Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Finding the Right Coach, Part 1

The season is wrapping up for most northern hemisphere athletes and the transition period, or what some call the 'off-season,' is about to begin. This is the time of year when you take a 'vacation' from focused training and recharge your mental and physical batteries. It's also a time to review what the past season was like and to start thinking about next year's training and racing. Some will set very high goals for the coming and year and begin to wonder if they can pull it off by themselves. This will lead many to seek professional coaching. The following is Part 1 of three parts on how to find the right coach for you. Parts 2 and 3 will be posted later in the week.

When I started freelance coaching of endurance athletes in 1980 I didn’t know of anyone else doing it. It wasn’t until 1989 that I heard of another coach – Marc Evans. I was so starved for someone to talk with about coaching that I flew out to California just to meet with him for a few hours. In 1992 I came across the second – Rick Niles. By 1997 there were a handful of us in triathlon with somewhat fewer in cycling. That year I met with a dozen or so of the triathlon coaches in Colorado Springs to establish the USAT Coaching Association under George Dallam’s guidance. Last time I checked there were more than 1700 triathlon coaches and over 1200 cycling coaches in the US. And this was only certified coaches – those who have been tested by their national federation and received a license. I’m sure there are thousands more across the US without licenses and certainly others around the world.

Finding a coach is no longer a challenge. Go to a race and grab the first person you come to. This person will either be a coach or has a friend who is. No, the challenge now is finding the right coach for you. Of course, if you don’t care about your race results then about anyone will do, I guess. That’s not to say that there aren’t many good coaches. There are. Actually, I’m very impressed with the quality of coaches I come across. There are lots of very sharp coaches out there. On average, the quality of coaching has risen while the quantity has also gone up. That’s unusual.

Being smart isn’t enough, however. What you need is someone who understands your unique situation and conditions, and can help you achieve your personal goals. That’s the hard part. And there are other lots of other qualities this person may have that are also important. You need to find out all you can about prospective coaches to help with the decision of who to hire. Here are some basics to consider when trying to find the right coach.

One thing you must always keep in mind is that the coach works for you. It’s not the other way around. You need to find someone who matches up with you and your unique situation. The right coach for you is someone who understands and has experience with athletes just like you.

Your sport. There are still coaches out there like me who work with athletes in different sports. But the trend is to focus on only one. Some limit their clients to subcategories within the sport such as Ironman triathlon, mountain biking, time trialing, or swimming for triathlon.
Your experience. There’s a world of difference in coaching a novice compared with coaching an experienced athlete. Some coaches are better with one than the other.
Your age. There are coaches now who specialize in junior, master and senior athletes. If you fall into one of these categories you may want someone who has coached many others who have age-related needs similar to yours.
Your gender. Some coaches focus on working with female athletes. I know of one who prefers to coach masters women who do short-course triathlons. So it can get quite specific.
Your location. If you are a novice you’re likely to need lots of help in developing the skills of your sport. That’s best done by someone who can be face to face with you often. If you experienced and have good skills it really doesn’t matter where you live on the planet any more.
Your equipment. Do you have a heart rate monitor, power meter, accelerometer, or GPS? Do you have powerful software such as WKO+? While all of this stuff is not necessary if you are a novice, such devices can help the experienced athlete achieve very high goals. You’ll need a coach who knows how to use and analyze this data.
Your terrain. Do you live at 7500 feet in the mountains of Colorado or on the table-top-flat coast of Florida? It would be beneficial if your coach had experience dealing with the unique challenges of such terrain.


At September 30, 2009 5:14 AM , Blogger Ciaran OC said...

Thanks Joe,

Its funny as iv been looking for coaching for next season. Its a topical subject your discussing. For the past 2 years iv been using your Training bible self coaching techniques. I now feel i need a coach to help me to the next level.

It may seem like a side topic but is there any point in paying a coach during the winter training months? We know the usual training involves 2x4h days at weekends around the top of the endurance zone for power and maybe 2 midweek cycles after/before work. Is there anything else a coach can tell you to do in this period other than this? Is this a stupid question? ha

Also im in week 3 of resting at present and was going to get back training in Nov for racing in March-sept. I enjoy the mental rest of not having to get out after work on the bike but how long is too long off the bike and should i use this as total time off and when start to do weights/crosstraining etc? too many questions maybe i should just finally relax!!!

Love your tweets and blogs.

At September 30, 2009 6:17 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Ciaran OC--Thanks for your comment. I know of athletes who hire a coach for the race season only--not the base building months. I think that's a mistake on several fronts. I'll explain...

Sounds like you are a road cyclist from your comments above. For roadies who race frequently it may actually be better to do it the other way around--hire a coach for the winter but not for the summer. Once the twice-a-week racing begins there really isn't much going on in bike-race training. Just a lot of recovery and maintenance work during the week. I've heard Lance say that it's during the winter that he wins the Tour. There's a lot more going on then than simply building up an aerobic endurance base (which, BTW, most athletes don't do properly). There is also force, power, speed skill, and muscular endurance training going on. This may involve weights, plyometrics, drills, a variety of workout types, bike fit confirmation, lab testing, field testing, and much more. I find the winter months to be the most interesting because of this variety. By comparison, a cyclist's summer is rather routine - group rides and races are the dominant characteristics for most riders. When I have started working with an athlete in, say, March it's always the same thing - we are already behind the curve of where the athlete should be because they didn't do much of what is necessary to develop their true base fitness. They do not race as well as they could have that entire year because of these omissions. Don't assume that the base period is not an important component of your race preparation. It really is.

To asnwer part 2 of your question above about how long to make the transition period ('off season') and what to do then... I suggest to those I coach that they make it 2-4 weeks. There is no 'training' during that period. Only 'exercise.' That means not having a purpose other than enjoyment. Decide each day what you will do for exercise, if anything. It's ok to take a day off now and then, even frequently at this time of year. But I wouldn't recommend no riding at all. Try alternatives off road such as MTB rides or CX bike rides. Ride with slower friends and let them 'win.' Do some cross training. Basically, just stay active and have fun.

At September 30, 2009 7:18 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

After reading your entry about coaches... i have one doubt related the "location". I mean, also, for elite triathletes, it is very hard to train alone or to train with a coach that is so far. So, do you know about elite triathletes that train alone and with a coach in another continent?
Thanks in advance,
Rino H.

At September 30, 2009 8:21 AM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Anon--I've coached athletes all over the world. If the athlete is experienced and doesn't need help with skills then it doesn't matter if he/she is in the next city or the next continent.

At September 30, 2009 1:12 PM , Blogger Chris Curran said...

I am a college student in Illinois, and I can not afford to hire a coach. I would like to take my cycling to the next level. My first race as a Cat 5 was in March 2009 and became a cat 3 in the middle of summer. I just won the Illinois State road race at a cat 3. I would like to take my cycling to the next level and be successful. What would be the most beneficial thing for me to do?

Thanks, Chris Curran

At September 30, 2009 1:37 PM , Blogger Joe Friel said...

Hi Chris--Thanks for your comment. You have a couple of options to improve your cycling short of hiring a coach (I recall my shortage of $$ as a college student also). The first is to learn all you can about how to train for high performance. This is a huge task. I'm now 35 years into it and feel like I've only made a dent. There's so much to learn. The second is to find an experienced mentor who will provide help, which mostly means answers to your questions. The third is to train with smart athletes and see what they do. (Limit your time around hammer heads. They will screw you up.) Good luck!

At October 1, 2009 2:54 AM , Blogger Ciaran OC said...

To Chris Curran,

Not to plug it too much but i was in the same boat and firstly got training with cat 1 riders, this made me train hard and i picked up so much info from them. Train like the pros train i guess!. Then i bought Joes book Cyclists training bible (which is why i follow his posts) as i found it hugely beneficial and detailed yet easy to understand and implement. Its about learning to self coach yourself. Now 18months later i feel i cant take myself any further and need a coach.

Joe thanks for your comments earlier much appreciated.



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