Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

Five steps to find a trail-running mentor

Illustration by Ben O’Brien

I used to think that a coach for trail running is like a tour guide for travel. When it comes to training, like trip planning, I can research, plan and do it all myself. Unless you’re trying to medal at a high-stakes race or explore a hostile destination, who needs a coach?

Or so I smugly thought until I stared at the puzzle of our family calendar. How would I train and recover around a series of shorter races while building up for a 100-miler in the midst of an erratic schedule involving kids, work and travel?

It suddenly hit me that I needed a coach, who would handle the planning, monitor my training and take my race readiness to a new level. But searching for a coach who is the right fit can be as hard as finding the right doctor or architect: Areas of expertise, styles and personalities all differ.

If you ask someone to coach you simply because you’re in awe of his or her race times and physique, you might make a big mistake.

“The fact that someone is an excellent runner does not mean they will be an excellent coach,” notes Liza Howard of San Antonio, Texas, past winner of the Javelina Jundred and Rocky Raccoon 100-milers and a USA Track & Field national champion in the 50-mile.

As with others interviewed for this article, Howard has both the perspective of being a trail-running coach and of being coached. Her coach is Matt Hart, who writes Trail Runner’s Ask the Coach column.

She and others say, when hiring a coach, you’re embarking on a relationship that will strongly influence your life for at least several months. You need to partner with someone you trust and respect enough to relinquish control of your routine and put your training in that person’s hands. It behooves you to devote time to find the right person.

Getting into a relationship.

Ultrarunner Jimmy Dean Freeman of Los Angeles, head coach and founder of the Coyote Running group in Southern California, says a coach-athlete partnership “is like a dating relationship: It takes at least a month of feeling things out to get to know each other’s styles and develop your compatibility. In that first month we’re putting our best self out there. All the habits and tendencies of the athlete and coach may not the surface until you work together for a while.”

Ian Torrence of Flagstaff, Arizona, the head ultrarunning coach for McMillan Running Company, prefers working with clients for at least two years, saying it takes that long to see the most significant growth and development in a runner. Many coaches offer monthly packages with a three-month minimum, but “three months is a very short time and basically all you can do is help a runner stay healthy and not go overboard before a big race,” says Torrence. If the client is training for a first ultra, he adds, then the coach can also “help with race-day nutrition, gear and that sort of thing.”

Given that Googling “running coach” yields hundreds of results, how do you find one that’s right for you? Try these five steps.

1. Define goals.

“It really helps to make a list of things you desire in a coach,” says Howard, such as, “Will you be able to ask questions at any time, and will the person respond right away? If things aren’t going well, how open will the coach be to adjusting your schedule?”

Ask yourself, what are your short-term and long-term goals? For example, do you want to finish your first 50K or lower your 50-mile PR at a specific race?

Do you want someone who will ask you to log your nutrition and encourage you to modify what and how much you eat, or would you prefer a coach who accepts your beer-and-burger habit? Do you seek a local coach to train with you and accompany you to your goal race—which generally costs more and can limit your choices—or can you work well with someone long distance via phone and computer?

Also consider that some coaches provide services through training groups, while others coach individuals. “I highly believe in both styles, so I often encourage individual clients to come to group training sessions to do workouts and meet others who would be a good match for long runs,” says elite-level runner Caitlin Smith of Oakland, California, head coach of The Endurables trail-running group, who also coaches individual clients.

2. Get the right fit.

As you begin to research coaches online and check references, look for someone who has deep experience in running and coaching for the type of race and terrain that matches your goal race. In other words, if your goal is to finish Colorado’s rugged, high-altitude Hardrock 100, don’t hire someone who is famous for training Olympic marathoners.

Most coaches have an “About” section on their website that lists highlights of their running careers, including races run. You can find out more about a coach’s running background by searching the Ultrasignup.com or RealEndurance.com databases. Find out how long the coach has been coaching and whether any of his or her clients are accomplished trail runners. If the coach’s website has testimonials from clients, try finding those clients online and contacting them with questions. Or simply ask the prospective coach to provide references.

Whereas road racing has national organizations to train and certify coaches, distance trail running is a wilder frontier where credentials carry less weight.

“You can be a great coach with a very scientific and accredited background, but in the uncharted waters of ultrarunning and distance trail racing, experience becomes paramount,” says Matt Hart, whose credentials include winning the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 and traversing “Nolan’s 14” (14 14,000-foot peaks in Colorado) in under 60 hours. “A good coach has personal experience and book smarts, follows the research and is extremely curious.”

Adds Karl “Speedgoat” Meltzer, who holds the record for most 100-mile wins and who coaches clients in between racing and race directing, “I have no certifications. My coaching is all about experience.”

3. Begin the courtship.

Good communication is essential. “The whole point of having a coach is not getting the typical cookie-cutter approach,” says Smith. “It’s about finding out what works for you and what helps you attain your short-term and long-term goals. You need to talk with your coach about how you’re feeling both mentally and physically regarding workouts, races, etc.”

Howard recommends interviewing a potential coach over the phone, rather than by email, to assess early on whether you enjoy talking to that person and can be completely honest and open. It’s important to feel comfortable admitting that you didn’t do a scheduled workout, for example, so that the coach knows what’s really going on with your training.

Adds Hart, “You need to be able to ask them anything about your training plan. There truly are no dumb questions, and the more comfortable you are with the coach, the better.”

4. Do your part.

Coaching is a two-way street. It’s up to you to provide specific goals up front so the coach can design and refine your schedule. Write down the daily details of your workouts and report them to your coach. Use the opportunity to ask questions to get the most from your coach’s knowledge.

Beware of a coach who emails a standard three-month plan and rarely if ever fine tunes it. “There’s no such thing as a generic schedule,” says Meltzer. “Eighty-five percent of people don’t follow a schedule exactly. That’s normal—we all have lives. The idea is to learn how to work around not following it. The coach has to find what works for the client.”

5.   Be ready to move on.

It’s OK to break up. Smith, for example, was once coached by the legendary Jack Daniels, who was called “the world’s best coach” by Runner’s World. She experienced significant improvement, thanks to his prescribed workouts. However, because Daniels lived out of state and was in great demand, his availability was limited.

Then she switched to Mark McManus of Mill Valley, California, and works with him in person. “He has been amazing,” says Smith. “He has seen me get really frustrated and sad after races. He listens to my venting and encourages me to let it go and move forward; he’s super reassuring [but also] pushes me in workouts and races.”

Meltzer says if he were hiring a coach, he’d do so early in the season, then “follow the coach’s program tightly and learn as much as possible. But would I have that same coach for years? Probably not.”

In my quest for a coach, I considered several options, both local and online. I didn’t need a warm-and-fuzzy cheerleading type, as much as I needed a technical, precise coach to fine tune my training.

Ultimately, I chose someone whose advice I’ve been following in Trail Runner’s pages for several years: Matt Hart. Now that I have a plan and know my coach will check up on me, I’m running more and feeling extra motivated. I’m also doing some things I’ve never tried before, such as sets of strides at the end of an easy run. My schedule calls for strength and flexibility exercises that have shaken up my old routine of pushups and situps, and I’m getting feedback on nutrition and race performance. My phone buzzes with texts such as, “2 recent races and some niggles means a recovery week.”

Trail running coaches—who needs ’em? I guess I do after all.

Sarah Lavender Smith runs the trails near her home in the San Francisco Bay Area. She blogs about training and travel at TheRunnersTrip.com. This story originally appeared in our October 2013 issue.

Trending on Trail Runner Magazine

Want to Know What It Takes to Finish at Western States? Just Ask Hellah Sidibe.

Find out what happened when this six-year run streaker and HOKA Global Athlete Ambassador took on an iconic ultramarathon in California's Sierra Nevada