THE WEEKLY HOWL IS WATCHING FRIENDS

Reebok: A few years, Reebok was struggling. The brand was on life support and investors were calling for parent company Adidas to sell it off. Reebok decided that it had to get back its roots as a fitness brand. So it signed deals with CrossFit, the UFC, and Spartan Race and ditched pretty much everything else including running. Now it wants to get back into running and the timing is interesting. From Letsrun.com:

Reebok is back in the running game.

Later today the sportswear manufacturer will announce the formation of the Reebok Boston Track Club, naming former Syracuse University coach Chris Fox as head coach. The team’s first major signing is Justyn Knight, who put together an illustrious career under Fox at Syracuse that saw him win the 2017 NCAA cross country individual title, the 2018 NCAA indoor 5,000-meter title, and finish 9th in the 5,000 meters at the 2017 World Championships for Canada.

Reebok opened its new global headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District last year, and while the team will spend some time in its namesake city, Charlottesville, Virginia, will serve as the group’s main training base, where the team plans to use the University of Virginia’s track for workouts. In addition to Knight, the Reebok Boston Track Club will also include at its inception Jamaican Olympian Kemoy Campbell (13:20 pb) and American steeplechaser Tori Gerlach, the NCAA third placer in 2017 (9:46 pb), both of whom will be moving to Charlottesville. Martin Hehir (13:29/28:08), a teammate of Knight’s at Syracuse, will also be on the team, though he will remain in Philadelphia, where he is currently attending medical school.

Reebok is planning on adding more athletes by the end of the year; Fox said he expects the group, which will contain both men and women, to eventually include eight to 10 athletes, who will compete in events from the 1500 up to the marathon. Fox’s experience coaching marathoners is limited in number but not accomplishment, as he coached his wife Kristy Johnston to a second-place finish at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials.

Also:

Reebok’s formation of a new elite pro track club marks a stark reversal from what the brand had been doing over the last decade. While the company sponsored the Reebok Enclave team in the 1990s and numerous pros in the 2000s, it made huge cuts to its running department in 2009. In 2013, it went further and basically got out of pro running altogether, forcing Reebok-sponsored pros like Olympic 1500 medallist Nick Willis to switch over to adidas, which owns Reebok. Aside from its sponsorship of developmental group ZAP Fitness, Reebok had been out of the professional running game since then. So why start a professional group now?

              The turnaround of Reebok over the last 5 years has been remarkable and it’s been driven by CrossFit. The deals with the UFC and Spartan Race have underwhelmed while the relationship with CrossFit has over-achieved. Reebok must realize that its relationship with CrossFit has soured in light of the lawsuit alleging that Reebok lied and withheld money from CrossFit.  If Reebok fails to re-sign with CrossFit in 2020, then the brand will be in serious trouble and it doesn’t look very likely that it will be able to sign another deal. Nike is waiting in the wings and appears more and more interested in CrossFit. They sponsor several high-profile athletes (including Mat Fraser) and keep releasing new iterations of its Metcon shoe line. Losing CrossFit could be a death blow for Reebok so they need to diversify. I think that this re-entry into running is their first move to prepare for a future without CrossFit.

It’s all about the shoes: Nike has always wanted us to believe that its shoes could make you run faster and jump higher and be more like Mike. Nike’s success is based on this marketing but what if they finally did it? What if they actually designed a shoe that could make you run faster? From the NY Times:

Nike says the shoes are about 4 percent better than some of its best racing shoes, as measured by how much energy runners spend when running in them. That is an astonishing claim, an efficiency improvement worth almost six minutes to a three-hour marathoner, or about eight minutes to a four-hour marathoner.

And it may be an accurate one, according to a new analysis by The New York Times of race data from about 500,000 marathon and half marathon running times since 2014.

Using public race reports and shoe records from Strava, a fitness app that calls itself the social network for athletes, The Times found that runners in Vaporflys ran 3 to 4 percent faster than similar runners wearing other shoes, and more than 1 percent faster than the next-fastest racing shoe.

We found that the difference was not explained by faster runners choosing to wear the shoes, by runners choosing to wear them in easier races or by runners switching to Vaporflys after running more training miles. Instead, the analysis suggests that, in a race between two marathoners of the same ability, a runner wearing Vaporflys would have a real advantage over a competitor not wearing them.

              This is amazing. A 4% improvement in running performance is enormous. Running has never had to deal with an issue like this and the governing body is completely unprepared.

The International Association of Athletics Federations, track’s governing body, has rules about shoes, but they are vague: “Shoes must not be constructed so as to give athletes any unfair assistance or advantage.” It does not specify what such an advantage might be.

The rules also state that shoes “must be reasonably available to all in the spirit of the universality of athletics.” The Vaporflys sell out quickly; on the secondary market, a pair can cost $400 or more. Nike’s newest version of the shoe, the Elite Flyprint, was sold to a limited number of runners in London for the 2018 London Marathon at a cost of £499, or about $650.

When asked whether the shoes conform to track and field’s rules, a spokesman for Nike wrote in an email that the shoe “meets all I.A.A.F. product requirements and does not require any special inspection or approval.”

Yannis Nikolaou, a spokesman for the I.A.A.F., said that while it’s accurate to say that the Vaporflys are legal, it’s actually more accurate to say there is no evidence they shouldn’t be.

“We need evidence to say that something is wrong with a shoe,” he said. “We’ve never had anyone to bring some evidence to convince us.”

              Basically, the IAAF has never had to think about this before. Other sports have dealt with this issue before by clarifying what type of gear or accessories constituted an unfair advantage. Anyone who watched the Olympics remembers the full body suits that nearly every swimmer was wearing during the Beijing Games but were nowhere to be seen in London since they were banned in 2010.  I can’t imagine the IAAF doesn’t follow suit here, eventually ban the Vaporflys, and clarify what a running shoe should and shouldn’t be. It’s not good for the sport to have it go down this path. Track & Field is one of the few truly global sports partially because the barriers to participation are so low. The Vaporflys could change that perception. But if you have been training to hit a certain time, you don’t mind a little help, and have a few hundred dollars burning your pocket, then you might want to purchase a pair.

Sound the Alarm: One of the biggest stories in fitness over the last few years has been the growth of Planet Fitness. The New Hampshire-based company has pioneered the low-cost gym and launched a slew of imitators that have struggled to copy its success. The Detroit Free Press published an article on the growth of the industry in the state of Michigan and had a couple of interesting nuggets on Planet Fitness.

All Planet Fitnesses, including forthcoming Garden City and Wayne locations, are equipped with the gym's famous "lunk alarm," a loud siren and flashing blue light for chastising members who grunt, drop heavy weights or exhibit other poor etiquette that may intimidate other members and put off women.

The lunk alarm helps Planet Fitness locations maintain their ideal 60/40 gender ratio that skews female, according to Rief.

"It works great," he said of the alarm. "We insist that our staff use it."

              I didn’t realize that Planet Fitness had a target gender ratio. This is something that its imitators don’t understand: Planet Fitness knows exactly who it wants as members and who it does not want. It is not trying to be all things to all people. It is going after a specific type of member and wants to actively dissuade other types of people from joining.

"I think the reason that there is still room to grow and not oversaturation is that Planet Fitness and the others are really attracting first-time gym members," said leasing agent Alex Bieri of Detroit-based Stokas Bieri Real Estate, who helps Planet Fitness with site selection.

“For $10 a month, even if they’re not using it that much, people can stomach it," he said.

              Alex, you’re not supposed to say that out loud. That’s the dirty little secret at the core of Planet Fitness’ success: $10 a month is low enough that people will keep paying it even if they’re not going to the gym. I would bet $10 that Alex got a call from Planet Fitness after this article went live. This is not something that Planet Fitness wants to be articulated.

Revenge of the Machines: For decades, gyms were ruled by the machines. Companies like Nautilius churned out expensive strength-training machines designed to isolate muscles and gyms bought them up. Now those machines are being replaced by free weights, barbells and benches and squat racks. But everyone is not happy about this. From WBUR:

In his latest study, Westcott looked at 45 subjects who worked out on strength machines and got aerobic exercise twice a week as part of a post-diet weight maintenance plan. It found the program effective at keeping the weight off and protecting the subjects' muscle mass from the shrinkage a diet typically causes.

Machines target major muscles in ways that strengthen them for all movements, Westcott argues. Take the back machine that my gym did away with: "The lower back machine is the best possible exercise for strengthening the lower-back muscles," he said. "It puts it through the full range of motion, hopefully with the appropriate strength curve. Nothing does that better in a progressive way, where you can add a little bit of resistance as you become stronger."

Similarly, he said, the shoulder machine and the ab machine should not be spurned. "Any machine that moves a muscle to its full range, with an appropriate strength curve, with appropriate resistance, is the best possible way to condition that muscle, to make it stronger," he said. "And once you condition the muscle, it is stronger in any movement you want to make."

Westcott is by no means against squats or push-ups or any of the staples of functional fitness-style boot camps, he said — only against the trend among many trainers to diss machines.

              In lieu of the lower back machine, I would recommend seated good mornings. It is the free weight version of that machine. It’s not that machines are bad, it’s just that free weights are better. I understand the frustration of listening to people who don’t recognize that distinction and instead label the lesser option as a negative one. Beyond the physiological benefits of lifting free weights, there are also the business concerns. Free weights are more versatile than machines. I can work every muscle in my body in a squat rack. And that takes up roughly the same amount of space that a machine does. It’s cheaper and doesn’t require the same amount of maintenance. A gym operator doesn’t have to worry about getting the latest and greatest when it comes out and the versatility removes the guessing game of trying to figure out the right mix of machines. Maybe a weak analogy will help us understand this issue better.

Ultimately, Schoenfeld said, eschewing machines in fitness is like "telling a carpenter, 'Just use a saw and a hammer. You don't need the saber saw.' Or telling a painter to limit the colors on a palette.

"The more tools you have at your disposal, the more you can tailor your programs to the individual," he said.

              A saber saw costs a fraction of what a strength training machine does and takes up much less space. The carpenter doesn’t have to make that kind of hard decision. Ditto for the painter.

Of course it's easier to strike a balance when, like Maloney, you run a fantasy fitness center in Indianapolis that measures 65,000 square feet. That's plenty of room for rows of machines and functional-fitness space. The real either-or is the zero sum of limited space.

              This is the real issue. Space is limited and machines are expensive and not as versatile. That doesn’t make machines bad.

I want to quit the gym: If you grew up watching up Friends (or if you binge watch it now on Netflix), then you’re probably familiar with the episode where Chandler wants to cancel his gym membership. Needless to say, it is quite the ordeal. And like all great comedy, it is based on reality. Big box gyms are notorious for making it difficult for members to get out of their memberships. And members are also notorious for the lengths that they go to circumvent that process. From US News:

But a few months in, Poindexter-Jenkins fell out of her routine for a day, then a week, then a month. By the time she'd been a member for five or six months, she'd gone into debt and realized Equinox was one expense that had to go. Equinox disagreed. Because she had signed on for a year, her choices were limited: Show proof from a doctor that she was too injured to use the gym fox six months, prove that she was moving somewhere more than 25 miles away from the closest Equinox or show that she'd lost her job.

So Poindexter-Jenkins did what any broke recent grad and disillusioned New Yorker would do: She lied. "I told them I got laid off and am moving back home," Poindexter-Jenkins says. Her mom sent her bills from their home in Virginia and her colleagues helped her photoshop her name onto them. All in all, she estimates she saved more than $1,000 bucks by bailing early.

"It's the worst type of brand loyalty because it's forced and then they actually rob you when you finally get out," says Poindexter-Jenkins, who now belongs to a Pilates studio she loves that charges three months at a time for unlimited classes.

              This person will never re-join Equinox when her financial situation improves nor will she ever recommend Equinox to anyone that she knows. That’s the price for making it so difficult to cancel. Four years later, her financial situation has improved and she is now a member at a Pilates studio, not Equinox. This is a woman who believed that Equinox “wasn't only a gym; it was a lifestyle” when she moved to New York. Now she basically hates it. How is that good business? But what do the gyms have to say about it?

Of course, many fitness facilities view such policies as reasonable for consumers who've signed contracts and as necessary for their bottom lines. "At the end of the day, these facilities ... aren't really trying to make it that much more difficult," Leve says. Like signing up for cable, he adds, "a consumer needs to understand they are signing an agreement for services and what's important to note is that all the cancellation lingo is always contained within the contract when you first sign up."

              If your defense is that your policies are like the cable industry, then you’re in trouble. The Cable industry is the most hated industry in the country. They should not be anyone’s role models. This feels like a customer service policy that has failed to keep pace with the times. Fitness facilities are also wising up to the fact that today, poor customer service experiences can quickly become public relations nightmares, Leve finds. "Savvy business owners are making things more transparent due to the overwhelming amount of negativity that can come via social media," he says. "Service is king these days and in a very competitive market, the businesses that are upfront about fees and communicate clearly – their policies will win out in the end."

              The companies that bend over backwards to please their customers are the most successful. The two most valuable publicly-traded companies in the world are renowned for their desire to delight their customers. Gym operators need to start thinking like this too. 

Tidbits:

-There’s a limit to the judgement free zone

-Gold’s Gym is for sale

-Fitness tracking cheating is a thing in China

-CNN profiles Katrin Davidsdottir

-Get ready for 4 person deadlifts

-It’s like Airbnb but for garage gyms

-Equinox and SoulCycle are launching a talent agency