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If you want to give your trail running a boost, it may be time to consider a coach. But with so many runners entering the profession these days, the choice is far from easy.
“It’s a big investment in your time, money and health,” says Stephanie Howe, a Bend, Oregon-based coach, nutritionist and previous Western States 100 champ.
So what should you consider before making the decision? We asked several notable trail-and-ultra coaches to find out.
1. Contemplate the ‘Why’
Why do you want to hire a coach? Each runner will have a different answer to this question.
Maybe you’re too busy to plan and evaluate your training, or don’t feel confident that you have the knowledge to do so. Maybe you need someone who will provide external motivation and accountability, or keep you from injury-causing habits.
“As runners, we’re all constantly learning,” says Ian Sharman, head coach at Sharman Ultra. “However, a coach can cast an impartial, experienced eye over what a runner does, to speed the path along that learning curve and avoid wrong conclusions.”
Whatever your reason, articulating it can help you evaluate how different specializations and approaches fit your needs.
“If you are a first-timer, find someone who is really patient and wants to help walk you through the process of tackling this new obstacle,” David Laney, a coach with Trails and Tarmac, says. “If you are a veteran runner looking for competitive results, then find someone who has a science- and experience-based approach.”
2. Weigh Both Expertise and Personal Experience
Jason Koop of Carmichael Training Systems applies a straightforward rubric to the company’s new coaching recruits. “I look for equal parts the jock, the cheerleader and the nerd,” he says.
In other words, a coach should be an experienced and enthusiastic athlete, a talented motivator and an exercise-physiology wonk.
Effective coaches usually have a deep understanding of running science—whether or not they possess a degree or certification.
“You want someone who is willing and able to explain the why behind particular workouts and a training progression,” says Liza Howard, a coach with Sharman Ultra. “When you don’t understand why you’re doing something, it’s more difficult to believe in its efficacy.
As for personal experience, running talent and coaching talent don’t necessarily go hand in hand—not all great runners are great coaches, and not all great coaches are elite runners. But, says Laney, “it’s important to have a coach who understands the distance and terrain you will be racing on.”
That can go beyond race day. When she considered hiring her first coach, Howard says, “I had a new baby, was working full time and was struggling to fit running into my days. I chose a talented coach who was also a single working mom who ran,” adding that the shared experience helped establish “trust.”
3. Find a Philosophical Fit
Different coaches have different approaches. It’s not about right or wrong, but about right or wrong for you.
Howe recalls one coach who prescribed workouts that he knew she would fall just short of. It was a motivational tactic—but in fact, she found it demoralizing.
Before signing on, learn about a coach’s philosophy. (Sharman says a good way to do this is to read or listen to interviews they’ve given.) How does he or she think about things like mileage, workouts and frequency of racing? Does he or she talk about training (and life) goals in a way that resonates with you?
“If it’s not what your normal intuition is,” Howe says, “that should be a sign that this might not be a good match.”
4. Gauge Personalities
A lack of rapport with your coach won’t just lead to awkward phone calls. Potentially, it could mean a less individualized (and therefore less successful) training plan.
“You want to work with someone you feel comfortable talking to,” Howard says. “If you’re embarrassed to share why you missed a workout, or how bad it felt, or if you didn’t like the workout, you won’t get what you need out of the coaching.”
That level of comfort will also make it easier to discuss health issues that can affect (and be affected by) hard training, from personal-life stress to disordered eating.
5. Sweat the Small Things
Before pulling the trigger, make sure you talk brass tacks, like how communication will work and what services the coach will and won’t provide. A get-to-know-you chat provides a good forum for that, in addition to exploring a coach’s philosophy and background.
“Athletes should arm themselves with some fairly standard questions,” Koop says. Howard recommends a few:
- How often will you look at and adjust my schedule?
- How often will we communicate?
- How soon will you respond to my questions?
- If we’re not a good fit, how soon can I cancel?
- What do you expect from me by way of communication?
As Laney says, “Expectations depend on each relationship and should be made clear.”
Ultimately, remember that what has worked for someone else won’t necessarily work for you. So do your research—and then maybe go with your gut.
Paul Cuno-Booth is a Colorado-based freelance writer.