I’d like to kick off a series of articles on coaching. If you’re looking to go from the middle to the front of the pack in triathlon, then coaching is probably a topic you’ve discussed and thought about numerous times. In my opinion, triathlon is unique in the percentage of age groupers that hire a coach; it never once occurred to me when I was running to hire a coach to complete my first (or subsequent) marathon. To be fair, it didn’t occur to me to hire a coach when I took on my first Ironman, yet here I am, having had the same triathlon coach for over 3 years – a relationship which translates into thousands of pounds. In 2013, 54% of Kona athletes said they had a coach. Now, if you factor in those age groupers at Kona who are themselves coaches, then I’d wager that pushes the percentage up a little. Also, maybe they should have asked, ‘Have you ever had a coach?’ I wonder how many pulled the plug when they got their ticket to The Big Dance? So let’s say 60% – when I first read this I thought, really, is that all?
But why is triathlon seemingly so obsessed with coaching? Is it really that complicated; you swim, cycle a bit then, all going well, you run a bit. It’s not exactly rocket science is it?
The answer is, there’s no single answer. At all levels and distances of triathlon you’ll find the self-coached athlete (since almost half of Kona athletes didn’t have a coach, it can’t be the only way to do things), you’ll read of pros changing coach and having a breakthrough season and you’ll find athletes whose coaching relationship has taken them to the top.
Within the team we have a mix. As I mentioned, I’ve had a coach for 3 years now; Nick has had 3 different coaches; David has never had a coach; after 7 years of triathlon, Adam has just taken on a coach; Elaine recently considered getting a coach and decided against it. So, 5 age groupers, all a similar standard, but doing things in different ways again showing there really is no ‘one size fits all’.
So I thought it would be interesting to read why each of us made the choices we did and then to finish off with my coach about what what it’s like to coach age groupers.
Let’s look briefly at what’s available to those looking for some sort of guidance with their training:
Possibly the best and worst advice ever assembled – the issue is working out which
is which. Unless you’ve laid out your life story the advice is likely to be knee-jerk and take very little into consideration apart from the question posed. Advice is likely to be contradictory and before long the discussion will likely go off on a tangent or be hijacked by someone else’s issues. A lot of the time people use forums to verify their already-formed opinions and will repeatedly ask the same question in multiple places until someone agrees with them – watch out for this behaviour. But if it hadn’t been for the Runner’s World Forum then I doubt if I’d ever have considered Ironman. So a thumbs up for the social aspect and possibly accountability – just take any advice with a pinch of salt.
Books and the Online Plans
Fink, beginnertriathlete.com, trainingplansonline.com and many more offer you free triathlon training plans to help reach you goals. But how do they know what your background is? How do you tell it your weaknesses and triathlon history? How do you get the plan to fit around your schedule? Who do you ask for advice on a particular session?
The advice is free and for the newbie starting out, then any degree of structure and consistency is an improvement over none. What really makes my blood boil is when you’re expected to pay for these one-size-fits-all plans – now you’re really having a laugh aren’t you? What magic session or mix of sessions is really worth the paper it’s written on, if it’s not tailored to your needs? You don’t see it so much in triathlon but it’s prevalent in marathon schedules; we’ve all seen “the sub x hours plan”. Do they come with a money back guarantee if you don’t meet your goal? Then there’s the beginner / intermediate / advance schedule – levels which are compared to what? Do we class both a 12 hour Ironman and a 14 hour Ironman as Intermediate? Does 11:30 count as Advanced? What if you can run a sub-3 standalone marathon but can’t swim or cycle for toffee – should you suddenly dumb down your running?
This inevitably leads to the person following the plan tinkering, combining elements of multiple plans to make a “tailored” plan. I’ve seen this sort of plan advertised – it takes your target and phase of training and blends together the swim, bike and run and while this is possibly a better outcome than self-tinkering as you can’t ask a pre-made plan why a certain workout was placed there. Maybe it was an easier run because earlier you had a hard session – but if you’ve mixed and matched, how can you be sure the focus or goal was the same in both plans on the same day?
Then there are other factors; current ability, body composition, commitments, facilities, commute etc. All of these things are important and will affect your schedule.
Personally, if you feel that you need a little guidance but you can’t commit to funding a coach on an on-going basis, I’d recommend contacting a coach and seeing if they’ll agree to create you a repeatable block that you can do for a number of months. Then consider re-engaging with the coach for a block that will take you to your A race.
There are two flavours of coach; the local coach and the distance coach. The local coach could be a volunteer member of your tri club or a professional working near-by. The advantages of a local coach are obvious; the ability to talk face-to-face, get hands-on instruction and maybe work as part of a squad are invaluable, but sometimes the level of knowledge, experience or methods desired may not be near to hand. You may have a power meter and be looking for a coach with in-depth experience of WKO and well-versed in Hunter Allen’s methods, or wish to use the training peaks and Coggan’s Training Stress Score (TSS) along with ATL, CTL and all the other measurements. Or, the opposite scenario may arise and the best local coach wishes to impose a philosophy you don’t agree with or feel comfortable following. This may lead you to looking further afield for a distance coach who closer matches your expectations, needs or price point. As such, the disadvantages are what you lose with the lack of proximity. You may be a member of a club which offers coached sessions – anything from a set being posted to actual 1-2-1 coaching. Remember, the former is generic, which may be good enough but probably doesn’t take into account of what you did earlier in the week, or what you intend to do next. If money is an issue, it’s worth looking out for someone embarking on their BT level 3 qualification as they’ll need to prove they have coached a number of athletes and you could offer yourself as a guinea pig.
So how do you choose a coach?
The short answer is that’s it a very personal choice but here’s a few things to consider:
Do you have a pretty standard week?
Is your week predictable, with little variation, except the odd holiday? If so, you can probably live with a low-contact coach, maybe one that offers a package where only a few modifications are made per month and only a few emails answered. But is this really how coaching works or are you just acting as an easy revenue stream for a big name in triathlon? Alternatively, if your week changes continuously, for example due to work (e.g. shifts), travel or kids then a cookie-cutter approach, regardless of how scientific and well tested, won’t work for you.
Do you like constant feedback on every session?
Do you want your coach to monitor each GPS, HR and power file and feedback to you with weekly Skype calls or meetings? If so, make that clear from the outset, since this will be a bigger demand on your chosen coach’s time and will probably mean a higher premium and a smaller pool of coaches to choose from.
Are you looking for accountability, someone to chase you when you miss too many sessions?
You may find a cheap online coach but they may be responsible for a lot of athletes in order to compensate for the low price point and not have the time to chase you, responding only to direct questions.
Do you really believe you always get what you pay for?
There are some coaching websites which charge a small fortune for “gold level” coaching – does this mean that they’re any good, or does it just reflect that the market is willing to stump up this amount for what it believes to be a premium coaching service? Some people are drawn by the big names in the sport and whilst there’s no doubting they know what they’re talking about, if someone has been a professional athlete their whole life, how much can they really relate to the typical age group athlete? So the follow-on question is:
What coaching qualifications / experience does your potential coach have and does this matter to you?
Are you drawn to National Triathlon Federation accreditation or are previous successes and referrals more important? You should be able to ask for referrals from current and past clients; remember this is likely to be an investment of thousands of pounds over the lifespan of the partnership, so it’s worth doing your homework.
What standard are you at now?
If you’re new to the sport then you can afford to go for a local coach just starting out as the 1-2-1 aspect, especially with regard to swimming and open water, will be invaluable and consistent work will pay dividends. Let’s face it, if you are below average or average then following any kind of plan is likely to yield improvement. You may not progress as quickly as you would with a good coach but you will probably get better. This is analogous to getting help from a personal trainer at the gym. If you’re of a decent standard and looking to make the step-up to Kona qualification level then these newbies / PTs won’t cut-it, you really want a triathlon coach and not “triathlon coaching” from someone offering this as one of their services.
What’s the coach’s philosophy?
As I mentioned, if you’re a power and numbers geek there’s no point in hiring a coach that tells you to do everything by feel; on the other hand you may not wish to buy a load of gadgets to upload each time you train.
Lastly why do you want / think you need a coach?
Do you really need a coach or just think you should have one? What’s the objective of having a coach and what are your expectations? Make sure you share this information with your coach, if you’re an 11 hour IM athlete and expect your coach to get you to Kona standard in a year, he or she needs to know about this goal before taking you on. There are a lot of triathletes hiring coaches without any particular goals and a lot of coaches making good money from lifestyle triathletes who feel they need to hire a coach to have the full triathlon experience. If that’s your need and expectation and both parties understand this then fine, it is a service after all.