Sometimes, You Need a Coach

In a dirty Steamboat Springs hotel room, with floors littered with sticky clothes and stiff socks, smelling faintly of sickeningly sweet gels, I sat crossed legged on the floor, mourning my first DNF (did not finish) at the Run Rabbit Run 100 mile race. I DNFed at mile 60 and spent the next 24 hours locked up in the hotel room, indulging in excessive room service, over-priced bottles of wine and a Back To The Future movie marathon.

Dramatic, I know. But pulling out of the 100-mile foot race (with the $12,000 prize purse) I had been gunning to win, triggered a downward spiral of self-loathing and reflection. But sitting on the hotel room floor, world-renowned trail-running coach David Roche gave me hope. The SWAP Coaching co-founder had followed the race. He reached out, comforting me with kind words and the promise of untapped potential.

“If you ever want guidance in your trail running journey, I’d be happy to be a part of your adventure” he offered. “I coach lots of female pro-types, and just based on seeing you run at the Headlands 50k, I have no doubts you could be the best.”

And just like that, in my vulnerability and desperate need for guidance, I was a SWAPer. I went from the freedom of running what I wanted, when I wanted, to, under David’s guidance and the community built around it, leaning heavily on structure and communication. In the next year, I talked to David almost every day, adjusting and analyzing the day’s workout.

Some 20 months later, I’ve excelled under what we call the SWAP protocol. Having carefully planned mileage goals, race-specific workouts and, most importantly, someone who supports me as an athlete in success and in failure, has been instrumental in who I’ve become as a runner.

Would You Benefit From Coaching?

Coaching isn’t just for elite athletes. Regardless of age, ability level or goals, a good coach will work with you to fit training into your life and help make it more enjoyable and productive. As is the head running physiologist and coach at APEX Coaching and Consulting, Joseph Cavarretta oversees a variety of athletes, from the USATF 50k Road Champion to people seeking to simply get stronger in the weight room.

Cavarretta said that coaches provides invaluable guidance for people working towards a personal or performance goal, athletes with tight schedules hoping to maximize their limited training time and ones seeking to improve their work/rest balance and ensure longevity in their sport.

“A coach can provide objective feedback and guidance on training and recovery, psychological support, motivation, and can be the stimulus for you to make that extra push in training or take that extra recovery day when needed,” Cavarretta says.

Does every runner need a coach? The short answer is no. In fact, runners ranging from first-time 5K-ers to experienced ultramarathoners do just fine when guided only by their own intuition. Courtney Dauwalter a professional trail runner and one of the most consistent athletes in the sport, prides herself on what she coins as the “no plan, plan.” Athletes like Dauwalter don’t need motivation or accountability. They have no problem pushing themselves when it’s time to push, but more importantly, they’re unafraid to cut a workout short when things don’t feel quite right.

Dauwalter is proof it’s possible to succeed without a coach. The principles of training are well known, and widely available online, in podcasts and in many books.

If Coaching is For You, How do You Find One?

A simple google search of “online fitness coach” yields thousands of results. It can be overwhelming to sort through the seemingly endless candidates. One coach does not fit all. You want to find a mentor you can trust with your training and who you can be honest about how you’re feeling. Roche, for example, fosters trust by through friendship.

“To me, trust between athlete and coach doesn’t mean adhering to a pupil-teacher like dynamic, says Roche. “It means knowing that there is unconditional support on the whole life journey, with the coach being a friend with the expertise to zoom out and help provide context.”

To Roche, training is secondary to support. Others coaches might gravitate towards a more rigid approach with an emphasis on performance, and be just as successful with their athletes. When looking for a coach, consider your personality and what kind of coaching style you might thrive under. If you’re not sure, explore your options and talk to different coaches to see which ones you mesh with.

Next, consider the services the coach provides. Some coaches provide more than just a training plan, such as regular communication, in-person meetings, training logs, physiology testing, etc. For some, daily interaction is vital to stay on track. For others, a more minimal training plan is all they need to achieve their goals.

Ultimately, you have to find a coach that aligns with your needs, including services, cost, program and goals. One of the best ways to learn about successful ultra coaches is word of mouth. Ask around. Who are other runners working with and what do they like about a specific coach? Be open to trying out different ideas and approaches. Sometimes, new coaching philosophies can be intimidating, but if you’ve identified a good coach based on the criteria above, then there is no reason you shouldn’t be successful.