Building Her Community Online: A Fitness Instructor Goes Virtual
A personal trainer with an online coaching business, Katie Kollath is helping clients and other trainers navigate the new normal.
Until Genevieve Ford moved to Chicago after college in 2016, she’d never focused on fitness. Sure, she’d played sports in high school, but these days, she didn’t pay much attention to her exercise or eating habits. Nevertheless, after noticing a gym on her new street, she joined.
“They have this program where they set you up with a personal trainer based off your specific goals,” Ford says. “Lucky for me, I got set up with Katie Kollath. She did my initial assessment and then became my trainer.”
The training transformed her. “I felt a whole new perspective on taking care of my health,” recalls Ford, who got hooked on her weekly workouts with Kollath. That is, until her trainer moved to Colorado.
What to do without her fitness guru? First Ford turned to a high-intensity interval training franchise. She liked the class but missed Kollath’s energy. Without their weekly sweat sessions, she began to lose steam. Fortunately, the internet intervened.
Taking It Online
Connecting with Kollath online, Ford began doing remote personal training—and found it surprisingly effective. For months before the whole world went virtual, Ford and Kollath built up a steady repertoire of workouts and healthy-living advice. If it felt weird at first, by this spring, it was like they’d been working this way all along.
Online training is something Kollath, a National Academy of Sports Medicine-certified personal trainer and cofounder of remote coaching service Barpath Fitness, dabbled in for several years before fully committing. When she and her partner moved to Colorado in 2019, Kollath took the opportunity to dig deeper into the growing industry. Some of her Chicago clients wanted to stick with her, she says, “so it was the perfect moment to try out this whole remote coaching thing.”
Most clients, it turned out, actually preferred it. “They can do the workouts that I send them on their own time,” explains Kollath. “It’s not like we have to sit here and find a time that works for both of us.” Nevertheless, it’s important to Kollath that clients know getting ahold of her is a cinch. “I give people my number; they have access to me anytime if they have questions during the day, and I’ll usually get back to them right away.”
Even at a distance, Kollath monitors her clients closely. “They send videos of their training, of their exercises, so I can see them and I can give them video feedback if necessary.” She also checks in weekly, if not daily. This communication is intended to track progress as well as “keep that rapport with clients that you usually have in person.”
The foray into remote training proved prescient. When Americans started self-isolating this spring, Kollath was ready to accommodate them. “Honestly, the transition was pretty easy,” she says. “We told clients we were willing to flip the programming to home workouts as soon as possible.” Almost everyone took her up on the offer.
Home workouts naturally pose challenges, especially around motivation. “For a lot of people, their home is their sanctuary,” says Kollath. “They don’t want to associate it with having to work out.” Add the stress of global events to the equation and prioritizing fitness from home is even tougher, “even though exercising would be one of the best things for it,” she points out.
Kollath’s advice on surviving those I-don’t-want-to moments is surprisingly counterintuitive: Don’t rely on motivation. “Motivation is fleeting,” she says. “It’s high at times, and then you’re not going to be motivated at all.” Instead, focus on discipline (you meet your work deadlines, why not your fitness ones?) and literally taking the first step. “A body in motion stays in motion,” she says. “So before you do your workout, why don’t you go outside for a 10-minute walk? It’s really easy to do. You can listen to a podcast, whatever, and then when you get back, go right into your workout because you’re already moving.”
This approach has helped Ford, who confesses to struggling some days. She’s been stuck at home for a while now, she says, “and it finally got to a point where I was like, ‘Just force yourself to go outside and go for a walk or go for a run.’” Once she made it outdoors, “I ran five miles, and that completely changed things for me.”
Passing It On
Kollath’s reach goes beyond her clients—she’s coming to the aid of colleagues, too, many of whom are suddenly jobless, including several former coworkers from her Chicago gym. “They got laid off with no help,” she says. “They were kind of freaking out—a lot of them were just like, ‘What do I do?’”
Putting her experience building an online training business to use, Kollath offered guidance. “I wanted to give people a sense of what it took to build up remote coaching,” she says. Step one: Set expectations about the timeline. “It’s not going happen that fast,” she told them. “Take a deep breath. Come to terms with what just happened—you lost your job; that really f--king sucks.”
The next step is to consider a question that every online trainer must answer. How will you provide value to clients so that they stick with you, even remotely? Every person has a different answer, says Kollath, and this forms the backbone of their online training approach. From there, Kollath helps them create a step-by-step approach. Identify what you can do this week and do it, she advises. The following week, take another step.
As Kollath sees it, she’s preparing her peers for a new reality. “Remote coaching is definitely the future of fitness—I think a lot more people will start doing it,” she says. This assumption is what her company was built on, after all. “We just kind of saw that trend coming in the fitness industry,” she says. “Everything’s online now, including some really cool apps to do remote coaching with.”
As the trend accelerates, she’ll be at its forefront, lending assistance to anyone who needs it along the way.