23 June 2013 1 Comment

Should I get a triathlon coach?

On a recent post I was asked how important is it to get a coach when coming in to the sport of triathlon? I’m in to my eleventh season of competing in triathlons and have never been coached. I’m a solid midfield performer sometimes heading for the dizzy heights of the top third of the results, more often heading for the bottom third. I compete for enjoyment, fitness, challenge etc. Would I have finished higher up the field if I had been coached? Probably.Would I reach the dizzy heights of the top end of my age-group rankings? Unlikely.

I have long maintained that the triathlon press have a vested interest in selling the technical nature of the sport: aero cycling kit, complex sports nutrition, training plans, monitoring power and heartrate performance and so on. You could be forgiven for thinking that when picking up a triathlon mag you’d benefit more from the employment of a translator rather than a coach! The underlying message is clear, you need to buy into the triathlon industry to get ahead in tri, and part of that is getting a coach. Actually, I’d argue strongly that your first port of call when starting the sport of triathlon is to join a triathlon club. Taking my club as an example, “City of Lancaster Triathlon” or COLT, we run coached swim sessions, openwater swims, run sessions and have group bike rides throughout the year. When attending these sessions you’ll be mixing with athletes who have multiple Ironman finishes, achieved Ironman World Championships qualifying slots, age group medals at all distances, and most important of all, a willingness to share their experiences. Demystifying triathlon is probably the number one priority when starting out, and who better to ask than someone who has been there and done it all over the world. Never be afraid to ask questions, no matter how obvious they might seem, we’ve all had to start somewhere and the friendly chatter on a Sunday morning club ride can be a mine of useful information. It’s amazing how much you’ll learn about triathlon from joining a club and it will provide you with a great network of contacts, advice and training partners that no matter what level you compete at you’ll benefit from being in a club.

Within COLT, however, ?there are many who do have a personal coach as well. Sometimes it will be to tackle a specific weakness in performance such as swim technique. I recently visited Richard Mason, our club captain and professional coach to devise a strength and conditioning routine for me to try and overcome the ankle tendinitis and muscle pulls I have suffered from in the last two years (so far so good). For others it will be to provide a training program that will get them to the finish line of their chosen target in a certain time – the coach is providing a structure for training, quality feedback, setting targets and is hopefully a motivator for you to get the key sessions done. And for some they’ll hire a coach on an occasional basis to provide accurate fitness testing and a feedback loop for ideas and training that they are planning themselves.

It’s worth bearing in mind that there is a distinct difference between specific technique coaching and general performance coaching. Technique coaches will operate on one to one or with small groups on the poolside or running track. General performance coaches will devise a training program for you to follow. They will require accurate feedback of your performances in training as they aren’t going to be with you on every training ride and run. This means you’ll need to invest in monitoring equipment that might range from a simple heartrate monitor at the basic end of the spectrum to expensive power monitoring equipment at the top (you won’t get much change from ?1500 for a Powertap rear wheel and Garmin computer to record the output). Top triathletes will employ a team of coaches to look after different aspects of their performance.

Finally, it might be that buying into a structured training program is the confidence boost you need to get you to the finish of your first Ironman or even sprint triathlon. ?There’s a world of difference between saying “Next year i’m going to finish an Ironman,” and actually breaking down that huge challenge into a series of manageable steps. Reading books and articles on the subject may actually be disheartening (see my post on Ironman Machismo) and employing a coach might be just what is needed.

So, getting a coach won’t be cheap, but only you can say whether the extra motivation, discipline, skill and structure that a coach will hopefully impose on your training meets your ambitions in the sport.

One last thought. Getting a coach means developing a very personal relationship with an individual based on trust. My post on difficulties in swimming front crawl has received some interesting comments from would be Ironmen for whom coaching is adding enormous stress and anxiety to their build up. In short, the coach has lost sight of the big picture and insisting on front crawl training when it’s completely obvious that for a first Ironman reducing stress and finishing has to be the number one priority and breaststroke is the way to go for this particular athlete (read the comment thread).

I’d love to hear your experiences of triathlon coaching.

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One Response to “Should I get a triathlon coach?”

  1. Donna D 27 June 2013 at 4:33 pm #

    I have coaches (multiple) because, as an athlete with some physical challenges, it seemed to me the most sensible way to achieve my goals. I can drawing on the experiences of professionals to get advice, and in swimming and running, I can target improvement while minimising risks of injury – especially through one-on-one technique based coaching.

    I would say that when dealing with a coach, being able to feel comfortable with the person you choose is key. And equally you need to be able to pull the plug when it is not working for you, with no regrets. What do I mean by comfortable? One of the things I use my coach for is to spot patterns. So I will give you an example: as a female athlete with a male coach, this means my coach sees “a certain type of pattern” spotting that I do to pinpoint the effects of my monthly cycle on performance and training. Comfort and free communication is paramount – for example, women may not be comfortable discussing certain issues with a male coach. If you can’t have open communications with a person, or feel like you cannot develop them, then you need to rethink your choice of a coach. This extends to manner and method of communication. I have learned that I cannot work with coaches that solely rely on spreadsheet based logging to monitor their athletes – I prefer iPhone applications to do my logging. You need to log to be able to give a coach data and feedback on your training to plan, to make the experience worthwhile.

    Just some points to keep in mind!

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