There’s a reason Olympic runners have coaches—the same reason you may need one.
Meb Kelfezighi has a coach. So does Desiree Davila. So do Kara Goucher, Shalane Flanagan and Dathan Ritzenhein. Almost all of the American runners who went to the London Olympics last summer work with coaches.
Self-coached age-group runners might wonder why. After all, running is not a team sport where a coach is needed to decide who starts and who comes off the bench, who plays which position, and so forth. Nor is running a highly technical sport like swimming, where coaches are needed to observe and correct form flaws. Indeed, one of the virtues of running as a sport is its simplicity. Within a few years of taking it up any runner can acquire all of the knowledge he requires to coach himself.
If you ask America’s Olympic runners directly why they have coaches, most of them will not cite their lack of knowledge of the sport. These runners know perfectly well how to train. They seek other things from their coaches. Kara Goucher has said that she relies on her coaches to help build her confidence and to take the burden of planning and interpreting her training off her shoulders. Many elite athletes rely on coaches to keep them from doing stupid things, like responding to symptoms of overtraining by training harder.
Another advantage of working with a coach is accountability. This advantage snuck up on me when, in my late thirties, I chose to work with a coach for the first time since high school. My conscious reason for hiring a coach was that I had run out of ideas on how to improve and I wanted someone to give me fresh ideas. That’s another benefit of working with a coach. And, sure enough, my coach had me try some new things with my training that worked well. This was expected. What was unexpected was the sense of heightened accountability that I felt. I never saw myself as an athlete who cut corners, but when I had a coach to report back to I suddenly found myself not cutting corners that I had cut unconsciously before.
As a coach myself, I may be biased, but I believe that every runner can benefit from working with a good coach. Any one of the above-mentioned benefits—confidence building, stress alleviation, stupid mistake avoidance, accountability, and fresh ideas—could make the partnership worthwhile. And the knowledge component should not be underestimated. For lack of knowledge most runners, and even most competitive runners, make fundamental mistakes in their training such as not varying the intensity of their workouts sufficiently.
Once you’ve made the decision to work with a coach you must then find one. The first step in this process is deciding if you’d rather work face to face with a coach in your area of work through the internet and/or by phone with a coach who could be anywhere.
The advantages of working face to face with a local coach are obvious. You certainly won’t do every run with your coach present, but he or she can directly supervise some of your most important workouts. You may also enjoy the opportunity to do track workouts and such with a group of other runners working under the same coach. A coach who sees you run can do things that a remote coach cannot, such as correct your form and observe that you look tired and need a rest.
One of the advantages of opening up the map in your coaching search is that you can be very choosy. If you insist on working with a coach who has experience with national champions—well, there may not be such a coach available in your area. But Greg McMillan has coached national champions and he also coaches age-group runners all over the planet online through mcmillanrunning.com.
Technology has recently made possible a new type of coach that is like a hybrid between the face-to-face and internet versions. As a “Training Intelligence Specialist” for PEAR Sports I script and record workouts that runners listen to and follow while running with a PEAR device. With a coach in your ear for every workout, training this way is very similar to the experience that Olympic-level runners have when working with their coaches. Expect more offerings in this new category of coaching to appear over the next few years.
To summarize, I think you should have a coach. Few runners regret the decision to hire a coach, and it’s a small risk in any case. If it doesn’t work out you can go back to talking yourself out of making stupid mistakes with your training.
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