Alison Shanks swaps the bike for business

Steve Deane talks to former world champion cyclist Alison Shanks about combining loyalty rewards and GPS into a new business that gets you prizes for exercising 

It might be the festive season and the boss might be footing the bill, but the old adage that there’s no such thing as a free lunch still holds true. There’s always a catch. In the case of fully-catered slap-up Christmas feed, it’s the waistline that will pick up the tab.

The more diligent among us might just sneak in a bit of extra exercise to compensate. If we do go for a wee jog, cycle or even a swim, then the pathway to righteousness might also be the pathway to a tangible reward.

And it will really be free. Pretty much.

“I get that all the time – what’s the catch?” says Alison Shanks, the dual world champion pursuit cyclist turned mother-of- two, entrepreneur and high-performance sport governance honcho.

“There is no catch,” says Shanks of her new business venture, Running Heroes.

‘Fly Buys’ for exercisers is the simplest way to explain Running Heroes, a rewards programme that began in France (where it has 500,000 users), has become established in the UK and Australia and is now spreading its fledgling wings into New Zealand - thanks to Shanks.

“Here we’ve 8000 users already and it is growing by the week,” says Shanks. “It’s really exciting.”

Shanks stumbled across Running Heroes on Twitter when a British track cyclist posted about it. She followed the link, and liked what she saw.

“It’s aimed at motivating people to get out and be active. You don’t have to be an elite runner."

“I thought this is super cool.”

The issue for Kiwis, though, was that a lot of the rewards and offers weren’t available here.

The former pursuit specialist sensed an opportunity.

“I actually reached out to them. I said I love the concept, I love the idea. Why don’t we bring it to New Zealand?

“I put a business proposal to Paris head office and they accepted it.”

Running the New Zealand operation has given Shanks a chance to finally use a marketing degree that had sat dormant during her cycling career. A director on the boards of Cycling New Zealand and High Performance Sport NZ as well as mother to 3-year-old Lucas and 4-month-old Abigail, the now Cambridge-based Shanks certainly has plenty on her plate.

No doubt that helps takes her mind off the itch that she’ll never fully be able to scratch; the shot at Olympic glory she was denied when her specialist event, the 3000m individual pursuit, was culled from the Olympic programme in 2009 – the year she became world champion.

“Yeah, I mean, far out,” she says. Eight years may have passed, but the wound is still raw. “It sucked, really. It was something that was completely out of my control and maybe I won’t ever get over it. The opportunity just to try to win an Olympic medal was taken away.”

It’s actually worse than that. In her first Olympics at Beijing she finished fourth. The way she was tracking towards London 2012, it would have taken a major upset for her not to win gold.

Best to get back on topic, then, to the suspiciously free lunch that is Running Heroes.

“At the moment while I am establishing the New Zealand community I really pitching at everyone and trying to build the numbers on the platform. Then we’ll look to pump it up and really challenge people.”

The business model is to generate income via advertising, which means there is no cost to users above having their eyeballs diverted towards seductive offers. That’s a transaction most people are comfortable with. There is no element of data mining, meaning users’ personal details aren’t given or on-sold to third parties without their consent.

Humans being what we are, my mind drifts fairly swiftly to the prospect of gaming the system, or even outright cheating it. Winning prizes from the couch when you’re meant to be out jogging does have a twisted appeal.

Unfortunately for the malingerers among us, cheating wouldn’t be easy. The Running Heroes app synchs to the account holder’s GPS fitness tracker (say a fitbit device or Strava account) and then automatically uploads the user’s activity and translates it into points.

It’s not exactly a fraud-proof system – but it hardly needs to be. The prizes aren’t of the life-changing variety, and there is typically an element of chance to winning them. Right now, for instance, running five 5km runs over two weeks will get you into the draw to win a pair of Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth wireless speakers. Nutrition packs and blenders have also graced the prize pool.

“It’s aimed at motivating people to get out and be active. You don’t have to be an elite runner. I earn points walking to pre-school to pick up Lucas. It really is aimed at anyone and everyone. Hopefully those little carrots of prizes is going to get more people being out and about more active.”

So far, so simple. Achievable goals for all, and commensurate prize offerings. The plan, though, is to up the ante with bigger prizes to match more demanding exercise goals.

“Ultimately that is where I want to take it – tiered challenges,” says Shanks. “At the moment while I am establishing the New Zealand community I really pitching at everyone and trying to build the numbers on the platform. Then we’ll look to pump it up and really challenge people.”

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