A good triathlon coach is far more than someone who tells you what to do, it is someone who shares with your journey with you. While every coach is different, I’m going to take the time to talk through what I believe makes a good coach, and the relationships I foster with my athletes.
Starting with the most obvious one here, when I tell people I’m a triathlon coach their mind normally jumps to an image of me stood at the side of a pool with a stopwatch or cheering on runners as they sprint round a running track. This is a small but nonetheless important aspect of the coaching I provide, using my expert eye and knowledge of swim, bike and run to provide feedback on an athlete’s form, providing encouragement to help them push themselves hard.
If you are new to triathlon the chances are that you struggle with the swim, whether this is frustration at not being able to get your times where you want them to be or breaking out in a cold sweat at the very thought of open water swimming. This is where many people find the most value in 1to1 coaching, whether it is a coach stood on poolside providing feedback on your technique or someone to help squeeze you into your wetsuit and be there as you take your first step into the water, expert instruction from a coach can help you improve rapidly and ease anxieties.
Flexible Training Pans
There are hundreds of Training Plans available for free or for much less than the cost of a coach, but the value of working with a coach comes from working with someone who understands your lifestyle, strengths, weaknesses, available time, history of injury, equipment available and much more. After filling out a questionnaire and from ongoing conversations a coach will help create a training plan that suits you, and adjust it on the fly for you.
Yesterday one of my athletes contacted me with some bad news from his GP, that he had picked up an eye infection and was unable to swim for a week. Within 10 minutes I had updated his training plan to replace his swim sessions, talked to him about how we can prevent it happening in future and reassured him that the effect on his fitness would be minimal. If he was following a standard training plan he may replace the swims with inappropriate sessions or even worse push through the eye infection for fear of what might happen if he misses a session.
I always deliver training plans on a week by week basis, writing them late in the week so I can get a picture of how the preceding week of training has gone. If their pool was closed for refurbishment I know we have to prioritise swimming in the following week, if they have picked up a cold I know they need to take it easy, or if they have received guidance from a physiotherapist I need to implement this into the next week of training. A training plan should be organic and ever changing to take into account the fact that no-one has the perfect run up to an event, and that sometimes life gets in the way.
Someone to turn to
While very few triathlon coaches will hold any kind of qualification in psychology, I’ve spent countless hours on the phone to athletes in floods of tears or who are on the verge of giving up. Whether this is because they have crashed their bike days before an important event, are suffering from stress in their family/professional life or they are simply having a crisis of confidence, coaches can help pick you up, brush you down and set you back on track.
A lot of emotion flies around athletes training for triathlons, the ecstasy of finishing your event, the frustration of injury, the relief at qualifying for your target race, the self doubt that even the world’s greatest athletes suffer with, your training can become a rollercoaster of emotion. When things start to add up and become a bit too much, having a coach you feel comfortable venting to and who provides a shoulder to cry on helps you process these emotions and prevents you from allowing them to cloud your judgement when making important decisions.
Sometimes it’s unavoidable that your judgement becomes distorted, triathletes are extremely driven people who are willing to do whatever it takes to achieve their goal. This determination is admirable and one of the qualities I look for in potential clients, but this can also create tunnel vision. Our family, our health and even our sense of reason can fall by the wayside as an athlete gets up at 4AM even though they’re suffering with the early stages of a chest infection to start pounding the pavement for fear of missing a session and losing fitness.
No doubt their friends and family would be alarmed at this and ask them to back off, but knowing athletes as I do, these concerns would likely be batted away with phrases along the lines of “You don’t understand” or “I’m not sure you realise how much this means to me”. This is the point where a coach can step forward as the voice of reason and tell the athlete what they may not want to hear, that we need to take some time off to allow the chest infection to clear before it gets worse.
The self coached athlete is so focused on his goals and so determined to hit them that sometimes they get it wrong, putting a hard interval session in on only 4 hours sleep then spending the rest of the month laid up losing fitness hand over first as his full blown chest infection prevents him from getting any sessions in. “What an idiot, what was I thinking?” the athlete asks himself with the beauty of hindsight. There are only so many of these mistakes you can afford in a season, and the coach’s ability to remove the majority of the emotion from these decisions can help you avoid these common pitfalls.
This extends beyond training with injury/illness, in the past I have given an athlete a day off on a Sunday simply so he can spend more time with his family or given them an unscheduled easy week because I can see things are starting to take their toll on them.
As athletes we don’t necessarily need to understand the finer points of critical power or be able to analyse the duty factor of a run; if you have a data savvy coach they can take care of all of this for you and feed back any adverse findings to you.
Data can be confusing for many who simply don’t have the time or inclination to learn about the definitions of every data point and analyse them after each workout, a coach helps you sort the wheat from the chaff, condensing a confusing and complicated set of numbers into a simple question along the lines of “I noticed your heart rate was a lot higher in the second half of this, can you think of any reason why this might be?”. Using questioning and referring to the data can help me differentiate between a data anomaly and something physiologically which may be a cause for concern and require us to change our approach.
While a good coach can help simplify your training to help you keep your eyes on what matters, I believe they should also spend time developing athletes by explaining to them the logic and reasoning behind their decisions. I can ask an athlete to head out and ride for 2 hours aiming for an IF of 0.7 but to them this may just be an arbitrary number and mean very little to them, If I explain to them that Intensity Factor is a measure of how intense the workout is calculated using their threshold, they can then understand that holding an IF of 0.7 means averaging 70% of FTP and they will hopefully find themselves motivated by this, understanding what is required to hit that number.
Different athletes will have different needs here, for some of them it will be showing them how to change a puncture, put on their wetsuit or lay out their transition area, where for others it’s a case of helping them analyse their own power files, choose the right aero helmet or talking through muscle physiology. I wouldn’t be the first coach to joke that a big part of our job is to make ourselves redundant.
If your Garmin isn’t picking up your sensor, you can’t get your avatar to move on Zwift or you’re unsure how to sync your device to TrainingPeaks, a coach can talk you through the process in a more efficient way than via technical support. Many new clients ask me to come around and setup their turbo for them, something I’m happy to assist with as it makes the training process easier for both of us.
Of course we have our limits, we won’t turn up with a set of jewellery screwdrivers to repair your turbo trainer if it burns out completely, but we can be on the end of the phone to talk you through the common pitfalls to hopefully get you up and running sooner.
Advice on Products
Two years in triathlon retail has helped make this one of my stronger elements, but all coaches will have a basic knowledge of the correct products their athletes should be using. This varies from recommending the best indoor trainer, triathlon watch or aero helmet based on technical data and experiences, but also extends to recommending the best clothing for an athlete based on their build.
Perhaps most importantly, out knowledge of sports science helps us spot products with very little or poor evidence behind them, and we can advise against sinking your hard earned cash into products that will have very little, or negligible benefit to your performance. Everybody needs the right kit to perform well, but dropping £2000 on a pair of wheels that may save you 30 seconds over an Ironman bike split ahead of your first race probably isn’t the best use of your money.
With hundreds of triathlons across the globe, choosing the right race for you can be extremely difficult. There are numerous factors to take into account such as type of swim, course profile, surface of the run course, transport links, entry fees, the list goes on. While many athletes already come to me with a target event in mind, I will advise on appropriate warm up races, and perhaps suggest target events for them in future years.
As coaches we will have raced in the majority of local races, and visited the rest as a spectator. As a result we can provide feedback on tricky sections of the course, the best place to get a pre race meal the night before, the prime viewing spots for your family and other bits of information you won’t find in your race pack.
No matter how motivated you are, no matter what your splits look like or how well your prep is going, we all need a pick me up every now and then. Sometimes this is in the form of a supportive comment on TrainingPeaks, sometimes it’s being there on the sidelines cheering you along as you tear up the course, a coach can pick you up when things are getting tough and keep you going. This can also extend to data driven encouragement, if one of my athletes feels they are not making any progress I can open up WKO and pull up a chart that shows them how far they’ve come, how close we are to our goal or how they’ve improved their efficiency, even if their times or power figures haven’t changed as much as they’d like.
Different things motivate different athletes, and by getting to know you over many months/years a good coach knows what to say at the right moment to keep you going when the times get tough. Self talk is a very important part of sporting psychology, but we all need a pick me up from a figure we respect every now and then.
One of the biggest appeals of coaching for many people is the knowledge of having someone who is reviewing their data and who will pull them up on missed sessions, intervals off target and workouts that miss the objective of the session. The knowledge that someone is going to questions why you missed a workout is often the motivation that people need to head to the pool rather than sit on the sofa.
This is not to say that we will bathe you in a sea of fire, threatening to kick you off the squad if you miss a single session, but we will start asking questions if we see numerous sessions are being skipped, and work with you to figure out out how we can prevent this happening in future.
Most coaches do not hold any medical qualifications but if you are experiencing pain or tightness we are well placed to refer you to the best person to help. Triathlon coaches have a working knowledge of the most common sports injuries and can advise on the best way to manage these before you see a specialist, or whether you need to stop running immediately. Good communication is key here, with the athlete informing the coach of any abnormalities as soon as they appear. Most running injuries can be successfully managed we act quickly, and a coach’s expertise can ensure this happens quickly without aggravating the injury further.
Physiotherapists are normally best placed to advise you on treating the causes of running injuries, as this is what they spend the vast majority of their time correcting, but shoulder injuries in swimming are normally caused by poor technique, which as triathlon coaches we are well placed to correct.
I only take on clients who I believe I can foster some kind of friendship with. While I don’t expect them to invite me to the hospital to meet their newborn child, I want to ensure we have a good working relationship, allowing us to crack a few jokes between us and speak freely without worrying about formalities.
It makes discussing difficult subjects easier, if I know an athlete well I can better discuss with them prickly subjects such as whether their training has affected their periods, changes in mood, bowel functions and other subjects you probably don’t feel comfortable discussing with a relative stranger. Most importantly it makes the journey a more positive and enjoyable experience for both parties.
A recent survey by TrainingPeaks suggested that around 90% of athletes believe they would improve from working with a coach, and 90% of those working with a coach are satisfied with the service they receive, so if you are on the fence about hiring a coach, why not try it for a few months and see where it takes you?