Its 15 years since I started down the triathlon path and I have been coached for 9 of these. With the family expanding by 2 children in that time and occasional self-coaching, it hasn’t been continuous. It has, however, been a key ingredient in every major goal achieved in my triathlon career.
I am currently with my 3rd coach. I certainly believe the time and effort spent working with coaches has helped me through 2 Kona qualifications and 14 IM races in total.
One of the key questions you might be asking is ‘could I have done it on my own?’ I will get to that in a bit.
So, why did I get a coach?
Maybe I’m lazy?
Far from it, I work extremely hard. I work in IT and the day is pretty structured but projects have been known to stretch for months at a time with no time off at weekends. Handily, coaching fits this work structure well, I can train before work, I do get a lunch break and I can finish with enough time to fit in a late session. Weekend working gets in the way at times but I am paying a coach to work around this, to juggle so to speak.
Work also pays the bills so it takes priority over my love of triathlon but there should always be a balance. By discussing my available hours per week with my coach he can then judge how to the best out of my time.
Maybe I’m rich?
Certainly not. In fact on the couple of occasions when I have decided to drop coaching for a spell or change coaches its mainly been down to money, if we are tightening our belts as a family, coaching is a luxury, so it’s the first thing to go.
Maybe I need a ‘friend’?
Someone to pat me on the back and pick me up when I am down? This might be a reason, I can see a little bit of that in me. I do tend to use the social media sphere to bore the crap out of people on a regular basis, telling them what I did or didn’t do today. To be honest if this was all I needed to feed off it would save me money, who doesn’t enjoy getting a few ‘likes’ to a good turbo set now and again? But I do feel like I answer to a coach when I am paying, so it must be more than just ‘look what I did today!!’
I can’t put a finger exactly on just one reason why I still use a coach but I will go back to the reason I started using one and work through the possibilities.
In 2000, I was naïve, it was only my 3rd triathlon and I knew very little. The sport was reasonably young, growing well in the UK and the internet wasn’t like it is today with a plethora of advice. 220 magazine had a good following but it couldn’t teach me how to swim and give me advice on a bike purchase. I decided I needed someone to show me how to do these quickly as I had less than a year and I wanted to run before I could walk.
I found a coach called Lawrence Oldershaw. During our first meeting in a pub, which lasted a few hours he got through about 5 pints of Stella, I liked him already. Now I believed I could train and still have a good time. Early pirate training J
He supplied me a 4 weekly training plan and a weekly phone call and I paid him. Simple.
I also paid to visit him at his home for a few weekends of 1-2-1 coaching. I was immersed in the camaraderie that I believed was a coach and student. The structure was the key, I knew what I had to do, every length in the pool was spelt out, the bike rides were long and had calculations in the sets. I soon learnt what ‘3hr steady w/2 x 30min OG & 2 x 30 mins HC’ meant.
I found the feedback so important, in fact almost as important as the structure. I had to report what I did and how I felt, I was responsible for a portion of this relationship outside of just doing the sets. I was paying for it so I wanted to make sure I at least tried.
I averaged about 8-9 hours a week over the first season but because it was so new to me it felt like I was training every hour of the day, still very naïve!
If I hadn’t had this help I certainly feel, with my laissez faire attitude, I would have suffered a lot more on the day. I really didn’t understand the sport as for me the distances just rolled off the tongue. Being coached certainly gave me an edge.
I finished my first IM in 11.26. I know to this day, this is one of the most important races using a coach. What I learned in that first 12 months with Lawrence was more than most of the guys I speak to now and some of them have already attempted an ironman.
The Self Coached bit
After my first IM, I had an enforced 2 year break after a skiing injury. I then decided I wanted to get into the real Ironman races and this time I would do it myself.
I did OK …. I decided to use the plans I had from my first year, I had kept all of them. I counted back the weeks to the IM and then slotted in the training. I trained about 70% of the sessions I set myself. I used the internet information to help me plan the key weeks but I was essentially just ticking boxes. The results weren’t bad, Switzerland in 10.46, Austria in 10.30 and Nice in 10.47. But it wasn’t stellar. I was stagnant. Steady but no improvement.
The Middle Bit – Coach 1
A chance meet with Lawrence in the pasta party tent at Ironman France in 2005 led to my next round of coaching. We reminisced, a lot had happened to both of us in 4 years. I said I wanted to go ‘sub 10’ the following year at IM Germany. I told him I was struggling with the run, all of my IM runs had been about 3.52 and I just couldn’t shift into a higher gear, he told me he was still into coaching and could get me that result next year if we hooked up.
The key driver here was goal orientated, breaking 10 hours and specifically improve my run. I already had the structure but 3 years of the same thing wasn’t moving me forward.
What’s the saying ?
‘if you always do what you’ve always done you will always get what you always got’
The sessions changed dramatically (training and coaching methods had come a long way in 5 years), longer, harder, the focus hit my weaknesses, I got stronger and although I still worked hard, I was able to juggle work with training, family and bit of a golf obsession. I finished Frankfurt in 9.56. I was ecstatic, I used a coach to do a job and we made it happen.
Soon after, Kona became the target, so now the reason hadn’t changed, it was still goal orientated, I could have gone on my own, but my delivery and performance had to improve, I was way off the mark still. I wanted the support of experience and the previous year had shown me what someone else could do for me, I stayed.
I mentioned at the start that I am not a lazy person or rich, I may have left off complacent and frivolous.
In 2007-2009 I wasn’t focused enough in my triathlon to train all year round, I had a lot of other interests, this is where I fell down in my thinking around coaching, if I was really using coaches to achieve goals then I should have either trained harder all year round or dropped the coaching in the off season and just ticked over. I sort of hung in the middle, I had long spells of being coached and not actually doing the sessions. This led to excuses and more and more dropped sets. The longer term goal led to my focus dropping when other immediate opportunities arose, like work, golf, drinking, having a good time.
A perfect example of this was 2007, I did IM Lanzarote, in the May. After the euphoria of an IM finish my lull lasts about 2 months. Having no goals after Lanza meant this went on all year, I wasn’t focused on the long term goal, but I still paid for coaching, why I ask myself.
This was the complacent and frivolous aspect of my life, I could afford it due to the overtime but I needed to have someone chasing me to do SOMETHING. Again looking back this was a perfect waste of my money and his time.
What I am trying to say here is, it doesn’t matter what you pay someone, if you aren’t totally focused and determined, they can’t do that part for you, they can drive your ambition, but if this drops, the drive has nothing to base itself on. I found that fear became a driver, fear that I might not get back my fitness in January, getting fat in the off season and never recovering. Being slower than before.
If there is one thing I understand from being coached and losing that drive, when the chips are down, you have to be honest. Honest with yourself and your coach. Having the phone call at the end of the week and sugar coating the reasons you didn’t do half of the week is just creating a lie that can perpetuate through week after week. If the desire has gone, be honest, take a break.
After qualification in 2009 I parted company with Lawrence, it was a natural break, we had just had Teya, our first child, money was tighter and I had promised Kelly I was taking 2010 off IM to spend more time at home, I had qualified and then delivered at Kona, what did I have to prove?
My motivation after Kona was gone and no matter who is coaching you and how much you pay, you must have the motivation to complete the sessions.
The Middle Bit – Coach 2
My next coach picked themselves really, after taking a break from IM in 2010 I was picked as the face of Computrainer in 2011, Simon Ward was the UK distributor for them and a well-known coach in the UK. Through working with him on the Computrainer promotion and needing a coach coming back into the sport again I joined up with him that year. This was the primary reason for picking him.
What made Simon stand out for me was the communication, it was exceptional, the once a week phone call made me feel that whatever the previous week had thrown at me I was ready for the next week, the sets were so detailed and explained. He also used Training Peaks for the coaching plan, a doddle to use and great for looking at what you have done and what’s coming up.
I was now pretty experienced at what I wanted, what my body could do and what I knew I could achieve, we focused on the overall picture, he also informed me I was an older athlete and things would be changing, news to me J but I had to trust his judgement, I gave him my goal, Kona again, he provided the plan. The training changed again from what I had done before, this is something to expect from coaches, they don’t all do it the same way, it more challenging, geared to me personally and I felt stronger and able to justify the cost of his plan against my results.
I qualified for Kona in 2012 again with Simon, my plans had enabled me to bike stronger and run more efficiently off the back. I was always going to finish an IM but now I was racing them.
Simon was the most expensive coach I had used but I felt shortly after starting with him I was paying for a wealth of advice, the sessions had so much detail, I liked that, I changed my blocks to include more recovery, as an older athlete that helped to give it all on the harder weeks. Again I had a goal and I qualified. Job done.
The end bit
In 2013 I basically did no real training, I ticked over and entered Bala Middle distance triathlon just to keep my hand in but it hurt not being fit. Late in 2013 I started training again (to be honest Kelly had had enough of me and made me go running), I tried and tried a number of times to get into the swing of training, using old sets, I even put together a 5 month plan one afternoon.
I still stumbled, I restarted week 1 about 4 times, if I didn’t complete the week I started again, all the time, work got in the way and became the easy excuse.
I have worked out I am good at ‘setting’ a plan but not very good at following it through. If I can’t see the improvements quickly, I get frustrated, I just don’t give myself the time. I miss having someone looking over my shoulder, being able to deliver to someone else as well as myself. I know if they are setting the sets, I can just do them and they can watch the long term targets.
Going a little deeper into the psychology of it, it’s obviously not my field, but I think I need to have someone to check and answer to, I need the commitment of someone else in the process, so the mentor route doesn’t work for me as you can’t really ask someone to commit that much effort if you aren’t paying for their services.
December 2013, I decided if I wanted to make a good year count in 2014 I needed the structure back, I am now being coached again and I have IM Copenhagen to aim at, and it seems to be working. I am focused one set at a time, a race goal per month, and my eye on the ‘A’ race in August.
I have used coaches for different things at different times, all with a goal in mind, be it finish an IM or race to qualify for Kona, I have used it like a tool. My analytical mind working the same way it does at work, get the most out of the limited time I have.
How I picked mine was circumstantial, be it word of mouth, a self-publicist, a local tri club coach, it doesn’t matter but they have to fit you and you have to fit them. How you then use them has to be an agreement between you.
I am a goal driven person who wants to see results, short term hits, I struggle to see a 2-3 year goal. I need someone else to guide that side of me, checking back on results to see the improvements and adjust the training to compensate for inadequacies or key areas at key times.
There is a level of complacency with a relationship like this that can creep in, even with a coach, you get out what you put in, if you spend the money then make sure you engage fully in the process, you don’t have to know how to coach, you just have to know what you want, then you have to believe in that person to help you deliver. There are no half measures when it’s cold hard cash leaving your account.
I was first coached 15 years ago, things change, coaches have improved, they have to move with the technology (training peaks, power) and new training methods to help keep up with improvements age groupers are making year in, year out. There is more information on the internet now, you can find coaching plans for free, there are forums everywhere with good and bad advice but having a 1-2-1 coach certainly does it for me.
Could I have done it on my own?
If I hadn’t had the coaching the first year, I am not sure I would have continued, I found a great deal of respect for the sport through Lawrence and I am grateful for that, he got me to the line without hating the process and I wanted to do another one about 3 hours later.
If I hadn’t been coached in the years after that, it may have taken me longer to achieve a standard I would have been happy with, but I like to think I had the ability to get to Kona, I just made it happen before I needed the legacy ticket J