Great coaching • Precise tracking • Easy to use design • Large variety of available runs • Helpful mindfulness partnership with Headspace
Ultimately it is a Nike marketing tool
There are a lot of running apps out there. This is a great one with exceptional coaching and a valuable connection to mindfulness.
Focus on the rhythm of your foot striking the ground and regain control of your breath. Those are tall orders when you’ve been running for miles. But they become somehow possible, even pleasurable, when a calm, encouraging voice is talking you through it.
Days later, my gym — along with most other gyms, restaurants, and businesses — shuttered because of the pandemic. The treadmill was no longer an option. All I had was the pavement.
I started running last March as a way both to stay in shape and get outside. Over the last year of closings and openings and closings again, election, insurrection, overrun hospitals, canceled plans, it has become so much more. Running is how I cope with stress and see the world beyond my window. It’s a way I can chart progress for myself when it feels like life is standing still. Mostly, it’s a way to breathe. To my surprise, as I honed a running routine this year, I also developed a mindfulness practice of gratitude, non-judgment, patience, and inhabiting my body in the moment.
I couldn’t have transformed myself from a gym-goer to a mindful runner without an app guiding me. In March 2020, I downloaded the . It’s a free app that tracks users’ runs, capturing time, distance, pace, heart rate (with a fitness tracker), and route with an impressively precise GPS. It’s far from the only run app of its kind out there, but it’s widely regarded as .
A big reason why is the coaching available in the app. Chris Bennett is Nike Running’s “Global Head Coach,” which sounds like an absurd title, but is actually accurate. In the app, users can press the big, green “Start” button to get going on a solo run. But you can also navigate to the “Guided Runs” tab to see dozens of options for runs you can do that day, like a 5K, or a 30-minute run, or runs organized around different themes, like the “Thank You Run.”
Select a run, and the app will start playing an audio track with a coach — most often, Coach Bennett — talking to you intermittently throughout. The app lets you integrate music (I use Spotify, but other music apps also work); it plays tracks at full volume when a coach isn’t talking, and automatically lowers the music volume when it’s time for another coaching session.
Coach Bennett’s voice is upbeat and earnest. He gives cheesy encouragement and makes even cheesier jokes, but oddly, it’s exactly what I want to hear when I’m running. The point of coaching is to give you running and life tips, and to maybe distract you a little from the physical effort; having a friendly voice chime in with a story every couple of minutes breaks up the run.
But the coaching is also surprisingly grounded in principles of mindfulness, which actually makes sense. On a physical level, mindful meditation and running are connected by breath. When you start to feel overwhelmed by either your mind or the exertion of a run, you come back to your breath.
Some of the other basic mindfulness principles, as popularized in the west by , the creator of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts, make sense for a running practice, too. Take “beginner’s mind,” which is the idea that you meet a thought or experience with curiosity by observing — and not judging — the present moment. This is exactly the attitude Coach Bennett helps you cultivate in the series of beginner’s runs, titled “First Run,” “Second Run,” etc. Feeling tired? How interesting! Can you keep going? Probably. Need to slow down? That’s OK, too. By starting to run in this way, without knowing it, I was grounding my running practice in mindfulness, aka curiosity.
It’s a connection Nike is aware of, and makes explicit. Nike has developed with the mindfulness app Headspace. In the app, there is a “mindful running pack,” which is a category of guided runs meant to help you work through challenges, like stress, or practice mindfulness principles, like gratitude. Andi Puddicombe, Headspace’s cofounder with a soothing British accent, even narrates some of them with Coach Bennett.
What makes a mindful run different from a regular run? When you feel pain or struggle, you inhabit the feeling, rather than try to ignore it. You focus on your breath, or the rhythm of your feet, or notice all of your muscles working in tandem, to get through it. Miraculously, you do. When your mind wanders, maybe your form starts to go, so you focus, again, and center on gratitude for the present moment. The chorus of one of the intensely rhythmic songs on my running playlist goes “there’s no place I’d rather be”: On a mindful run, it’s not all about the finish line.
Some runs suck, some runs are just to get exercise, some are about achieving a goal. The app, also ultimately exists as a (brilliant, in my opinion) brand loyalty builder to help Nike sell products. What’s more, as you push yourself to go farther, faster, that’s potentially in conflict with the mindfulness principle of “non-striving.” Especially since Coach Bennett often talks about “getting better” with every run, which is a value judgment I’m not always comfortable with.
But when I think back on my year of living through the coronavirus pandemic, the mindful runs I’ve taken in moments of joy, or in need, are some of the times I will remember the most.
On Election Day this past November, rather than watch the returns that were decidedly not coming in, I selected the 30-minute “Stress Free Run” and tried out a new route in my neighborhood. In the run, narrated by Puddicombe and Bennett, Puddicombe describes stress with the analogy of a sky. If stress is the clouds, the mindful runner just has to remember that beyond the clouds, that blue sky is still there. In other words, it will pass.
There was also the day in June I selected the 45-minute “Thank You Run,” during which Coach Bennett talks you through gratitude exercises, thinking about the people, objects, and experiences you are thankful for. As I ran by a high school, I waved and smiled like an adrenaline-fueled weirdo at the cars adorned with balloons and signs celebrating the graduates who were driving by for micro-graduation ceremonies to pick up their diplomas.
Many other mindful runs followed on days both challenging and celebratory. The day I realized I would have to postpone my summer wedding. My birthday run down to the ocean. My first 60-minute run. A hilly trek through Pebble Beach. During a year when time seemed to pass and pass in the blink of an eye with nothing to differentiate one day from the next, just like a mindfulness practice, running helped me be present for both the peaks and valleys.
With one year and 263 miles under my belt, they’re experiences I’m glad I took the time to notice.