Thoughts on triathlon coaching

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A get about an e-mail a day from someone asking for advice on topic XYZ or gizmo ZYX.  I’m always happy to help anyone who e-mails me – so feel free to keep the questions coming!  Every once in a while that e-mail triggers fodder for a post…

Thus…a while back I got this e-mail from a peep:

“I’m in the midst of searching for a training coach this winter and would be interested in a finding out a bit more about your selection process. And if you can recommend any coaches in the DC area. Might make for an interesting blog now that the season’s ending and you’ve hit all your goals?… “

So, how did I choose my coach?  Well, first we have to go back to the coach before the current coach (around Feb 2008).  We’ll call him Coach #1.

Coach #1

I chose him after I stumbled upon some of his posts on Trifuel.com – a forum for triathletes.

After reading Coach #1’s website I contact him and eventually met up with him for a session to discuss the upcoming season.  After discussing it with him he seemed really on top of things and had numerous books/DVD’s/etc to back it up – along with some very reputable accolades.  And he talked a good game.

So I started training under him.  My workouts were hard – and thus I thought that I was on target.  Training hard = results, right?  However I soon noticed I didn’t get very fast/frequent feedback from him.  He wasn’t actually looking at my workout data – but rather just sending me workouts.  And it often took him days to answer e-mails or phone calls.  My patience grew thin.  I was paying a fair chunk of change to have a coach and he wasn’t responding.  So after a while…I fired him.  I won’t name names, because that would be rude.  You know – kinda like the same kinda rude as not responding to e-mails or phone calls.

Here’s what I learned from this.   Just because a coach has a few pros and some DVD’s released, it doesn’t mean they care about current athletes.  In this case I was simply a low-effort stream of revenue.  A name on a checklist.  Despite his website saying he’d respond instantly – he didn’t.  Days would go by.  In the ‘workout world’ – that’s a long time.  In my profession, that would be considered absurd.

Coach #2:

So, about the time (April 2008) I was getting fed up with Coach #1 I stumbled into a dude at the pool I swim at that used to be coached by Coach #1.  He asked how I liked him and I relayed my issues.  He once was coached by #1 as well and agreed, and suggested a new guy that he was working with.  So I gave #2 a call.  #2 also knew #1 and had once worked with him.  He understood all my issues.  After talking with him on the phone for more than an hour, I started filling out some of the paperwork on my flight out to Wildflower (Half-Iron) last year.  I hadn’t technically started with him yet.

I knew he was a good coach though when about 30 minutes after I finished that race I had already received a call and e-mail from him regarding my finish time at the race.  Again, I hadn’t even started with him yet.  Seriously.

I started with #2 a few days later – and in many ways started over.  I had to accept that the workouts went from ‘hard’ to ‘not as hard’.  I had trust him in revamping my schedule and my weekly routine.  But I did.  And he communicated.  EVERY DAY I receive e-mails from him.  I upload my workouts to Training Peaks every day, and within a few minutes or hours I’ll receive detailed feedback on the workout including where I went wrong – or right.

He’s not afraid to say things like:

 “:40 Z3 versus :05 Z3 is a lot more than a bit and was time not spend towards achieving your goals.”

But also more than happy to send feedback like this:

“Workout looks really good. :):):):):)  Your heart rate on the 800s looks very encouraging for a PR half…”

They key thing is constant communication.  He watching my daily resting heart rate, sleep and workouts and adjusting the schedule as required.  He’s available for a phone call or e-mail.  And most importantly – he understands the sport at an incredibly in-depth level.  He’s taught me that going hard all the time isn’t valuable (as you can see above).  And the importance of recovery and rest.  And how to race.

For every race he gives me a detailed race plan calling out each section of the race with where I should be in HR/speed/etc.  And that’s led to some very solid results for last year.

Of course, that takes time.  He started off fairly cautious with race plans.  But as he gathered (and stored) more and more of my data he’s been able to really refine a race strategy that leaves nothing left at the end of the race (depending on the schedule of course).

In the end – I can’t be happier with my coach.  He doesn’t have a fancy website – or a website at all for that matter.  He’s purely by referral and a small USAT bio (Coach Alan Melvin in Springfield, VA).  He rarely mentions his other athletes (he doesn’t have many, and is full for this year), so I don’t feel like I’m just ‘another body’.  He doesn’t have a fancy newsletter or advertisements.  None at all in fact.  But he does have a hell of a lot of triathlon experience with a lot of very successful athletes.

Advice on Picking a Coach:

So here’s my consolidated advice on getting/picking a coach:

  • Coaches can be useful for all levels, but in particular if you’re trying to push your limits some or just starting out.
  • While I’m very techno-focused and a website would normally be considered a requirement for me – I’ve found that word of mouth is much more important.
  • Sit down with the coach and talk about your goals, his/her current schedule of other athletes, and where you fit it.
  • Shoot e-mails to them at random times – how quick do they respond?  When are they available?   Can you call them at 6PM on Friday and say “My pool just closed early, what should I do instead?” and get an answer?  I can (and have).
  • Don’t be afraid to cut the cord if they suck.  I waited about 3 months.  I should have cut it at two weeks.  Give it a few weeks – but people don’t change behavior beyond that.  It’s just the reality of humans.
  • More expensive is not better.  I now pay 1/3rd of what I pay before.
  • Having a former pro doesn’t mean better either.  Some of the best coaches were never super-competitive in their sport – but rather they understand how to coach vs how to race.
  • Internet coaches can work really well.  While mine is local and I spend a lot of time with him in the pool – almost everything else is virtual.  I upload data to Training Peaks, and he e-mails or phones me back.  Determine what you want out of a coach.
  • Some coaches blog – read those blogs, understand who the person is.  You can tell a lot by a blog

Finally, you can look for coaches here – but I’d recommend asking around.  When you go to the pool, most coached athletes have workouts printed out at the end of their lanes.  Ask them.  Post on your local tri boards or go to a few happy hours with folks.  People are more willing to say “John Doe sucks” in person than in a post somewhere.  And conversely you can chat with someone for quite a while about a good coach.

Hope this helps!

22 Comments

  1. I don't know if I'll ever get to the intensity or commitment where I would ever want or need a coach, but I feel extremely informed in case I do!

    Reply
  2. That is all fantastic advice. My coach was recommended by a coworker (who also used to to coach). After I ran into a few of her athletes and they raved about how they loved working with her I knew it would be a good fit. I feel like she has a great raport with her athletes and she'll tell me when to back off, but push me when she knows I can go harder but I'm holding back.

    You've definitely seen some great results with your coach, so it looks like you found someone who really works for you. Congrats!

    Reply
  3. This is great advice. For the longest time, I thought I would never find a coach who I could work with. Some have told me I can't do what I do, that I needed to buy all sorts of gadgets and gizmos to get the results I wanted, that my relatively high HR zone levels indicates that I'm not in good shape??? Heck, I've been running for longer than some of them were even born.

    But then the right coach came along. I love that we're both old-school at heart, that he's local so he can supervise some of my workouts, and responsive by email (and there's no limit to the amount of contact). I've yet to see how this all pans out but I'm very happy with him so far!

    Reply
  4. Joe

    this is truly great stuff. i've been thinking about finding someone to work with next season once i'm back on my feet and want to try to get serious about triathlons (rather than just messing around in all the disciplines as i currently do).

    thanks for the excellent thoughts.

    Reply
  5. Anonymous

    Excellent post. I committed to a coach for this season and unfortunately paid for an entire year upfront. After talking with her, I really loved her attitude and the first few months were great. Now, it can be days before an email is answered, she forgets races she told me to do and then advises against them after I registered (and paid), often posts duplicate workout weeks with no explanation, and I would bet, given the very little feedback on horrendous or terrific workout uploads, that she never even looks at the actual file. So....one added suggestion to your post is until you have a solid history - pay month to month. I'm paid and stuck so am trying to make the most of it.

    Reply
  6. Great post, Ray. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    One of these days I'll get around to paying for a coach. I'm doing quite fine right now, although I know a coach would push me to a different level.

    Perhaps when it's time to re-attack the IM distance...

    Reply
  7. Thanks for getting to my questions!

    Reply
  8. Good post. I had offers to join a larger coaching team and went against it because I did not want to stretch myself thin with the athletes who are my #1 focus...Team in Training. I have one coached athlete outside of my Team in Training athletes and it is done for no pay because I told this person that they were my test subject. I have seen this person through an IM race and now we are prepping for another one. I guess that I did an o.k. job since I was kept on as this person's coach.

    But again, my main focus and my main love is working with beginners doing sprint and olympic distance races. Many of the people that I coach for Team in Training go on to do half IM and IM races and even qualify for USAT Nationals or the IM 70.3 World Championships. Even though they no longer use me as their coach, when I see them or they send me an email they still call me "Coach". I am very proud of all of their accomplishments.

    Reply
  9. great post.

    splitting up with a bad coach is similar to splitting up with a bad boyfriend...or therapist. You have to bite the bullet and just rip off the band aid!

    I just fired my lifecoach. I wonder if that means i won't have a life anymore...hmmm.

    Reply
  10. I would like to throw my support behind your coach as he is awesome.
    Speaking of which, I should get off my ass and see about training some ...

    Reply
  11. Excellent post here. It really is all about the commitment of the coach to YOUR training and goals rather than his/her commitment to their's.

    Reply
  12. Tony W

    Great post. I sort of inherited my coach, still don't know how :) She started giving me training tips for a 210km ride I was doing, and we went from there.

    The thing I like the most is the mental work she does with me. I did my first 1/2 marathon last weekend and was nervous as anything before hand; all the what if's going through my head.

    We spent an hour walking through how things would progress from from dinner two nights before (!) to three days after the event. Going through expectations, what time would be the worst case, the expected and the dream (achieved the dream).

    Worked through all my questions and laid out the plan, all I had to do was follow it and that was the difference for me. Ran the perfect first event, and I don't know who was happier; me or the coach.

    Reply
  13. Jeff Lukich

    Ray, I ran across this post long after you wrote it. I am fairly new triathlon coaching, and this post created quite the stir locally over the summer. I was wondering, do you have any new insight, thoughts, or learning on coaching since this post? I coach a small number of athletes because I still believe that coach #2 is the way to go, and as a consumer of coaching myself, this is what I expect. But not all feel this way.

    Thanks
    Jeff

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Not much has changed honestly since I've written it. I still use the same coach and I still get the same value out of the day by day changes that he's able to commit to.

      While I understand the 'value' of having a coach spit out an internet plans that are repeated over and over again without human involvement, I don't see the value over just buying a training plan off the internet and having no expectation of coaching support.

      Meaning, that there's huge value in having a coach who's writing a plan specific to you, and then providing feedback based on how your executing those workouts and work/life balance/changes.

      There's also value in downloading a pre-canned plan off the internet and following it. Where I don't see much value is downloading what are basically pre-canned plans from a coach at a higher price where the price doesn't include free-flowing e-mail and/or changes.

      Just my two cents.

      Reply
  14. MikeE

    Hi Ray,

    I just started looking for a coach and came across this post. I'm curious, to get the kind of personal attention you describe, what should someone expect to pay? I know this is a tough question because it obviously varies a lot even from just the 2 coaches you've used. I guess I'm trying to get a rough feel for what I should be willing to pay for that kind of attention. Also, it sounds like your coach mainly gives you workout advise. How about technique training? That would require more one on one work I would think and I'm not sure if an internet coach could help with that at all.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Pay varies heavily on a ton of factors, from the area, to the coach. In my case he's retired and just does it for a small number of athletes. I pay about $200ish a month.

      When I lived in the DC area, I did also do technique training in swimming, and occasionally some running workouts at the track focused on technique.

      Reply
  15. Katrina Russe

    Three different triathlon coaches treating me as revenue stream. No feedback on workouts, even if requested. Difficulty to join. No comments on race. No encouragement!
    I have elected to write my program and to listen to my body!

    Reply
  16. aneesh ahmad

    I guess I’m trying to get a rough feel for what I should be willing to pay for that kind of attention. Also, it sounds like your coach mainly gives you workout advise.

    Reply
  17. Paul

    Love your columns. I'm 55 and under performing after 14 Olympic tri in the past three years. I believe I need a coach. I coach and compete in swimming in Alexandria. I can't seem gauge the right level of training vol vs intensity and balance both with recovery.
    Do I need to have personal contact with my coach or s internet and phone sufficient?
    Thanks

    Reply
    • DC Rainmaker replied

      I generally just use internet and phone. Even though I'm now based in Paris, and my coach still in Alexandria area (well, Springfield), it continues to work well.

      When I lived in DC he did a bit of pool technique sessions to work on form, since swimming is heavily driven by technique. But otherwise unless we were working on something on the bike (mechanical related), or I was just having dinner with him - it's all via e-mail.

      For me, the biggest value he's provided is that balance. Especially in keeping from overextending oneself after hard efforts and in particular after races.

      Reply
  18. Ben

    I've been working with a coach for about six months now and torn between satisfied and dissatisfied. One week, he's supporting me with his attendance and providing pre-race guidance at a local race, but then the next month he has forgotten to give me a race plan for my first 1/2 IM...nor can I get a hold of him.

    Frankly, I'm wondering if I'm too 'new' for his group of athletes. All five of his other athletes have been with him for five or more years - which should be a positive sign. He often gets annoyed when I ask for details about a workout (usually there is only title in a TrainingPeaks entry), so I suspect the rest of his athletes already know what to do. He hasn't asked me to do an FTP or time trial (swim or run), so I'm not sure how he's figuring out my numbers...but he tells me not to worry so much.

    As for regular communication, he is responsive to texts and emails, but only for logistical questions. He is local, so I have been able to meet him a couple of times in the last six months. But is that enough?

    Oh, and I pay $250/mo. I thought that was a decent value - but is it? Based on reading your post and the comments/exchange above, it sounds like I should cut bait. Your thoughts?

    Reply
    • DC Rainmaker replied

      Hmm, that's tough. On the TP side, my coach doesn't schedule workouts in TP - but rather just via Word. It's logical, in that it's a cleaner workflow for him (and me), so that doesn't bother me at all. But either way, I've got complete details of each workout.

      Never once in the 5+ years has my coach even hinted at being upset at me asking for clarification on a workout. He's always happy to clarify.

      For figuring out tests, he could be using some of your workouts to determine that. In my case, my coach used an FTP test that predated him a few months to establish zones - but he tweaks them every once in a long while, and did a little bit more often at the beginning with him.

      As for the price, that's a good value. Communications will vary, but I can call/e-mail/text and get a response usually within a few minutes (unless my coach is in the middle of a workout of his own, then it's an hour or two). When I was in DC (and he was local), he didn't go to events per se, but I met him regularly mostly for swim sessions, and then also to help me with bike things. Or just to have dinner.

      Reply

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