You have been thinking about looking for a coach for a while, but don’t know where to start. How do you find the right triathlon coach? In this blog I explain which questions to ask to find the triathlon coach that suits you best.
Let’s be honest: the whole idea of leaving your triathlon life in the care of someone else is a bit scary. If all goes well, a coach is much more than the one who makes the training schedule. The combination of swimming, cycling and running is complex and requires much time and energy. A triathlon coach helps you to get most out of your available hours and motivates and mirrors you. How do you ensure that sports complements your other responsibilities and how do you keep the balance? A coach can also advise you on how to spend your triathlon budget most effectively. Do you invest in a training camp or a new bike? Or is it wiser to first do that running analysis or bike fit? The triathlon sport offers plenty of opportunities to spend your money.
I’ve been on both sides of the athlete-coach relationship. In this article I share my experiences that hopefully help you make the right choice.
What do I expect from my coach?
Before starting your search, it is good to list what you expect from your coach. A beginner looking to debut in a sprint triathlon has different expectations than a top age grouper looking to qualify for Kona. The beginner may still need to learn front crawl, become trainable, and know what to pack for her first triathlon. The age grouper may want to know which race gives him the best chances of qualifying, how to plan training camps, and what race and training program will help him get to Kona.
Are you looking for a cheerleader or a drill sergeant, someone who gives you space or someone who is in your neck? Every coach has his own coaching style. It is up to you to determine which style suits you best. Ask your aspiring coaches what their style is, or talk to the athletes that have experience with the coaches on your shortlist.
Education and experience
In triathlon, experience is of high value. It is great if your coach knows how the night before an Ironman feels like and has experienced how much it can hurt if your training effort is not rewarded with the performance you know you have in you. That is why you see lots of (former) triathletes among coaches, but there are also good coaches who have never done a triathlete. Just because someone has been a good triathlete does not necessarily make her or him a good triathlon coach. One of the pitfalls is applying the ‘success recipe’ that worked for the coach to the athletes, or projecting the coach’s experiences onto the athlete’s experience. That is why you can ask which relevant educations your coach has completed. Also ask what results have been achieved by athletes who have trained under your prospective triathlon coach.
Training philosophy and platform
If you search the internet for training theory, you will discover there are multiple approaches. Every coach has her own training philosophy. You may also have your ideas about training principles. Ask your prospective coach about intensity, volume, and recovery. This is where the variation is greatest. The combination of these three determines how you perform and how much fun you will get from your workouts. Also check whether your coach works which her own platform or with reputable platforms like TrainingPeaks or GoldenCheetah.
Share of mind
If you hire a personal coach it is good to check how much time and attention he or she has for you. Find out if your coach is full-time occupied with coaching of if it is combined with a full-time job or a career as a professional triathlete. You may ask how many athletes someone is coaching and what other responsibilities your prospective coach has. This way you can determine whether you will receive the attention you desire. And, at the larger companies, also check whether you will actually be coached by the head coach or another member of the coaching team.
You may expect a lot from your coach – but not everything. There are coaches who master multiple disciplines. For instance, sports massage, nutritional advice, bike fit or swim technique analyses. Remember that everyone is limited in knowledge and skills. Breadth oftentimes comes at the expense of depth. For me, coaching, making training programs and exercise testing is the core. Over the years, I have built a network of specialists, including physiotherapists, bike fitters, medical professionals, a running technique analyst, nutritionists and specialists in swim technique analysis. That network helps me to not having to pretend to know everything and gives me the opportunity to refer to specialists. It also works the other way around: people in my network regularly refer athletes to me who are looking for a coach.
Ask if your potential coach performs any form of exercise tests. These can range from field tests to portable metabolic analyzers and lactate tests. Find out how she or he is determining the trainability of athletes, how training zones are determined and if and how progression is measured. Most athletes have done a SMA assessment, which is advisable. This way you have an overall assessment of your health and fitness and know whether your heart, lungs and body are healthy and can handle training load. However, the zones produced by a SMA-test become less relevant as time progresses. Too often I have athletes digging up an old SMA report from the catacombs of their cloud that lists the zones at that time – which they still apply in their training. Whilst the whole idea of training is that zones shift and develop. That is why I have integrated periodic exercise tests into my coaching package. We thereby regularly calibrate training zones, reassure we train at the right intensities and can objectively measure progress.
However fancy a coach’s website may be, and whatever performances a coach may have achieved with his athletes: if there is no click between you and the coach, it is questionable whether it is wise to start. Obviously, the athlete-coach relationship may and will develop over time, but you need that difficult-to-define but o-so important gut feeling to start a coaching journey. A simple way to get a first impression is to take the phone and just call your prospective coaches. This will give you a first impression of their reaction time and whether you have a personal match.
Contact is essential in any athlete-coach relationship. Ideally, you will have regular personal contact with your coach – by phone, or with Zoom or Teams. Mail and app will supplement that. This will help you to build trust. In one-to-one conversations, you can ask questions that go beyond the matters to be discussed via email or app. Personal conversations also help the coach to transfer tacit knowledge. It is up to you to decide how often you need to speak with your coach. Once every four weeks is what I consider the minimum. For athletes who are ambitious and want to be quick on the ball, weekly contact is very useful, with the possibility to fine-tune on a day-by-day basis.
You should feel you can trust your coach, and the coach should be convinced that the goals the athlete has formulated are realistic and attainable. It is essential that you and your coach are in the same boat, and both of you are committed to your goals. The athlete-coach relationship should foster open, honest, and transparent communication. This helps to both do what is needed to help you reach your goals.
What does a coach cost? Prices for coaching (just to be clear: a Personal Training Program is a different service than coaching) starts around €75 per month. That can go up to €1500 and more for international top coaches. It’s up to you to decide what you want to spend on a triathlon coach and what rate you think he or she is worth. Carefully check what a coach offers: does the coaching include exercise tests, are there group training sessions, and is your training program indeed one-to-one?
Go for it!
Once you have made your choice for a coach, had your intake interview and your first training schedule is ready, the ball is in your court. That takes dedication. Just do the program. Your coach obviously will give you the space to ask what is the idea behind your program. The core is simple: do what it says. If you adjust the plan without consultation, you can’t experience how the programs works for you. Every workout has a purpose and fits into the bigger plan. Consult with your coach if you have any doubts or questions. You pay for an expert, so use that expertise. And enjoy the endurance journey you now travel together with your coach, pushing boundaries and experiencing the most beautiful sport there is!