>TriMadness Coaching Series – What Should I Expect From A Coach?

>Over the last several posts, we’ve explored the concept of coaching, where to find one, what types of questions to ask of a prospective coach, and how to foster a strong relationship with a coach. Today, we’ll explore the actual work that a coach will do. What services will you gain from hiring a coach?

Remember that much of this series is predicated upon the fact that you’ve hired a coach from what I call the “Relationship Model”, where you have a real, live person interacting with you to help you become a better triathlete.

In today’s post, we’ll cover four main topics: How the coach understands what you’re bringing to the table, the “widgets” of a coaching relationship – your training plan, group activities, and nutrition services.

Understanding what you bring to the table

As we mentioned in Tuesday’s article, most coaches will ask you to complete a questionnaire. Elizabeth Waterstraat summed it up best by saying, “I have an extensive background information form that I ask each athlete to complete before we start. Of course, this includes background in the sport, injury history, race results, but also gets at the critical pieces of success including mental strengths and weaknesses, goals, fears, expectation.” Some coaches have more detailed questionnaires than others. Ben Greenfield added, “All athletes fill out a comprehensive questionnaire that answers every possible question on their health, triathlon and exercise history, as well as nutrition, job and lifestyle questions.”

The simple fact is that your coach needs to know you inside and out in order to provide you with high quality coaching. Why would a coach as questions about topics such as prior injuries, mental weaknesses, fears? It’s all a part of getting to know what makes you tick as an athlete, what your hot buttons are, what you’re likely to not perform well at. Remember that the main goal for a good coach is to help you develop your skills as a triathlete…and those skills may or may not be 100% physical.

Literally every coach that I interviewed as part of this series follows the questionnaire with a detailed personal interview. “I also schedule an in-person meeting or phone call,” Waterstraat added. The purpose of the interview is to validate the items disclosed on the questionnaire, to gain an insight behind what might be included on the form. “You can also learn a lot by reading between the lines,” continued Waterstraat.

Many coaches will additionally include a variety of assessments in their initial and ongoing review of your performance. These assessments could include live or video analysis of swim stroke, running or cycling mechanics, power, HR data reviews, etc. Assessment of form and skill are important components that the coach reviews in order to make decisions about training programs, workouts, distances, and so forth.

In addition to reviewing video of an athlete’s performance, many coaches will suggest that athletes undergo rigorous diagnostic testing such as VO2 max, lactate threshold testing, and specific field testing in all three disciplines. “I use everything I can. Any kind of test gives me data that I can use to cross reference zones and paces and such,” said Mary Eggers.

Cracking the Training Code

Once a coach has formed a picture of the athlete’s physical and mental condition, understands their goals, their strengths and their weaknesses, it’s time to get down to brass tacks. The development of training plans.

When one thinks of the primary value add that a coach brings to the table, the first response is typically that a coach comes up with training plans. This much is true, but as we outlined in the initial post of the series, you don’t need a coach to get a training plan. There are lots of high quality plans available for purchase through “Off-The-Shelf” programs (more on those in a later article). What a coach does provide, however, is customization.

“Everything is customized to a T. All actively managed athletes are in a concierge triathlon coach program that is 100% customized on a weekly basis,” said Greenfield.

While the frequency of how often an athlete gets a training plan from their coach (some provide weekly, some provide monthly), almost any coach will require that you give feedback on your performance to them so that they can provide ongoing coaching, feedback, criticism, and can make on-the-fly changes to your training.

Some coaches build their individual plans based off of a variety of templates; others may create custom plans for each athlete they coach. “It’s hard to use the same swim workouts for athletes when you have some swimming 1700 yards in an hour, some swimming 4000, some who can do IM strokes, others who can only do free,” said Waterstraat. “Plus, the best way to meet their needs and design their training for their specific races is to take the time to write the workouts just for them.”

Creating customized plans is where the art of coaching is at its finest. “I see the athlete as a puzzle,” said Eggers. It is during this creationary phase where coaches blend each athlete’s goals, skills, time for training, race plans, and myriad other factors into finest custard. To many athletes, this part of the coaching dynamic is the most important.

While I have touched on communication of information back to a coach herein, and more fully in Tuesday’s post, I cannot underscore the very importance. It’s absolutely critical that you share information about your workouts with your coach. Otherwise, you won’t actualize the real benefits of working in a relationship coaching setting. Many coaches have athletes load workouts on vendor websites (such as Training Peaks), through discussion board sites (for example, Beginner Triathlete), or through proprietary web sites. Other coaches are less tech savvy and will take feedback via phone, email, or fax.

Nutrition Coaching

Pick up any Triathlon magazine or spend much time reading about triathlon training on the internet, and you’ll no doubt realize that nutritional excellence is paramount to high performance in a triathlon. Heck, most of us could look back at our own race experiences and know that this is true!

Some, but not all, coaches will provide you with insight into nutrition. Fewer will actually coach you in this regard. You’re likely to see a broad range in what coaches can or are willing to provide.

“It is given as much attention as the swimming, cycling and running. And sometimes more,” said Greenfield.

Many coaches will give some guidance in terms of nutrition, but not actually coach. “I provide nutritional guidance with the caveat that I am not a dietician, yet I have one that I will refer them out to as needed,” said Waterstraat.

I’d recommend that as you’re conducting your due diligence with any prospective coach that you inquire about their knowledgebase with regards to nutrition. If the coach doesn’t have a detailed background in nutrition, and really understanding this component of training is important to you, I’d highly recommend that you contact a sports-related dietician in your area. She will be able to provide detailed information regarding the nutrition needs of endurance-sports junkies like us.

Going with a Group

One part of triathlon training that I haven’t discussed much is triathlon camps and group training. We’ve all seen examples of triathlon camps that are held all over the United States, notably during the spring months and prior to some of the bigger national races (for example Rev3 Cedar Point). Many camps are put on by some of the “bigger name” coaches, some by professional triathletes, and some by local clubs or teams.

Occasionally coaches will plan for group training events or camps on a smaller scale. Typically, these group events are held by local coaches versus regional or national coaches. “We try to do things once a month together for those who are local,” said Eggers.

Other “stuff” a coach might do

Certainly the details in this post are not exhaustive of all the “things” a coach does. For many coaches, what I’ve outlined here is just a starting point. Some coaches will travel to races with you (especially if he has multiple athletes racing the same event). If they don’t travel with you, most coaches will track you online (often sending you texts or emails with assessment and comments so that you can review as soon as you’re done racing). Some coaches will train with you occasionally. Again, this is much more common with local coaches than regional or national coaches.