To be or not to be (coached): Is that the question?

I’ve been chatting with some friends recently, on twitter and in person, about the pros and cons of hiring a coach. For years I’ve been on my own, and I’ve been really psyched about it. I have a fairly solid background in developing and executing the right kind of training, or so at least I think. I also have a graduate degree in exercise science, and my education in physiology (and general interest in the matter) seems to help. Plus, my background in collegiate running has given me an exceptional gift: I was part of the building and assembly of training plans, I learned how to properly prepare for peaks, how to taper right, and how to execute a focused season (or not). And I did this twice a year, for four years in a row. It was like a religion. This, and my history of training marathons over the last few years, has really helped me to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what is just a waste of time. Even still, the question continues to linger about whether or not a coach would help make life a little easier (and me a little faster).

Here’s where I’m coming from:

Collegiate running: I was on a team that was coached by two different coaches (not at the same time, of course) who had completely different theories about running. My first collegiate coach, who I had during my freshman and sophomore seasons, was a Yooper with a strategy to get his athletes fast. Trouble was, sometimes his strategy backfired, resulting in burnouts and out-of-phase peaks. I remember the day I peaked during my sophomore cross-country season. It’s like it was yesterday… out there on Lahti Road doing 800m hill repeats. I was the fastest on the day, and I even grabbed the Lahti Road record! But it was training, and the rest of my season was shit. And we were still two weeks out from the conference meet. Needless to say, I learned that peaking during a late season training session, not at an “A” race, is not that awesome.

My second coach, who came along after our first coach resigned, was more educated in endurance physiology, and he was a fan of Jack Daniels (the PhD, not the whiskey). His training philosophy brought me to a 5K PR, made me a stronger and more efficient runner, and taught me the benefits of going long even if the race was relatively short. He encouraged his athletes to read, to educate themselves on the running and training philosophies, so we could better understand where his 2-a-days and 3.5hr runs were coming from. Terms like “LT” and “VO2Max” made sense long after I took classes on the subject, because who really pays attention in exercise physiology at an engineering school anyway?

Anyway, once I graduated and moved on, I wanted to continue racing (after a brief break sabbatical, that is). From what I had learned from my former (2nd) coach’s training strategies, I developed my own training plans. Each week looked something like this:

  • One long day (Sunday)
  • One threshold day (usually Thursday)
  • 2-3 recovery days (Wed/Fri)
  • a race, max-effort, or general intensity day (Tues or Saturday)

I also used two-a-days, both to get me in shape fast and to boost my aerobic fitness (LT), and before I knew it I was deep into training for my first marathon. I trained through the winter in Montana, but I did it all indoors. I’d hit the treadmill 6 days a week, somedays twice, running anywhere between 30minutes easy to 22miles while watching America’s Next Top Model. Sundays were my long runs, Mondays were almost always full recovery (off), Tuesdays and Thursdays would be a nice hour run in the morning with harder stuff in the afternoon. Wednesday and Fridays were recovery days, and Saturdays were either easy or longer intervals. That was my week, every week, from December to March, treadmill mashing and iPod tuning. Until, of course, I ran 26.2 miles for the first time outside in Napa Valley, California. And I was very satisfied with my finish of 3:22.

From there, it was all in some direction over a hill towards who knows what. I move back to Michigan and got back to training with some of my former teammates. I trained mostly outdoors from then on, but I kept my training schedule roughly the same. I squeezed in a few more marathons while working my butt off at school, and eventually got into a good rhythm. And with that rhythm came more challenges, including my introduction to triathlon. Instead of running every day, I swapped out biking and swimming. The key run workouts (the long run, the track intervals) would stay, but biking would take the place of the recovery and easy days. Swimming- well, that was something I forced myself to do once or twice a week instead of a recovery run or bike. And it rarely was fun (ok, endless relays were pretty fun).

With the planning of my first Ironman distance triathlon, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing key running workouts, so my first training plan as a triathlete actually used a marathon-specific run plan. I based my training on a book by Pete Pfitzinger, which may not have helped my Ironman run but actually helped my post-IM marathon five weeks later (where I ran a marathon PR of 3:19). Anyway, I was a little more knowledgeable after season #1 of triathlon, thanks to trial-and-error, not to mention just having experience under my belt, and my second season in triathlon was more successful. I was more diligent about my training plan; I kept an electronic spreadsheet so I could update it and kept track of weekly training hours. I watched my season progress, and the ups and downs of my weekly hours fluctuate somewhat sinusoidally (thanks to my planned training cycles).

This season, though, I had more doubts about my training than ever. I was racing better, but I was also having a more difficult time planning my training. I know how to handle one sport, but how could I deal with three and still try to do well? I had a hard time answering questions like: When should I do my long runs and rides? When am I supposed to do my hard swim workouts? Do I swim hard on the same day as a hard track workout? Or do I swim hard on my run/bike off day? Or do I bike hard on my run recovery day? These were questions that I couldn’t answer yes or no to unless I just did it, but I was afraid and hesitant that I would make the wrong decision and make my season go south real fast. I also had problems with accountability. One poor decision that I made on my own was my post-A-race recovery; or lack thereof. I basically didn’t do anything for two weeks after Rev3 Full, and the three weeks leading up to my fall marathon were full of sitting around eating candy, drinking bourbon, processing words, and being stressed out. In hindsight, active recovery may have been more beneficial than the “recovery” I was doing- which was more or less just being sedentary.

I don’t even have enough fingers to count the number of times I questioned getting a coach. I asked friends who had coaches, and we talked about their relationships. I talked to friends that didn’t have coaches, and we discussed the pros and cons of hiring someone to tell me what I thought I already knew. I talked to friends that were coaches, and got some great, rewarding feedback there, too.  I feel like I am in a tricky situation, because I know enough about training to know what might be a good idea or a bad idea, and this makes it really difficult to wrap my head around the possibility of having a coach who could have different views and opinions about things than me.

There’s also something so rewarding in designing your own plan, laying down the tracks that can bring you to having a great performance. Knowing that I was able to race fast this season, on my own, by doing the work that I put in- the work that I developed- well, anyway, this idea tends to linger in my mind. Over the past several months, whenever I would consider getting a coach, I’d ask myself: Would a coach help, or would a coach tell me something I didn’t want to hear? And not to mention, can I even afford it?

Now, I understand that not everyone can design their own training plan, let alone stick to it. I definitely didn’t stick to mine like I probably should have. There are weeks in my training plan that are sparsely sprinkled with completed workouts. This season, the only accountability I had was myself, and that was better sometimes than others. But regardless, having a coach is not essential to the triathlete. There, I said it. Now all my friends who are coaches are going to stop talking to me.

But they shouldn’t, because there really does come a point when having a coach is beneficial. For example, beginners rarely know where to even begin, let alone figure out how they are going to fit in training in their already-busy schedule known as The Real World. Because, let’s be honest, who can hire a coach if you don’t have a job?

And even for the “experienced” athlete- there comes a point when someone who thinks they know everything (points at myself) might need some insight. There comes a point when ya gotta say: “OK, do I want to get faster with the help of someone else, or am I OK with rolling the dice?” I sat down and thought about it, I thought really hard. And seriously. I considered all aspects. How much will a coach cost, and how much can I afford? What will they offer me that I don’t already have at my fingertips, including a boyfriend that bikes, a kickass group of cycling buddies, and a running partner that runs the shit out of everything (ok, maybe that’s not what I meant)?

Most importantly, though, and this is the real deal: If I hire a coach, am I confident that I can put aside what I know think I know and trust what this other person tells me as true? Can I say: “Oh, I feel like I should be running for 5 hours if I want to do well in a HIM” and they tell me- “No, you’re flippin’ cheesefried nuts.” That’s the biggest step: getting over what you think you know. Of course, if we look hard enough, we can usually find what we’re looking for. It’s like those people that go to the doctor to get the diagnosis that they want to hear. Sure, some would call them hypochondriacs, but if the fifteenth doctor they see tells them they have a rare disease that no one else has ever heard of and will get them special attention, than its the fifteenth doctor they are going to trust.

Ok, maybe finding the right coach is not really that extreme. But hopefully, you get my point. It’s not just “hearing what you want to hear”, though. It’s also hearing what is right to you. Finding the right coach is finding the right pairing of personalities; it’s finding the person that you can relate with, and the person that is willing to work with you. And when you know, chances are you will really know. And hopefully for your wallet’s sake, that person isn’t Dave Scott at $600/month. Of course, I say that, because I am a measly grad student making $20K a year. I am sure there are triathletes out there that eat $600 for breakfast.

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About megankillian

Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware. I love biomechanics!

Posted on November 2, 2010, in coaching, do-it-yourself, Ironman training, marathon, psychology, running, training, triathlon. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Good post! (and that’s coming from a coach… albeit not a tri coach). I’m still blown away at some of the mileage I see collegiate coaches doing with their athletes down there. Maybe I’m just jealous that my body won’t keep up with it 😉

    • I know! College running is insane. I was Division II and hitting up to 70 miles a week … all for a 6K race. 🙂

  2. Great post! I really have never considered getting a coach at this point. I have created all my own training plans with the help of Matt Fitzgerald’s book. Like you said, it adds a sense of accomplishment to do it myself, hold myself accountable, and then see the results on race day.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know everything. I may think I know everything, but I like thinking I know, failing, and then learning from the experience.

    $600/month??!??! Yikes! What does the low-end of the spectrum start at for a coach?

    • I think coaches can range anywhere from $50/month to a grand. Depends on who you have, what level of interaction there is, and how lucky you get at finding someone.

  3. Your reminiscing about our college days reminded me of The Perfect Mile. I read it about a month ago and John Landy’s former coach, Cerutty, MUST have been Gary’s inspiration. If you ever read it, you’ll laugh at the parallels!

  4. Great post!

    I would love to get a coach, if for nothing other than to pick their brains (I’d have to have a “high contact” plan..). Honestly though, the time saved form needing to set out my own plan would be great. Until I can justify budgeting for a coach, I’ve gone the middle road – Trainingpeaks account with their virtual coach. With that along with Joe Friels’ books and occasional twitter or blog chats with Mr. Friel or other coaches, I have been able to somewhat self coach. I’m still in the learning to consistently train well phase, so I figure I’ll wait to get that down before I get a coach anyway.

  5. Awesome post! I love being coached, but I didn’t run in college or anything. With work and family, it is awesome to have someone design my workouts for me and I just have to execute the plan. However, I’m a little different, since I know nothing about triathlon or running training.

  6. Love this post! I can completely relate, and I am a coach! 🙂 I remember having the same issues last year (2009) when I hired a coach. I had already been racing triathlons for 14 years! But I found myself so overwhelmingly curious about what a coach would do with me that (even though I didn’t have a job at the time), I dug into my savings account and hired one I related with. I’ll admit that I was afraid I would question everything she told me to do, but interestingly enough, I didn’t. I just did what she told me to do. Didn’t always understand it all, and most of the time I found myself wanting to do MORE, but I stuck to the plan and had a great season! Then this year I was on my own, coaching myself, and loving it. I had an even better year than last year, though I think that was really only because I paid attention while I was being coached, asked a lot of questions, read a lot more books, and listened to my body a lot. So I had a ton of confidence in what I was doing with myself this year.

    I’ve considered hiring another coach for next year. I’ll be honest. I think I would be faster if I did it. BUT, I genuinely enjoy coaching myself so much that I am willing to give up a few minutes in race results for the ability to make all my own decisions in my training/racing. I think I know enough now to give myself the best season yet, and I excited to work it on my own. Maybe I’ll go back to having a coach in 2012. 😉

  7. Great post. I had a coach, but I think the key is finding the best person for you. My coach wasn’t very helpful, so I think that going it alone will be best for me.

  8. I had my thoughts on this last year (see Web site), and along those lines I have a question for you.

    Given all the knowledge you have about exercise physiology, biomechanics and the like, how will you take being told what to do and how to do it? You sort of addressed that here (“Getting over what you THINK you know”), but it’s something to consider before bringing a coach into the equation.

    If I had your results, I’d be perfectly content to be the one kicking my own ass, week in and week out. Everything you need is inside, Megan.

  9. I’m a huge proponent of having a coach. I think the right one is key. I think almost any athlete will get faster by having a plan that includes the basics (speed work, form, power development), and most coaches provide enough of a structure people get faster, but if you want to reach your potential than having one that really understands what is happening physiologically from each of those tenets is key.

  10. I’ve been thinking of coaches, too. Mainly, I’m so curious as to what I could be like if I had someone helping me know what to do. I really want to know how good I could be. I don’t think I could justify the expense, though.

  11. I had a coach for 6 months of this season, then last week decided I would be coached again for all of the 2011 season starting now 🙂 Its great having someone to reel me in as well as give reinforcement and to bounce ideas off of. Though I do feel there are more bad coaches out there than good and just cause they charge a crazy fee doesnt mean they are good. IMHO I have one of the top coaches in the sport and he is affordable, his athletes results speak for him well!

    Sometime the more you know about the sport/s the more dangerous it can be for selfcoaching which I feel is a double edged sword for many, but some athletes do best like that but most dont.

  12. Great post. I was self-coached through this year, but a difference in 2010 was taking a more prepared approach to triathlon training and getting feedback from some coaches. However, I’m looking forward to having the objective viewpoint on performance that I think is one of the key elements of good coaching. You certainly know enough about how to train, however my personal opinion is that there is a TON of value in a coach giving you that extra set of eyes and ears. They can see and observe things you cannot, simply because you’re the one doing the work. I’m doing my first ironman in 2011 (Wisconsin) and excited to be coached along the way. Good luck with your journey and decision!

  13. I ran 10 marathons coaching myself (pretty successfully) before I hired a coach and it made HUGE difference. My overall distance DECREASED but I was seeing better results. I have been working with her for over two years now for running and triathlon and I have no idea what I’d do without her. It takes the guessing work out of planning and I find myself such much more accountable to the plan. Well worth the money.

  14. A really great post. One that I am thinking of as someone recently challenged my interactions and decisions to take a coach… Thanks for additional food for thought, as I write my own post on this topic!

  15. Awesome post Meg. I give you major credit for getting as far as you have in your athletic career without a coach. That is a major accomplishment.

    You got me to finally sit my butt down and type out my rant on triathlon coaches last night.

    When I was looking for a coach, I talked to a few people that paid more than my car payment to their coach each month ($2-300) and still had major bumps in the road during training and issues on the race course. Too many people just get a coach and use it as a crutch, when they are perfectly capable of reaching the goals they have on their own and end up buying a lot more coach than they actually need.

    If you did hire a coach (and the right one) I have no doubt that you’d be blogging pictures from Kona next October, but we both know that there is a lot more to getting there than just that…

  16. what a great post! if only i had a real job… this post-doc doesn’t pay enough 😉

  17. Great post! I’ve struggled with the same issues for years. My solution has been clinics and short term coaching seminars to help me learn how to train better (except swimming, still a BOP swimmer). Of course my days of 3:22 marathons have looooong since past!

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