Almost every runner wants to improve, and one of the most effective things you can do to bring about improvement is to get a coach. A coach can provide the experience, the guidance, the inspiration and the sheer accountability that can propel you to the next level.
But coaches are not like London buses – you don’t get many of the right ones coming along at once. So what should you look for in a coach?
Communication: there should be regular communication – and you should be happy not only with its regularity, but also with its quality and two-way nature. It should start with an in-depth conversation about where you are, where you want to get to, what training you are doing and have done in the past, what aspects of your lifestyle affect training volume and intensity, and so on. It should then move forward into a planning phase, a testing-it-out-to-see-if-it-works phase, and then an ongoing exchange of views. I give my athletes a schedule for 8-16 weeks; they email me every Sunday night with feedback on how it has all gone; and we talk if things need changing. Interestingly, Peter Coe always referred to Sebastian as, ‘my athlete,’ not, ‘my son,’ in a coaching context, to ensure that the communication took place on the right level of respect.
One size does not fit all: if your prospective coach turns up at your first meeting and announces, “Here is your 16-week marathon plan,” run! Don’t run the bloody schedule; run away, I mean. Every training plan has to be as different as the individual capabilities, experiences, lifestyles and goals of its subjects. I didn’t give the National 100km champion the same schedule as the 40-year-old mum just starting out on her 5km journey, for instance. Coe and Ovett were superbly well-matched athletes, swapping the world mile record by tenths of seconds in 1979-81, but their training was very different: Peter Coe’s schedule for his son was a track- and gym-based focus on speed, speed, speed; Harry Wilson’s plan for Ovett was more endurance based, with Ovett not being scared to race the odd half marathon and eventually taking Commonwealth 5,000 gold. Your training plan should be the product of probably several lengthy conversations and trial periods.
Achievement: your coach should ideally have achieved a decent level of success in running themselves in order to deliver advice, instructions, schedules and pep-talks in a way that is credible to their athlete(s). It is difficult to commit to your coach’s “17-mile tempo run, with the last 5 all-out,” when you know they’ve never done it themselves. Think what you like about Alberto Salazar, but he has run the 150-mile weeks, won the big city marathons and set the world record (New York, 1981, later found to be a marginally short course) that mean he has certainly been there, done that. So, when he tells Galen Rupp to do mile repeats an hour after a marathon…………..
Cut to the core: a coach with that sort of experience will have confidence – and thus the ability to tell it like it is. Sometimes a coach has to talk pretty straight to an athlete. I remember coaching a national level 100km runner some years ago. He was good; he was very good – he had won national medals; but he just could not break through to the next level. I looked at his schedule. It was obvious: he was doing too much. He was not giving himself the easier days, the days that would allow him to run the harder days at the level he needed to, to move on. He took my advice, and six months later he won the UK 100km championships and set a personal best.
Heart: a coach has to have a passion for running, but so does the athlete. The athlete has to have dreams – and the dedication to do the things necessary to put those dreams within reach. Every athlete will miss sessions, or have to tone the schedule down at times, but the coach is going to get pretty pissed off if this is happening regularly. If the coach is racking their brains to define the best schedule, and standing by the track in all weathers, and thinking forensically about results – and the athlete’s dedication does not match that commitment, then the relationship is going to be pretty short-lived. Herb Elliott, the unbeaten Australian miler, coached by Percy Cerutty, was struggling with motivation at one point. Cerutty took Elliott to the track and proceeded to run a mile all-out himself, collapsing at the end in a terrible state. “You’ll run faster miles,” he told Elliott, “but you’ll never put more effort into one.” After that, Herb’s motivation was not an issue.
I coach athletes – some are old, some young, some fast, some slow, some I coach formally, some informally, some face-to-face, some remotely. What they share is that passion to improve. I guess if you don’t have that passion, I don’t want to work with you. I would almost go so far as to say that, if you read the blogs on this site and you’re not inspired by at least most of them, then we’re probably not right for each other.
If that sounds harsh, OK. If you say, “Right on!” to it – and you want to improve your running – then maybe we should talk.