Over the past decade, the coaching profession for endurance athletes burgeoned with little barrier to entry, creating the impression you should hire a coach to be a serious, dedicated athlete. Rest assured that you can effectively self-train—if you have the right personality and take a smart approach to it, as described below.
Like many, I hired a coach around the new year, but it wasn’t a simple decision. I have coached myself for more than a decade, and coached scores of clients over eight years. Why fix something that ain’t broke?
Personally, hiring a coach had to do with the desire to revitalize training that felt stale, and so that I could learn from, and experiment with, different coaching methods. The accountability and feedback a good coach provides can’t be found through self-coaching.
But training independently—doing things your way, free of charge—is appealing. You can train more intuitively, like Courtney Dauwalter (who isn’t coached), less beholden to a coach’s workouts that might not fit with your life and all of its stressors.
You’re a good candidate for self-coaching if you’re motivated and driven by a genuine desire to train, and you’re a planner who takes the long view. Also, if you generally finish what you start and you’re a lifelong learner who does a lot of research, you will probably succeed at being your own coach.
By contrast, you may be better off hiring a coach if you’re someone who struggles with organizing your days or who’s susceptible to exercise or nutrition fads. If you lack impulse control, take an all-or-nothing approach to exercise or projects in general, then hiring a coach for a more gradual, moderate, long-term training plan may be the best move for you.
If you decide to coach yourself, here are some suggestions to help you make the most of your training:
Become a student of the sport. Read a few of the excellent how-to books available on ultramarathon training and adapt the advice to build a training block as well as to develop the mental skills necessary for success at ultras. Beware of one-size-fits-all plans that almost certainly don’t fit what’s right for you in terms of your individual level of fitness, life circumstances, or the specifics of the ultra for which you’re training. You can study it as one example of how to develop a training plan, but be sure to adapt it to your individual circumstances and goals.
Use a training log that’s also a planner. Apps like Strava or Garmin Connect are great for generating data about the runs and workouts you complete, but they’re less helpful for building and planning future workouts. In my mind, TrainingPeaks is the best program for creating short- and long-range training plans. Of course, you can be old school and use a paper calendar to map out the progression of daily workouts and the training load leading up to your goal. But I recommend trying the TrainingPeaks tool, which can double as a diary to track your thoughts and feelings around your workouts.
Work backward from an “A” race goal. Once you have your top goal on the calendar—say, Western States 100 on June 24—then work backward from that date. Schedule and plan tapering, peak training runs and any races leading up to the main event. Also factor in periods of travel, vacation or extra-high work stress and consider making those training weeks easier. Then, use the know-how you’ve gleaned from being a student of the sport to outline your week-by-week training.
Fine-tune the plan for each week. Get in a habit each weekend of looking ahead to the upcoming week’s schedule to make your training fit in with your real life. Prioritize high-quality runs (e.g. higher intensity intervals, a medium-length midweek hill run, the weekend long run), and layer shorter, easier runs around those. Also schedule a minimum-but-effective amount of strength and mobility work. If life intervenes and you must miss a run, skip an easy day and try to maintain a commitment to the week’s key workouts.
Create a support network. Try to make dates with runner friends to share the easy runs and long runs at a relaxed conversational pace. Hire a personal trainer or physical therapist for a few sessions to customize a beneficial strength and mobility routine for you. Find others training for your goal race and consider organizing a group training run on the race route, or on a route with a similar profile and terrain.