How Nike+ Run Club is Making Hard Workouts Fun

The modified Nike+ Run Club Speed Day workout included help and high-fives from paces and coaches, plus cameos from Kevin Hart and Shalane Flanagan.

I have to be honest, I’m not a huge fan of treadmill running. I run on a ‘mill from time to time, but I find it much less appealing (read: boring) than heading out on the roads and trails, even in bad weather. But the other night in New York City, I took part in a special Nike+ Run Club Speed Day workout and something radical happened: I had a blast. It was a ridiculously fun way to get in a workout with a bit of intensity mixed in and little structure of a traditional workout.

The 48-minute group workout entailed running intervals from 30 seconds to 2 minutes at various paces, ranging, for me, from 7:00 per mile down to about 5:15 per mile. Those weren’t exceedingly fast paces for me and nor was the concept of running fast intervals new to me, but that’s not the point. What made the workout unique—and downright fun—was that it was conducted in an energetic, rah-rah environment that bordered on pandemonium. (The fact that crazy-fit actor/comedian Kevin Hart and four-time U.S. Olympian Shalane Flanagan happened to be there taking part in the amped-up vibe of this Nike promo event was an added bonus, although it had very little to do with my own personal thrill factor.)

With Nike+ Run Club head coach Chris Bennett leading the workout by barking out commands from a wireless headset mic and NRC coaches and pacers bouncing around between the treadmills to offer support and copious high-fives to each of the dozen or so runners in our sessions, we cranked up our heart rates by running intervals based on a pace card catered to our own fitness levels. First we ran for a minute at marathon pace, then, with the treadmill belt still spinning, we used our arms to pop off into a recovery phase where our feet straddled the belt. Next we ran for 30 seconds at 5K pace, followed by another short bout of recovery, then a minute at 10K pace. After more recovery, we ran a minute at mile pace. All the while, loud music thumped out a zesty beat as Bennett shouted encouragement and our next set of instructions.

Not too long into the workout, a very organic sense of community among the runners became apparent—both because Bennett was fostering it with his comments and because we couldn’t help but enjoy cranking up our own intensity levels to match the energy of the room. And that’s the genius of the redesigned Nike+ Running Club approach to recreational runner training. What used to be mostly centered on casual group runs aimed at building community in years past, NRC in 2015 was revamped to add more dynamic training sessions during each club’s Speed Run day. Now there are Nike+ Run Club groups in 10 of North America’s biggest cities.

The once-a-week Speed Day workouts (which are usually held on an indoor or outdoor track, depending on the weather) are designed to engage everybody’s inner athlete—no matter the fitness or ability level of the runner—instead of just going through the motions of a less-fruitful slow jogging session. If you’ve been a runner focused on improving your performance (for any distance), it’s not  new concept. You have to mix in hard sessions if you want to get faster. Nike’s Speed Day workouts are somewhat of a blend of old-school training ideals and modern high-intensity training concepts.

Nike+ Running Club isn’t the only group doing this—there are many programs and groups providing some level of fun and support … and you can also simulate it on your own. I’ve done fartleks like the one we did on the treadmill several times a month for as long as I can remember. However, the lively atmosphere, music, built-in camaraderie and positive vibe that the NRC coach and pacers provide help ease the stress of going to the track for a traditional interval workout session or a solo session where a more serious tone can be detrimental to one’s attitude and success.

“I believe everybody is meant to run, but I think this is really about introducing people to the sport of running instead of to the activity of running, and to me—and I think to most people—the sport is way more exciting,” Bennett said after the workout. “If you take part in a sport, you’re an athlete. But if you take part in an activity, you’re just a participant—and there’s an end-time to that. But if you have a body, you are an athlete and introducing people to the sport of running opens up a whole new world. The goal is very simple: just be a better version of yourself.”

Bennett knows about the sport of running. He was a strong runner in high school and college who eventually ran a mile in 4:00 and change in a brief stint trying to make it as a pro. His passion for running led him to coaching and he’s been helping guide runners of all sorts for the past several years.

He points out that he’ll never be as fast as he once was, but that’s irrelevant given that he can still push himself in hard workout sessions and races. It’s that kind of personal effort and willingness to grind—even amid a group setting with runners of various ability levels—that creates a common bond among all runners, from first-timers to fitness runners to world-class elites.

That was apparent as we continued our workout with a zesty variety of speeds and durations, alternating duration of fast-running segments and alternating between mile, 5K, 10K and marathon pace. I normally can’t hang with Flanagan (she was notably taking it easy, running somewhere just under 8:00 per mile pace), and, based on Hart’s speed and intensity levels, I couldn’t hang with him either. (The top pace of his intervals was 12.5 miles per hour or 4:48 per mile pace, whereas mine was 11.5 mph, or 5:14 pace.) That hardly mattered, though. As Bennett says, the point is not to compare, but to share in and endure similar mental and physical challenges and experiences that bring out our own personal best.

“It’s the excitement and the pain and the satisfaction of, ‘Yeah, I went to the wall.’ And that’s exactly the feeling any runner feels in a race,” Bennett says. “That’s something that’s unique to running and something that people can understand at any fitness level, that they can have something in common with the most elite athletes.”

The bottom line? I got a hard workout in and barely even knew what hit me. If it had been a traditional workout like a 5 x 1-mile workout or 6 x 800 or some kind of 2-minutes-on, 2-minutes-off fartlek, I would have been stressed about meeting certain times and would have been anxious during the rest breaks about the next. But this was pure fun and I was still getting high-fives long after it was over.

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