Nick Karwoski On How Tagalong Is Helping Athletes Step Their Game Up
We caught up with former U.S. National Triathlon Team member and founder of Tagalong With A Pro Nick Karwoski
Nick Karwoski is the founder and CEO of Tagalong With A Pro, an app which connects amateur and professional athletes to help them improve together.
A former U.S. National Triathlon Team member, Nick developed the concept for Tagalong after he found it difficult to support himself financially while training for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
The app provides a personalised and unique training experience, offering one-on-one in-person or virtual training sessions, customized training plans and consultation calls.
We caught up with Nick to find out more about his story and how the idea for Tagalong came about.
Thanks for taking the time to speak to us, Nick. Could you tell us a little bit about your personal journey as an athlete?
Sure. I was a runner throughout high school and I rowed a little bit. I then had the opportunity to run Division III college here in the States. I was a good runner: 5000m, Steeplechase… but in the back of my head it was always ‘Division III’. You get sports scholarships at DI and some at the DII but not at the DIII level.
It was always something that I enjoyed doing and it provided structure to my day, but it wasn’t something that I thought would be in my future professionally. I just really enjoyed working with teams and having the structure.
After college, I graduated and moved out west to Los Angeles and started working in production at NBC Universal.
I was running on the side and ended up competing in a couple of road races. I was faster than what I was running in college and so it just created that structural system of: wake up early, work out, get ready for work, do the nine to five thing, come back and train again.
After that, I started a company with some friends. We went on Shark Tank and got some funding from Mark Cuban.
Right after 2012, when I was trying to qualify for the US trials in Steeplechase, I had turn this tendon in my abdominals, so that was kind of out of the mix. I was able to throw myself into the start-up as I was recovering.
As I came back from that, I had this opportunity to either start working as a production coordinator back in the East Coast, or go train with the USA Triathlon collegiate recruitment program, which is basically trying to reverse-engineer how the US could be competitive in Triathlon.
I’d never swum competitively before, I’d never rowed a bike competitively… I was a decent runner, but I’m 6’5 and 200 pounds, so I was always six to eight inches taller than the next guy on the starting line for distance events.
Triathlon, I thought, could be a unique way to really step up my game and really be able to compete at that elite level.
I decided to go down that path rather than the working path, as I figured I had the rest of my life to work, so this was an opportunity that I wanted to go for.
I was able to travel around the world and compete. I did that for the better part of three years. Leading up to 2016, I needed to be top six to go to Tokyo, where the trials were being held, and I was ninth.
After the fall of 2016 and not qualifying for the Olympics, I was trying to figure out what the next step was for me. That’s what led me to look at what I could do inside of sports while using my background – and I created Tagalong.
What is Tagalong?
As I was learning a lot about different athlete’s pain points at the pro level, the overwhelming theme was trying to get enough money to make it to the next race, to pay the rent, to figure out how to eat and not have to do rice and beans for dinner.
I was super fortunate to have my family supporting me and paying some of those bills as I was competing.
I learned a lot about governing bodies. It’s different throughout the world – the UK system funds their athletes through the lottery, which is a brilliant way to utilise this excess pot of money to help give £20,000 to £40,000 a year, which is, again, not a ton of money, but enough for athletes to pursue some of their dreams and try to get better.
I thought it could be interesting to create a platform where people, no matter their athletic background, could find and train with professional athletes who are located in the same area as them, or take advantage of talking with one of them about what it meant to race for the first time and the 100th time, coming back from injury, talking about diet…
There seemed to be a lot of crossover and there seemed to be, more than anything, a way to put money directly in athletes’ pockets to help them pursue what it was they were doing.
$100 or $200 a week or a month meant something – it meant something to me when I was training – so I thought: ‘I’m not even that good, and there’s a lot of people who have dedicated the better part of their adult life to learning their craft, mastering their sport, the ins and outs of what products they like, how they sleep, how they eat, how they travel – and there’s people who are just as mentally engaged and dedicated, but may work a full-time job and not be able to get those gains’.
At first, we had about 20 pros. Now we have a little over 90 professional athletes, primarily in that endurance sport world. The everyday athlete can reach out to these pros and gain from their experience and skillset.
Tagalong basically has three main products. The first one is a consult call, which is just touching base with a pro that you may or may not know. They may or may not be in the same area as you, but [maybe] you want to train for your first 5K or you want to get your time to ‘this’.
Then we have the working one on one with the pro. Whether that’s virtually in a workout, and obviously the pandemic allowed us to really lean into the virtual side of things, or in the same area – go on a bike ride together, pull someone through a workout where they’re trying to hit 7:30 mile splits.
We like to say that 72 per cent of people will push themselves harder when they perceive the person they’re working with as better than them.
There’s a lot to be said, that even on a pro’s worst day, they’re still probably faster than these other people.
The last product that we have is a training plan. This is where you utilise the pro’s knowledge and say, ‘OK, let’s break down your day-to-day for four weeks and put in these five staple workouts each week’.
It can then get more custom as you go along and get to know that athlete a little more. It’s about customising your training plan so it feels like you are checking off those daily boxes and you are accomplishing those little step by step goals to whatever it is.
So that, in a nutshell, is the Tagalong platform.
How important is it for pros to receive funding from sources such as Tagalong?
With any pro that we onboard, we explain to them that ultimately [the reason] why we exist is to help them accomplish their goals.
Having that financial compensation is huge. I’m sure there are a lot of athletes that get reached out to on other social media platforms via DMs from people saying: ‘Hey, could you give me some feedback?’.
If you go to a lawyer and ask for help, they’ll give you help for free the first time – but the second time or the third time, they’re going to charge you. There’s really no difference in going to someone who is a professional in that field.
Every pro that we bring onto our platform really cares about the people that they get to work with.
Obviously, getting compensated for the knowledge, the experience and the skillset is huge, but what we’ve found is that athletes do want to improve together, and a lot of our pros who work with our Tagalong clients get this sense that you’re a combination of a coach, a personal trainer and a workout accountability partner.
So you get this really cool feeling of accomplishment and that ‘we did this together’.
Being able to do that together on the platform and create these relationships – where neither of these people would have probably met each other – [is great].
Athletics has this powerful sense of connection. We both like to do this same thing, and if we can do it and both succeed and keep doing what we want to do… it’s a cool feeling to be able to make that connection through Tagalong.
How important is it for amateur athletes to get input from a pro?
At the end of the day, whether you work out or whether you’re training, it’s all just mental.
Every amateur athlete, or ‘weekend warrior’ or whatever nickname they give themselves, if they do want to do their first 5K and try to get better or faster, I think more than anything else, having a benchmark or having a goal – and knowing that someone else is expecting you to complete it – adds an element of ‘I need to do this, not just for myself, but because someone is taking the time to work with me on my goals’.
I can’t tell you how many clients have said to me, ‘I felt I couldn’t do the last interval, I felt so guilty’.
At the end of the day, this is for you, but know that we’re working together on this. There is definitely a sense of that accountability that I feel is huge when it comes to training. That’s a really cool part of it.
How do you think the world of fitness is being shaped by technology?
You can look at companies like, Peloton, Hydrow or Tonal… all of these connected fitness devices.
Look, if you’re someone who likes to go to the gym and put your headphones in and do your thing, great. That will always be there.
But I do think there will be a premium cost associated with that. The ‘mom-and-pop’ style gyms will be harder to grow with all of these other devices that are out there and with people who like to have their own gym at home.
One of the things that Tagalong has really leaned into is being able to see that these people are spending their time and their money on these connected fitness devices or on building their home gyms.
But it all comes back to the direction, the guidance and the accountability. How do you know how to use it, what’s the best way to use it?
Maybe you bought this rowing machine or bike, but you like to run – how can you use them for your running training? It’s something that professional athletes are very skilled at incorporating.
They travel all over the world, they have to be efficient with where they are and sometimes they stay in hotels and the gym is less than ideal.
So it’s about figuring out how they can do conditioning or bodyweight training. If there is no pool to swim in, they have to use a rowing machine.
I think professional athletes can be very creative with how to continuously make gains in their sport.
Being about to use that knowledge and prescribe training to individuals who have invested in their own gym set-up or connected fitness devices, that is a really cool way that we’ve been able to see some synergetic combinations within professional athletes, gyms and connected fitness devices.
Hopefully we can be that new-age, modern, personal training, gym – all of those things tied into one.
Whether you’re starting from scratch or whether you’re a Strava die-hard and you’re going to get that KOM, pros can help get you along what it is that’s realistic for you. Being able to work with some of the best athletes in the world is a great way to make that connection.
What are some of your favourite ways to keep fit these days?
I work for a company called Hydrow, which is a connected fitness rowing company, so I get to travel all around.
I was given a shirt four years ago from my sister’s friend, it was a custom tailored shirt and I was in the thick of my triathlon training.
I put it on yesterday for mother’s day brunch and the buttons were basically ripping apart from the front because I’ve been rowing pretty consistently for the past two years – my lats and my upper body have gotten significantly bigger.
My body is very much changed from a 6’5, 200 pound runner to a 6’5, 195 pound lean rower. But I still love to run.
Running is definitely my church, having done it for so many years. There’s just something about going outside, especially in Boston alongside the Charles River, and especially with the amount of travel that I do, being able to throw on a pair of shoes and get out and run…
But if I can’t do that, rowing, cycling and every now and then I throw rollerblades on. If I can’t run, it’s just another way to get outside.
Especially in the past year with the pandemic, if I can get outside and do something, that’s going to make me happiest.
If you could go back in time and offer some advice to your 18-year-old self, what would you say?
That’s a good one. You always think about some of the regrets that you have.
I guess I never looked at athletics as a way that I could make my living. It was always, ‘this is fun, this is something that I meet really cool people through, but ultimately I’m going to this university for business. I’m going to study abroad and learn Spanish because those are the things that are going to help me’.
And now, a decade after I graduated, sports is very much involved in what I do.
I think, whatever you do, [it’s about] throwing yourself into it full board, and never really half-assing stuff no matter what it is. I think that is a good discipline and trait to really set yourself up [for success].
Take all of the positive experiences I’ve had with all of the track and field teams or cross country teams, rowing teams, triathlon teams… the people are fantastic but the way in which it provided this structure where even if you can only squeeze in a 30-minute workout, it’s still better than nothing.
That’s a way that I handle and manage stress now. After a long day sitting at the computer, just getting out there and listening to music or podcasts and doing what I love, I think being able to tell my 18-year-old self that all of this stuff that you’re doing – it will be worthwhile. It will create habits and disciplines that my 32-year-old self still relies upon.
That’s a great answer! Where’s the best place for people to keep in touch with what you’re up to?
You can find me on Instagram @nickhydrow. I’d love to connect and love to figure out ways that we can make Tagalong work for you.