Ultra Coaching : why and how to select one


Why Hire a Coach?

If you ask most ultra runners about their training, many will acknowledge working with a coach at one point in time. Why? Well, the obvious reason is to have someone else help prepare you for a given distance or race. However, hiring a coach is so much more than just a training plan. A coach is someone who can help keep you on track, motivate you to get your butt out the door or pull in the reigns when necessary. A coach is also someone who can objectively look at your training and be a mentor as you prepare for upcoming races.

It’s easy to get caught up in your own mind when you are training- comparing yourself to others, feeling down about your performance in workouts, or being over ambitious in a long run. You can literally drive yourself bonkers and become a head case. Not to mention overtraining and increasing likelihood of injury and illness.

A coach is there to keep you from becoming your own worst enemy.  A coach can encourage you when you need it and help keep you on track. Yes, you need to take the day off. No, you cannot run 4 hours today. Sometimes we already know the answer, but we need the affirmation of an outside source we trust.

I have a coach.

I have been a runner for years, have studied exercise physiology for the last 10 years, and am a coach myself. BUT I STILL NEED A COACH. It’s really hard to write yourself a training plan and stick to it. Who do you ask when you have questions? How can you determine if you are doing too much or too little? What happens when you compare yourself to others?

If you were to ask my coach, Ian Torrence, how his role as my coach he would probably refer to the amount of time he spends encouraging me, affirming what I’m doing is correct, and building up my confidence. He also keeps me from running myself into the ground, and in his words “keeping me from becoming my own worst enemy.” I digress.

The point is, I think all runners can benefit from having a coach.

From beginner up to elite, a coach can help bring out the greatest potential in a runner.

A coach is really there to encourage you when you need it and help direct you back on track. There is no such thing as a perfect build up to a race. Training plans are not one-size fits all. Each individual is different and how they respond to training depends on age, gender, fitness level, physiology, lifestyle, goals, personality, genetics, etc. etc. The job of a coach is to take all these variables into account and develop a training plan that fits individual needs. Thus, working with a coach results in more effective training and improved performance compared to just winging it or mimicking another runners training plan.

So how do you find a coach?

A simple google search of “online running coach” yields thousands of results. How do you choose? It can be overwhelming to sort through all the options. The first and most important thing to look for in a coach is someone who is a good match for you. You want to feel comfortable and trust your coach 100%. Look for someone who’s goals and personality aligns with yours.

Next, consider the services the coach provides. Some coaches provide more than just a training plan, such as regular communication, in-person meetings, training logs, physiology testing, etc. For some, more interaction is important to stay on track and check in more frequently. For others, a bare bones training plan is all they need to stay on track. Consider your personality and how much interaction you will need to feel like you are on track. For most athletes, regular communication is a good way to stay motivated and feel confident about the training.

Third, what are the coach’s credentials? This is a tough one, as there are no good certifications that demonstrate an expertise in the area. The first thing I would look for is an educational background in exercise science or a related field. You want your coach to know a thing or two about exercise physiology and how the body responds to training. Equally important is experience, either from a background in coaching or from training and racing themselves. Training on paper can be much different than in application.  You want your coach to understand and relate to what it’s like to prescribe a 4-hour run.

Ultimately, you have to find a coach that aligns with your needs, including services, cost, program, and goals. One of the best ways to learn about successful ultra coaches is word of mouth. Ask around. Who are other runners working with and what do they like about a specific coach? Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Email a potential coach and ask them what they offer and how you could work together. And finally, be open to trying out different ideas and approaches. Sometimes a new idea or training plan can be scary, but if you’ve identified a good coach based on the criteria above, then there is no reason you shouldn’t be successful. Trust your coach. And enjoy getting faster!


About Author

Stephanie Howe , a coach and nutrition consultant at REP Lab in Bend, Oregon, started competing as a nordic skier and migrated to running in college. Stephanie now balances her schedule competing as an elite runner for The North Face, working at REP Lab and teaching at Oregon State University - Cascades in their Exercise Physiology program. You can learn more about Stephanie at REPoregon.com.

1 Comment

  1. Christian Messerschmidt on

    Hi Stephanie, this is very interesting and I agree in many respects. The part that I am struggling with is the remote nature of most runner/coach relationships these days: Based on the communication mix in the famous UCLA study, we see 7 percent verbal, 38 percent vocal and 55 percent visual. Now, in the case of running, we add factors such as form, how the athlete approaches the workout or race and features such as strength training and stretching, etc. Considering that most of today’s “personal online coaching” systems mainly add email and sometimes phone support, how do you suggest we bridge that massive gap?