A running coach can help you on many levels to reach your running goals. Depending on your personality, needs, running objectives and talents, different types of coaching and coaching relationships could be appropriate. Anything goes: from a guy with a whistle yelling at you to run harder or a girl who methodically plans your running life, to a critical friend or adviser who you bounce ideas off to help guide your training. Whichever model you think will work for you, one thing a running coach should be able to do is save you from yourself.
Almost every runner of any ability level has been in a position where they have over-trained or made a mistake in their training that has led to an injury, staleness or just plain exhaustion and burnout. A coach can help you avoid these types of errors and remove your worst running nemesis from the equation … you! It’s very hard to be objective when you’re dealing with yourself, all sorts of rationalizations and crazy talk over power the logical part of your brain that would be quite capable of picking the mistakes in a third person’s approach.
The conversation that prevents a running injury
This might be as simple as a conversation that goes like this:
Runner: “My schedule tonight is 6 × 400m, but I’m still a bit sore from my Sunday long run – I reckon I’ll be ok to do the session.”
Coach: “You’d be better off to do an easier run tonight – save the session for tomorrow when you’re feeling fully recovered.”
I left out the bit were the runner tries to convince the coach that everything will be ok. You know that part of the story. So for all the value, this could have been a one minute conversation, a phone call or an email, but whatever the medium, the value of the message is immeasurable to the athlete. Rather than push through a hard session with reduced benefits and increased risk of injury, a more sensible course has been agreed.
Creativity and stimulation
On the other hand, the running coach is there to motivate, challenge, stimulate and support a runner. A creative, resourceful and thinking coach will be constantly on the lookout for new ideas, developing interesting training sessions and striving to find every possible means of improvement available. They’ll also be on the lookout for safe and inspiring places to run and be able to shape balanced training sessions based on the environment available to the runner. But they shouldn’t be a crazy person who rides your successes or failures as if they are their own.
One coach or multiple sources of knowledge and support?
It’s interesting that most runners with a coach have a coach. While there’s great benefit in a productive coach and athlete partnership, this shouldn’t be developed into a closed relationship where new ideas are ignored and other voices cut off from the athlete. I don’t know of any professions where you’d only listen to one person to provide all of the information you need to be successful.
Smart people, coaches and runners cast their net wide and sift through a lot of different information sources and ideas. The real skill and art is then to distill a whole bunch of worthwhile ideas into a coherent approach. This is where an overriding philosophy can help the coach and athlete keep things on track, but still remain open to different ways of doing things.
So when I talk about coaching, this can come from multiple sources and individuals. It’s a good idea to have one person who’s steering the ship, but they shouldn’t have their fingers in their ears and eyes tightly closed when the rest of a smart crew is trying to shout out warnings about the iceberg dead ahead. A coach who allows discussion with outsiders and encourages questions shows better signs of being a balanced human who is secure in their own skin. This is the kind of teacher you want to run with. I don’t subscribe to the it’s my way or bust approach, especially when dealing with adults.
Running is an intense kind of sport filled with highly focused and dedicated individuals. And the higher the level, the more obsessive, driven and demanding the sport and people seem to become. I’m always a bit disappointed when I read about coaches that badmouth athletes when they make a change to another coach or indeed when a runner sticks the knife into the coach when they move on. This is pretty ordinary behavior when you break it down. From the runner’s perspective life is full of great teachers and restricting yourself to one is depriving you of learning opportunities.
If you’re a coach you need to be prepared to give of yourself very freely and not take it personally if someone decided to move on. If you start thinking in terms of your athletes owing you something, you’re starting to drift into dangerous waters. Be happy that you’ve got knowledge to share, do so as best you can, and be prepared to wish people well if and when they decide to make a change. You never know, if you part on good terms you might see them again, or be able to contribute to them as another objective voice as they embark on the next stage of their development as a runner.
You don’t need to be some kind of saintly figure as an athlete or coach, but a general disposition towards plain speaking is an absolute must. Training loads, performance expectations need to be built around realistic assumptions and expectations. Telling someone they can be a champion before they have the runs on the board isn’t a very good idea. On the athlete side of things, being honest about the training you have and have not done is key. And it’s not just about pumping up your numbers, you wouldn’t believe the stories I hear about athletes undertaking secret or extra training to their own detriment.
Runners should reasonably expect a coach to be able to provide new and fresh approaches to running, this helps avoid staleness, enables the development of different aspects of running and also avoids plateaus. If the coach isn’t naturally an ideas person then they should seek out people who are. There are plenty of people who are good at ideas but lack the dedication, drive and people skills of a good coach who is managing a group. It’s all about playing to your strengths and finding people who compliment the skills or attributes that you have. Don’t try and be all things to all people. If those type of people are not to hand, then you need to start reading – there’s many useful books and running blogs now that are filled with great ideas.
I’m not the greatest planner in the world, but I can definitely see its benefit – you need a big picture. Long term direction and medium term goals, the short terms stuff is easier to get your head around. If you have a big picture in mind with your coach, then short term setbacks or slower progress than you’d like are easier to accept. You cannot hurry love or running apparently.
I have to be honest; I tend to think coaches of adult athletes probably don’t need to be massive chest-beating motivators. The kind of runners who seek out a coach as adults are generally pretty self-motivated and driven, so the emphasis is more towards support, encouragement, instilling self-belief and to take care of the aforementioned tendency of runners to self-sabotage. Things are probably different when coaching children, but that’s outside my experience.
Supervision of training
If you’ve got the luxury of having or being a coach that can attend key training sessions you are onto a good thing. Having an outside observer presents all kinds of opportunities. Aside from the obvious encouragement benefit of having someone there, the coach can monitor running form and especially help the runner hit the off button at the right time. Generally this is when the runner can’t maintain the pace and purpose of the training session without technically disintegrating. You don’t need to be a running technique nerd to pick this up; most coaches that have been around running for a while can spot when the wheels are starting to fall off.
The coach should be able to provide some direction in terms of cross training and especially strength training that will be of benefit to help improve running form, build resilience against injury and improve performance. If you’re a coach and you’ve not got a good handle on this, it should be something you do some reading and research on. Alternatively, you might have a conditioning expert that you can work with to help your runners. Just don’t make the assumption that the crew at your local gymnasium has the knowledge to construct and supervise a good strength program for runners. You need to ask questions to ensure sure their approach has merit and makes sense.
The injury doom cycle
A final but vital element is that coaches should help runners avoid getting injured and be there to help manage the recovery process if disaster strikes. Sensible training progression, strength work and a focus on proper running technique will all help as avoidance strategies. However, even with the best will in the world injuries do happen in running. When they occur the coach needs to take an interest in the advice, treatment and rehabilitation that might be suggested to the runner by various physical therapists and experts. Again give it the once over, does it make sense? Ring the people concerned and ask them to explain why they have suggested a certain approach or intervention. If it does not make sense and they are not interested in explaining the why to you then seek a second or third opinion. Remember your runner might not have the confidence to question the person in the white coat – if that’s the case you may need to step up and ask the hard questions. Don’t let your runner spiral into a doom cycle where they are shunted between experts without a coherent diagnosis or sensible rehabilitation plan. Quick fixes such as prescription of orthotics or surgery should be given the once over.
There’s just a few thoughts on coaching and coaching relationships. As a final word you probably want to enjoy the coaching relationship as an athlete or coach – if it’s too much like hard work it’s going to detract from your running or coaching.
Written by Brian Martin