Mario Fraioli: Athlete, Coach & Podcaster
In the running world, Mario Fraioli has covered it all. He immersed himself in the sport first as an athlete, and now as a podcaster, coach, and author. Today, Mario combines a love of the sport with innate curiosity—he’s got empathy for everyone he meets, especially those who come into life through his trademark podcast and newsletter The Morning Shakeout.
Just as most great athletes and leaders stick to a consistent schedule, Mario hasn’t missed a week of publishing The Morning Shakeout since it debuted 203 weeks ago. We sat down to get into everything: coaching, training, the state of running, the value of personal relationships, and the tools in Mario’s kit that keep him moving as a writer, entrepreneur and athlete.
If you want to hear Mario in action, here are a few podcast episodes to start with: Shalane Flanagan, Ryan Hall, Kara Goucher, Des Linden, Colleen Quigley, Scott Fauble, Stephanie Bruce, Gwen Jorgensen, Brad Stulberg, and Frank Gagliano.
Breakfast, Basketball & College Running
David Swain: I came upon your podcast a year ago, and it’s drawn me into the running world in a way I never would have expected. You discuss the highs and lows of competition, and the broader issues impacting society beyond running . I’m really excited to have you here.
Mario Fraioli: That means a lot to me, and it’s what I hope people get out of the show. It’s a lot deeper than how your last race went, or what your mile splits are. Whether you’re a professional athlete or an enthusiastic age-grouper, there are a number of things that can affect your training in racing and in life.
I love to dig into what that looks like, and I hope people will find those themes throughout the conversations.
We’ll move on now to a really hard question. What did you have for breakfast this morning?
I was up early, got out of bed at 5 a.m., because I was meeting someone for a run at 6 a.m. On the way to the trailhead, I had a CLIF Nut Butter Bar and a cup of coffee. Then, I went over to Phil’s Coffee here in Corte Madera, had more coffee, and got a bagel sandwich. That had cream cheese, a little olive oil sprinkled on it, tomato, and cucumber.
Do you have a go-to breakfast?
If I’m in a pinch—if it’s going to be an hour or less from the time I get up to the time I’m running—I’ll just grab a bar of some sort. Usually a CLIF Bar, but I also like those ZBars.
If I have more time, maybe two hours before my run, I’ll toast a couple pieces of bread. Trader Joe’s has this awesome cinnamon swirl bread—it’s definitely a vice of mine—and I spread a little bit of butter on top. I am fairly certain it does nothing for performance, but it’s quick carbohydrates. It tastes good, it settles well in my stomach, and that’s usually what I’ll have before a run.
If I don’t have it before a run, I’ll usually have it afterward with some yogurt and maybe a banana.
Let’s talk about your road into running. What were you, Mario, doing as a 10-year-old?
Not running. I was doing what most 10-year-olds in my area were doing. I was playing youth soccer; I was playing Little League baseball. Basketball was my first love. I was also on a few basketball teams at that time and played a bunch of different ball sports.
Where did you grow up?
In Central Massachusetts, in a little town called Auburn outside of Worcester, which is the second-biggest city in the state after Boston.
So you were playing basketball. How did you get here?
I loved basketball. I was a big Celtics fan growing up. My house was around the corner from Holy Cross College, which is a small Division I school, and they would make it to the NCAA tournament out of the Patriot League every year. I was a big fan and went to a lot of their games. Bob Cousy, who is a Celtics legend, went to Holy Cross—and I wanted to be like Bob Cousy when I grew up.
I was pretty decent at basketball, and I played through junior high and then in high school. I also went to summer camp for basketball at Clark University, where my mom worked, and there was a coach there named Jim White who I became pretty close with. He had played in college and was a mentor to me, and he told me I should run cross-country in the fall to get a good base of endurance for the basketball season.
I said, “Sure, whatever you say,” and I started running cross-country at Auburn High my junior year. We did not have a big team—or a strong team, for that matter. The janitor at the school was our coach. He was an avid runner himself, but not very hardcore, and we weren’t really training. We raced twice a week and in between we’d run two, maybe three miles. We never did speed workouts, and I didn’t know anything about training.
I loved to race, though. I loved the competitive aspect of it. I loved that I was fully in control of my own destiny on race day. If I made a move and it panned out, I could win, and if it didn’t pan out, it was on me. I loved that about running from the beginning, but again, we weren’t really training.
A big turning point for me was at the end of that season—my junior year. I was running in the last meet of the year; it was the Central Massachusetts Championship. Long story short, I missed making the State Championship by one spot, or seven seconds, and that really lit a fire under my butt.
I realized I was pretty good at running. I was better at it almost instantaneously than I was at basketball, which was a sport I’d been playing my whole life. I can remember being so fired up after that race.
So I decided to actually train. I was still committed to basketball my junior year, and we had a guy on the team named Kevin Reed, who was just phenomenal. He ended up playing Division I at Maine and took them to the NCAA Tournament, which was pretty cool—but I wasn’t going to play while Kevin was there unless he needed a breather.
So I made the decision to quit basketball and join the indoor track team. I really got interested in training theory and how people trained for long-distance races because I knew there was more to it than what our coach was saying. And it just sort of continued to snowball from 1998 through today.
What happened when you went back to State the next year?
I did not win, but I finished seventh in Massachusetts. Obviously, it was very bold of me to say I was going to win as a junior who missed qualifying the year before.
But I really thought I could win, and I ended up working pretty hard that summer going into my senior year. I ran almost every day, maybe 30 or 40 miles a week, which was 30 or 40 miles a week more than I’d run the summer before—and I saw the results. I was much more competitive, even against some very good runners, and I realized that I could be a strong runner if I stuck with it.
Fast-forward a couple of years. So you’re running in college?
I ran collegiately at Stonehill College in Northeastern Massachusetts, a Division II school.
I was recruited to go to Stonehill. I was not given a scholarship out of high school. Actually, at the time, they didn’t have any scholarships.
But I liked the fact that I could run on the team there. It wasn’t a Division I program—it wasn’t super-deep—but I knew I was driven enough to succeed, and the school was about an hour away from home. So, it was far enough away that I could have some independence, but it was close enough that I could get back and my parents could go to races.
Did you start out in journalism? When did you start writing?
No, I didn’t study journalism in college at all.
Actually, the only journalism class I took was in high school. It was a half-year elective where we had schooling in the classroom, and then our “work” was actually writing articles and putting together the school paper.
You know, looking back, I’ve always been a writer—even when I didn’t know it. In second grade, we had this project where we had to publish our own books, and we got these sheets of white paper and had to write a story and illustrate it.
We folded the books in half and stapled the spines. Then we took construction paper and each made a cover. I thought it was the coolest thing. The teacher laminated the books, and then we put them on the shelf in the library. I remember that very vividly; it was such a huge thrill. I loved the process of producing this thing, which started as nothing and then eventually became a finished product that I and others could enjoy.
And I’ve always enjoyed writing. I’ve been journaling since I was a young kid. Even when I started running, I had a paper training log and liked writing my reflections on whatever workout I did that day, or whatever race I ran that weekend, even though no one was reading it but me. And then, fast-forward to college, I hated taking tests. I was never a good test-taker, but I loved writing papers.
I ended up majoring in philosophy in college. And one of the reasons I ended up majoring in philosophy was that there weren’t many tests—just papers, and as long as you could state an argument and then back it up, you weren’t going to fail. There was something about that that really appealed to me, and I didn’t mind the long nights sitting in front of a computer writing away.
I’ve always loved writing. I just never knew where it was going to lead me.
Coaching: A Personalized Approach
Now you’re a runner, a coach, a podcaster, an author, and a husband. How has the way you see yourself evolved over the years?
Everything you mentioned is a part of my identity. Even beyond those things, I’m also a friend, a brother, and a nephew. Those are all important parts of my life, and I appreciate them.
Now, at 37 years old, I can’t say I’ve always known these were aspects that helped define me as a person. It’s looking back, though, at my progression as a human and as an athlete—at the decisions I’ve made along the way—that what I’m doing now makes sense, professionally and personally. These are all threads that have been there my entire life, and now they’re interwoven.
For people who aren’t familiar with your history, would you talk about your coaching? You coach some elite professional runners and some everyday runners as well.
More than half my roster is age-group athletes who don’t run professionally and have a lot of other things going on in their lives.
I sense in your podcast a lot of empathy for who each person is. You were interviewing Lee Troop, and it was clear you both value personal connections and picking up the phone to call your athletes. There’s not a lot of that happening right now. How do you think of yourself as a coach?
I think that’s a good start. It’s interesting that I am coaching. Coaching, I should say, is how I spend most of my “working time.” When I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do in college, I had no idea. I switched my major so many times, and I ended up choosing philosophy because I liked writing and I liked the subject matter and I liked thinking about things.
My minor was psychology. I thought this would be a good way to get into grad school and maybe get into counseling, because I always liked listening to people. Even going as far back as junior high, when friends were going through a breakup or their parents were going through a divorce.
It wasn’t that I had all the answers, but I could listen, and I knew there was a lot of value in that. Maybe sometimes I could provide some perspective and get people to think differently about the situation. I do a lot of that as a coach today. And then, marry that with what I was describing earlier about studying training theory, because I didn’t have a great coach in high school. You’re merging those two things.
People come to me for coaching because they want to prepare for an ultra race or run a marathon or qualify for Boston. There’s something formulaic about that, but for me, it is very personal—and there’s only a set number of athletes I can work with because the level of time and attention that I give each one is so high that it’s just not scalable. This is because I get to know the athletes as more than just athletes. I like to understand what else they’ve got going on in their lives and how that’s going to affect their training and racing. And then, on the flip side, I consider how their training and racing fit into everything else. Because if there’s not a level of harmony there, they’re not going to have the success they want.
If their training and racing are causing family stress or taking away from their ability to perform at work, that’s not good. And, if their personal or professional situation isn’t allowing them to do the type of training they need to do to get where they want to go, then we’ve got to figure that out too. The only way you can understand these things is by talking to people frequently and on a deep level. I’ve always just been a curious person, and the coaching I do is very personal.
When I left Competitor in 2016, it was to join a coaching startup in San Francisco. I was the Director of Coaching, and I quickly realized that what I thought of as coaching wasn’t scalable. It just wasn’t a good fit for me. That was three years ago, and I’ve been working for myself ever since. The way that I like to coach—it’s the way I know how to do it best. I take a lot of pride in the relationships I have with my athletes.
There are a couple athletes I’ve been coaching for 10 or 11 years now, and many of them for the last seven or eight years. Some of the newer ones, I’ve still had for three years at this point.
That’s what coaching is to me. It’s not 16 weeks of marathon training resulting in personal bests, although that’s a small part of it. I see it as more of an ongoing relationship, meant to guide a person’s training. I look at it as a bit of life coaching as well. I’ve had athletes comment on that, and I’m fortunate to have had coaches after high school who taught me the value in that. Frank Gagliano, a big idol and mentor of mine, is 82 years old and still coaching after 58 years of doing so—he really drilled into my head that this isn’t a three-month thing. If you’re into coaching for the right reasons, it’s a much longer commitment.
Your podcast episode with Frank Gagliano—I would highly recommend readers go to The Morning Shakeout and look that one up.
He has so much wisdom and experience and knowledge. He’d never been on a podcast before. He dropped all of it—maybe not even all of it, but he dropped a lot of it in the 80 minutes we talked.
That was amazing. I mean, you could see how much he cares—his ability to talk about the people he coached 40 years ago like it was yesterday.
He calls his athletes family. And Lee Troop, who you mentioned earlier, has his athletes over for barbecues. He says they’re like his second set of kids; they’re family to him.
A lot of the athletes I work with are close to my age. Some of them are a little bit older. I’ve got a couple now who are young enough to be not my kids, but younger siblings for sure. And that’s how I think of them as well. They’re a big part of my life, and even some of the ones who I’m not writing workouts for, I am still in very close touch with them. And I think that’s what it’s about.
How do you help people through periods of burnout, whether from their sport or from other stress points in life?
I am in the business of stress management, and it’s exactly as you described. There’s training stress, there’s work stress, there’s life stress, there’s emotional stress, and there’s physical stress. It’s all stress, but your body can’t really differentiate any of it. It just knows it’s being stressed, and there’s a capacity there where if you exceed it, you could get hurt.
You may snap at your spouse or a coworker or your kids; you may fall into a little bit of a depression. All these things can happen. Back to the holistic nature of my coaching, it’s getting to know the athlete as a person and knowing the different things that are going on in their lives.
And it’s not being nosy necessarily—if an athlete doesn’t want to talk to me about something, I’m not going to force the issue. But a lot of them are very open about what’s going on, and I’m careful to respect their confidentiality. As I tell them, though, the more information I have, the better decisions I can make with regard to their training. If I know that work is crazy and they’re putting in 80-hour weeks, but they’ve got 10 hours of training on their schedule and they’re a type-A person who wants to check all the boxes, they’re going to do that 10 hours of training come hell or high water—and that means they’re sleeping four hours a night. That’s not good.
If I know that, I can’t do anything about their 80-hour work weeks, and maybe that’s the reality for a while, but I can adjust their training to make sure the stress load is manageable and that we’re not overdoing it. I’ve been doing this long enough as an athlete where I’ve gone over that edge, and it can be really hard to pull yourself back up after that.
What have you found works for adjusting to new habits as an age-group athlete who requires more time and structure?
On a very basic level, it’s just talking about what their typical week looks like. What time do they wake up most mornings? What commitments do they have? I like to look at their week as a whole. And some of those things are very fixed, like work hours or when the kids go to school. Maybe Monday they have no time, and that’s going to be a rest day. Maybe Tuesday they’ve got a half-hour, and we can make the most of that half-hour by sending them to the gym. Maybe Friday they work a half-day and have a three-hour window in the morning, so that can be a longer training day.
It’s really about knowing that for each athlete, maybe they’ve got five hours a week, so let’s maximize those five hours. This doesn’t mean we’re going full-throttle for five hours, but we want to make the best use of that time. And looking at that in the context of everything else, it’s about making sure we’ve built in enough time for rest and recovery.
Training, Endurance & Strength
On training, are there common pieces you see the average endurance athlete missing?
One of the two biggest pieces that jump out to me is overall consistency. If you want to be good at something, you’ve got to be at it for a long time. There are people who’ll run for 10 or 12 weeks at a time, and then for whatever reason, things sort of fall off the rails for a while. Then, when they try to get back into it, it’s a lot harder. I’m a huge believer in consistency, which doesn’t mean you need to train at the same level throughout the year, but you need to develop those habits.
If we can keep those habits going over time, we’re going to see success. But often, that consistency piece is missing.
The second thing—and I’m sure this goes for other endurance athletes as well—is that many runners are running too hard most of the time. Generally, about 20% to 25% of your overall week should be at an intensity that I would consider hard. And that can be varying degrees of hard, and the rest of it should be fairly easy to moderate. For a lot of people, half their week is really hard and the other half is moderately hard. They’re in this gray zone all the time, which you can get away with for a while—especially when you’re new to a sport. But eventually, you plateau, and you’re just not going to go anywhere.
One of the most common things I do with athletes is slow down. People who come to me for coaching, they usually have a big goal. They’re pretty driven. So it’s getting them to buy in and take their rest and recovery days a lot more seriously that’s important—otherwise they’re not getting as much as they could out of their hard workouts.
What about strength training? Where does that fit in for you?
My thinking on strength training has evolved. I never enjoyed it much as an athlete. I liked running a lot more. In recent years, though, as I’ve gotten well into my 30s, I’ve realized how important it is for overall health and body balance and longevity. And I’m pretty religious about getting into the gym once a week when I’m home.
It’s a lot harder to make time when I’m traveling, but I’ll still do those exercises on the road. I’ve made strength training a consistent part of my week. Thursday mornings, when I’m home, I’m at the gym in San Francisco at 6:30 a.m. And I’ve seen the results in my running.
Last fall, I ran my best marathon ever at 2:27:33, and the 10 weeks before that marathon, I ran 60 miles a week. That isn’t low mileage for me, but it’s pretty low mileage before a marathon. I was consistent with it, though, and I was also consistent with my gym work, and I felt better at the end of that race. I just felt more solid, and I looked more solid too. I didn’t fall apart.
In terms of my coaching, strength training isn’t something I emphasized early on. Some of my athletes work with their own strength coach or personal trainer, and that’s great. I don’t try to mess with that. I do want to know what they’re doing and when, though, so I can plan it into their week.
Now, I try to have all my athletes doing some type of strength training every week. It doesn’t have to involve putting up heavy weights, though there is a benefit to that. And I think you want to be doing this training under the eye of a coach—it can be dangerous otherwise, but at minimum getting them to do some bodyweight work two to three times a week is ideal.
I often say I don’t coach runners—I coach athletes who specialize in running, and I’m really trying to focus on that athlete part. Running is only one part of athleticism. I think strength training and mobility are a huge component, regardless of what you’re doing. Strengthening your body so it’s resilient and you can get the most power out of it, but also, just overall resiliency to injury. If you’re doing it well, you’ll really see the performance benefits too.
Say you’re on the road. What kind of bodyweight work do you prefer?
So you can actually find this online. I put together a strength routine a few years ago—a lot of simple exercises, and you don’t need a lot of equipment. It’s mostly pushups, reverse dips, some core exercises, lunges, and squats. If you are able to get one of those balance balls, you can do some hamstring curls and some other abdominal type of work. And, if you have access to just a simple dumbbell, single-leg deadlifts are great. The routine is just 10 exercises, and it hits everything from head to toe. They’re very basic movements as well.
In my experience, most athletes don’t do any type of strength training until they’re forced to. It’s usually when they get hurt and are prescribed some rehabilitative exercises that they end up doing strength for a short period of time—and then they get better and it goes out the window. But I’m telling you, in my experience as an athlete and as a coach, I have seen that the people who do strength training on a consistent basis are healthier overall.
Thoughts on the Running World
Can you give us a snapshot on the state of the running world? What are some of the trends? What’s happening in each segment?
The running world is pretty segmented. I coach a lot of ultra runners, and I’ve been into ultras myself since moving to the Bay Area in 2014. Ultra running is seeing a lot of growth, though it’s still a pretty small piece of the overall running pie. But more athletes are running these events, more brands are getting into the space, and more sponsorship dollars are coming in.
It’s interesting because ultras aren’t easy, right? But I think that’s why people are doing them. They’re looking for their next challenge.
Maybe they’ve already done the marathon or the half-marathon, and they want to scare themselves. And what better way to scare yourself than by going out into the wild for several hours and seeing if you can make it around a mountain?
I’ve said this in a couple other places before—my wife’s a triathlete, so I’ve observed the sport both on the ground at the events themselves from an age-grouper’s perspective, and I follow it a little bit professionally. I like to joke that ultra running is the new triathlon. There are a lot of similarities as far as the growth patterns go, in terms of the races and the athletes participating in them and who’s getting into them.
And on the professional side, the way athletes are being sponsored, it’s very similar to what’s happened in triathlon. I think ultra running is in a space now where triathlon was maybe 10 or 15 years ago, so it’ll be interesting to see how it progresses. You know, there’s a bit of gear involved in ultra running. There’s certainly a lot more gear in triathlon, but it’s very different than marathoning or road racing or track and field, where you really don’t need a whole lot.
Moving over to the roads and in marathon, what’s interesting to me is this resurgence of the competitive amateur runner. At the highest level, we’re seeing that the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials and the marathon are going to have way more qualifiers than they’ve had in quite some time.
That’s what things were like in the 80s, when marathoning was a race rather than a participatory sport. It’s still very much a participatory sport now, but the racing side of it is starting to see a little bit of a resurgence, and I’m interested in seeing where that goes. The Boston Marathon just opened up for registration, and registration filled faster than ever—and they tightened the standards. That’s a sign the sport of marathoning is healthy and in a good place.
Outside of these traditional events, there are some nontraditional things we’re seeing, like the Speed Project out of LA. You go from LA to Vegas, and it’s very underground. They don’t advertise it. There are no real rules, but it has a big social media following, and it’s all done on Instagram and livestreamed. It’s got this cool factor to it.
Other events have popped up just like that. The Orchard Street Runners put on these events in New York that take place at night, and they’re very secretive and invite-only. I think the winner gets $150 and there’s a party afterwards, but it’s very underground and it’s unsanctioned and there’s something cool and pure about that. The rise of run crews, especially in major cities, is starting to kick up a little bit here in San Francisco as well.
And then on the track side, it’s dying a bit, honestly. Not to be totally morbid, but interest in things like the Olympics and the World Championships is going down. Doping runs rampant through it all, and I think that puts a sour taste in a lot of people’s mouths. And the sport, at the professional level here in the U.S., is pretty sad. In Europe, stadiums sell out. That isn’t the case in the States, and the sport keeps shooting itself in the foot in many ways. It’s been spiraling downward for a while.
How about progressions in trail and ultra running, and how that scene compares in the U.S. vs. Europe?
The sport is in a different place here. It’s smaller, for a number of reasons. A lot of it comes down to permitting, as many of these races run on public lands. The reason a lot of the races sell out is because the field size is capped at a few hundred people—even Western States, which is the original hundred-miler and the most popular ultra in the U.S.
In contrast, I was just at the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) in France, and it’s a weeklong festival of races. They have a 50K and a 101K and a 140K, and the big one, UTMB, which is 170K. There are over a thousand people in every race, and you’re in the town of Chamonix, and it has this big-time feel. It feels like the Super Bowl over there, and it is very much a professional sport, and it’s televised. In the U.S., it isn’t even close to that, and it’s always going to be limited by the permitting issue.
Ultimately, ultra running is more than just running around a scenic mountain. You have people who are doing 24-hour records on the track and national championships and such on the road. But that’s not as sexy as the trail and mountain stuff. It doesn’t photograph quite as well for Instagram. We’re seeing some growth there, though. I just don’t know how big it’s going to get.
Is there a solution to the public lands piece? Can we do more to celebrate people being out on their feet on public lands?
Dealing with the government is complicated, and getting permits for these things is complicated. The North Face Endurance Challenge, which is one of the most competitive ultras in this country, is right here in our backyard in the Marin Headlands. And I think that’s actually a pretty big race in terms of numbers for the U.S. It’s between 500 and 800 people, and there’s a big prize purse, so people who want to race it will show up. But I don’t think they’re going to suddenly let 5,000 people on the trails. Chances are they’re worried about the damage and the precedent that would set too.
I just don’t think the powers that be want to go down that road. And I don’t see that changing anytime soon—not unless someone buys a huge chunk of land and creates their own trails.
Are there companies or organizations that are setting the trends in the space right now?
The North Face has done so from an event perspective. They’ve had the Endurance Challenge series for a number of years now, and they have grown it beyond the U.S. They’re definitely invested in it, and I can’t imagine it’s a huge moneymaker for them given how much it costs to put on these events for such a small number of people.
But they’re committed to it because they want to grow the sport and create those opportunities, and they’re doing it from a product and athlete perspective as well. Salomon is huge in the space, based in Europe. Over there they’re even bigger, but they sponsor a lot of the top athletes. They’re sponsoring more events, and they’re bringing on more ambassadors here in the U.S.
Because there is growth, a lot of brands are getting into it. Adidas and Nike, which are legacy running brands and have been in the sport for a long time, have started making a push in terms of sponsoring athletes and getting behind events. There’s a lot of momentum, which is exciting. But ultimately, I’d say the North Face is leading the way. Salomon is leading the way too; that’s in their DNA. As far as some of these other brands go, I think they’re getting into it because it’s hot right now. So it will be interesting to see what happens there.
Burnout & Business
We often get so caught up in the pursuit and the status and the vanity of the sport, which tends to push us away from the health we are pursuing. What can we do here?
A very basic thing we can do—whether it’s on an individual level or through a platform like Instagram or Facebook, or on a blog or a podcast—is just share our stories. I think that every interview I’ve had, and every conversation, has involved stories that resonate with people.
I believe we see ourselves in other people’s stories, which creates a feeling of solidarity—the feeling that we’re not alone in whatever it is we’re struggling with, and some of the stories contain solutions that can point people in the right direction.
Really, it’s just being empathetic and realizing that even if it looks like someone’s got it all together from the outside, the truth is that everyone’s struggling with something—and that’s not a bad thing.
Some people are struggling more than other people, but I think simply not being showy, and then just being willing to help others is key. Sometimes I’ll pick up the phone and call my athlete and see how they’re doing. I’ll do that with my friends too. I’ll do it with my brother. I’ll do it with my dad. I mean, we all have phones in our pockets, but we don’t use them to call people all that much. Picking up the phone and just calling someone can go a long way—but it’s easy to get swept up in the inertia of our lives and forget to do that.
You talked about struggling with burnout earlier this year, which is super-common. You’ve got a lot going on with your coaching, your own running, and your podcast. How do you keep it all together?
Yeah, I definitely dealt with some burnout earlier this year, and it was as much personal and professional as it was athletic. It’s all the same, and all these things affect one another. And I think for me, speaking to the running side specifically, I was really excited after the California International Marathon (CIM) last fall; setting a personal best revitalized me athletically. Then my eyes got really big, and I wanted to do all these things in the spring—like go all in on a 5K PR knowing I needed a break after CIM.
So I fizzled. I lost some of that excitement, only I had these races that I’d signed up for in April—and by early March, I was completely fried. I wanted to take a bit of a break, but I was committed to these races, and the travel was covered. And I had to accept that.
If I’m generally not excited to train, then I don’t train. I’ll run what I want to run. I would have raced a lot better if I had stuck to the training plan, but I also realized that I couldn’t force it.
Personally, professionally I was trying to do all that around putting the newsletter out every week, growing the podcast, and traveling a whole bunch. I did a bad job of managing my own stress, and self-awareness is huge for me. I’ve gotten better at developing that over the years, and I was just aware of it. So I backed off. It was just like giving myself a bit of grace.
Everyone’s gone through it at some point. When you’re ambitious about something, that’s great—but it can also be your kryptonite.
How has the media landscape changed for you over the years?
The landscape is constantly shifting. I think bigger media companies are having a tougher time reaching an audience. And the way a lot of these companies survive and make money and pay their bills is by scaling. I think people are looking for more and more of a personal connection these days, and I think that’s why I’m able to do what I do. People can reply to my email every week, and I’ll write them back. And I think that’s not going to happen at a bigger brand. I have a few people helping me out, and they get paid for their work, but I’m not paying a full staff. Thinking about it from a business standpoint, I just have to support myself and cover my needs.
The way people consume media is shifting as well, and they’re looking for things that resonate with them—whether it’s other personalities, training tips, or nutrition-type stuff. They don’t want general advice anymore; they’re looking for something that speaks to them. And people are following writers rather than publications. I hate calling myself “my own brand,” but people really are becoming their own brands. They have their own ways of communicating.
This is because when you’re chasing scale, the quality of the content suffers. So you know, for me, I like to be in control of what I want to do. And I think the bigger publications are spread too thin and they’re trying to cater to too many people.
Talk about supporting your business with sponsorships, and Patreon for direct-user contributions?
I stick to one sponsor per month for the newsletter. For the podcast, that’s on a per-episode basis. I think there’s value in consistency, and in having a brand sponsor four to five episodes. But it’s really a combination of a sponsorship model and reader and listener support, which is not unique. I borrowed that idea from Surfer’s Journal. They put out a magazine, and their tagline involves being reader-supported with assistance from five brands that share values with the content that they’re putting out. That’s what I try to do as well. Long-term reader support is more sustainable, in my opinion. And you know, I look at my readers and listeners as investors in The Morning Shakeout because they’re forking their money over to support my work. And you know, some people do exclusive content on Patreon and people are paying for that.
For me, there’s no real exclusive content. Billy Yang and I do a podcast every week that is available on Patreon only, but that’s not what people are putting the money up for. They want to support my work because they genuinely find value in it. And that means a lot to me. And then the sponsorship stuff—it’s going well, but it’s a lot less predictable. Sponsors can pull out, and there have been months and episodes of the podcast where I haven’t had any. So it’s all about trying to find the right balance. But most importantly, when it comes to the brands I partner with, I want to be consistent with the values of the content I put out every week.
For example, this month’s newsletter sponsor is Tracksmith. They were my first sponsor three years ago, they’ve been consistent, and I also race in their gear. Everything that I’m about is consistent with what they’re about. And I think there’s value in it for them because they’re partnering with a trusted source in the space. There’s value in it for me because my bills get paid, and there’s value in it for the readers and listeners because they know they’re getting an authentic recommendation. That’s often harder for bigger brands to do.
Resources: Toolkit & Gear
Let’s take a look at your toolkit. What are your go-tos for tech, apps, and gear?
- Apps: I have no social media apps on my phone. I took them all off because they were too big of a distraction. This doesn’t mean I don’t use them, but I use them pretty deliberately.
- Watch: I use a COROS Pace. It’s a newer, smaller brand in the GPS watch space that sponsored my newsletter a year ago. The Pace does everything I need it to do, and I’ve got their app on my phone that I sync with Strava.
- Shoes: I’ve probably got something from every brand in my kit. I like comfortable shoes that I genuinely enjoy wearing.
- Kit: There are two main things I rely on.
- Tracksmith, a sponsor of mine, puts out a lot of their stuff that I race and train in. I’ve bought quite a bit of it myself.
- I have a lot of Patagonia trail gear that I wear. I love their shorts. I think they make the best trail running shorts period, like five-inch strider pros and five pockets in the back. I can put keys and fuel and all kinds of stuff in there. It’s funny—as a younger runner, I didn’t carry anything with me, but now I’ve got my phone, I’ve got my keys, I’ve often got my headlamp in there. And I like having pockets for the marathon.
- Coaching: I use a platform called Final Surge to manage my athletes’ training and communications. It’s been great for me, and syncs with Strava.
- Training: I didn’t know what Strava was before I moved to the Bay Area in 2014, but I got on within a week of being here. It’s become sort of my de facto training log. I upload all my training there; I don’t hide any of it.
What newsletters, books, and podcasts do you turn to?
I subscribe to a bunch of newsletters because I like that format. One that has nothing to do with running is called Next Draft by a guy named Dave Pell. He’s been in the newsletter game for a long time—puts one out almost every day unless he’s on vacation—and he has answered a lot of my questions. It’s kind of a quick-hits, snoozy style, but he injects his own personality too. He does a great job, and he’s been doing it successfully for a long time.
I also subscribe to Alison Wade’s Fast Women newsletter. She’s very good at what she does, and her newsletter is very thorough. Alison was actually one of my editors back when I got started. She had the Fast Women website, which was owned by New York Road Runners at the time, and some of the first interviews I ever did were for that site.
I’d say my newsletter is more personality-driven. It also has some analysis and links to things that I’m reading and paying attention to, but hers is just very comprehensive. Anything that’s going on in women’s running, you’re going to see it in Alison’s newsletter, which comes out every Monday morning—and it’s long. It’s not just results-oriented, either. Alison’s got a little commentary of her own in there, but she’s doing a great job with it.
In terms of podcasts, I share a lot of them in The Morning Shakeout every week. I’m a big fan of the Rich Roll podcast. I like a lot of NPR shows. Fresh Air is great. I love Terry Gross; she’s a great interviewer. How I Built This is a cool podcast. I have a very entrepreneurial spirit, so I like hearing how other companies came to be.
That’s continuing education for me. I’ll sit there with a notebook like you have now, and I’ll take notes like I would in a class. I’m always scouring the internet for running-related stories; I don’t have a method to that madness. It’s kind of chaotic, but I’m a bit of a tech nerd. There’s a guy named John Gruber who has a blog called Daring Fireball, and I borrowed my sponsorship model from him. His consistency is really impressive. I’d love to get him on my podcast because I’ve heard him allude to the fact that he’ll run from time to time, just as a means of fitness.
Again, consistency is a major theme in my life, whether it’s training, coaching, or podcasting. I haven’t missed a week of The Morning Shakeout in 201 weeks now. I look at a guy like John Gruber, who has made a living writing Daring Fireball for 12 years now, and I aim for that same consistency. I want The Morning Shakeout to be consistently good enough for people to keep coming back.
Are you seeing intersections across sports where one sport is evolving based on another?
All over the place. I think runners pigeonhole themselves. As I was saying earlier, I look at runners as athletes who specialize in running, and I think it’s important that they work on their overall athleticism. Even if they’re training for long distances, I want them to realize the importance of sprinting from time to time, of getting in the weight room, and of paying more attention to how they’re actually moving.
My wife comes from a swimming background; she has been in the pool since she was four years old. I can keep myself afloat in water, but I’m not a swimmer at all. A couple of years ago, though, she had me take a lesson with her Masters coach in San Diego, and he was great. He approached it from a very technical standpoint, which is how they start training you as a swimmer when you’re a kid. You get in the pool and you do drills and you work on your stroke, and when you get that down, you do these workouts that are going to help you improve your fitness. Running doesn’t work that way.
Especially at the youth levels, it’s focused on just getting the kids running. And that’s important, to a degree. But with any other sport, it’s all about how you are moving and what the technique involved is. It’s about nailing that down first before we start layering. And oftentimes, with running, it’s just about building fitness and throwing workouts at people—and it’s rare that runners spend time optimizing their form unless they’re hurt.
I like to emphasize technique. I’m always looking at how people train for other sports. Like power in cycling, it kind of revolutionizes the way people train—and power is starting to make some inroads into running. The technology’s not there yet, and the mechanisms are a little bit different and not quite as reliable. But I think it’s interesting in terms of how we quantify training. Looking at heart rate, looking at perceived effort, looking at pace—all these different ways that we can quantify and prescribe training are interesting to me.
For example, swimming is kind of all intervals, even on the easy days. In running, we think of intervals as just for hard training. I’m always trying to look at different sports and what people are doing to improve—to see if there’s something I can take away and apply to my own approach or to the athletes I coach. And back to podcasts—one of my favorites is Finding Mastery with Michael Gervais. He’ll have a lot of athletes on, plus business folks; he’s had Satya Nadellafrom Microsoft and Steve Kerr, Coach of the Warriors, and they just talk about building team culture and the approach needed to get where they are. Not all of that’s directly applicable to running, but I pulled two or three pretty good gems out of it. So I definitely think we can learn from other sports.
Awesome. It was a pleasure having you on.
Thanks for having me. This was super-fun.
We’ll see you on the trails.
Cover photo credit: Jody Bailey