Running coaches are just for fast runners aren’t they? I’m not good enough to have a coach. I don’t have enough time to do all the running a coach would want me to do.
Maybe the idea of a coach has crossed your mind but you’ve dismissed it for one of these reasons. But the world of running coaching is becoming more and more accessible to us mere mortals – and the benefits at every level are huge.
How many of us, when not following a training plan, fall into the trap of going out a few times a week at the same sort of pace, with no structure? That’s perfect if you’re just running to maintain a level of fitness and enjoy some exercise, but, if you’re actively looking to improve or work towards a goal then you might find you hit a plateau. Coaches help you to plot a course towards a goal, whether it is your first 5k, a marathon personal best or even tackling an ultra. They break it down into chunks, they structure training to achieve progress, helping you reach an end target you didn’t think possible.
Clare Jamieson decided to enter a 100-mile race (the Centurion Autumn 100) and, despite being an experienced runner, didn’t know where to start with training for a race like this. “I had a trawl around the internet for training plans, but they were all a bit rigid and, with my ever-changing shift pattern as a nurse, they wouldn’t have worked for me. I looked at Centurion coaching, took the plunge and sent an email.” Clare was allocated Edwina Sutton, successful ultra runner and coach. Clare says, “Through coaching, my running has improved beyond my wildest dreams. I have new PBs from parkrun to 50 miles. I followed my coaching plan almost to the letter and Edwina also helped with my nutrition and my self-confidence. Without Edwina, I wouldn’t have finished my 100-mile race.”
Coaches take all of the thought out of your running. If the question is: “What shall I do today – hills, intervals, 30 minutes recovery?”, then the answer is always “Exactly what is says on the training plan.” Coaches impose a progressive structure and each run has a purpose. I spoke to Robbie Britton, ultra runner and ultra running coach, and he feels that this can really take the pressure off athletes. It quiets the voices that say “You’re not doing enough” and saves you from yourself (“Maybe I’ll just do one more long run before the marathon …”). Robbie says that one of his main challenges as a coach is getting people to do less, not more.
Another benefit of having a coach is the fact that they will encourage you to try new things and shake up your training. I was coached by Mimi Anderson when I was training for the UTMB in 2014 and she had me dragging a tyre up a hill an increasing amount of time/reps/distance each week to build up my strength on hills. Was this incredibly unpleasant? Yes. Was I glad I put all that effort in when I crossed that finish line? Extremely.
But while a coach will set you sessions, communicate regularly and analyse your progress, it’s still very much up to you to get out there and do it. You still need to be motivated enough to get out of the door on a freezing-cold day at 6am and to complete the sessions as directed, some of which are going to really push you. There may be a temptation to ease off, to knock half an hour off that long run, to replace that interval session with an easy 30 minutes. But, as Robbie puts it in his no-nonsense style: “Paying a coach won’t make you faster; listening to one will.”
But why get a coach when there are plenty of training plans for 10k, marathon or even ultras out there, available for free on the internet? Well, the one-size-fits-all approach may work well for some runners but not for others. Tom Craggs, of Running with Us, says: “If you want to get the most from your running, investing in a personal coach could be a great option. From writing training schedules that are fully bespoke to you, your goals, fitness and lifestyle, to support with recovery and nutrition to get the most from the sessions you do, as well as crucial psychological support, whether you are new to running or an experienced competitive athlete, a fully bespoke coaching service will see you achieve your best.’
So, if you’ve decided that a running coach is something you want to try, how do you find the right coach for you? There’s a lot of choice out there, and, like any unregulated profession, there is good and bad. For every enthusiastic and passionate Robbie or Tom, there are coaches whose advice is generic and who will happily give the same training plan to the 30 athletes paying them direct debits for their training. Coaching will cost anything upwards of £40 per month, and it’s likely to be an ongoing commitment for a while, so it’s worth doing your research.
Running clubs are great places to start. Do your club’s coaches do individual coaching as well? Talk to other runners, find out who they recommend and then, importantly, talk to them. Is this somebody you’re going to enjoy working with? Will they give you the mix of carrot and stick that you feel you need? An overly negative coach may destroy your confidence, but a coach that gives only gushing praise may not push you enough to make progress. Robbie stresses that you need to be able to talk honestly about what you need and question anything that isn’t working for you. He heard a story of a coach setting a runner multiple back-to-back 50-mile runs, which the runner protested about, to no avail, ending up seriously injured. Ask any potential coach how you will work together – will it be a weekly phone or Skype call? Will they give you a weekly/bi-weekly/monthly training plan? Can you contact them if you have a question or need to amend the plan? How many athletes do they coach at one time?
And you might be surprised how much coaches themselves get out of coaching non-elite runners. Tom says: “Many elite athletes already have a great understanding of the training methods required to perform at the top level; runners in the ‘real’ world can often become confused by the mass of conflicting advice offered online or in magazines and have a tendency to flit between different plans and approaches.” Robbie feels that his most fulfilling coaching “is taking somebody who’s never been coached and watching them make great strides”. Like Marc Hills, whom Robbie coached to achieve his long-held dream to finish the UTMB this year. Coach Robbie was there to greet him at the finish and I think he might have had something in his eye.