“We make our decisions, and then our decisions turn around and make us.” ― F.W. Boreham
Shortly after waking up on the first morning in Kona last October, I knew I wanted to come back to do the race again. On the day I left, with the race behind me, I still wanted to come back. But qualifying for Kona requires a certain amount of work; simply having qualified once, by no means guarantees I’ll (ever) qualify again. If you’re serious about something, it’s generally recommended that you seek “expert” advice and guidance. Nowhere, it seems, is this more true than in triathlon, but nowhere is this more difficult to execute than when it comes to triathlon training, where you’ll find, once you start to ask, a hundred opinions, methods, conflicting advice, evidence, anecdotes and professionally-promoted approaches.
I don’t have a coach. I have never had a coach. I do, however, have a mentor – teammate Adam Bardsley – and after Kona last year, he suggested I give some thought as to whether I wanted to carry on being mentored by him, or whether I wanted a more traditional coaching arrangement with someone else.
This wasn’t a 5 minute deliberation, but eventually I decided that, if he was happy to continue, I wanted to carry on as we were. Arriving at this decision meant thinking about what I would expect a coach to give me,, what I saw as the major drawbacks and weighing this against my current mentoring scheme.
I work full-time, but my job has a degree of flexibility and is outcome-based – I don’t have to be in an office from 9am to 5pm, but I have to produce a certain volume of work and the hours I choose are, to an extent, up to me. This means I can plan long rides or runs around the weather or use the pool opening times as a basis for when – and where – I’ll be working that day. I am a highly organised, self-motivated individual, which is essential for the work I do and also pretty helpful when it comes to figuring out how to fit 18 hours of training into a working week without massively front-loading the weekend. On the other hand, my job can be unpredictable and in a sudden avalanche of work, that flexibility becomes important in re-shuffling my commitments – and training sessions. A pre-set, rigid schedule wouldn’t work for me; when I have more time, I train more. When a busy week hits, I designate it a recovery week. Not many coaches are that accommodating.
This means that the “schedule” I follow is largely of my own devising. Without wishing to mortally offend professional, qualified coaches the world over, I don’t think that building a training plan is really all that complicated. I’m smart enough to understand the concepts of macro and micro cycles, I like to think I have a pretty good grasp of physiology and adaptation and in the last 5 years, I’ve learned a fair bit about my body and how to differentiate between laziness, fatigue, overload and the kind of tiredness necessary after a hard session that will result in fitness, strength or speed gains. Without a doubt, a good coach would structure a better plan – but how much better? Ten percent? Five? Enough to make it worth it?
Training for Ironman is an endurance sport in itself. It’s a long term goal – nowadays, you have to enter nigh on 12 months in advance, so even though specific training needn’t last that long (depending on your level of fitness and experience), next year’s race is usually identified early. Anyone who claims to be laser-beam focussed on that goal for the entire time is probably either lying or somewhere on the disordered spectrum. It’s normal for your enthusiasm to wane a little at times. It’s normal to wish you didn’t have to do whatever session was marked for today, to want to roll over in bed and ignore the early morning swimming alarm. Occasionally, it’s normal to even do this. But in proportion to the height of the goals you set, the degree of “CBA” has to be tempered. No-one gets to Kona without some degree of motivational acrobatics – it’s not a case of having to bend over backwards simply to drive a few miles to the pool, but fighting off the allure of a warm bed and an extra hour of duvet wallowing is going to be necessary. On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m probably more motivated than average, but I’ll tell you what really helps – accountability. I have a lot of respect for my mentor and I remain just a teeny bit scared of him and the result is that I refuse to waste his time. If I don’t do the work, ultimately it’s me that loses, but in the short term, for every missed session, there had better be a damn good reason. Were I to be paying someone for my plans, this extra motivation would probably come in the form of not wishing to waste my money, but avoiding my mentor’s wrath and sarcasm works just as well.
Speaking of money – this was a major factor in the decision-making. A good coach doesn’t come cheap. A good coach who could be flexible on a weekly basis, not just in terms of time, but in terms of my performance and adaptation, is considerably more expensive. Ultimately, I realised, it’s no good paying someone to help me get back to Kona if I can’t then afford to actually go. There is only so much money to go round.
Of course, I get far more from Adam’s mentoring than a simple knuckle-rap for laziness and the cash saving. He gives me valuable advice – I respect his opinion, but I’ve also tested it, many times, and found that his ways work. I respond well to his somewhat anaemic praise (although he also times his “Go Get ‘Em, Champ” text messages fairly well*) and what others may see as an overly blunt method of describing a tool for garden digging as a spade, works for me. An impartial, external opinion on your training can indispensable, if you listen to, and value, the advice you get. Finding someone to tell you you’re doing a great job isn’t all that hard. Finding someone to illuminate your weaknesses, identify how to address them and motivate you to do that work, in order to help you improve, takes a little more work.
After weighing the pros and cons, talking to my team-mates and figuring out the financial aspect, it wasn’t, in the end, a particularly difficult decision for me. Given the same set of circumstances, others would reach the opposite conclusion, but I’m very happy with the system I have going for me.
* to my knowledge, he has never, and will likely never, text these words. Certainly not to me.