Finding The Right Running Coach
The answer to that question varies from person to person. Whether or not you “need” a coach depends on the type of person you are, not your athletic abilities.
Do you do well with someone giving you a schedule, a plan, motivation, tough love and more? Are you more likely to wake up early and accomplish your task if you have accountability? Do you need some help with scheduling your tricky, busy and seemingly impossible life around this sport? Do you like support and friendship? Do you like to have questions answered about your training from someone other than Google? If you answered yes to most of those questions, then I think a coach is a fantastic idea for you.
I have had a coach since the beginning of my swimming, biking and running adventures in 2010, and I honestly do not think I would have lasted without the support. Especially as a slow and clumsy beginner, I needed someone to help me navigate the muddy waters of training. Sure, at the time I was semi-embarrassed about having a coach as I was slogging through a four-mile run at a 15-minute mile pace. But over the years, a coach has been integral in my development in sports and as a person—I now slog through my four mile runs at a nine to 10-minute mile pace.
Here’s the thing: Many newbies or slower runners feel they can’t possibly hire a coach. I feel your pain. Financial considerations aside, I know how hard it is to reach out, be vulnerable and take the leap. But I do encourage you to think about it, especially if you are the type of person who thrives on support, accountability and help managing a busy schedule.
In recent times, however, as the popularity of running has grown, coaches have become more and more common. Certified or non-certified, virtually anyone can become a coach—whether or not certifications actually mean anything is to be determined. After all, some of the best coaches don’t have the piece of paper—just many years of experience under their belts.
Just like a young lawyer or doctor, a new coach has to start somewhere. I don’t like to knock beginner coaches just because they are new. Instead, the question I like to ask is: What is the motivation behind this person becoming a coach? Is it just about the money? Or do they really want to help new or experienced athletes be the best athletes they can be?
Early in this year, I became acutely aware of an attitude in some coaches that I can’t seem to shake. The attitude from these coaches and the things they are saying actually echoes those of the beginner athlete: I am not good enough. I am too slow. I am too overweight. I don’t deserve a coach. Only it’s more like: YOU are not good enough. YOU are too slow. YOU are too overweight. YOU are lucky to have ME even talking to you, let alone coaching you.
I heard a conversation with a group of coaches early this year that absolutely floored me. A coach declared an athlete unable to train because the athlete was “obese,” full of excuses, and injured. Other coaches chimed in with judgments, blaming it on too many Starbucks Frappuccinos.
My first instinct was, “What in the hell.” To me, the real issue that I saw during the course of the dialogue was notthe athlete—it was, unequivocally, the coach. This particular coach had no issue taking this client’s money—but clearly had issue really being a help, an asset and a friend to this athlete.
A coach should have the fundamental desire to help athletes become the best versions of themselves—they shouldn’t try to immediately change an athlete into what they think they should be. My first coach treated me like an athlete and helped me navigate my way through running as a beginner. I ran slower than a tortoise, but he helped me most by treating me like any other athlete. And guess what? Because of his kindness and motivation, he paved the way for me—all the way to my first Ironman triathlon. I began to think of myself as an athlete because I was becoming one, regardless of my size and speed.
The way in which a coach treats an athlete can either lead to success or failure for beginner athletes. Sure, the responsibility ultimately falls on the athlete. But if a person has spent time with someone who tell her that she isn’t good enough, fast enough or thin enough, who knows what kind of impact that might have. This sport is about more than just data and stats—it’s about the heart, the mind and the people around you.
For those of you who may be coach shopping, look for caring and kindness in your coach. Open your eyes and listen. Ask these questions: Is this coach listening to me? Is this coach nice to me? Even if your coach gives you some tough love, is he or she fundamentally a kind person? Is this coach the type of person who will help me reach my goals?
Finally, a coach should be real with you. If they know you aren’t ready for a race, they have a duty to tell you the truth and not to make false promises.
At the end of the day, the goals are yours. If the coach can’t help you, move on. As I said, there are many wonderful coaches, and with the right search tactics, you will find someone who will help you change your life.
Meredith Atwood (@SwimBikeMom)is a weekly contributor to Women’s Running. She is a four-time IRONMAN triathlete, recovering attorney, motivational speaker and author of Triathlon for the Every Woman. She is also the host of the hit podcast The Same 24 Hours, a show which interviews interesting people who make the best of the 24 hours in each day. Meredith has two books coming out in the Spring and Fall of 2019. Read more at SwimBikeMom.com.