With the prospect of two (possibly 3) Ironman events looming on this year’s calendar, I spent a lot of time going back and forth on whether or not to use a coach this year. In theory, it’s easy to know what a race will consist of – my next race in Santa Rosa is a half-Ironman. And, in theory it’s simple to determine how your body will adapt in order to get you there. But in the end I decided that professional guidance was a bit like insurance––you might not need it, but you know you’ll be taken care of if you do.
As mentioned before, I’m an avid member of Santa Monica’s Tower 26 swim club, both in the pool and occasionally at the beach. I’ve worked with Tower 26 and coach Gerry Rodrigues for just over 3 years and my swimming has improved dramatically. For swimming, a sport in which I had absolutely no background, having a coach was essential. On my own, I had developed a fairly solid solo regimen of trekking to local pools and swimming laps, but I soon learned that solitary swimming with no instruction really isn’t the best way to improve speed and fitness. I needed the specific coaching instruction in order to get better (or at the very least, not get worse). Plus, group swims have just become too much fun to pass up.
But, sadly, triathlon is about more than just swimming…
As I trained for the Ironman 70.3 in Lake Tahoe during Summer 2014, I decided to work with a triathlon coach to help me reach adequate fitness for the event. We started our plan in June with the race scheduled for September and had a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time. Having someone tell me what to do and when to do it was certainly helpful for achieving the basic goal of “surviving” a race. While I ultimately didn’t have the chance to race in Tahoe that year, the training certainly benefitted other races that season and I saw moderate improvement overall.
Now with the prospect of a heavy race calendar in 2017, I’ve decided to get serious. I recently sat down with a new coach to help me plan out the next year in a way that will allow me to capitalize on my strengths and improve my weaknesses. I know that if left to my own devices, I’ll end up either overtrained or undertrained (there is no middle ground for me), or at worst, injured and unable to participate. I certainly have friends who have managed to train and compete very successfully without coaches, but for me and my current level of fitness (along with my personality) I can’t imagine figuring this one out on my own.
For anyone wondering about working with a coach, here are some things to keep in mind when choosing someone:
Find someone who knows the sport, preferably from a triathlon perspective. Yes, it’s possible to get adequate coaching from an individual whose background is in just one of the three sports, but this isn’t the best way to go. You need someone who understands how the three sports conform to one another within the scope of a race, and how to train you in such a way that works all three in tandem. Ideally, this person can give you workouts for all three disciplines as well. Part of the reason I branched out from working with Gerry is that I knew that I definitely needed to give some extra love and attention to my cycling.
In addition to experience with the sport, it’s also important to find someone familiar with your distance. A coach comfortable teaching short course (anything shorter than a half Ironman) might not be the best resource if you’re trying to break into 70.3’s and above. The rules concerning nutrition and training load shift under the weight of additional mileage, and you don’t want to be surprised by any knowledge gaps on race day.
Find a budget that works for you, but don’t sacrifice quality for price unless you have the confidence that you can fill in any knowledge or fitness gaps yourself. Most coaches offer packages that conform to the amount of contact or personalized instruction they offer. Some coaches break their services down by sport, or by number of workouts.
For example, when working with my first coach, I opted for a single-sport package that would provide instruction for cycling. I filled in the swim/run gaps with pool sessions with Tower 26, and some additional running work on my own. Additionally, there are also online programs that will suffice for those who don’t want to spend the additional money for an individualized program. But if you’re a first timer or prone to injury, I recommend seeking help from a professional.
Motivation & Accountability
Do you have a difficult time staying motivated? It happens to all of us — after weeks upon weeks of training, general disinterest is common (see my earlier post on burning out here). A coach can become a sort of “sports therapist” in this regard, helping you to stay motivated while also keeping you honest about your training. A strong triathlon support network is vital to this as well, but a coach can provide that extra push to see you through any mid season lulls.
Commitment & Goals
How committed are you? If triathlon is an end of the day sort of hobby to get you out of the house and keep you active, then you might not need a coach. Choose races with moderate distances and efforts and you’ll most likely be just fine doing what feels comfortable.
But for anyone who has concrete aspirations — achieving a certain placement within your age group, or reaching a specific time goal on any leg of a race (or overall), then a coach is good idea. You’ll have insight and wisdom from someone trained and experienced in helping others to reach those same goals, and you will see the results.
This is probably the most important element to consider when picking your coach. For those considering an in-person coach, you need someone who can align with both your goals and your vibe. There are some coaches who are more hands on and others who are hands off. There are some coaches who offer group training sessions and others who may work with you one on one. The coach/mentee relationship will go a long way toward what you put into your season and what you get out of it.
For remote coaching, the personal relationship is less of an issue. Instead, you need someone who speaks the same technical language and measures success and improvement in a smilier fashion. What are their training metrics? Heart rate? Perceived effort? Watts? Many coaches use some combination of metrics, but some prefer specific measurements over others. Whichever you like, make sure that your coach is on the same page.
For anyone ready to take the plunge and work with a triathlon coach, here are some tips for finding one:
Check your local Tri club
Every coach I know, I met by way of a referral from another hardcore Tri friend. Right now I’m working with Jim Lubinski of Red Performance Multisport (also the co-host of the world famous Tower 26 Podcast). In smaller cities with fewer triathlon resources, online forums might be a good place to get recommendations. Additionally, with the help of the internet, many coaching programs are remote these days. Several companies offer options that allow some form of long distance contact in addition to a training plan.
This might sound like a basic tip but there is some merit to it — many times, prominent coaches have active voices online and in social media. Take a look at some of the top triathlon magazines and sports blogs, and they’ll likely feature articles contributed by various coaches. If you find an article that sounds sensible to you, research the coach and see if they’re accepting new clients in your area.
I’ve gone both the coached and uncoached route with varying levels of success. Personally, I’m really excited about getting started working with someone new, and hopefully going out and crushing some races next year.