind, you can be forgiving, and you can still set hard...

BENNETT: Oh, absolutely.

DETROW: ...Set goals for yourself and hold yourself to a standard.

BENNETT: Absolutely. And not only that, I mean, in terms of weakness or being soft, it is not heavy lifting to beat yourself up after a bad performance. It is way harder and takes way more courage to be kind. So if you're trying to instill in your athletes, like, a mental fortitude or endurance, then - which are hard things or callous them mentally or physically, then teaching them to do hard things is how you do it.

DETROW: Yeah. I wanted to end with just a few questions about practical running advice.

BENNETT: Yeah, sure.

DETROW: We're talking at peak marathon season. Any advice for a first-time marathoner, somebody who's anxious about seeing that through in the next couple of weekends?

BENNETT: Yeah. I think the first piece of advice is to be confident, because what they may not realize is that the hardest thing about a marathon is doing the training to get to the starting line of the marathon. The butterflies are there because this matters to you, but you've done the work.

DETROW: And total flip side of that, advice for somebody who's listening who maybe it's been years since they ran, or maybe they've never run and they're thinking about it, but they're a little anxious or intimidated about actually trying. What would you say to them?

BENNETT: I would say your first run, there is no minimum distance, there is no minimum duration and there is no pace that you have to run. So head out the door and go run for 5 minutes. Most people will say, 5 minutes? Like, that's not a real run. I can tell you it is because two days ago, I did a 5-minute run, and it counts. The cool thing is this is going to be the first run, and if you can end it knowing you could have gone further, knowing you could have gone faster and wanting to run again, there will be the most important run, which is the next run. And now we're off.

DETROW: That is Chris Bennett, Nike running global head coach, also known as Coach Bennett on the guided runs on the Nike running app. Thank you so much for talking to us.

BENNETT: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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