What to Look For in a Running Coach
Advice & reflections from 8 years of coaching
On Tuesday, I published bonus content for paid subscribers that included a story of my run last weekend with ultrarunner Mike Wardian, who’s running at least 50 miles a day across the whole country. I also recapped our last online meetup, addressing the question of when to tough out pain during a run versus when to stop. I greatly appreciate the support of paid subscribers and look forward to our monthly Zooms where we talk about running, wellness, life’s challenges, and more. Please consider subscribing at the supporter level for $6/month to gain access to extra content plus a monthly meetup.
For the past eight years, “coach” has been the part-time job title that defined me most and brought the greatest career satisfaction to this phase of life. Nothing beats guiding and witnessing the transformation of a mid-pack midlife runner who transforms into a true athlete and uncovers their potential through months of determined and consistent training. And nothing rivals the satisfaction of tracking a client on a race day, observing her or him nail an “A” goal and then receiving a finish-line text bursting with their gratitude for my coaching. I’ve heard countless times, “Couldn’t have done it without you!”
But after working with nearly 150 individuals over these years, I’m taking an indefinite break. I stopped accepting new clients several months ago, and I’m only coaching a few remaining until they finish their training blocks.
As I developed and improved my practice over the years, I occasionally heard of other coaches engaging in methods that struck me as cutting corners and valuing volume over individualization. The run coach business is burgeoning as the sport grows. With no barrier to entry, anyone can call themself a coach and start taking people’s money for it, potentially hurting more than helping a client.
So, how do you find a good coach who’s a good fit? Hint: Look deeper than the coach’s own running accomplishments, and ask very specific questions. A great runner does not always make a great coach.
It’s important to know what to look for when you google run coaches, and what to ask when you contact them.
If you’re wondering about the “why” and “what’s next” for my coaching retirement, I realized over the past six or so months that I’m ready for a change and seeking work with greater community impact. While I care a great deal about my clients and enjoy our rapport, I’ve become a bit burned out on the actual work of developing custom weekly training plans.
To do more hands-on work locally, I became the leader of a service organization (Telluride Rotary)—a volunteer position that takes several hours weekly—and started substitute teaching for the local school district. This summer I’ll focus on my ultra training and a writing project, and then restart teaching two to three times a week in late August. I would still make time for coaching consultations (hour-long video calls to plan a training block and choose races, or to discuss specific aspects of training), but I’m retiring my regular coaching practice for now.
What to look for and what to ask
Let’s say you find a mountain/ultra/trail coach online who has an impressive lineup of race PRs and podium finishes, and who has earned a coaching certification (such as that by UESCA). That’s a good starting point. But it tells you very little about the coach’s method.
Several notable runners who take up coaching give little individual attention to clients—or, they might focus on top-level clients and virtually ignore their less exceptional ones. I know this because several of my clients previously had worked with one of the most popular (and in my view, overrated) coaches in the business, and they left that person feeling unsatisfied and neglected.
To give another example, I know of one elite-level ultrarunner who took up coaching as a side gig. This person will design a month’s worth of training plans for a client (which I suspect involves a lot of cut-and-paste from generic plans), take a monthly fee, and then not check in with the client for those four weeks. If the client gets sick and has to take days off, and then is struggling with how to restart their training plan, too bad.
When you get in touch, ask:
What level of customization do you offer, and how frequently do you update and modify plans? Do not go with a coach who offers a standard non-custom plan (e.g. “16 weeks to a 50K!”) or a lot of cut-and-paste between clients. Also, beware of coaches who give you a plan for one to three months with little to no checking in and modifying. Personally, I update a client’s plans every two weeks, and I check in before doing the plan to find out about the client’s schedule or unusual life stressors so we can plan around that.
How many clients do you have, and do you coach full time or have another job? Some coaches have 30 to 50 or more clients, which I suppose they can handle if it’s a full-time job, but I could only handle half that many at most. I always wanted to keep my coaching to 10 - 12 hours per week, so 10 - 12 clients were my sweet spot. Any more, and I would start to have difficulty keeping track of who’s training for what and giving each personal attention. Be skeptical that high-volume coaches will give you much customization and be available for communicating on a regular basis, especially if they work another demanding job.
Are there any limits on coach-client communication? A client should be able to ask a coach questions, or provide feedback, as much as needed. I would not recommend a coach who puts limits on communication. Granted, I had some chatty and needy clients who went overboard with their daily hairsplitting questions, but if I felt they were demanding a bit too much time, then I handled it by answering less frequently and a little more bluntly. I would not, however, tell them they could only text me X times a week.
How much guidance do you give per workout? Ask to see a sample of one of the coach’s plans to get a sense of the level of detail they provide. If a day’s workout simply says “16 long” but offers no guidance about the route’s characteristics (e.g. elevation profile and terrain), pace, hydration/fueling tips, etc., then you’re not getting much. I generally write one to four or more paragraphs of guidance for a client’s run, with tips on pacing, run form, mid-run fueling/hydration, mental strategies, and more.
What platform do you use? I would not recommend a coach who uses a simple spreadsheet. Sure, some good coaches out there use an “old school” method, perhaps supplemented by monitoring a client’s Strava, but it’s inefficient and misses out on leveraging accumulated data and communication tools. Look for a coach who uses TrainingPeaks. In my view, TrainingPeaks is the best coaching platform for coach-client communication, data analysis, and special features. It costs coaches $49/month to subscribe, and if a coach is too budget-conscious to pay for a professional platform, then that’s a red flag about their professionalism. Below is a somewhat random screenshot of a 50-mile week I designed for a client, to show what TrainingPeaks looks like. If you were to click on any of those boxes in the live version, it would expand to show my detailed custom guidance for the workout. After the client completes the workout and uploads data from a smartwatch, then the client adds notes about how the workout went. You can see on the righthand side useful accumulated data, such as the week’s stress score and acute fatigue, which helps the coach design plans with a training load that waxes and wanes depending on the client’s long-range plan and goals. Also, each run workout expands to show the client’s route map and other data (such as pace, heart rate, elevation) during the run.
Do you include any drills or strength and mobility workouts in the week? How about form feedback? I believe it’s important to layer different forms of conditioning into the week, as appropriate given where the client is in a training block vis a vis their goal race(s), and also to see a client run. I had almost all of my clients get someone to film them running (straight-on and side to side), so I could watch the video in slow-mo and offer feedback. Some form flaws are easy to spot and offer guidance to fix, such as an inefficient arm swing, poor posture, or a pounding and thudding footstrike. Many online coaches never see their clients run.
What kind of pre-race consultation do you offer? In my view, a coach should offer strategy sessions at no extra charge. I host video calls lasting 30 to 60 minutes with my clients approximately two weeks before their important races, and we screen share to study the course map and elevation profile, aid station location, etc., to fine-tune their race-day strategy. We also work on their mental game to talk through race-day anxieties and prepare mentally for trouble-shooting.
Who have you learned from or received coaching from? Good coaching takes experience plus education. Ask a prospective coach if they’ve been coached by anyone, and whose methods they adapt or follow. I had coaches early on in my running career who shaped me and helped me understand the value of a coach-client relationship. Also early on, I learned fundamentals from the Road Runners Club of America coaching program. As I developed as a trail/ultra runner, I enhanced my knowledge and developed my coaching methods by following the books, podcasts, and blogs of respected coaches, most notably Jason Koop (book, podcast, and his training camp) and Mario Fraioli (weekly newsletter and podcast). I also regularly read coaching articles from TrainingPeaks and UESCA (United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy) for continuing education.
Finally, ask for a reference. Try to talk to one of the coach’s current clients to ask about their experience. Go with an experienced coach; don’t be someone’s guinea pig!
What you should pay
For the most part, in my view, run coaches are underpaid, and they undercut one another with budget-oriented package prices.
I charged $75/week for custom training plans and all the consultation that goes with it. I spent on average one hour per week per client (I’d spend more than an hour on the week when I updated their two-week plan, then a little less than an hour on the “off” week when I’d only check in with their training plan notes and correspond with them via email/text). So that’s $75/hour, which is about half of what many personal trainers charge hourly. And my fees were on the high end; several potential clients politely indicated I was too expensive. To them I’d like to say, you get what you pay for, and compare it to what you’d pay a personal trainer or an esthetician for an hour-long service. Granted, those service providers have some of their fees taken away to cover the costs of working in a gym or salon, but still, $75 per hour seems reasonable to me for a professional service with high customization.
Also, ask whether the coach will charge you even when you have an “off” week. Some coaches charge monthly or per package, so you end up paying even when you can’t train. By contrast, if one of my clients got sick or injured and needed to rest, or it made sense for them to self-train and run more by feel than by schedule for a week or more post-ultra, then I would not charge for those weeks.
What you should not expect from a coach
If you’re thinking of hiring a coach, don’t do it for these reasons:
You want a coach to fix your busy schedule. Many clients came to me with overly stretched-thin schedules, thinking, “If I get a coach, then I’ll definitely get my workouts done.” Instead, their training became one more stressor, and they inevitably missed workouts because they had no extra room in their weeks. Hire a coach only if and when you can devote the time and energy to training.
You’re lonely and seeking a training buddy. A coach can and should offer encouragement, motivation, structure, and accountability. Good coaching develops into a supportive relationship, with the coach listening sympathetically to the client’s challenges and anxieties, as these are relevant to coaching insofar as they affect performance. But, coaching should not always or automatically cross over into friendship, and coaches should maintain professional boundaries with their clients. Don’t hire a coach if you really are needing a therapist, and beware of a too-friendly coach who talks inappropriately or excessively about his or her personal life.
You want someone to make you exercise. A coach can design training plans and motivate you, but day after day, it’s up to you. No one can force you to exercise. You, not your coach, have to make it happen.
If you’ve been thinking of hiring a coach, I hope this post helps you. Feel free to contact me if you’d like further advice or a consultation.
Some book recommendations
I just finished a terrific new nonfiction book, The Unseen Body: A Doctor's Journey Through the Hidden Wonders of Human Anatomy by Jonathan Reisman. The author is a well-traveled and adventurous doctor—and an exceptional writer and storyteller— who explains various body parts and fluids in fascinating detail, weaving in case examples about his patients as well as stories from experiences traveling, hunting, and sampling animals’ organs and cuts of meat to better appreciate anatomy. Imagine Anthony Bourdain as a doctor/surgeon, and you might get this book. I read it earlier this month while my mother’s body was failing and dying, and it helped me better understand what was happening to her internally. It also further motivated me to take good care of the one and only body I’ve got.
Another nonfiction book I’d recommend, for anyone with a loved one suffering dementia (as my mother did) and who cares about health and longevity, is Keep Sharp: Build a Better Brain at Any Age by Sanjay Gupta, the CNN medical correspondent. I was reluctant to read this book, thinking I already knew its main take-aways and fearing it would confirm my worries that I might inherit my mother’s cognitive decline. Instead, I found the book empowering, as it helped me understand the myriad causes of cognitive decline, many of which are in our power through healthy living to slow or prevent.
And finally, if you’d like most of my coaching advice distilled into book form, I hope you’ll buy a copy of my 2017 book The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras.
Conditioning for Trail Runners: The Essentials
Then and Now: From parenting to ultrarunning to who knows where
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Just re-read this post as I'm beginning to talk to prospective coaches. This is great info, thanks!
I think this is great advice, Sarah. (And it was fun running into you briefly on the trail at Miwok!) I hired a coach for the first time this year, and it's been awesome, but I wonder if I he charges too little -- $90 / month for a 12 month contract. Do your clients ever give you cash gifts? Would that be weird if a client offered that?