May 2007 - my first triathlon and the start of a very slippery slope!

To Coach Or Not To Coach – My Rambling Thoughts…

The original intention of this post was to talk about why I don’t use a coach. It’s actually more of a ramble about how I train and why I’m not using a coach…

May 2007 - my first triathlon and the start of a very slippery slope!
May 2007 – my first triathlon and the start of a very slippery slope!

I was introduced into triathlon in 2007 when I entered a sprint triathlon organised by a local triathlon club. I’d bought a 10 quid tri-suit from Aldi a week before and although I feared the stitching would disintegrate upon contact with clorinated water it held up and I finished with a smile on my face. I loved it. I did this race on my heavy old mountain bike. My second triathlon I borrowed a road bike from a friend who’s probably about a foot shorter than me. Things were getting serious!

The following year I bought my first road bike. This is still my only road bike. This bike got me happily round four Ironman distance races between 2009 and 2012. I got a fancy Time Trial bike in 2013 but the road bike still gets plenty of off-season use. I love it.

Anyway, this article isn’t about my bike collection but is about coaching. I’m not coached. Why…

A few months before my first Ironman (Switzerland, 2009) I ran my first marathon. I was planning on following a training schedule from Runners World magazine but I twisted my ankle so missed out on some sessions and I didn’t want to jump back into this fixed schedule. What I did instead was just count back from the race and plan my weekly long runs that way. Race day 26.2 miles, the week before 12, then 18 (that’ll be two weeks of tapering), then 21, then 19, then 17, then 15, etc. I did a few runs during the week and always ran a 5k parkrun on the Saturday morning – sometimes as part of a long run but often as a bit of a speed session. I ran 3:19 at the London Marathon that year. It was hard hard work but the reward of completing a marathon was amazing.

For my first Ironman that I was doing three months later I adopted a similar run training strategy. Run a bit during the week, do a parkrun, and get progressively longer runs in. I’ve never been a big run mileage person. 40 miles a week is probably pretty much my upper limit during training. On top of this I swam at least twice a week and did as much open water swimming as I could. I hated swimming pools and quite liked open water – so I really needed to capitalise on this! Bike wise I did the same as my running, I just counted back the weeks from race day. I wanted to do a couple of 100 milers and then a 95, 90, 85, 80, 75 etc.

I got the start line feeling good and I loved it (apart from a portaloo incident late in the run). I was an Ironman. I nearly got a tattoo.

A year later I was in training for the Challenge Roth race. What worked the previous year seemed good enough so I did more of the same. I was working away from home a lot during the months prior to the race which meant weekdays were normally treadmill or outdoor running and weekends were swimming and long bike rides. I had to adapt to my circumstances and fit the training around them.

I know you can’t get a swim schedule, a cycling schedule and a run schedule and do them all together at the same time as you’ll then experience something called overtraining. Scott Molina (look him up if you don’t know the name) is one of the only people who used to be able handle this kind of workload!

Have a listen to his excellent interview on the Legends of Triathlon podcast to see how the old school boys used to train and race.  Oh, and do not fear, he’s still going strong with an age group win in January 2014 at the Challenge Wanaka Half race.

I currently work freelance which often means that my weeks are flexible. I kind of go by the idea that each week (or perhaps 10 day blocks) should include a long run, a long bike ride and some swimming. If I can get a couple of long rides in then even better. I don’t do much swimming. Swimming twice a week is a very good week for me! Because of my work flexibility I try not to do long run/rides on a subsequent days (e.g., Long bike Saturday, and long run Sunday). It doesn’t always work though.

Every time I’ve thought about getting a coach I think I’d spend too much time trying to swap sessions around to fit in with work or whatever else I’m up to on a given day. For example my parents live 60 miles from me. That’s a good solid bike ride away I’d say. So… I almost always cycle to their house when I visit. Sometimes I see them at weekends, other times it’s mid-week. I rarely know from one week to the next what my schedule is.

So.. if we fast forward to 2013 – which was my best ever year and the year that I won my age group at Ironman UK and stamped my ticket to Kona, what did I do differently…

Well – work wise I was in London four days a week. I almost always cycle commuted (13 miles each way) on my old mountain bike – yes, the one I did my first triathlon on in 2007. Sometimes I rode easy, sometimes I pushed hard, sometimes I raced as hard as I can between traffic lights. Yes, I always stop at red lights. It’s my recovery during interval sessions on the bike. I wish more city cyclists would give it a go. These workouts (an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening) were great for me. They were completely unstructured and I just rode how I wanted to based on how I was feeling.

My long rides were similar. Sometimes I’ll push hard, sometimes not so hard. I didn’t do many ‘easy’ rides on my road/TT bike. The easy rides were normally mountain bike commuting rides. When I rode my ‘decent’ bike I’d put the miles in and push relatively hard. I do have a power meter on my bike and I do keep an eye on my average power for a long ride. This gives me a reasonable idea of how I’m progressing during a season.

2013 - Ironman UK
2013 – Ironman UK

I ran ‘just’ enough in 2013. I ran a 5k parkrun as my weekly speedwork almost every week. I love parkrun (maybe I’ll write about that in a future article). I rarely did any 60 minute type ‘tempo runs.’ I got my long runs in. Always slower than (standalone) marathon pace and often faster than (ironman) marathon pace. I’d occasionally run into work (not much beats a half marathon before breakfast!).

In 2013 year I joined a local swimming squad. Most weeks I’d attend one of the sessions and these were great to force me to go swimming and also to put a little structure into these sessions. I’d never used fins, paddles, a pull buoy or swim band before joining the squad. I’d also try and get a second (or on a miracle week) or third swim in – normally an endurance one with my trusty Finis Tempo Trainer – a great little device that keeps me on pace.

I think the main change I made in 2013 was riding more. I almost always ride on my own. There’s no drafting in Ironman (well, not until about 25 miles into the race at Kona!) and I’m pretty good at self motivating and pushing myself. Because of my flexible work schedule I’m often riding mid-week so it’s pretty much always me on my lonesome out in the Surrey Hills.

All my training is logged in TrainingPeaks – mainly so I can look at the pretty graphs and to see that I’m building up week upon week during the season.

I didn’t do any turbo training during the main part of 2013. I’m only doing more turbo training at the moment as it’s often miserable to ride outside and more importantly there is too much stuff on our Sky+ box that I want to watch on television!

If I worked full time from a fixed location and had a regular repeatable weekly schedule then I think that ‘normal’ coaching might be a good thing. How my life is at the moment I think it would be a load of hassle for both the coach and myself.

Now, I could use a coach just to bounce ideas off of and get direction.

This is probably the coaching relationship that would work for me.

As for my training plans for 2014… Well, I’ll do more of the same that’s served me fairly well so far. I’ll open the curtains, look out of the window and decide what to do. It’ll probably be riding my bike, followed by running, and then some regular splashing around in the pool. For me it’s not rocket science.

I know I could train much better. One day I might give it a go but for now I’m happy with how I do things as they are.

This final quote is taken straight from a great article in the June 2013 issue of Triathlete Europe magazine and written by top US coach Matt Dixon – “Whether it is from trusted friends, a local coach with all the tools or a coach from further away that feels like a good fit, ensure that you set up your training and performance approach to suit you and your needs. Take ownership of your journey, and don’t simply look for the ‘flavour of the month’ and think that they are the right coach for you.”

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  1. Good article. I have been reading all of the coaching articles with interest having thought about it as an investment myself on several occasions. I havent as I still think there are more things I can do myself before getting professional advice, do you still think you can get better without an external advisor?
    As someone who works away from home (normally travelling by plane or train to work) for 4 / 5 days a week it’s always a challenge to see how that would fit, and how I could cope / how a coach would cope with these changes.
    I agree that you sometimes just have to “plan long term”, but just deal with the “short term” challenges of day to day work / life balance. If you can get toa pool, swim, if you can get to bike, ride, if you can’t do either, run!
    For me I think it is about exploring all of your own options / potential, and knowing yourself and your strengths / weaknesses and making sure that you can be honest about what you need to improve…
    I was surprised that you didn’t mention much about training with a club? For me one of the best things about being part of a club (BRAT’s), is that there are people with similar goals. Do the buccaneers train together much? It can be a challenge if you get to the more “pointy end” of the field to find people to handle the pace, but I thought that was the focus of your team?

    Good luck for your 2014 goals!

    • Chris, thank you for the comments (and also thank you to Gary who was quick to reply).

      From talking to Gary (over a pint or two I must admit) it sounds like he’s got a good flexible coaching arrangement. That looks like the kind of thing would work for me.

      A couple of years ago I worked away from home a lot. Weekdays were running and weekends were cycling and swimming. You seem to be dealing well with the short term challenges. You just need to be flexible and find a coach who understands that.

      Now, as for being part of a club… I’ve thought about it, briefly. My local club is Thames Turbo in South-West London. They’ve got plenty of fast people there which is good but the timing of some of the sessions don’t really work for me. I did do a couple of swim sessions with them a few years ago – maybe things have changed but the pool was small, it was stupidly busy and turned into a bit of a procession. Yesterday for example I was working from home, which meant I could go for a swim first thing (I had an entire lane to myself for an hour) and then a turbo at lunchtime. I love being able to do sessions when I want and on my timetable. As I said before I think I’m pretty motivated to push hard when I need/want to during training.

      In the whole of 2013 I think I rode with other people three times – once on a ride with some ‘roadies’ in the south downs and then a small group of us rode to Brighton and back in July. The third ride with friends was in Kona. Those were the only rides I did with other people. Oh, I did a sportive as well but rode that on my own. I do quite like riding with friends – but you need to know that your planned workout will be dictated by the group dynamic and not by what you necessarily wanted to do. Additionally, the kind of ‘group ride – meet at 8:30am at x’ idea doesn’t really work for me. If I wake up early I might want to off out on my ride an hour before. The other thing that puts me off group riding at times is that you’ll get delayed if anyone has a mechanical. When I’m on my own if I puncture, its only me getting delayed or cold. I like to think my bike is fairly well maintained so shouldn’t fail very often. Having said that in a group ride a couple of weeks ago I was the one who punctured right in the middle of a cold, wet and windy storm! Sorry!!

  2. Hi Chris,

    I’m glad these articles are of use, the reason we wanted to cover coaching is that it really is a mixed bag. Some people do great without one and others see a big improvement (like myself) when they employ a good coach (I emphasise GOOD).

    To answer the easy stuff first – until very recently I’d never met David and I’e still not met Elaine. I have had a few camps with Nick and Adam – the usual script is I turn up unfit, have a few mechanicals and go home early.

    Personally on the club front. I met my local training partner through Edinburgh triathletes, we hit it off and trained most weekends on the bike together. I’ve found with my club and especially since taking a coach, that most of the sessions just don’t fit with what I want to do – too much time chatting or doing drills. It was great when I could set the morning sessions as everyone did IM training! But since my boys have come along and Ella has gone back to work, I can’t train in the morning any more. If you can find a group of likeminded people and a club that understands Iron distance training then that’s a really bonus and I’ve only heard great things about BRATs.

    Right on to coaching….this will come out when I do my piece but I made sure I employed a coach that would adapt to the things both Elaine and David have mentioned around no fixed schedule etc. As I eluded to in One Size Fits None, you need to do your homework with a coach. If a coach offers two updates to a plan per month, then your lifestyle means that coach or package wont work.

    Personally I find when everything is working and life is going along smoothly then you wonder why you’re paying a coach as you can predict the sessions before they come up on Training Peaks. But it’s when work or family life takes over or an injury strikes that a good coach is worth their weight in gold.

    My and now Adam’s coach Scott has written a piece to end the series and he’s been fantastic for me. My plan is written weekly and adjusted as often as need be. He’s there as counsel with all things and to be fair, I rarely take up his time in the summer when in full throttle. It’s during the winter when ever year I seem to get injured, fat and demotivated that he comes into his own and turns things around before the key race of the year.

    p.s. Chris, impressive OTB run times!

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