Before we met Becs Gentry, we didn’t know running events longer than a marathon existed. As an ‘ultra-marathon’ runner and personal trainer, we asked Becs to give our new Active Collection a test run (pun intended) and to share tips for anyone running the London Marathon in April.
Hi Becs! So, what’s your story? And, most importantly, how did you get into running?
My background is PR – I worked in Fashion and Beauty PR for five years after completing a degree in Communication and Visual Culture. I loved working in PR, but after quite some time I became disenchanted with it. I was commuting between Brighton and London for three days a week and was just exhausted. On the flipside, I was really getting into fitness and started running as an escape from my job. I wasn’t timing it, I had no idea if I was good or not, I would just run.
We hear it can be a good way to decompress.
It can really help to clear the mind. Then I got into boxing, I wasn’t very good at it, but that was what got me into hardcore fitness. I had a personal trainer who was a Mixed Martial Arts fighter and he really pushed me to new levels, and I realised I adored [the challenge of pushing myself further].
So, I started running even more. Then one Christmas I went to stay with my aunt and uncle. My uncle is business-minded but also very balanced in his life; he’ll work hard, but if he wants to take time for himself he’ll chill and go and play baseball. He told me one day that I had to harness what I had, and to put all the energy that I was putting into running – at this point I was running at least ten miles every morning – into inspiring other people. He could see that it would be a better path for me. As soon as I got back to England I handed in my notice. That was about six years ago! I moved to London and did an Advanced Diploma in Personal Training and Business, and I was lucky to get a good job straight out of completing the diploma.
Did your experience in PR help you at all?
I think having the PR background really helped, as I knew how to talk and present myself. I wanted to be a brand and not just part of a gym. I wanted to be in control of my own life, so I worked with a gym for a few years before Nike took me on board.
What was the role that you took with Nike?
I started off as an NTC – a Nike Training Club trainer – while I was still working for a gym. I then became their Running Lead for London.
And what does being a Running Lead involve?
We used to have Live Sessions every night of the week – run clubs. We don’t do those anymore but have an events programme now. I do a lot of media training and am also a Brand Representative for Running with Cory ‘Beefy’ Malcolm-Wharton. We’re the London running duo!
That’s so awesome! Over the past six years what have been the milestones for you? Have you had any major setbacks, or times that you questioned it?
I had a big setback at one point when I wasn’t confident that I was good enough for the industry, while I had also become a bit disillusioned. The fitness industry is oversaturated, and Instagram started to pick up there were so many unqualified people dishing out information. It’s frustrating when those people become ‘famous’ and are rewarded with brand sponsorships, because if you put them into a real-life situation their information would be dangerous. Years ago you’d be sued left, right and centre if you told someone to squat wrong. Now there are all these people doing some of the most dangerous things you can do to your body! I’ve seen people doing push-ups on piles of dumbbells, and you just wonder why they’re encouraging others, who have no idea about equipment safety, to do that. It’s really, really dangerous.
So, doing things that get a lot of attention on social media.
Exactly – someone could break their arm, their neck. [Social media fitness personalities] may get famous from doing these tricks; but it’s clear that the days are gone for worrying about other people. It’s a big element for me as a PT – I do my job to help other people get fitter and stronger safely for their life, not for their next Instagram post or next holiday. For me it’s about longevity and if they can say in a years’ time that their cholesterol levels have dropped, they have a lower body fat percentage, their organs are working better, or their asthma has decreased; to me that’s healthy improvement. It’s not how good you look in your swimsuit for your holiday when you’re drinking a lot or eating rubbish while you're there.
I believe in balance – you don’t need to go cold turkey and refusing yourself alcohol or treats.
Everything in moderation.
Yeah! 80% of the time I’m an angel. 20% of the time I’m the devil.
We think that’s a pretty good attitude to most of life! It’s not possible to be good 100% of the time – you’d eventually break and go so far the other way. It’s just not sustainable.
Fitness is also my job – if you were to tell me that you were going to train three times a day, cut out alcohol and caffeine, not eating anything bad, but you’re also working a full-time job…I would ask you, “Okay, so what’s your priority? Your career? Your life? Or fitness?”
Do you find that a lot of people are burning the candle at both ends?
I do, yes, and a lot of the pressure comes from social media. I have friends that have really demanding jobs and they know that I train two or three times a day, but that’s for my running career, and they will try and replicate that. Then we don’t end up seeing each other at the weekends because they’re exhausted! I run marathons – that’s what I do.
The fitness industry can be a scary world and I think you need to take it with a pinch of salt. It’s easy to look at other people’s lives through rose-tinted glasses, or yellow as in the case of your new Active Collection!
On the flipside, what have been your career highs?
I’ve been so lucky with Nike; I travel around the world with them and have seen some great achievements from people coming to running classes. From their first run, when they’re petrified, to running their first 10k or half marathon. It's so cool to be part of their journey.
What's the most interesting trip you’ve had with Nike?
We took a live training show around Europe and went to Milan, Amsterdam and Berlin. It was amazing to be on stage with a team.
Were you mic-ed up like Britney?
Yep! Beefy and I were on one side doing treadmill running, and then there were two others, Sonja and Faisal, on the other side doing a HIIT class, but it was a silent disco to everyone walking past.
That’s awesome! What a great idea!
It was super cool. Epic.
Another great trip was a week in Chamonix, France, running up in the Alps in the summer. It was July, so it was hot. We were running through meadows with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. It was around the same time as UTMB – Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc – and we had Nike runners competing in that, an insane ultra, ultra-marathon. An ultra marathon is any distance longer than the traditional marathon length of 42 kilometres (26 miles).
For someone who hates cardio and doesn’t regularly run, and sees a marathon as being so unachievable, what would you recommend as entry-level training?
Short runs, but keep it fun! If you hate cardio, a steady, plodding run is probably your idea of hell. Incorporating bits of speed where you can challenge yourself. It will make you feel like you’ve achieved a lot in a short space of time, even if you don’t cover a lot of distance. Even in just one lap around a park, pinpoint landmarks to do short bursts of speed between. Suddenly you’ll have covered 3k! The bursts in your heart rate are good for calorie burning, muscle building and bone density improvement.
Sounds like it ticks a lot of boxes!
There’s a huge running culture in London. Do you often notice that people have poor form when they’re running, and what is the correct form?
Yes, all the time. A lot of people lean back when they run, sticking their chest out. Think of a sailboat – when the sail is billowing in the wind, it’s slowing the boat down. It creates more wind resistance. You don’t need to round your shoulders, but you want to lean in the direction that you’re going! Another thing I see is no lifting of the knees, with the feet flopping against the ground. You want to drive the knees, lifting the heel towards and under the butt cheek. Aim for a 90-degree lift in the knee going forward. What else…ah, swinging the arms. Or, not moving the arms at all! A lot of guys, maybe it’s to do with their upper body strength, just hold their arms. I call them T-Rex arms. My husband sometimes looks like he’s digging!
So, what is the correct arm posture?
Got it – socket-to-pocket.
And make it fun! Run to a destination – to brunch, to coffee, home after work. It’s easier to make it part of your day then.
We feel like we’re ready to go for a run now! So, how many marathons do you complete every year?
It really fluctuates, maybe five?
Okay, about one every few months.
Well, two years ago I did four in two months, and then an ultra-marathon at the end of the same year.
That’s pretty hardcore. How did you recuperate when they were so close together?
It was tough! I also got married and turned 30 in the middle of it all!
You had your wedding in between marathons?
Yep! And except for one in London they were all international, so I was travelling around the world. Our ‘honeymoon’ was with both sets of parents to Rome, in a shared Airbnb apartment, for a marathon. We’re actually doing our proper honeymoon next week.
That’s so exciting! Where are you going?
We’re flying out to America for The Speed Project, a 340-mile relay from Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the Las Vegas welcome sign. I did it last year but Chris, my husband, didn’t come. This year he’s coming with us, and we’ll arrive in Vegas on our two-year wedding anniversary. We’ll stay there for one night and then we’re going to do a Californian road trip, back to LA and up to the Napa Valley.
And you’re going to be hosting The Speed Project (TSP) this year, aren’t you?
Right – we’ll probably end up running more mileage than we did last year, because we’ll be running with other teams and jumping in and out, not just focusing on getting from Start to Finish. There’s three official hosts and we’ll be live streaming everything on Facebook and Instagram.
It will be nice to see it from a different perspective and without the pressure of the race.
There was an insane amount of pressure last year; I was the newbie to the team and they had won TSP the year before. I felt a huge amount of pressure on my shoulders. The training was worse than the event itself because I was training solo here, and the rest of the team and coach are from LA! Last year we had 19 teams, and this year there will be 40 – that’s over 300 runners competing.
40 teams? Wow.
Yep – with a minimum of 6 runners per team.
How long did it take you last year?
We did it in 36 hours. Afterwards I could hardly eat or drink. When I woke up the next day I had the most enormous breakfast – I was happy for the American-size portions! Weirdly, I felt completely fine after that. There’s a pool party the day after the race, on the Sunday, and I saw teams still coming in that day. By that point they’ve been out for double the time and they were broken from the heat and exhaustion.
We can’t imagine what that must feel like. What about after TSP? Are you going to run the London Marathon?
Yes, I’ll be doing the London Marathon – pacing it for some runners I’ve been training. After that I’m not sure. I’d like to do a summer marathon so maybe New York or Chicago, depending on if I can get a place. I haven’t done any of the American marathons yet.
I prefer to plan just a few months in advance because I get nervous.
Really? Even after years of running marathons?
Ohhh yeah – I get stroppy and start saying that I can’t do it and don’t want to do it!
Do you have any tips for powering through? We’re sure a lot of our customers are, or know someone who is, running the London marathon in April.
What works for me is breaking the race down into smaller distances. You can’t control the distance – the distance is set, it’s 42 kilometres. There’s no point breaking down the time because that can vary depending on how you feel, how your training has been doing, etc. So, I break down the distance into 10ks, and then you have to essentially get through four 10ks and you’re done.
Four 10ks? Easy…
It’s important to have people cheering the runners on at set distances along the marathon route, especially between 35-38k because you’ve done so much and you still and 5-7k more to go. Most people start slowing down at this point, apart from the professional runners that start booting it!
Another trick I use is to mentally relate the distance to a route I run regularly, for example when I was training regularly for the Berlin Marathon I would do an 8k route from my house to a client’s house. When it got to the last 8k of the Marathon I just felt like I couldn’t keep the pace up, I was dying, and then I remembered the runs to my client’s house and how I did it every day.
Do you have any final tips?
Because running is so popular and long-distance races have become an almost normal thing to do, I think we forget that they are incredible achievements for the body! Doing too much isn’t good without rest and recovery – it is constant impact. I would just say; respect the recovery.
Photography by Hannah Miles