I mentioned last week that I’ve hired myself a triathlon coach and some folks are interested in knowing what it’s like to train with a coach, so I said I’d write up some of my early thoughts. I’ve only been with my coach for about 6 weeks now, so everything is still pretty new but that is definitely an aspect of the experience.
Some background: Coaching is something I’ve been threatening to do for a few years now. It makes sense for me. I am terrible self starter and like smart people telling me what to do and holding me accountable. Plus, canned training plans tend to make assumptions about me as an athlete that aren’t entirely true, like my ability to run faster than a 13 min/mi or my willingness to do 2 workouts a day 4x a week. A coach would be able to customize and would do all the planning and adjusting work. There were a few things that held me back, though: expense was certainly one reason (I expected coaching to be an investment and, lo, it is), but the larger problem was finding someone who worked well with me. I am a back of the packer who is unlikely to land on any podiums and is uninterested in training for weight loss. Many coaches find this perspective frustrating, baffling or, at best, professionally uninteresting. So after a few years of initial inquiries, a couple of interviews, and some half-hearted squinting when bloggers I follow put out a call for athletes, I stumbled on my coach the old fashioned way: my friend vetted the coach first and provided a good recommendation.
But hiring a coach, it turns out, isn’t where the twisty road of uncertainty ends. Perhaps it’s different if you grew up playing individual sports and had a personal coach or even if you spent a great deal of time concocting your own workouts and training plans, but I had none of these previous experiences so there were some things I was not prepared for. Here’s my list.
Top 5 Things No One Tells You About Coaching Ahead of Time
5. Trial periods aren’t helpful for judging the touchy-feely stuff
Everyone says you need to give a new coaching relationship time to settle in before you evaluate how it’s going, and I believe that’s totally true. But the 1 month/3 month trial feels pretty inadequate to get a sense of some of the touchy-feelier aspects of coaching. I’ll know some important stuff, sure: what their coaching style is, can I develop a rapport with them, do they understand me as an athlete, etc, but I’m probably not going to get a sense of some of the longer term stuff. What are they like when I’ve got a serious injury? What kind of motivator are they? How do they problem solve major mind/brainy issues? That stuff just doesn’t come up much in every day training so I’m not going to know until, well, I need to know. It’s a bit like dating in that sense.
4. Communication is key, but…
Everyone says the successful coaching relationship is one where the athlete and coach have open lines of communication. What they don’t bother telling you is what in particular is relevant to the conversation. So I’ve tended toward writing comments for every workout. These range from the obviously relevant–“my hip flexors ached during this bike workout”–to the…less relevant–“This treadmill sucked and kept stopping while I ran. Let me vent my treadmill frustration afterward instead of hopping on a different treadmill and just doing the damn workout.” My coach, with varying degrees of dutifulness, replies to each of comments on my workout and hasn’t yet told me to STFU but does seem to selectively ignore some of my comments. From that I’m inferring what’s important and what’s just me nattering. I also am trying to learn how to get better about letting her know about routine change–getting sick, taking a ski holiday in the middle of the week. If she knows this stuff ahead of time, she can plan in into my schedule.
3. Coach’s lingo
I am not new to triathlon. I read my Triathlete Magazine. I follow a bunch of nerdy sports blogs. Hell, I can even hop into a master’s swim practice and follow the white board without asking 10 different questions about what they mean. But even if your coach mostly use terms you know (fartleks, threshold pace, etc.), every coach has their own vocabulary and I underestimated the number of times I’d get to my workout and have a moment of Bzzzuh? at an instruction. Muscle tension…? Skipping? What the hell counts as a power interval? Fortunately, my coach was totally prepared for this and was happy to answer questions they came, but I didn’t realize I’d be asking so many.
2. There is a learning curve to nailing workouts
I’ve certainly had training plans before, but this is the first time every workout on my plan has been so specific. There is no ‘just go run easy for an hour’ on my plan. Instead there’s a warm up, intervals at specific paces, rest intervals, repeats, and drills, and you’ve got to be able to hit those intervals and those paces at the specific times called for. And that’s…a skill. For example, my run workout may call for a 10 minute warm up and then 10 minutes in Z3. One problem I frequently have is that I’m spending 5 of those 10 Z3 minutes building into Z3 and only the last few minutes in Z3. That’s…not really how you’re supposed to execute that workout. But I’m inexperienced enough with pacing and an awareness of my own fitness that I have to wiggle my way around un
til I get where I’m supposed to be. I think it’s getting a little better with time, but executing your workouts as they’re written is definitely a skill.
1. Moments of obsession I never thought I’d have
Like a lot of folks, I use TrainingPeaks to get my workouts and upload my files so my coach can see how they went. TrainingPeaks has a nifty feature where you can set your workouts to show as a coloring system depending on how well you completed them: red for incomplete, yellow for completed but not do planned duration/distance, or green for completed as planned. I am like a kid earning gold star stickers with these things. I WANT MY GREEN BOXES.
Thing is, my coach does not care about the color of one’s boxes. She has different (some may say better) priorities and her view is a bit more global. She wants you to do the specific workout that’s in the day’s box and not just go by her distance/duration estimates (which she freely admits are estimates). This, unfortunately for me, often results in yellow boxes (because you get a yellow box if you go more than 20% off…in either direction, less or more) and it disturbs my sense of order. You can, of course, shut TP the feature off, but then you get no gold stars and…I require gold stars. I just do.
I’m sure as we continue along, I’ll learn even more about how to work with a coach. We’re still pretty early days yet. And hopefully when all is said and done, I’ll achieve some of those pesky goals I’ve been working on for a while now.
And then Coach can help me set new ones.