When former elite marathoner Tina Muir started Running for Real in 2017, she had a specific finish line in mind: she envisioned a podcast that would inspire runners of all levels and backgrounds.
Though originally known for her fast times (like a 2:36 marathon), the decision to publicly disclose her eating disorder and amenorrhea had earned Muir a reputation for relatability, honesty, and authenticity, which in turn informs every episode of her show.
Now among the top 10 running podcasts on iTunes, Running for Real’s audience growth has been steady and organic. Her success, Muir says, is largely due to three factors: her preparation for each show, the topics she covers, and, her unique perspective.
Muir believes that the amount of work she puts into preparing for each episode sets her apart from other hosts. While it’s not unusual for her to interview high-profile runners and health and fitness experts who have also appeared on other shows, she always poses unique questions. Her strategy for coming up with interesting questions? “I try to put myself in the shoes of the listener, asking the questions that they would want to know.”
She remembers interviewing ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes, who has been on shows including 60 Minutes, The Late Show with David Letterman, and CNN. “Dean had perfected his answers to most questions commonly asked,” says Muir, “but I made sure to go deeper with my questions, which made the interview enjoyable for him. By the end, I was able to get him to talk about going to the bathroom behind an olive bush during a race in Greece.”
Some podcasters swear by establishing as narrow of a niche as possible—focusing on elite runners or scientific principles—but Muir isn’t one of them. “I like to have a range of topics and therefore people,” she says.
Running For Real illuminates the myriad issues runners face, including gaps in confidence and mental toughness, and finding the “sweet spot”—getting faster while having fun. Some of the biggest names in the running community, such as Kara Goucher, Meb Keflezighi, and Mirna Valerio, have shared their tips and tricks on Muir’s podcast. In a recent episode, 2020 Olympic marathon trials champion Aliphine Tuliamuk talked about how her role models have contributed to her success.
But Muir is also committed to elevating the voices of runners you may never have heard of. “I wanted to showcase everyday people who went on to do extraordinary things, to hopefully inspire my listeners to go reach for their own potential,” she says. Some of her popular yet lesser-known guests include Susan Lacke, Jason Fitzgerald, and Matt B. Davis. Listeners tend to find those types of guests more relatable and share them more widely than interviews with the bigger names, she says.
The most important factor: herself
Behind Muir’s efforts to ask the right questions and the podcast’s diversity of topics and guests is the strongest factor propelling the show’s success—Muir herself. “It feels awkward to say ‘myself’ as a reason [for the show’s numbers], but I do feel confident that part of the reason my show has done well is because of the relationship my listeners feel they have with me,” she explains. “I pride myself on being honest and open, and I think at this time, we all crave more of that.”
Muir knows a thing or two about the risks—and rewards—of authenticity. Originally from England, she relocated to the U.S. in 2007 to pursue her running career, taking third in the 10k at the 2012 Great Britain Olympic Trials. But in 2017, her running career came to a grinding halt. The self-imposed pressure she felt to attain the “elite runner’s body” had ultimately fueled an eating disorder that robbed her of her period for nine years.
She knew she wasn’t alone; according to the data, as many as 69 percent of female athletes experience amenorrhea due to disordered eating. When Muir shared her experience with amenorrhea on her website, she says she felt “a huge weight had been lifted off my shoulders.” And though she knew food was the issue, it would be a few more months before she admitted she had an eating disorder.
Meanwhile, her story was picked up by outlets including People Magazine, SELF, Runner’s World, and many others. Tens of thousands of women have since reached out to let her know that they’d had similar experiences. In 2019, out of a desire to help others, she published Overcoming Amenorrhea.
Today, the social media feeds of many elite athletes showcase their vulnerability right along with their post-workout meals and training tips. But this wasn’t the case when Muir launched Running for Real. “Coming from a background as an elite runner, I knew how ‘everyday runners’ put elite runners on a pedestal, thinking running was just always easy,” she recalls. “At the time, elites did not really show any weakness either, adding legitimacy to that thought.”
Her podcast gave her a platform to show that elite runners had their share of struggles. From the beginning, Muir prided herself on getting her guests to let their guards down. “I wanted a safe place where I could encourage people to be vulnerable and well, real. I wanted to show the rest of the running community that we are all the same,” she says. “We all have bad days, we all struggle, we all find it hard to get out the door sometimes.”
Still, not all of her guests were willing to share the “real” aspects of their lives. “I did have a hard time with some of the elite runners I had on shutting me down when I tried to go deep at first,” Muir recalls. Though it was “pretty awkward at times,” she forged ahead. Based on audience feedback, she knew “there was a desire for authentic conversations.”
“I thought everyone who listened would just follow me to the new podcast”
Aspiring podcasters might look at the show’s success and imagine that it came easily, but Muir is quick to point out it took time to gain listeners. At first, she thought she’d have an instant audience, in part because she had previously hosted the Runners Connect podcast Run to the Top. During her 18-month tenure, its numbers exploded, going from about 10,000 downloads a month to 150,000 per month.
“Naively, I thought everyone who listened would just follow me over to my new podcast,” Muir said, but that didn’t happen. “I now realize that people do not always listen to every episode, and may miss a few months at a time.” In the first year of Running for Real, each episode received roughly 8000 to 10000 downloads within 90 days. Three years later, Running for Real has over three million downloads. On average, an episode will have about 12,000 downloads within three months, but some episodes have exceeded that and many have amassed over 30,000 downloads since their release. In total, the show receives roughly 110,000 downloads per month.
If she could go back in time and give herself advice on starting a podcast, Muir says she’d tell herself “to be patient and trust in myself.” It’s easy to get sidetracked while trying to emulate your favorite podcasters, she says. She remembers listening to a podcast where the host would always say, “Hey there, Amy Porterfield here,” Muir says, “I started off my show doing that—with my name obviously!—but that never felt right.” Eventually she switched to, “Hello, my friends,” and right away she felt more comfortable. “It felt much more natural, especially as I felt I had built a relationship with a lot of my listeners, so they were friends.”
Muir’s advice for aspiring podcasters: “You have to just be yourself,” she says. “Slowly, over time, your tribe will come around you if you keep sharing the message that speaks to you.”
Editor’s note: Just yesterday Muir started a new series on the world’s toughest race—the 416 mile Eco Challenge Fiji.