Should I hire a coach or can I do this alone?
There comes a time in every athlete’s training when they think that they might need a coach. For some people, that point comes when they first decide to get into endurance sports. There are many coaches that specialize in taking someone who is not particularly active and putting together a training plan to get them to their goal. Usually that goal is to finish an event of some kind; that could be a 5k, marathon, or Ironman Triathlon. For some people running or walking for 5 kilometers (3 miles) is an enormous feat and they have no idea how they can get from their current level of fitness to a level they had only dreamed of before. It makes sense that if you’re starting a completely new activity that you seek out the guidance of someone who is more experienced that you.
On the other end of the spectrum is the professional endurance athlete. For obvious reasons, someone like Lance Armstrong is going to need a coach. In fact, Lance Armstrong during his prime probably had at a coach, a manager, a sports psychologist, a nutritionist, a doctor, and probably more dedicated to him winning the Tour de France. Unfortunately, you are not Lance Armstrong. That’s why you’re reading this article. But it’s not just top professionals that need coaches. Elite amateurs are likely to need, or at least want, a dedicated coach. In the sport of road cycling, this would consist of those who compete as category 1 and 2 racers. Most elite athletes have accumulated the knowledge to coach themselves, but what they usually lack is the time. Self-coaching takes a lot of an individuals time and someone who trains 40+ hours per week simply doesn’t have it!
This leaves a lot of ground in-between and I don’t want to lump all these people into the same category. But there is a wide spectrum of people who may want a coach, should have a coach, or don’t need a coach and they just don’t know where they stand from high-school to masters athletes. What these athletes have in common is that they are endearingly referred to as age-groupers. This simply means that they are not competing for the overall win in an event, but are competing against other athletes of the same age, gender, or skill. Running and triathlon events will typically split age-groups in age and gender; cycling events are sorted by skill level, with pros racing with the elite riders. Generally there are awards, monetary or not, that are given to age-group winners, so there is competition among them!
Growing up, I was active in sports. Throughout grade and high school I played basketball, baseball, soccer, and golf. Baseball is almost exclusively an anaerobic sport, which means that the body uses energy from a system that provides bursts of up to 2 minutes. Soccer is primarily an aerobic exercise where one needs to run almost continuously for a long period of time, with short bursts of speed every so often. But even a soccer match is only an hour and a half long. Someone new to running, for instance, could take well over four hours to complete a marathon. Then I met my match. During my last year of high school I did not make the soccer team, I barely made the basketball team, and golf doesn’t really count. After one year of baseball, I gave that up. I had spread myself too thin, both in terms of athletics and academically. I was never a great athlete, so during high school I focused most of my time on studying, which contributed to the decline in my athletic abilities. During that year, I got my first taste of coaching: I was asked to coach the 5th and 6th grade soccer team where I went to grade school. It was great fun, and I learned a lot, not only about coaching, but about myself.
As I went to college, my participation is sports dropped to zero… unless you count bowling. And while it’s certainly a sporting competition, there is very little aerobic about it. Then I got accepted to graduate school, where my studies took an even further step forward. The limit of my physical fitness was now walking up three flights of stairs. I ballooned to 220 pounds. I was feeling crappy pretty much every day, and feeling run down most days. Then I decided to change everything: I was going to lose the weight I had gained since high school. I made a goal of finishing a marathon within a year.
That first year was hard. I still remember those first few months. I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid to run outside, so I took up running on the treadmill. I would put the treadmill on 6 miles per hour and run for 10 minutes. Then 15 minutes. Then 20 minutes. Then 30 minutes. That first time I reached 3 miles was the turning point. That’s just shorter a tad than a 5k race. I knew at this point I could make the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. But I knew I needed a plan: I couldn’t just wing it. So I searched the Internet and found Hal Higdon’s novice marathon training plan. It looked good to me, but what did I know? I had never done this before! As it turns out, I would still recommend that plan for a first-time marathoner. What’s more, I learned through those 18 weeks what it meant to be self-coached. And there’s a whole lot more to it than simply following a pre-packaged plan you find on the Internet.
Since that first marathon, I completed several half-marathons, many shorter running races, and a sprint triathlon. And most importantly, I’ve hired two coaches along the way to help me out. One was a coach to help me with the triathlon and the other was a swim specific coach. I signed up for the triathlon 9 weeks before the event and didn’t know how to swim. I’m glad I got both coaches. There are definitely positive and negative aspects of hiring a coach.
At present, I do not have a coach. I am training for the 2011 Tucson Marathon and at the same time training for a full season of cycling during 2012. While I have no delusion of grandeur, I no longer consider myself a newbie endurance athlete. I am entering the world of the self-coached athlete. These are my thoughts, subject to change, about being your own coach.
Your Job as a Coach
The first job of a coach is to sit down with a new athlete and talk about their goals. As a self-coached athlete, this may not require any spoken words, but it is still a very important part of your job as coach. It is important that your create S.M.A.R.T. goals: they need to be (S)pecific, (M)easurable, (A)ttainable, (R)elevant, and (T)ime-based. As an example, one of my goals is to run the Tucson Marathon on December 11, 2011 in under 3 hours and 40 minutes. The setting of goals is a job of both the athlete and the coach. As a self-coached athlete, you must make certain that your goals are realistic to achieve, yet not so easy as to not provide a challenge.
Once the goal is set, it’s now the coaches job to sit down and make a training plan to accomplish that goal. For my goal, I am using a modified version of one of Hal Higdon’s intermediate marathon plans. But because I’m also training for a full season of bike racing, I need to add that in too, which makes the job harder. A very important thing you need to realize about being your own coach is that it’s not as simple as it sounds. It takes a lot of time to effectively coach yourself. It probably takes a lot of time to coach others too, which is why it costs so much to hire them! So don’t sell yourself short: allocate an hour per day to really looking at the daily, weekly, and monthly schedule and see if it still fits in with your goals.
Setting a truly customized training plan takes a lot of time an effort. There are many books dedicated to the art and science of taking the human body to the edge and achieving peak performance. This article simply cannot distill all that knowledge into a coherent summary. I would suggest looking on the Internet for free training plans for whatever it is you’re trying to achieve or visiting a local library. Joe Friel has training programs for both triathlon and cycling called Training Bibles. They are written for advanced athletes, but are probably useful to all but the most beginning self-coached athletes.
Your Job as an Athlete
The hard part is over, right? Now that the training plan has been made, it’s now your job as an athlete to simply follow the plan. If it was that easy, then there would be one plan available for each sport and there would be no need for coaches at all! The fact is, there is an enormous amount of work you need to do outside of training. There is a need for communication between athlete and coach that as a self-coached athlete is both easier and harder. When you have a coach, it’s easy to become lax and just follow the training plan without knowing what the coach is doing behind the scenes. You just send your daily workout log to the coach, look at the schedule for tomorrow, and complete the job. If you have questions, aren’t feeling well, or whatever, there’s always a chance to call the coach and see what she thinks.
A self-coached athlete still needs to provide feedback to your coach! It’s just in this case, you are the coach. Being your own coach makes you less objective than someone else would be, but it offers the advantage of knowing exactly how you feel. Did you just have a terrible workout in the pool and feel you need to work on your swim stroke more than running or biking? It’s easy for you as an athlete to tell your coach (you) that’s what you want. It’s harder as a coach (you) to make an objective decision based on what you’re feeling.
One of the main jobs as a coach is to push an athlete to their limit but not passed that limit. Overtraining is a condition when the body has endured too much stress without adequate recovery. It is extremely easy for self-coached athletes to overtrain. It is also extremely easy for self-coached athletes to undertrain. As an athlete, you need to provide feedback to yourself so you can make an objective decision about coaching. I would suggest using a program like TrainingPeaks.com. They offer a free place to log workouts, meals, and daily metrics such as body weight. The pay version allows you to pre-plan workouts, meals, and lots of other great things not available in the free version. I forget what exactly you get with the pay version, but it’s well worth the money. I forgot to renew my membership, and was horrified to find that most of the tools I use were no longer available. TrainingPeaks, or similar logging tools, provide a way as an athlete to tell yourself as a coach what exactly you are doing.
TrainingPeaks works best if you have a heart rate enabled GPS device. I use a Garmin Forerunner 405CX. It is very good at what it does, and I highly recommend it, although any GPS would work. For cycling, a power meter would probably be a good product to buy if you have the money. I don’t currently own a power meter, but it’s on the wish list. The GPS, heart rate monitor, and power meter provide quantitative (as opposed to qualitative) metrics on daily workouts. If you don’t have a GPS, heart rate monitor or power meter, it’s important that you log how hard each workout seemed based on a rating of perceived effort. There are several common scales in wide use; I prefer the 1-10 scale. Make sure to log any qualitative comments you may have as well! I’ve left comments like these: “felt slight twinge in left knee” and “very hard workout in pool (8/10), but HR not above 150”. These will allow you to go back, as a coach, and see how you’re progressing and, as an athlete, if you ever need to see when you sustained that injury that keeps recurring.
I certainly cannot tell you whether it is better for you to be a self-coached athlete or not. I’ve only been self-coaching myself for a few months, and I’ve only recently forayed into the arena of endurance sports. However, I can tell you that I am having a great time not only being an athlete, but being a coach as well. They are different sides of the same coin. It is possible to be a great athlete but a horrible coach; it is possible to be a great coach and a horrible athlete. It takes a special blend to be a great athlete and a great coach, and a spectacular blend to be your own great self-coach.
But I do think that in this age, where almost everything can be found for free on the Internet, that self-coaching in the future. Most athletes that are not extreme beginners or extreme professionals will be self-coached. So take the plunge and join the ranks of self-coached athletes. It’s time-consuming, but it’s not a waste of time. It will make you a better athlete to have a coach, even if it’s yourself.