“It isn’t the mountains ahead to climb that wear you out; it’s the pebble in your shoe.”
— Muhammad Ali, World Heavyweight Champion boxer, (1960-1966, 1970-1981)
A good number of triathletes who are trying to achieve a major challenge – first Ironman, Age Group Qualification – or want significant improvement in performance ask the question – ‘do I need coaching’? The inference being that having a coach is key to improvement.
Not surprisingly my answer is always ‘yes you do’ – ah ha I hear – he is selling his services to poor unsuspecting athletes!. Now here we may be at cross purposes as many athletes see coaching as – a coach – and more specifically – paying for their own coach. I see coaching as the way to improve fitness and skills using training, advice and guidance. This may be from a coach or may not be – I will cover the options later in the post and give my views as to what you should consider when deciding your own requirements.
So why is it important
Okay so you want to learn the piano – you sit at the keyboard and plonk a few keys – cool you are making a noise. You then decide you want to really learn to play – in fact you have to learn to play as you have promised your daughter that you will play a song (any song) at her birthday party in 3 months’ time.
- Listen to your song and then sit at the keyboard and plonk away until it starts to sound like the recording
- Learn some of the techniques from YouTube or online or from magazine articles and follow them.
- Go to an evening class and learn with others
- Pay for tuition
So, in order of likely success – of course its 4 first and then down to 1. In order of cost – the reverse. This is obvious but learning the skills of Triathlon and managing a training programme is exactly the same as learning to play the piano and yet what is obvious in one skill based activity is not so obvious in another.
I believe that a key reason is that you just don’t know how good you could be as the measurements are more abstract – if your playing is bad then everyone winches – if your cookery is inedible then the dog gets fed extra’s – if you don’t do that well in a triathlon it’s just that you do as well as you do. But how do you know that is your optimum best. Now measuring fitness and performance is another topic for later but learning the skills and improving is well within your own capability – if you know what to do. So now we are convinced that unless we are just ‘key plonkers’ and take part in the sport with no aims or ambitions and just do a bit of unstructured running, cycling and swimming – then you do need some form of coaching to develop skill levels and improve fitness.
So, what are your options – not unsurprisingly exactly the same as learning the piano! The 2 extremes are pay for your own coach (part or full time) – or you can do it all yourself. Like many of likes skills there is generally no reason why you can’t learn to manage your own skills learning and fitness programme which is the low-cost option. The trade-off is when you have time limitations are you better learning/training or reading and compiling? It all depends on how much time (and money you have). I will summarise the options below:
- Purely DIY – there is a lot of info available – good and bad as it can take a time to reconcile as sometimes contradictory. You need to understand what you have to do and then find out how to do it. But it’s cheap – although there are hidden costs as some high-grade information e.g. Training Peaks, swimsmooth, magazines etc. can be expensive.
- DIY plus club coaching – for many this is the option they use – work out their own programme but have a chat to the club coach and go to club coaching sessions for say swimming and running where there is a coached element. The cost of this is often the club membership plus any specialist sessions. Cost varies depending upon the sessions and coaching offered. The more comprehensive the higher the cost.
- Part time coach – this is most popular for ‘serious’ athletes. Often seen as the next step if you have reached a plateau with club coaching and want to get to the next level. A 1:1 coach can work directly with you and tailor the sessions, programme and input and gets to know you as an individual. The downside is that you pay for that service. This ranges but can be quite pricey if you want really personal service.
So fundamentally you have to decide what you want to do and how much time you wish to spend getting there. If you have time to dedicate and an enquiring mind, then run your own training. If you would prefer to get fit and learn rather than acquire the knowledge first, then my suggestion would be to become a member of a club and if that does not offer what you need then look at individual coaching. Local clubs can be found online as you will be restricted geographically to turn up to sessions.
Working with an Individual Coach
For those who have never worked with a coach then let me cover some of the aspects as you may be looking at that angle. I have both been an athlete coached by an individual Coach and also coach a number of Athletes on a 1:1 basis.
The key is to understand what you want from a coach – is it to set and manage your programme – upskill you in techniques – advise on speciality events (Ironman, Age Group Qualifiers) – motivation etc. Then you can find one who fits the bill. The approach from a coach varies significantly and I will put a few pointers below with my own personal approach as an example:
- Contact – you have to understand what works for you with regards to contact and management of your programme – if you learn from personal coaching and contact then your coach needs to be local and have time to meet. If you are happy to talk things through, then you are okay to manage remotely. My own coach was in France and I never met him but we talked often and it worked. I have no issue with either approach. Personally, as a coach I get involved with my athlete’s programme and generally have 2 meetings/discussions per month with regular feedback both ways.
- Skills – if you are looking at a specific event such as an Ironman then ideally you want a coach who understands the event and is an ultra-endurance coach. If you are looking to move to elite or Age Group GB the same. Most coaches have a preferred ‘set’ of athletes which they are comfortable coaching so it’s good to find one who can engage with your aims. As with the site heading my interest is in motivating people to achieve Age Group success whatever their age. That includes newcomers to the sport.
- Direction – do you need a detailed programme with micromanagement or pointers. Training Peaks for example sends you a text every day with a reminder of your session – and wants a reply. Good discipline but perhaps not for everyone. Other people find a vague 40 mins tempo run not that much help. My programmes are detailed sessions planned weekly but with flexibility as life often gets in the way of good training. However, we review every 2 weeks to ensure that the programme is fit for purpose and that it’s not just lack of inertia! So talk to your coach and get a sample programme or session plan.
- Motivation – for me my athletes success is my success and so I am keen that all do well. So I tend to talk through race selections, be involved in fitness measurements and review a programme regularly. Some find this motivating – others a a pain in the proverbial as they just want a programme to get on with and the coach stays in the background. Again think what works for you.
- Cost – can be expensive – but doesn’t need to be. I saw a coach in the US charging just under £200 per month for Ironman coaching. I paid £80 per month to have a programme compiled and monthly review which seems about the norm. Personally I charge £50 per month. I charge athletes as it does take a significant amount of time but more importantly if an athlete is paying then they are committed – and equally so am I! So, what do you get for your money – In my case I spend 3-4 hours per month compiling a programme, analysing the athletes progress, liaising with the athlete and looking at events to enter which fit the profile of training etc. I have a few athletes who I get to know very well and their success becomes my future recommendations! Coaches can also bring other expertise to training which can help defray some of the cost such as access to specific testing – cycle power tests, running/cycle technique reviews (often using video) and swim analysis. These are all worth having and in my own programmes there are regular test and assessments as my view is if you don’t measure you don’t improve.
Club and Individual Coaching
Some club coaches also offer personal coaching and athletes are sometimes confused over where one ends and the other begins. In my case as a club coach I take a number of group sessions for swimming, cycling, running and transition. I am also happy to provide all of the information and templates for an athlete to put a training programme together. I will also give advice and guidance to do so if asked. However, if I manage the programme with the athlete on a regular basis then that is where I deem it to be personal coaching – it’s simply a question of time and commitment. It is the same with a gym class – attend with the group for a circuits session and you pay £5 – have a 1 to 1 with the Personal Trainer and it’s £40 – but that session is tailored to your exact goals and requirements.
Hopefully that has been of use – if you have any questions on this or any of the posts then please do get in touch.