What to consider if you’re thinking about getting a coach

I have a coach now I’m running my first ultra marathon – for the first time ever. I feel a bit pro when I say those words to people – “my coach”. A bit like an imposter, like I really must know what I’m doing. Although, of course, I don’t have a clue. And that’s exactly why I have a coach!

I’ve run three marathons and competed in a couple of triathlons and one half Ironman without having a coach – generally I just used free training plans I found online, varied to fit my life and the kinds of workouts I enjoyed doing. These always seemed to work pretty well, and up until I got sick and then hit by a car pre-half Ironman(!!) I was about the fittest I’d ever been (such a shame, I would have loved to see what I could have done had I been in full fitness – but then I was probably overdoing it and that’s why I eventually got ill).

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My first foray into the world of paid training came for Dublin marathon. I wanted a PB and I wanted a significant one (in the end I PBed by over 16 minutes).

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But I didn’t want to pay all the money for a coach, so I bought a personalised training plan instead. For £50 I filled out an online form and was given a plan that fitted the paces I wanted to run, my then running ability, and (hopefully) fitted in with my life. I have to say I was slightly disappointed with it – although this was really my fault. I thought the online form was the first step to a more detailed discussion, so although I was detailed, I perhaps didn’t go into quite as much detail as I could have done. Which meant that the plan included things like mid-week hill workouts, which are just really, really difficult for me to do, living nowhere near any proper hills. I mentioned this and was recommended to try Richmond Park – again, there is just no way I can do that mid-week as it’s so far from my house and the complete opposite direction from work. I probably should have gone into more detail, but actually, I don’t think I would pay for a plan like that again as there are so many good free plans out there that you can easily adapt.  It just wasn’t different enough from a free plan to justify the extra cost.

Having said that – I did get that PB I was seeking, I didn’t get injured, and I really, really enjoyed training for the marathon. There is an extra level of comfort that comes from running distances and paces that you’ve been told to run, it takes a element of questioning away from it. Previously I would make up my paces because obviously the online training plans didn’t really know me or my running levels.

Then I entered an ultra marathon. For this, I really didn’t know what I was doing. And I knew I wanted to enjoy it, not just struggle round, and I wanted advice on strength training and nutrition. I also have a gym in my office so I don’t have to pay for gym membership, meaning I could relatively easily justify much of the extra expenditure.

I found Gemma Carter online. Her rates were reasonable – £80 for the first month and £65 thereafter – and as soon as I discovered she had run my goal race, the North Downs Way, several times, I knew I wanted her as my coach.

How it works 

At the beginning of every week, Gemma sends me a schedule of the workouts I need to complete that week. I can change the times around if I need to but should try to stick pretty closely to what she’s prescribed. It includes runs with target paces and effort levels, some measured in distance, others in time. It also includes (because I asked for it) some swims, cycles, yoga and two strength sessions a week.

I do the workouts – to the extent possible. Obviously the runs are the priority, the cross-training is the first to go in busy weeks, of which I have had many! At the end of the week I provide my feedback on which workouts I managed and how well they worked, and then Gemma takes that info account when coming up with a plan for the next week.

What I like about it 

Not having to think or worry about what I’m doing. I also LOVE the variety. It is so much more varied than any training plan I’ve had before, with (for example) the length and intensity of my runs changing each week. I’m actually really enjoying the shorter, faster efforts (perhaps slightly concerning given I’m meant to be running an ultra….) and I really can’t get bored as they are so different. I’m quite excited every week when my new training plan comes through to see what I’ll be doing.

I also like that it really fits around me, and depending on my feedback, will continue to fit even more around me. Of course, I do have to make time for training. I can’t just say “next week I want a lie-in on Monday and to go out for lunch on Tuesday and I’ll be working late on Wednesday and I’m busy all weekend…” But I CAN say “I have a client lunch this Tuesday so I won’t be able to do my normal interval run” and “I can’t run for longer than about 40 minutes at lunch time as I just have no time” for example.

It also makes me get the workouts in when otherwise I might skip them. This week for example, I’ve had an awful cold and it would have been all too easy to do nothing at all. Instead, I’ve had one day of complete rest and then I have strength trained and been on some easy runs. Each time I have felt much better after I’ve done some exercise and haven’t regretted it at all!

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What I don’t like about it 

Being told what to do. Uh oh. That’s the point of having a coach and also I appreciate its slightly contrary given what I said above! But I do feel a slight resentment to being told what to do and I do always end up changing the plan slightly. I think it’s because I have to, or it makes sense (ie if the plan says to cycle to work on Monday when it’s pouring with rain and not to on Tuesday when the forecast is lovely sun….) but I wonder if that’s just my mind’s way of rationalising trying to gain some element of control!

Of course – it’s early days yet and I’ll provide another update a few months in. For the moment though? I’m really, really pleased I have a coach!

Things to remember if you’re considering getting a coach:

  • cost – on the one hand, you have to be able to afford it, and not feel resentful of the extra cost. On the other, you do get what you pay for. £65 a month? I am not going to be able to send countless emails every week discussing every little detail, or email every time I think I might need to change the plan. It’s just over £15 a week, not a huge amount of money. Therefore I’m really impressed with the level of detail Gemma goes into and the advice she has also given on what trainers to buy, strength training, etc.
  • it will probably be harder – the whole point of having a coach is that they will push you to work a little harder than you would otherwise. Today – I would probably have gone out and run 2 hours slow and easy. Instead I had 60 minutes in the middle of a steady-state pace that I would never have chosen to do myself and so was mentally much tougher in thinking about in advance than it actually was to do! You have to be prepared to push yourself, prepared for it to be harder, in order to get the results that are the reason you’re paying for a coach.
  • get a coach in advance – you might only need a 3 month training plan for your goal race. But if you only start working with a coach 3 months before, you will spend the first few weeks with your coach figuring out what works best and adapting to the new routine. You need time to get used to it! I started working with Gemma six months before my first ultra, a few weeks off the back of a marathon.
  • ENJOY! If you are resentful of your coach, feel you don’t believe in what they say, have a personality clash… move on. We run for fun. We do triathlon for fun. If we choose to pay for a coach, it has to build the enjoyment, not diminish it. There is no shame in moving on.
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3 comments

    • It depends how much is an issue – Gemma is definitely very flexible in that I can tell her the kind of things I want to do and if I can’t manage them on the specific days / at all I just change things around and tell her at the end! I am not sure it would be possible to get a good coach for less than £50 a month though (although I could be wrong!!)

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