For many athletes, deciding they’d like to be coached, and then choosing a triathlon coach is a rite of passage. If you have the budget and the inclination, coaching is the best way to get faster.
However, there are many things to consider when choosing a triathlon coach. You need to consider their experience, their qualifications, the kind of athletes they work with and their methodology. There are very few right and wrong answers in triathlon, and different coaches will work in different ways to achieve the same thing.
In this piece I’m going to look at different considerations when choosing a triathlon coach, pitfalls to avoid, and red flags you may want to look out for. Full disclosure, I am a coach myself and you are reading this on my website (sorry about that), however more than anything I want people to enjoy their triathlon and have a positive coaching experience, whether that’s with me or someone else.
Are You Ready to be Coached?
This may sound like a silly question, but I’ve worked with athletes over the years who aren’t truly ready to hand the reins over to someone else. Doing so can be scary, as you are giving up your autonomy and putting a lot of trust in someone. If you are still improving at a rapid rate with your current programme, it may be worth waiting until you hit a bit more of a plateau before you hire extra help, as otherwise the coaching relationship can be stressful for both parties and become strained over time.
You need to be able to show true vulnerability. This goes beyond simply telling your coach “My swimming sucks, I need your help to improve”. It means telling your coach when you’re tired or having doubts about the training. When you feel you’re not making progress or you’ve picked up a potential injury. Honesty is so incredibly important in coaching, to the point I’ve terminated coaching relationships when an athlete has been deliberately dishonest. Most coaches will not judge or think less of you for missing sessions, going off plan or switching sessions around, but transparency with the coach is incredibly important, so we can understand why you aren’t following the plan, allowing us to attempt to fix it.
Starting Your Search
If you feel ready to work with a coach, you can begin your search. Ask around any triathlon friends you have to see if they have recommendations. If nothing comes up that you think will work for you, it’s time to take your search online.
You can either start by searching for simple terms such as “Triathlon Coaching London”, or you could use a coach finder website to find a suitable coach for you. I recommend the latter, as you can then compare dozens of coaches like for like, without flashy websites to distract you from what really matters. Once you find a coach’s profile who appeals to you, it’s worth visiting their website to learn a bit more about them, and creating a shortlist to come back to later.
The first thing you need to consider is location, as this will have a large impact on your search. Do you see yourself spending a lot of time in person with your coach? Or are you completely self sufficient in that regard? Newer athletes tend to need a bit more in the way of in person coaching while more established athletes tend to need much less. I have worked with several athletes I have never met before, from Syria to India, and the US to Russia. If you have the choice between working with a mediocre coach in your local area, or a high quality coach virtually, it’s worth asking yourself just how important face to face is for you.
When I was living in London I had dozens of athletes sign up with me who wanted a local coach. Many of them I never met face to face. Coaching means different things to different people, and some I saw at least once a month, but it’s worth being realistic with how much time you genuinely intend to spend with your coach. Coaching sessions aren’t generally free, so your budget is worth considering as well. If you are towards the upper end of your budget from monthly coaching fees alone, will you really have the disposable income to pay them for in person sessions? You may want simply to meet up with them occasionally over a coffee to discuss how training is going, but in the post pandemic era, Zoom is a time efficient relatively personable way to have these conversations wherever you are in the world.
The next big consideration when choosing a triathlon coach is monthly fees. Coaches can charge anything from £40 a month all the way up to £1000. Triathlon is already an expensive sport, so pick a coach in your price range. I love triathlon, but it’s really not worth putting yourself into debt over, and those coaches charging the higher fees may not necessarily be that much better than coaches charging less, they may simply have a very high opinion of themselves.
I charge £200 a month, which is roughly the going rate for the level of service I offer, taking me nicely into my next point.
Level of Service
Choosing a triathlon coach is much more than just hiring the best coach you can find, it’s important that it matches the level of service you desire. You may be able to work with a legendary coach for a surprisingly affordable fee, but if your only contact with them is one E-mail a month, are you really being coached? Equally, if you have a coach who analyses all your workouts, messages you every day to check in and is always asking questions, is that too much for you personally?
If you want someone to write you a comprehensive plan then just leave you alone to get onto it, you may want to consider hiring someone to write you a custom training plan instead, and save yourself money in the process.
I provide a bespoke service including mobility assessments, nutrition coaching, strength and conditioning, power modelling, feedback after every session and training plans written on a weekly basis. Open minded athletes who engage with all of this get the most out of their coaching experience. However, the time I spend on each athlete bumps the price up, and many athletes won’t have any interest in some of the elements. Those athletes might be better off finding another coach with lower fees who they won’t feel are holding them to account all the time.
Checking a triathlon coach’s formal credentials should be your next step. Many triathlon coaches out there don’t have any formal qualifications, and simply decide one day they’re going to offer to help people out for a bit of extra cash. This is how many coaches including myself started out, however it’s safe to say the service I provided was less than outstanding in those early days. If you have a lot invested in an event it’s worth looking for a triathlon coach with a variety of experience and qualifications who can support you across your journey. While we will never be experts in swim, cycle, run, strength or nutrition coaching, we should as coaches have a strong working knowledge of them all, which is best developed through qualifications.
Not all qualifications are created equal either. My status as a British Triathlon High Performing Coach is the result of six years of professional development. On the other hand, someone with very little experience can complete an online coaching certification in a matter of weeks. I don’t want to be seen as a gatekeeper here, but if you’re looking to put your trust in someone, it’s worth checking the levels of qualifications they hold before you hand over any money.
Experience and Other Credentials
However, qualifications aren’t the be all and end all. Some of the best coaches out there have no qualifications. They may have decades of experience in the sport as a competitor, or simply have decided against following any formal education pathway. Time spent coaching athletes in different scenarios over several years, and development outside of formal education are arguably more important than certificates, so it’s worth considering this when looking at coaches. I have been coaching for six years as I write this which is perfectly respectable amount of time in the eyes of many, but I couldn’t pretend to know as much as someone who has been in the job for 25 years.
However, consider when choosing a triathlon coach that experience and qualifications do not equal competence. I have met some coaches who got qualified in the 80s and haven’t changed their approach since. Most qualifications delivered by national governing bodies (British Triathlon, US Triathlon e.t.c.) aren’t especially challenging and are normally an experience in providing a safe, inclusive training environment as much as anything.
The results of their previous athletes can be something of a red herring. A coach may boast that they’ve helped over 2o athletes qualify for the Ironman World Championships. Like most coaches I have helped athletes qualify for world championship events, but many of them would have probably made it without me. If someone comes to me with an FTP of 320W and the ability to run a 1:30 half marathon off the bike, I can’t truly claim too much credit for their performance. Equally, someone I coach may finish 17th in their age group and get a Kona slot through roll down as nobody else turned up on the Monday morning. However, if a coach has helped several athletes win their age group at world championship events or medal at national championships, they’re probably the real deal.
What are Your Goals?
It’s important to keep this at the forefront of your mind when choosing your first triathlon coach. I love triathlon and have experience working with participation athletes as well as high performance athletes and enjoy them both for different reasons. I change my approach depending on what the athlete wants to achieve, to make sure they receive coaching suitable for them.
However, some coaches are much more specialised, especially if coaching is not their full time occupation. If you are looking to improve your Ironman PB, you will likely want someone who has experience competing and coaching at this distance over the very enthusiastic coach in your hometown who writes people training plans for a few bucks. Equally, if you struggle to submerge your face in the water and have never ridden a road bike before, then hiring a legendary Ironman coach on the other side of the world may not be the best use of your money.
Choosing your Triathlon Coach
Once you have considered all of the above, you have probably narrowed the search down to a handful of coaches who you feel have rates you can afford, the credentials you are looking for, and who can provide you with the level of support they are looking for. It’s now time to start calling them up or sending them E-mails to organise a first conversation.
I try to get back to potential clients as soon as possible to show I take them seriously, so I would expect a reply within 24 hours in most cases, however don’t make the mistake of simply hiring the coach who responds fastest. At this point, a coach will hopefully offer to setup a call or a meeting to get to know you better. I’d personally be cautious of a coach who immediately send you through some paperwork to sign and welcome you on board. I would also expect a coach to offer this without any money changing hands.
There’s nothing wrong with shopping around and having meetings with different coaches, but they will appreciate it if you are up front about the fact you are shopping around so they can pitch the conversation appropriately.
This is very much my opinion, but the following would be red flags to me if I was looking for a coach:
Significant minimum commitment
All clients should reserve their right to change their mind. It may be that you realise coaching doesn’t suit you, you change your goals, or a life event means you can no longer train for/attend your race. If any of these happen, you should be able to walk away only losing a month’s worth of coaching fees, instead of paying for six months of fees you can no longer use. A coach should also reserve the right to walk away from an athlete if the relationship isn’t working, so this benefits both parties.
They advertise themselves as being a certain kind of coach
It may be that they advertise themselves as being a coach who specialises in polarised training, they follow a certain programme of swim coaching or they are associated with a certain kind of diet such as vegan, low fat or carnivore. While there is nothing wrong with a coach getting as much knowledge as possible, if they make a big deal out of the fact they work in a certain way, that’s the kind of coaching you’ll receive whether you respond well to it or not. Coaching should be all about finding what works for the athlete, not trying to fit square pegs into round holes.
They no longer train/race in any capacity
In days gone by it was very common for coaches to be retired athletes who spent the rest of their days at the running track with a stopwatch. In triathlon however things are different and it’s very easy to dip in/out. While they may not be able to race long distance events or their days of podium finishes may be behind them, if they’re not doing any kind of swimming, cycling or running, I personally would wonder how much their heart is in it.
They won’t stop talking about their racing
They may have competed at Kona, won their age group at major events or even had a career as a pro themselves. This is great and can give them a unique insight into the sport, but it may also be a smokescreen. Just because someone knows what works for them doesn’t mean they know what works for you, and even if they do they may not be able to communicate that well. Some coaches are exceptional athletes and exceptional coaches, however this isn’t always a given, so do a bit of digging and find out about more of their coaching achievements/experience before blindly handing over your money.
They have strict time limits on phone calls
You may not be able to afford a coach who you includes unlimited contact in their package, and instead look at coaches who offer a monthly call. There is nothing wrong with this as a more budget friendly option, however if they are cutting you off at exactly 30 minutes on the dot then I would suggest they’re not all that interested in your development.
Your training plan is written months ahead of time
Sometimes when you hire a coach, you are also provided with a full training plan. I would be unhappy with this personally as it’s probably a copy/paste job and won’t take into account any of my unique availability or my strengths as an athlete. Using a training plan as a foundation isn’t necessarily the wrong way to go about things, but if it’s never reviewed or adjusted, is it really coaching? If all you want is a training plan, check out the plans on the TrainingPeaks webstore or our selection of plans.
They try to upsell you from day one
“If you want help with your nutrition that’s an extra £40 a month. If you want strength and conditioning exercises, that’s an extra £200. You’re a weaker swimmer so we should be working together once a week, which is £60 an hour”. Coaches may offer what appear to be more reasonable monthly fees to get people to sign on the dotted line, but will then rather forcefully suggest you purchase lots of extras which can more than double the monthly cost. There is no replacement for face to face sessions, but you should feel you are purchasing them because you want to, not because you’re being coerced to.
There are no right answers or wrong answers when it comes to choosing a triathlon coach. There are thousands of different coaches around the world from those just starting out with their first client to those with 30 years experience overseeing huge coaching companies. There is (probably) a coach out there for everyone, so make sure to do your research and only sign up with someone who you trust. Coaching is the fastest way to improve, but nothing will kill your enthusiasm for the sport faster than working with the wrong coach, so choose wisely and don’t be afraid to walk away if it’s not working for you.