XTERRA Couch to Trail – Should I hire a coach?

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By 5x XTERRA World Champ, Mimi Stockton

I get asked a lot, “Who’s your coach?” And the answer has always been “No one, I coach myself.”  I have never had a coach throughout all my years of racing.  There have been many times I have contemplated hiring someone to help me properly stay on track and make improvements, but for the most part I have been able to be successful by maintaining a strong work ethic, doing A LOT of research and negotiating what works and doesn’t through trial and error.  Now, this approach does not work for everyone and I believe I am in the minority.  And there were plenty of times (lying on the couch lamenting my stress fracture for one) when having had a coach would have really benefited me, especially when I was a beginner XTERRA racer.

In fact, most age group triathletes can benefit from hiring a coach, at least for a certain time period.  But what are the benefits of hiring a coach and when is the right time to hire a coach?  The benefits are many and I will discuss those below and the answer to the second question really does vary according to each individual.  It’s a sliding scale around three important questions:  1. What is your time worth?  2. How confident are you with your knowledge on how to properly train?  3. Are you continuing to see improvement and progressing as an athlete?

Spending money on a triathlon coach may seem excessive for a sport that already has expensive gear and race entry fees; however, if you consider that you’ll likely be training for a minimum of six months and for at least ten to twenty hours per week, that’s a lot of wasted time if you’re not doing things correctly.  And it’s easy to not do things correctly!  Also, if you’re only participating in one or two races a year, you’ll want to have your best possible performance at every race and a coach can help you do that.
Having a coach helps accelerates the learning curve, helping you to learn good technique and proper triathlon training practices from the beginning.  XTERRA races are not easy.  Some of these races are the first ones where you stand a genuine chance of not completing the race unless you have trained properly.  A poorly designed and executed training plan for any race can lead to a very uncomfortable and potentially unsafe day.  Besides training plans, many coaches offer a wealth of skills and knowledge about the sport (and I’m not talking about zone based training, periodization or nutrition).  Sure, you can glean a lot from the internet and your training buddies, however, for some things, such as mountain bike skills, run form and swim technique, one on one coaching can’t be beat.

Hiring a coach can actually save you money. This may seem counter intuitive to save money by spending money, but learning to do something effectively the first time ultimately saves time (and money)!  XTERRA is an expensive sport, and adding a recurring fee each month for coaching can be a little daunting. However, if you run the numbers, the cost of coaching compared to race fees and your bike is pretty minimal. It is mind boggling when some athletes pop $800 for a wetsuit but will not fork out a quarter of that amount for swim lessons; or when others drop thousands of dollars on a bike or power meter, but are unable to utilize them fully. View the knowledge you gain from your coach as tangible items that you will have forever. Knowledge is power baby!  And once you have that knowledge, no one can take it away from you.

Most athletes have a limited amount of time to train each month and want to make sure they are focusing on the correct things.  There are plenty of “pre-built” plans out there that will give you general proficiency in each discipline but don’t necessarily work on your weaknesses or capitalize on your strengths.  These plans are also usually designed around only one race a season.  Every athlete brings different skill sets and backgrounds to the table in each of the three disciplines.  If you follow a canned training program, you might end up with a lot of “junk miles” that are a waste of time and increase your chance of injury.  Also, rarely do athletes just do one race a season and figuring out how to alter a canned plan for additional races without compromising them can be tricky.  If you are going to devote a lot of time and energy to XTERRA, you should make sure your training is quality training.

Researching races and designing a smart training plan leading to the race are just as important as executing it.  If you have things in your life that require you to deviate from a canned plan regularly or don’t have time to spend researching races and building an annual training calendar, let alone executing it, then having a coach can help with these activities.  All you have to do is get out of bed each day and train (okay, and work, take care of your family, etc.).

Having someone set up your training program also means that you will be accountable to them.  Knowing that a coach is checking your training log to see how specific sessions went and knowing that you have a certain training regimen to follow are all motivating factors in terms of why a lot of individuals seek out coaching in the first place.  While it may be easy to forego that second daily workout on Friday, when there is no one to answer to, the thought of letting down a coach is often enough to motivate you to go to the gym, instead of happy hour, after work.

Ultimately, for a beginner triathlete, a good coach can serve as a mentor and a motivator.  It may sound crazy, but if you’re already a highly motivated person, having a triathlon coach will help hold you back when you do too much (I’m sure almost everyone reading this can relate!). A coach will help you slow down and make sure you take your training at the proper pace.   A good coach will know when to push forward and deeper and also when to back off with regards to workouts, which will vary based on your experience level.  Even for athletes who understand how to build a training schedule, it can be difficult to make the right decisions. A coach can serve as a fatigue manager who is removed from the emotional attachment of training and races. A coach can be objective in doling out both hard workouts and rest days.  In a lot of cases, people just really like a sounding board, a second opinion on what to do and not to do when it comes to training and even race choices.

Furthermore, if you have been training and racing for awhile, you may feel you have hit a plateau.  Nothing you do seems to make you better.  There are a lot of things that can lead to lack of progress as an athlete.  Some people over-train and either never let their body recover enough to step forward or constantly injure themselves, requiring them to take large training breaks.  Some do the same workouts at the same effort level over and over, week in and week out.  Some people change training regimes every few months and never stick with one thing long enough to progress.  Some skip ahead and try to do training at a level that is beyond their experience, again setting themselves up for injury and/or burn out.  A good coach can keep your workouts fresh, hold you accountable, and make sure your plan is right for your experience level.

If you’re seriously thinking about hiring a coach, seek someone out who understands your lifestyle and training goals.  Some coaches specialize in working with new triathletes, women, kids or professionals. Consider the type of athletes your prospective coach is working with and determine whether you think he or she would be a good choice for you.  A good coach-athlete fit is like a relationship:  there needs to be excellent communication on both sides, a certain level of respect, and the athlete needs to have confidence in what the coach is prescribing.  If you buy into a coach’s knowledge and expertise, you’re much more likely to feel like the training is worth doing!  Trust is the single most important concept in a coach/athlete relationship.  It’s a two-way relationship:  1) as an athlete, you must have 100% trust that the program being provided will result in the achievement of your goals, and 2) your coach has to trust that you will execute the program, as planned, with the intended intensities and volumes.  If there is any doubt, in either direction of the coach/athlete relationship, it is likely that you will not make nearly as much progress as you could.  Furthermore, both you and your coach will become frustrated with the relationship, and overall lack of progress.  Regardless of the protocol used, in the end, the bond of trust you and your coach develop will define the progress that you will or will not make.  Let me be clear, this bond does not happen overnight.  It takes time to build this trust.  But if you seek and find a coach with whom you feel comfortable, it’s worth giving him/her full reign of your training.  If you are not comfortable doing this, then I would recommend either not using a coach or finding a different coach with whom that trust can be readily established.  Real long-term progress is a slow, but rewarding, process.  Many athletes are very impatient and want results too quickly.  Typically, in this quest, athletes will undermine long-term progress, by doing inappropriate volumes and intensities, ending up injured and/or burnt out. I firmly believe, and would advise that you should not pursue a coach unless you are ready and willing to give your coach full reign (we’re talking 100%!) of your training.

The bottom line is having a triathlon coach to mentor you, write your training plans, help you reach the next level, and (most importantly) to talk you off the edge when you are freaking out— is, in my opinion, money well spent.  Just remember, keep your expectations in check when you hire a coach.  You need to address what you expect from your coach from the outset.  And also, you need to be realistic.  You cannot expect your coach to attend every one of your races nor can you expect them to make you a star in 4 weeks.  You must be willing to keep an open dialogue and communicate on a regular basis.  This is a relationship you are developing!  If you’re not willing to uphold your end of it, then you’re probably better off going it alone!  And there’s nothing wrong with that…I just hope you don’t end up on the couch with a stress fracture like yours truly.

The XTERRA Couch to XTERRA training series is presented by Sheri Anne Little and five-time XTERRA age group world champion Mimi Stockton of Next Level Endurance. Their new 12-week “Couch-to-XTERRA” training program is designed to do just that, get aspiring athletes off the couch, into training, and to the start line of an XTERRA.