Should I Hire a Running Coach?
In this article, I share 10 years of experience as a running coach, and share the different coaching styles you are most likely find when searching for the best running coach for you. I take you into the various coaching models and what you can expect with a running coach. So whether you hire a running coach, or ultimately, learn how to write your own training plans, I hope you find this information helpful as you research the topic of running coaches.
A running coach can design a personalized training program that can help you achieve running and fitness goals in a systematic and safe way. As you progress from a beginner to more experienced runner, a great coach can guide you through the process as your skill level progresses. All runners face obstacles and challenges. A knowledgable, experienced coach can help you solve them due to their experience and training.
If you think about a little league baseball team, you think of young athletes learning the fundamentals. As these athletes progress from little league, to high school, to college and even the pros, their level of coaching goes up. All along the way, they rely on coaches to sharpen their skills and make them better athletes. The same applies to running. In other words, you do not need to be an experienced runner to benefit from coaching.
On the other hand, many runners are successful coaching themselves. When I train runners to build their own customized training plans, I find that they love learning, are detailed oriented, and like to be in control of their own training. Anyone can learn how to coach themselves, however a running coach can expedite the process through their experience and training, and they can help you stay accountable if you need that.
As you will read shortly, coaching goes beyond just training plans.
A great coach will apply principles of sports science and take your unique situation into account. With this information, your coach will build a comprehensive training program that goes above and beyond what a free distance or time-based training plan or running app can do.
The Problem With Free Training Plans
A running coach can tailor a program to your specific goals and give you a clear path to get there. A running coach can keep you accountable to yourself. Since training never goes as planned, your running coach will help you make training adjustments due to life events, your speed of progress, and can provide guidance on when you should dial up intensity or volume or scale back.
Since we all have different needs, however, not all coaching programs are the same.
In this article, I dig into several training approaches that range from free training plans and apps, to group and 1:1 coaching. Together, we will look at the pros and cons of each, and help you decide which training approach is right for you.
What Should I Look for in a Running Coach?
1) A Great Running Coach Shouldn't Just Hand Over a Custom Training Plan
If a running coach just writes you a training plan and does nothing else, find a new coach. While their plan may be better than a generic training plan, a great training plan should be dynamic. It should not be fixed, as it should change as your situation changes.
A great running coach will take an objective look at your personal situation each week and adjust your training to your unique situation and lifestyle. Some weeks they may push you harder, other weeks they may scale you back as your body indicates more recovery. In other words, they adapt your training plan based on "real progress", not what a piece of paper says. Runner's rarely progress exactly as the plan is laid out.
A lot of running coaches like to write "custom training plans", and then leave it up to you to implement. In my early days of coaching, this is what I thought I was supposed to do. Write training plans. What I actually learned, is that after a few weeks, most runners needed changes or else they weren't training optimally. I stopped selling training plans shortly afterwards when I found most people, "fell off plan" or could be better served by making adjustments along the way.
And, over the years, I have been part of coaching groups on FaceBook where coaches admitted using recycled plans, and just tweaking them because the time to do it right, was greater than the market rate of a custom training plan. Frankly, that is selling their clients short.
2) Running Coaches Work with Runners of all Experience and Skill Levels
You do not need to be an advanced runner to work with a coach. I have worked with brand new runners who never ran a day in their life to Boston Marathoners. All benefited, because a good running coach will meet you where you are at.
3) A Professional Running Coach Will Use a Science-Based Approach to Building a Training Program
Simply put, there's more than one way to train and, sometimes, an alternative way is simply best for the athlete.
For me, it's about getting the best out of the athlete in a way that’s best for the athlete.
4) A Running Coach Has Not Only Certifications, but Experience
It’s also important to note that, just as there are varied approaches to training, there's very little standardization in the industry as to how someone becomes a coach and delivers training. Fortunately, a few certifications do exist that can help determine if a coach is qualified.
Accrediting agencies like USA Track and Field and RRCA ensure that coaches meet a minimum standard. I, personally, invest time in acquiring certifications, attending clinics, and take courses, but the basic certification classes were just the beginning of my journey to becoming a better running coach.
Conversely, just because a running coach isn't certified doesn't mean they aren't qualified to coach. There are hundreds or thousands of people out there who are not certified but are great coaches.
However, other things can also establish a coach's credentials. For example, degrees in physiology or exercise science or personal trainer certifications can help demonstrate a coach's qualifications. Even self-study and personal experience, when done right, can lead to someone becoming entirely capable of coaching others.
Simply because a person has great talent and physical ability as a runner does not mean they can coach others sufficiently. An effective coach has other skills, besides running capability, that make them a great mentor.
Every coach is different, so you'll need to take some time to find one that you feel works with your personality and skill level. You should feel confident in them and trust that they have your best interest at heart.
Different Training Approaches
There is a wide variety of options when it comes to coaching and the services offered. So, let’s go ahead and take a look at all these types, from no formal coaching at all to to one-on-one training.
Like everything, there’s a relative scale when it comes to price. Often, the more personalized the service, the more expensive it will be. Most coaches, including myself, will offer several options so they can hit all possible price points. Not all runners have the budget for private or group coaching, and, sometimes, a customized training plan will get them a little further along than a free mileage based plan written for anyone.
The 6 Levels of Run Coaching
1) No Coaching
In other words, you’re entirely self-taught. Obviously, there’s no cost to this method, and it’s where most runners start.
2) A Book or Generic Training Plan
While there are plenty of great books available, in this approach, your training is pretty much left up to you.
With a generic training plan, you might get a mileage based program but usually not more than that. Also, these types of training plans are not customized to you. They fail to take into account your age, fitness level, genetics, or availability to train. They simply give you miles to run and the rest is up to you. Need help with nutrition? Injuries? Running form? Well, you're on your own.
While this approach works for some, it does not optimize your training. Instead, it requires you to figure out what is fiction, what is reality, and what the best way to train is for you. For most, this leads to years of trial and error and frustration.
Also, be aware that several training plans, including some popular ones, were not written by coaches or even runners. This is crazy. These people are the snake oil salesmen of our times and are just trying to make a profit. Even many free ones, while they might not come at any cost to you, are offered as a way to attract web traffic to generate money through ads or sponsorships.
Always know who is behind the plan. Ask! If they've got nothing to hide, they won't mind.
3) A Customized Training Plan
A customized training plan is the first entry level type of formal coaching.
In most cases, you fill out a questionnaire and then meet with the coach, either via email exchanges or by telephone. After a brief discussion, a custom plan is created, based on your individual background and training goals. Often times the interaction between you and the coach ends there, and you're left on your own to figure out the rest. However, with some offerings, your plan may come with a certain amount of email or phone support.
4) Running Clubs
Many running clubs have coaches associated with their establishment. They also often have experienced runners who are available to help new runners get started. However, these people may or may not be coaches.
A running club is a great way to get started with formal coaching, often at a low price point. You can expect to receive guidance and support with the basics. You’ll usually follow your own training plan or one that was provided for the entire group.
One advantage of a running club is that you often get group training plus a built in accountability system.
If you're looking for a running club, check out the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) to see if there are any around you. If you don't see one listed on the RRCA website, try searching on Google or ask at a local running store. Most running clubs love to have new members and are very welcoming.
5) Group Coaching
Group coaching offers a similar dynamic to running clubs. The training can be run by private coaches, fitness professionals (such as personal trainers), or even charity organizations. They often target the training based on the needs and goals of the entire group, not each individual.
6) Individual Coaching
One-on-one coaching is available in person or online, the former option being the more expensive of the two.
You get much more personalized attention with this type of coaching than with others, and, because of this, it’s usually the most costly coaching option. I’ve seen programs from $50 per month all the way up to several hundred per month, so price really comes down to what is being offered and what the market will allow. Individual coaching usually provides the best results - if you find the right coach.
What a Running Coach Can Do for You
1) Build a Training Program
Not only will a good coach put together a training program for you, but he or she should also only give out 2-4 weeks of a this plan at a time (if you are working with them on a one-on-one basis, that is).
This is the best practice because it allows adjustments to your program as you progress through your training. If the entire plan is finalized and distributed at one time, then your training will not be as effective as it can be. In reality, no one ever progresses exactly as planned over the course of training. Sometimes you will be ahead of schedule and sometimes you will fall behind. While some longer range milestones will be shared to keep you focused on an overall target, your training plan should be dished out in chunks.
2) Consider Your Lifestyle in the Development of the Training Program
A good coach will factor in your level of stress, your amount of travel, the number of days per week that’s realistic to train, your current level of fitness, your fitness history, any preexisting medical issues, your age, and your ability to recover.
Anything that can impact your training and progress should be factored in, beyond just running miles.
3) Consider and Share Basic Nutritional Principles
Running coaches are not nutritionists, but they can give general guidance. They can help you with fueling and hydration and, if necessary, refer you to a nutritionist if they suspect you may be having problems.
A great coach will know when their level of expertise should be replaced by someone more knowledgeable. Coaches should never give out meal plans or use any form of nutrition to treat disorders. Unless they are a specialized nutritionist or a doctor, this is way outside most running coaches’ scope of practice.
4) Consider and Share Basic Injury Prevention Techniques
Running coaches are not doctors, but they can, again, provide general advice.
A coach should never "diagnose" or "treat" your injuries. While one may be able to recommend that you cut back training and follow the RICE principles (Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation), a coach should never recommend specific treatment or suggest that you do not need to see a doctor or medical professional.
Anytime pain is severe enough to impact form, you should stop running and see a doctor.
5) Help with Motivation, Goal Setting, Accountability, Race Preparation, Race Strategies, Race Recovery, and Mental Training
There is more to running than just logging miles. A good coach will help you with every detail, no matter how small, to help you reach your goals.
6) Be Conservative when it Comes to Changing Form
Coaches should proceed very cautiously when it comes to your running form.
Basic guidance can be given (as in, “try to have loose shoulders and arms” or “lean forward slightly”), but, when it comes to more specific form correction, many coaches step over their boundaries.
Significant form correction should be left to physical therapists and medical professionals. Coaches can help with the basics but, unless they are a medical professional, they simply cannot know how your body is put together the way it is and why. Sometimes, changing a runner’s form is more dangerous than the original condition. If form is changed, it should be done carefully and very slowly and under the guidance and supervision of a qualified professional.
7 ) Be a Good Listener
A good running coach should be able to ask questions and pull information from you so that they have what they need to build your plan and manage your program.
A coach who is a good listener will be able to pick up on little things (like inflections in your voice or common phrases you use) that may point to what is really going on. If necessary, he or she should be able to focus in on these clues and seek out more information so as not to miss what may be going on behind the scenes.
A good coach will factor in all of the elements mentioned above to create a customized program that works for you.
Notice that I did not say training plan here.
A plan is your workout tasks and calendar - a program is all inclusive and includes all the factors that impact your running. A running program should ALWAYS be more than just a mileage calendar.
Now, despite all the benefits a coach bring to your training, you do not necessarily need one. You could successfully do everything all by yourself, and many runners do.
Regardless of whether or not you hire a coach, always, always, always be a student of the sport. Continue to learn as much as you can, seek the guidance of others, and forever learn about your body and what makes it work.
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A listener named Nate recently reached out to me and asked what exactly a running coach can do, especially for a non-competitive runner who is not a professional athlete.
He wanted to know whether or not he should find a running coach to help with his training or if he should continue to do his own thing. He also wondered why someone would consider hiring a running coach in the first place, when there are countless training plans, books, and resources available to help runners accomplish their training goals.
These are all great questions, and, in today’s episode, I share my opinions and thoughts on the matter.
While I am a coach myself and believe everyone can benefit from having a coach, in this podcast, I hope to put aside my own biases and provide an objective view on what a running coach can bring to the table. I'll go over what a great coach can do (and not do) for you, what that they offer, and what types of coaching are available.