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‘People found my voice and connected with it’: the rise of in-app running coaches

If you started running during lockdown, you might have occasionally heard a little voice in your head telling you to stop. But for an ever-increasing number of people, that naysayer is being drowned out by someone else. He’s called Beefy.

Beefy – or Cory Wharton-Malcolm, as he’s also known – is a real live running coach who lives in Sydenham, south-east London, but he’s also a disembodied voice, travelling with millions of people at once, telling more times than the talking clock. This version of Beefy lives in your phone, and as you plod your way up that hill and think fondly of the sofa, he says things like “thank you” and “run easy” and, for some reason, you keep going.

Wharton-Malcolm, 41, is one of a myriad of pre-recorded coaches who have become a staple of lockdown exercise for adherents all over the planet. Fitness apps were huge business before solitary exercise became our only hope of leaving the house – but now they are bigger still, one of the winners of the pandemic, and the super-enthusiastic voice in your ear is the breakout star of the genre.

The thinking behind the apps is simple enough. You pick a distance or a time, from a few minutes to a marathon. When you hit certain waypoints, the music fades, and up pops Beefy, or one of his colleagues or competitors, to tell you how wonderful you are.

“It’s amazing how many people have found the app, and then found my voice and connected with it,” said the real Wharton-Malcolm, on the phone shortly after his digital analogue in the Nike Run Club app ignored my complaints and drove me through some particularly brutal interval runs.

He estimates he’s getting about three times as many messages from listeners each day as he did before the pandemic struck. This week he signed up with a talent management agency, and there has been talk of a book.

“People say they didn’t touch running with a bargepole prior to the pandemic, but because they’ve been locked inside, they’re up for it,” he said. “They say since finding your voice and a little bit of calm, they’ve started to enjoy it. I think people are in search of human connection.”

Mobile data and analytics provider App Annie says downloads in April and May of health and fitness apps have rocketed to 64.5m a week, a rise of 65% worldwide compared with January and February. In the UK, users are spending about 70% more time with their virtual coaches each week.

The Nike app has risen from 41st most popular to fourth in the UK. There are also substantial rises for rivals such as Fitbit Coach and Peloton.

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“We saw a lot of fitness apps spike early on,” said Lexi Sydow, enior insights manager at App Annie. “It’s one of the standout categories – people maybe being optimistic about their quarantine period. And these apps that do have a coaching element, they are ranking highly.”

Unsurprisingly, the combination of relentless compliments, self-improvement, and a real-world version of the AI played by Scarlett Johannson in the film Her leads to some disproportionate levels of enthusiasm. “@Bitbeefy you are a frikkin legend!” Laura wrote on Instagram. “Such a great run – thanks for “being” with me!” Shelly Mittal told his colleague, Nike’s guru-like global head coach, Chris Bennett. And @Eleniid summarised what a lot of people seem to feel: “I VERY MUCH NEED COACH CORY TO TELL ME JOB WELL DONE IN HIS HOT ACCENT FOR ME TO CONTINUE RUNNING!!!”

Wharton-Malcolm, who describes himself as a “recovering fat kid”, is amused, but bashful. “I definitely have received some expressions of love,” he said. “I am definitely flattered by it. But I have a missus.”

So familiar have his honeyed tones become to devotees that he gets recognised – and, presumably, fancied – on the basis of his voice alone. “I was stopped in Victoria station and this person was like … I know that voice!” he said. “And in Amsterdam, I was coaching a group of runners, and I said, ‘Come on, let’s go’, the kind of thing I say in the app – and someone said, ‘Wait, it’s coach Cory!’ That was weird.”

Since the death of George Floyd, Wharton-Malcolm has used his substantial social media following to promote Black Lives Matter, posting videos such as a guided run through his neighbourhood talking about local businesses run by black people. More broadly, he sees a profound social benefit to exercise and coaching in an era of isolation.

“Some people are just doing it for performance, yes,” he said. “But there’s a search for camaraderie, for partnership. We’re part of a community. And we all want someone to talk to.” Or listen to, at least.

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