As runners and triathletes, we know there’s more to training than just putting in the miles. There’s also speed work, hills, strength training, skill development, nutrition, and mental training. But where do you go to for advice? How do you chose between a pre-made plan and a coach? Where can you learn to get the maximum benefit out of your training so that you’re not wasting time?
There are many options available to guide you in your journey to becoming a better athlete. Looking up general training advice in books, magazines, and online will only take you so far. If you’re not able to adjust your workouts and annual training plan, then improving your weaknesses while maintaining your strengths will be difficult. This is when buying a pre-made plan or hiring a coach may be more beneficial for you.
While it may sound like a simple decision between two choices, it’s anything but simple. In fact, it can feel overwhelming trying to decide not only which choice is best for your next race, but which coach or which plan to choose from.
How do you choose between a pre-made plan and a coach
and how do you know what to look for?
Let’s break down your choices to simplify the process and cut out the confusion. You might find that one of these choices is better for you than you thought it would be.
Buying a Plan
I’ll be the first to tell you that you CAN finish a race (and even do well) with a pre-made plan.
You can find plans online or in a book. Prices vary considerably, but it’s a smaller cost of investment compared to hiring a coach. Pre-made plans can work well for you if you have a steady, predictable schedule and are good at self-motivating yourself. You should also be able to impartially self-monitor your training and recovery so that you’re able to progress and adjust when needed.
Pre-made plans are built with the average athlete in mind
Pre-made plans are built with the average athlete in mind. In other words, we’re assuming the athlete is balanced in all aspects of their training and ability. Some plans do take into account athletes of a certain ability level or who are looking to improve one particular aspect of their sport. In these cases, you’ll want to specifically look for plans that indicate what the focus is. For instance, you might look for a triathlon plan with a run focus or a running plan for intermediate runners.
Plans are also available for specific races. For instance, if your goal race is the NYC Marathon or the Lake Placid Ironman, then you should look for plans that say they are built for those races as opposed to a generic marathon or Ironman plan. While a generic plan might work for you, the reason for getting the race specific plan is that the training is built to account for the particular demands of that race.
When shopping for a pre-made plan, be sure the one you choose is written by a qualified coach. Buying a plan from a certified, experienced, and qualified coach means they will have built a periodized plan based on expected physiological adaptations and responses, not just a plan that worked for another athlete. Unlike hiring a coach, a training plan is static and will not take your schedule or life into account. It is not adjusted for your available time, your needed skill improvement, or your strengths and weaknesses. Any adjustments or rearrangements to your training will have to be done by you. The plan will also not get you beyond the race you bought the plan for, so any training done in between races or during the off-season will either have to be planned out by yourself or you’ll have to purchase another plan for the next race.
With all pre-made plans, certain assumptions are made:
- It’s made for only one type of athlete
- Life or work schedules are not taken into account
- Health & athletic history are not taken into account
- Strengths & weaknesses are not taken into account
Hiring a Coach
When you hire a coach, you receive training that’s customized and built just for you. The goal of a good coach is to monitor their athletes and adjust training in order to account for specific physiological responses and the athlete’s goals. If qualified, a coach will also work with you on your daily and sport nutrition in order to improve both you health and sport performance. A qualified coach can also work with you on form improvement, injury prevention, and strength.
A coach is an excellent investment and time saver since you won’t have to decide which workouts to incorporate into your schedule. Generally, having a coach is a long term commitment. So while you may initially look for a coach to get you through a specific race, most athletes actually stick with their coach for years. A coach’s job isn’t just about building one plan to get you through your goal race. They’ll be building a year long periodized plan to guide you through your seasons and off-seasons.
Two things you should not limit yourself to when shopping for a coach are the coach’s location or their athletic experience.
The first step in choosing a coach is deciding what you need in the coaching relationship and what you want to get out of it. Don’t just hire the first coach you come across. It’s worth the effort to research different coaches in order to find a good coach and to decide which one would be the best fit for you. The best way to do this is to talk to your potential coach before hiring them to see if you would both be a good fit for each other.
Since you won’t be training along side them, your coach does not have to be within a certain geographical location. Their job is to help you reach your goals while remaining healthy, obtaining your goals, and enjoying the sport.
A coach’s athletic experience should also not be a deciding factor when choosing. Being a good coach and being a good athlete are two very different things. In fact, some of the best coaches have never reached the level their athletes have reached.
Coaching prices vary based on the coach’s qualifications, experience, and the amount of interaction you get with that coach. You don’t want a coach who just plugs in cookie cutter numbers and plans without much thought to who you are as both an athlete and person. Coaching should be athlete-centered. We account for your life commitments, time availability, athletic abilities, health, and racing goals.
Coaching is not for everyone; it has to be a good fit for both athlete and coach. You may receive workouts or ways of training that you’re not accustomed to, so it’s good to be open to advice and be willing to do workouts that are prescribed to you. You also must be able to communicate with your coach about how you’re feeling, how the workouts are going, and be able to upload any data from those workouts for your coach to analyze.
Communication is very important in the coach/athlete relationship. Communication goes both ways, so don’t be shy about reaching out to your coach and letting them know how your workouts went or what questions you have.
How important is a coach’s qualifications?
The more you need from a coach, the more relevant qualifications and experience you’ll want to see from that coach. For instance, if all you need is some no frills coaching with well planned out training leading up to a race, then most certified coaches should be able to supply that.
But if you’re looking for more insight into your training, data to be analyzed, form correction, nutrition guidance, and your health and wellness to be improved and integrated with prescribed exercises and workouts, then you’ll need someone who has the educational background, work experience, and knowledge to be able to correctly apply all of that to your life. So besides looking for a certification form a National Governing Body, such as USA Triathlon or USA Track & Field, be sure to look at the coach’s educational background, work experience before becoming a coach, other relevant certifications, and the length of time they’ve been coaching.
A few places to look for a certified coach are:
With custom coaching, your training is prescribed based on:
- Goal races
- Your life and work schedule
- Your current fitness and sport abilities
- Your strengths and weaknesses in the sport
- Your health & athletic history
- The time of year and what part of the season you’re in
How to Choose?
There are a few questions you need to ask yourself before making this big decision. Consider these questions as you decide what’s best for your situation.
- What’s Your Schedule?
If you’re self-motivated and you have a steady, predictable schedule with plenty of time to train, then a pre-made plan is right up your alley.
If your schedule changes frequently or you find that you need to make changes to your training often, then hiring a coach would be better for you.
- Are You Looking For Health & Nutrition Improvement?
If you’re looking to integrate your health and nutrition together with your training, which is the ideal way to make improvements in both health and sport performance, then choosing monthly coaching is the right option for you.
But if you only want workouts planned out for an upcoming race and you have a good handle on your health and nutrition, then a training plan will work for you.
If you’d like to work on your nutrition, but are happy with a pre-made training plan, then another option for you would be to get nutrition coaching along with your pre-made plan.
- How Much Accountability Do You Need?
Getting a pre-made plan when you need accountability is a bad idea. A coach is a much better option here. With a coach, you’ll know that there’s someone on the other side of your workouts waiting for you to complete them and you’ll have someone to discuss and review your training with.
- Have You Plateaued In Your Sport?
If you’ve found yourself unable to improve in your sport, then change is necessary. You can either make the necessary changes to your training yourself by analyzing what you’ve done over the long term or you can hire an expert in the field by reaching out to a qualified coach to aid you in overcoming your staleness.
- Do you Have Multiple DNFs or Have Trouble Racing Successfully?
If you’ve never followed a plan, then you can either purchase a plan to use for your next race or you can hire a coach.
If you have been following plans, then hiring a coach will help fine tune your training, nutrition, and mental game in order to overcome your challenges.
- Do you race to win?
If you race to win or are looking to make it to the next level in your running or triathlon career, hiring a coach is essential. Because you’re looking to reach your full potential, every detail counts. This is more than what a pre-made plan can deliver to you. You need one-on-one expert guidance and monitoring.
- What’s Your Budget?
Decide how much you’re able to spend each month and each year. If that coach that you would love to hire is outside of your budget, ask if they have created any pre-made plans or if they offer the hybrid option of custom plans.
Remember that you get what you pay for. While there are many cheap options out there, they either don’t include everything you need or the coach isn’t as experienced or knowledgeable as much as another. In the end, when you choose a good coach it’s the experience you’ll remember, not the price.
As you shop for a plan and look for the right coach, remember that what works for one person won’t work for everyone. Our personalities, experiences, and needs are different from each other, so while it’s a good idea to get recommendations from others, you have to make the decision that will work best for you and your situation.