Many Pro Runners are Becoming Coaches. What’s the Deal?

As the sport of running grows, so do many of its cottage industries. Coaching has quickly become an industry that many are tapping into as more people enter the sport, but experiences may vary.

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Injuries plagued the start of Chelsea Cluff’s ultrarunning career. Coming from a triathlon background, she stumbled upon ultrarunning after reading a book about it. This compelled her to make the jump; albeit, pretty quickly.

Her first marathon, 50 miler, 100K, and 100 miler were all completed in a span of eight months, one right after the other. However, as the finishes piled up, so did injuries.

“I didn’t have the funnest of times, and I continued to do my own thing, do all the miles, and kept getting injured,” said Cluff, a 31-year-old runner from Reno, Nevada. “When I tore my plantar fascia, I was signed up for the Zion 100K eight months out. I was doing something wrong but couldn’t figure out what. As somebody who is an expert in my own field, I thought it would be valuable to draw on expert knowledge and not try to figure out everything on my own.”

That’s when Cluff sought out a coach and eventually paired with TJ David of Microcosm Coaching. He quickly pivoted Cluff’s 40 miles of running over three days a week with biking on the side to five days of running a week and lower mileage runs.

“I questioned him to his face the entire time leading up to that race,” Cluff said. The training format and mileage was different than what she was used to, and lower than what she had been prescribing herself. But, the novel approach paid off.

“That race is still my 100K PR,” says Cluff.

Having a coach has become more commonplace in recent years for runners of all paces and places. As the sport of trail and ultrarunning, has grown, so has the knowledge that each athlete is unique. There is no one training plan that fits all abilities or lifestyles.

Cluff is a prime example of this. Working with David for three years now, she’s discovered that she’s not training for one race. She’s training for a lifetime of races, and breaking herself to complete one hurts her next ones. Just as much, having an expert to work with and adjust her training and schedules based on her work life or mental health is a huge weight off her shoulders.

“I enjoy the feedback, the accountability, and the relationship I develop with coaches,” Cluff said. “I’m an engineer with a career, and it helps keep me accountable and not just going out to run a few miles because I don’t have the mental capacity to think about what I want to do.”

Cluff’s story is one of many heard in recent years as the trail and ultra world has gone from running alone and one-size-fits-all training plans to a more holistic approach that proves every athlete is different in ability, availability, and background. As a result, the trail running scene has seen a massive growth in its coaching industry.

Much of this has come from current and former pros of the sport who have swapped their 9-to-5s with a more flexible career. In most ways this is good for the sport. Having experts and those experts sharing their knowledge to create better, healthier athletes will, in theory, lead to better, healthier athletes.

That being said, this is still a newer industry without regulation or standards. While many coaches have their athletes’ best interests in mind, it’s not always the case. As it continues to grow, coaches have different views on where it’s headed and what the best future looks like for coaches in the sport.

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The Appeal of Flexibility

Traditionally, coaching was reserved for those at the top of the trail and ultra world or was wisdom passed down by your local trail veteran, whether that was to dominate a local race or being competitive on the world stage.

Newcomers, as well as middle- and back-of-the-packers typically relied on those online training plans or relying on the free advice of that one person who convinced you that trails and ultras were calling.

That’s changing, and many pro runners have traded their full- or part-time jobs for something in the running industry.

“It’s a really low barrier to do something you love rather than working at Trader Joe’s, real estate, or something,” said Joe McConaughy, 32, a Seattle-based Brooks-sponsored pro who started coaching in 2017 and has turned into a full-time job with 30 athletes. “It’s super flexible. You set your own schedule, and people are literally paying for your time rather than just being at some company that is giving you a salary or a paycheck for the work you’re doing.”

Schedule flexibility was something every coach mentioned as a reason to get into the business of guiding athletes on their trail running journeys. Plus, with a stable of 20 to 30 athletes, they said it was lucrative enough to be their full-time job and allow for more time to train, spend time with family, or allow for a social life outside work and training.

With the high demand for coaching advice and many coaches charging $150 to $350 per month for their services, simple math can show that a coach with 20 to 30 client athletes could make $3,000 to $6,000 per month.

Patrick Reagan made the jump in 2019 to one-on-one coaching after eight years of collegiate track and cross country coaching at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He started with former athletes and has turned it into a coaching co-op with three other coaches. In total, they have 75 athletes. Reagan said he coaches about 30.

“The fluidity of coaching is off the charts, but with that comes the responsibility that you are your own boss,” said Reagan, 36, who is a pro ultrarunner sponsored by Hoka. “You can only be good at this with tons of intrinsic motivation. You have to keep the coals burning really hot at all times.”

In addition to picking his own hours and schedule, he also combines training time with coaching time. For example, he does one-on-one calls with athletes while he does strength and mobility training. He breaks down his average month to 40 hours of calls and 120 hours of writing training plans and the business side.

“It’s absolutely sustainable,” Reagan said. “It’s how I fund my life. If you’re looking to make a lot of money, it’s not necessarily the career for you. That’s not why I do it. I coach because it inspires me every day.”

The coaching side is just one part of the business. While much of the time is spent working with athletes virtually, a lot of time is spent wearing multiple hats. When Jessica Schnier, one of the first recipients of the Coaches of Color initiative, made the switch from her career in scientific research and education to coaching, she was surprised at all of the little things needed to succeed as a coach.

The hats she has to wear include coach, therapist, tax expert, business manager, marketer, and content creator.

“You got to set yourself apart somehow,” said Schnier, 26, of Spring Valley, California. “I feel like whatever sort of content you’re putting out there is how people, who don’t already know you, will want to inquire about you as a coach. So whether that’s the newsletter or a blog post or a podcast or anything like that, I think it’s really important that you’re putting yourself out there.”

At the same time, it’s important for a coach to set boundaries as well.

“I’m available on weekends, answering texts, and it doesn’t really shut off,” said Jeff Browning, a 52-year-old Altra-sponsored pro runner who also operates a coaching business with three other coaches. “You have to make it clear to athletes when you are and aren’t available. Generally, I have a window of 8 A.M. to 8 P.M., Monday through Thursday. This way, I have a three-day weekend, but I also make myself available if needed with the understanding I may not be able to respond right away. Some weeks you may work 20 hours. Others, 80 hours.”

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The Certification Grey Area

The biggest debate in the coaching sphere is, without question, how qualified any particular coach might be. In running, there is no singular industry standard for coaching certifications, though there are two industry favorites, USA Track and Field (USATF) and United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA). Both are certification programs that require recertification every year or two years.

There are coaches with both, coaches with one, and coaches with none. There’s no coaching governing body to ensure quality assurance. To some, including Tyler Andrews, the coaching industry is like “the Wild West.”

“There is so little accountability and regulations,” said Andrews, 33, co-founder of the Chaski Endurance coaching collective and a pro runner sponsored by Hoka. “Just because you’re fast, doesn’t mean you can coach. People assume that if you can run fast, you can coach them to run better. That’s a huge misconception. What pros do [in their own training] generally doesn’t work for your weekend warrior or mid-pack runners. You don’t have to be a good runner to be a good coach.”

To further complicate matters, the challenge of coach certification isn’t as simple as, if you have a certification, good, and if you don’t, bad.

Andrew is in favor of coaching certifications. Chaski Endurance requires all its coaches, most of whom are pros, to have a USATF certification. They also complete a “pretty rigorous in-house certification” program, Andrews said, and shadow existing coaches before taking on athletes. They also fund for continued education for their coaches.

That’s not the case for every coach or coaching group though. In fact, official certifications look a lot different when it comes to experience and educational backgrounds.

Take Jade Belzberg and Nickademus de la Rosa. The husband-wife coaching duo own Lightfoot Coaching in San Luis Obispo, California, and each have around 30 athletes. They’ve coached for eight years.

Neither has an official coaching certification. However, Jade has a masters in functional medicine. Nickademus has his Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists (CSCS) and is working on his masters in sports and performance psychology.

The de la Rosa’s said they see coaching certifications as “potentially valuable,” but that coaching experience and connection to their athletes is just as valuable.

“It’s similar to finding a good therapist for you,” Nickademus said. “Do you want a therapist with a masters or a PhD? If you find a therapist with a PhD that talks technical gibberish at you and you don’t feel a connection with, I think it’s OK to try someone that you do feel a connection with with slightly less certification and gives you their time and that you trust.”

The Case Against Coach Certifications

There’s also a question of whether experience even qualifies as a “certification.” While a race resume alone should not automatically qualify someone as a coach, it shouldn’t disqualify them either.

McConaughy is an example of this. In the world of multi-day fastest known times, he is one of the best. That’s what attracts similar athletes to reach out about his coaching services.

“I’ve always stayed away from certifications,” McConaughy said. “Through my collegiate and professional background through coaches I’ve worked with and their coaching philosophies, through independent research and a lot of conversations, all those things feel like they’ve impacted (my coaching philosophy), and given the basic skill set that I’m looking for to feel competent as a coach.

“That being said, ultrarunning is so nuanced. Having something that does conglomerate different aspects of it and put it all into one course is a valuable exercise to go through.”

Browning is in a similar camp. He doesn’t see a need for himself to have the certification after decades of competing in the sport and being self-taught, but he also sees it as helpful for younger athletes looking to coach.

“I’m at a point where I’d love to get the UESCA stuff,” he said. “I’m sure I would know a majority of it already from reading over the years and thousands of hours of podcasts on physiology and longevity. I would recommend it for younger athletes who want to coach, especially UESCA because that’s going to be the most trail and ultra specific.”

Coaches in the space, at least for now, may not agree on certifications. However, all agreed that they see the certifications courses becoming stronger teaching tools and hope they continue to improve in the endurance space. They also agree that customers should be aware of if they’re in the market for a coach.

“I think there is a false sense of competition in the online coaching world,” Andrews said. “The market of athletes is so humongous and is growing every year. Whether people are paying Chaski or someone else, it’s good for (the trail and ultra world).”

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Some Coaching Advice

With no regulation, products vary widely in coaching. On the lower end, a coach might write you a training plan but only respond via an Excel sheet or other shared document. Others offer everything from training plans and one-on-one meetings to nutritional services.

There are also no pricing standards. Coaches set the price as high or as low as they see fit, no matter what services might be offered. As a consumer, it can be confusing and overwhelming because you want your money spent on the right product for you. It can also lead to issues.

Some of the athletes these coaches have taken on have come from bad experiences elsewhere. These experiences range from an older runner being burned out or hurt doing excess amounts of speed work, to coaches being unavailable for calls especially during race weeks.

Time is the number one thing coaches mentioned. This refers to the availability, interactions and responsiveness of a coach. That often begins before the first check is cashed. Many coaches offer free consultations where they recommend you ask about their services.

“Ask questions,” Nickademus said. “Does the coach do one-on-one calls? Does the coach do group calls? What opportunities do I have to connect with that coach at a more one-on-one or more intimate level, whether it’s phone calls or Zoom or happy hour calls or whatever they’re doing? What opportunities do I have to connect one-on-one with that coach or connect in a deeper sense, or do they keep themselves behind several paywalls?”

They also recommend asking how many athletes the coach takes on.

“When I started, I would hear about coaches with too many athletes,” Schnier said. “If we’re comparing it to teaching, I had about 200 kids I was working with, but the level of individualization doesn’t really happen in teaching that you need in coaching. I meet with my athletes at least once a month if not every couple weeks. I have 25 athletes and I don’t think I could do a lot more and give them all the time they need.”

Overall, coaches recommend you find someone that wants to help you achieve your goals and is also your cheerleader.

“Look for coaches who celebrate all of their athletes equally, if they do in a public sense, as opposed to just lifting up the most elite or those with the most Instagram followers,” Jade said. “Most people are obviously not in that elite category, and you want to make sure that you’re being treated equally, and that your coach has as much time for you as they do their more elite athletes.”

In a way, finding a coach should be like dating. You ask questions, get to know each other, feel out the vibe, and if it works out, you find someone to help you on your journey. If not, you try again.

“The majority of any coaching relationship comes down to communication and to trust,” McConaughy said. “So yeah, I guess it is like dating.”

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