Wednesday, February 4, 2015

My perspective on coaching: one year later

Following my interview with Coach Mark, I wanted to share my own thoughts about working with a coach over the past year and a bit. If you want to know more about why I hired a coach in the first place, you can read my original post from 2013.
Overall, it’s been an amazing experience. But I thought you might like a bit more insight on what coaching has meant for me. Before I decided to get a coach, I went looking for information. While a lot of articles dealt with the value of having a coach, not many spoke to the detail of it. I thought I would.
One of the best aspects of working with a coach is someone else gets to worry about the planning. Much as I’ve read numerous books on triathlon training (and still read everything that comes out on the topic), I don’t really have the experience to know what I should be doing and when I should be doing it.
Enter Coach Mark, who designs my workout schedule to fit my needs and my goals. And because he sets out what I need to do each day, I rarely make excuses unless I really, really need to. Not to mention I like seeing the workout boxes in Training Peaks turn green when I complete them. It might be silly, but it works for me.
How has this helped? Well, in 2013, I think I swam once a week on average - maybe twice a couple of times right before the Toronto Triathlon Festival. In 2014, I swam 2-3 times a week. In 2013, I didn’t bike much at all after the Toronto Triathlon Festival and before my first marathon. This past year – I biked 3 days a week almost every week leading up to Mississauga. In the summer, I often biked 4 times a week.
In other words, I became consistent with swimming and biking, whereas previously I was really only consistent with running. No doubt that helped a lot for Barrelman…but it also helped with Mississauga. I ran less while preparing for that race than for my first marathon - but with all the cross-training, plus more tailored-to-me run workouts, I was better prepared.
Coach Mark, of course, did all the planning. I just tried to listen to his directions and execute each workout the best I could! It worked.
Most of the time, I work with Coach Mark online. He’ll post my workouts in Training Peaks and then I’ll do them and comment about how they went. He’ll read my commentary and comment back when needed or when I ask a question. I expect this is how most coaches work – and it’s been pretty seamless with Coach Mark.
Thankfully, he’s also been great about explaining things when I’ve been confused – which was a lot, especially early on, given I didn’t have much experience with planned workouts. He’s also sent me articles to read and videos to watch so I can get a better sense of what he’s trying to teach me. I think he’s figured out how much I like the “why?” element of training so will pass things on when they’re relevant.
We talk on the phone on occasion – usually planning related or in advance of races. Before Barrelman, for example, we had quite a long call about race planning and coming up with time goals for each segment of the race. These have been great discussions and really useful to me (also good for keeping me from getting too nervous). I know I could technically arrange calls more often, but I find email works really well most of the time and is a lot quicker for both our schedules.
Face time
Technically, I work with Coach Mark online - but I’m lucky to be able to get some face time as well. Chief among these, of course, is the LPC Florida Triathlon Camp. Before I was coached, I went to that camp and thought it was fantastic. As a coached athlete, there’s the added benefit of having people there who really know me, what my goals are and how I’ve been training. Coach Mark tailored several of my workouts at camp last March to suit my needs. I think he also purposely put me in faster groups than I might have “self-selected” which made me work harder, challenged me more and no doubt helped me get faster.
LPC also runs a bunch of training days in Guelph. Last winter, their schedule meant I could get the bus to Guelph once a month for an in-person swim/run session. These were awesome because I got to really chat with Coach Mark on several of the runs.
Aside: Two of these runs were in the snow and very cold. If you know me, you know face time with my coach is about the only way you’ll get me to run in the snow.
I also got swim video analysis at a couple of the swims which helped me (and Coach Mark) see where I needed to work on my stroke. I find swimming technique very hard to visualize, so having video helps.
While the timing of the winter sessions didn’t work for me this year (too early in the morning to catch a bus), I am looking forward to going to Guelph later this month for an FTP test. I don’t have a power meter, so not sure how helpful this will be for my actual day-to-day training. To be honest, I am mostly doing it because I am curious about how Trainer Road’s estimates of my FTP differ from the real thing (I expect my coach is too). I’ll do a blog post afterwards discussing it for others who might be interested.
Aside: I am sure the FTP test will make me want a real power meter…but I can’t see that happening anytime soon. Unless…Does anyone want to loan/give me a power meter in exchange for article writing or blog posts?
Problem solving
One thing I can’t thank Coach Mark enough for is thinking outside the box on my behalf. I might be easy to coach in some ways – but am probably quite challenging in others. Not that Coach Mark would say so.
For example - you probably all know that I’m a tentative cyclist. I hate riding on roads (and I live in Toronto). I’m afraid of traffic (and I live in Toronto). I can’t ride in the aero position to save my life (alas, nothing to do with living in Toronto).
In reality, I can barely take my hands off my handlebars (and I’ve been trying…and trying…and trying). The fact I no longer ride clutching on for dear life is an improvement – but I have a (very) long way to go.
These are pretty big limiters when it comes to triathlon – especially when the bike is the longest part of any race. Given I plan to ride 180km next November sandwiched between a 3.8km swim and a marathon…well, you’d think I was crazy.
But Coach Mark didn’t laugh. He didn’t tell me I was a doorknob for signing up for long races despite not being able to drink from a water bottle. Nope, last summer he just helped me figure out how to get nutrition on the bike without needing to reach for a bottle (i.e., he recommended I buy and learn to use a Camelbak….which took two months of trial and error - but worked perfectly at Barrelman). He figured out workouts I could do to build strength/speed outside when I hate riding on roads (except in races: I love riding in races!). He’s also the one who suggested Trainer Road to focus my indoor bike workouts.
And that’s just one example…the tip of the iceberg.
Most people hire coaches because they want to improve their results. So I figured I should mention those too.
When it came to my two big races this past year, Coach Mark helped me achieve a 3:50:56 finish at the Mississauga Marathon (a 25 minute PB over my first marathon) on an incredibly windy (~40-50km/h) day. He also helped me to finish my first half-iron triathlon in 6:13:12 - smiling and a couple of minutes under my goal time. At Barrelman in particular, I finished the race feeling good – so unexpected! That to me was the most important result that day.
In addition to doing well at my two goal races, I PB’d at every race distance I did last year – from 5k, 10k, half marathon (during Mississauga), and 30k (during Mississauga), to both Sprint and Olympic distance triathlons. Okay, the sprint I did technically had a shortened swim…but I PB’d both the run and the bike for the course, so I figure it counts.
Sure, some of that can be chalked up to more experience. Given I just started running 3 years ago, I (hope) I still have a lot of room for improvement. But getting a little faster and getting a lot faster are two different things…the a lot faster is thanks to Coach Mark I am sure.
Joining a community
As an aside, one thing I didn’t expect from hiring a personal coach was just how much of a community I’d be joining. The athletes who make up teamLPC are so diverse. Young and not-so-young, elite to newbie, from Canada and from around the world. But they are all awesome. Everyone I’ve met – whether at the Florida Triathlon Camp, the group training sessions in Guelph, on Facebook, or at races – have always been amazing.
As much as I learn from Coach Mark every day, I’ve also learned a lot from – and been incredibly inspired by – other members of teamLPC.  That’s one of the reasons I plan to profile some members of teamLPC in future posts. I’m sure they’ll inspire you too.
Verdict: Having a coach can make a huge difference
For me, hiring a coach was exactly the right decision. Coach Mark has helped me achieve my goals and then some – and done it in such a way that just makes me eager to see what else I can do.
Now, I will be honest. Having a coach is my biggest training expense. But, it’s a price I’d recommend paying over pretty much anything else (besides a basic gym/pool membership if you need one) if you can afford it.
Why? Because a good coach will help you improve across the board: Swim, bike and run – and improve on them together (that’s what triathlon is all about, after all). Plus they (well, Coach Mark does anyways) can provide advice on nutrition, core/agility work to keep you healthy and everything else in between.
Really, if you’re on a budget, a good coach can be an incredible value – because you likely don’t need to spend any more money to get better. You might want to (and can easily spend a fortune if you have it!), but you don’t need to.
Key success factors
Hiring a coach isn’t a guarantee of success. Sometimes, the unexpected happens: a flat tire, bad weather, you get a cold – and a million other inexplicable things. But a good coach can (and in my case, really has) help you get better – which means you will be better prepared no matter what happens on race day.
But what can you do to get the most out of working with a coach? Here are my thoughts:
  • Talk to potential coaches: People are different – and so are coaches. A coach that works for me or for your best friend might not be the best one for you. You can tell a lot from having a conversation with a coach or two…get their thoughts before you commit. Make sure they appreciate who you are and what your personal goals are. We all have different motivations. Make sure any coach you go with recognizes your motivations and will help you achieve what you want to achieve.
  • Recognize that your coach can’t read your mind: If you don’t understand something, ask. If you want more information, ask.  If you want to know why you are doing a particular session, ask. Basically: ask questions when you need to.
  • Respect your coach’s time: This might just be me, but I know how annoying it is to get 50 emails on 50 different topics on the same day. Respect your coach has a life. When you can, group your questions together and ask them all at once. Save the urgent text messages for things that are time sensitive (i.e.: I can’t swim today – can I do tomorrow’s bike instead?). I personally tend to make suggestions when I can’t do something (see previous example)…which makes it easy for my coach to say “Sounds good”…unless it doesn’t, in which case, he’ll suggest something else.
  • Take advantage of group training opportunities: If your coach offers free group training sessions (some do and some don’t), take advantage of them. They are a great way to meet other people and to get face-to-face time with your coach. I can’t make most of the LPC sessions, but the ones I have been to have been fantastic. Same goes for camps, etc. If you’re going to go to one, see if your coach offers one first. Chances are as a coached athlete, you’ll get some sort of discount – and you’ll have the benefit of working with a coach/coaches that know you.
  • Trust your coach: This goes without saying. If you hire a coach, you really should trust him or her. Why spend the money otherwise? That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask questions and that you always need to agree with what they recommend (although most of the time you probably should) – just that you need to trust they know what they’re doing and that they’re plan will help you be successful.
  • Be honest: When it comes to your training, be honest with your coach. I can’t imagine any coach expects you to nail every single workout. If you do, your plan might not be hard enough. But don’t be afraid to say you can’t do a workout, or to say you skipped one. Make sure your coach knows if you’re stressed from work or feel exhausted. These things can all factor into how well you do a workout and might mean your coach suggests you do something else. Sometimes rest really is the right answer. Think of your coach as a co-conspirator…they want to help you succeed. But they can’t plan if they don’t know all the facts.
So there you have it. Highlights of my experience working with Coach Mark of Loaring Personal Coaching. I hope you found some of this interesting and possibly helpful if you're thinking about hiring your own coach.

Happy to answer any questions you might have about working with a coach. Just post them in the comments!