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Songs to Warm Up the Dead of Winter

Pro runner and artist Nia Akins takes over our running playlist and shares her newest single, “Smoke.”

nia akins running mix
Leina Betzer

Whether you’re running outside or just hitting the treadmill, good music can often make the difference between a rave run and a blown goal. That’s why we’re putting together 90-minute playlists each month chock-full of songs with enough of a beat to keep you moving.

If you’re wondering what professional athletes do when they aren’t training, the answer—at least in the case of Nia Akins—is write music. The 23-year-old 800-meter runner for the Brooks Beasts Track Club has been spending her down time writing and recording songs. She released her debut single “Smoke” on January 17.

Listening to the inspirational folk anthem, you’d never guess that Akins is fairly new to the world of music. During her sophomore year at the University of Pennsylvania—where she was the runner-up at two NCAA Championships—Akins’ mother gifted her a guitar for her birthday. She dabbled, learning some chords and strumming a bit, while running track and getting her degree in nursing. It wasn’t until the pandemic that she started studying music more seriously.

“When COVID hit, I was like ‘Okay, this is something I wanted to do, and I have a lot of time now,’” Akins said. She started taking guitar lessons and putting more time into the instrument.

Despite not growing up with a musical background, Akins took to songwriting immediately. She gave credit to her love of journaling: “I’m the runner that has the journal before and after races, and that translated really nicely once I started playing guitar.” Initially, she was nervous to release her music under her own name, so she did it anonymously through SoundCloud, a process she found “cathartic.”

A producer reached out after hearing her music, and the pair began working remotely to produce “Smoke,” which she wrote during the Olympic Trials last summer. There was a piano at her Airbnb, so she wrote in between rounds, sending voice memos to her sister for final approval. “Her opinion is paramount,” Akins said.

Starting in July, she and her producer sent the track back and forth, working to create the acoustic folk-rock vibe Akins was looking for. She also wanted the song to be a great fit for running playlists. “I wanted it to be something that people could run to,” she said. “I’m friends with a lot of runners, and I felt like that is how they’d be listening to it.”

Akins certainly knows what music is best for running. After playing soccer for much of her life, she started running cross country in high school, naturally making the transition to track and field and settling on the 800 meters as her optimal distance. She entered the professional circuit by making the 800-meter finals at the Olympic Trials last summer. Now, training consistently, she hopes to break two minutes in the event and perform well at the U.S. Outdoor Track & Field Championships to qualify for the 2022 World Championships.

Due to her prowess as both a runner and a musician, we asked Akins to guest DJ our monthly Runner’s World running playlist (as we did with Chloe Abbott last May). She describes the playlist as an “indie corner of paradise.” “It’s folk with a little bit of rock,” much like the music she writes herself. Having taken out the playlist for a trial run, I can vouch that the soothing folk mix with a steady beat is perfect for a mellow end-of-the-day run.

“The songs remind me of home,” she said. “I could hear any of these songs in an outdoor mall in San Diego.” In the dead of winter, turning the corner into spring, that is just the vibe we need.

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You can find all our older playlists in the archive.

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