Why You Need A Running Coach

Hiring a professional helps you train smarter and get fitter.

My eyes are locked on the finish line of the 2014 Wineglass Marathon. The sun is shining but the air is cool – a perfect October day. I pass my mother and fiancé whooping and taking photos from the sidewalk. In my mum’s purse there’s a single-serving bottle of champagne from my swag bag that I’d asked her to bring for my post-race celebration.

I’d dreamt of this moment for nearly a year, ever since I hired my coach, Alicia Shay of the Run SMART Project. I had run 13 marathons, finishing many within a five-minute window. I had tried all kinds of plans but felt like I needed help to break through my plateau and qualify for the Boston Marathon, a goal I’d chased for four years. A (fast) colleague told me how a coach helped her take 20 minutes off her PB and smash her required Boston qualifying time.

Working with a coach might seem like a privilege reserved for professional runners, whose livelihoods depend on performance, and an extravagance for everyday runners like me. Yet recreational athletes arguably benefit even more from the attention, knowledge, and guidance of a coach. Paul Sorace, 42, hired coach Janet Hamilton to help him train smarter for his second marathon, and set personal records in five sequential marathons. Sokphal Tun, 35, hired her coach, Clay Battin, to help her bust through a plateau and qualified for the Boston Marathon in the first race she ran. Theodora Blanchfield, 32, worked with coach Jess Underhill to achieve her goal of breaking four hours. Indeed, the business of personal coaching is growing. Options abound, online and in person. While runners in large metro areas may have more “local” coaches to choose from, many still rely on email, phone, text message, or Skype to communicate with clients.

I set up calls with a few coaching candidates to detail my history, my goals, and the amount of time I could devote to improving. My fast colleague’s coach works with the Run SMART Project, which is how I found Shay, who runs professionally for the Nike Elite Trail Team. The right coach is willing to push you when you need to be pushed but also wise enough to rein you in when it’s appropriate, says Hamilton, an exercise physiologist who provides online coaching via RunningStrong.com. He or she is going to look at you as an individual and try to find out what the missing pieces of your puzzle are, then design your training plan around that.

Via emails, texts, and occasional phone calls, Shay helped me train harder and smarter than I ever had. I loved not having to plan my training: I could turn off my brain and just do the work. Whenever I doubted myself, Shay was there to encourage me. Whenever I had a life obligation come up, Shay was there to rearrange my runs. She helped me maintain high (for me) mileage without getting injured or sacrificing quality workouts. By the end of my training cycle, I felt confident, strong, and better prepared than I’d ever been to race 42K. I imagined myself crossing that Wineglass finish line victorious, exhausted but not wrecked, with a huge PB to show for it. I was going to qualify for Boston! I was going to brag on social media! I was going to shake up my mini-bottle of champagne and spray it all over everyone, like Formula 1 drivers do!

Instead, at the finish line, I drenched only myself, with tears and snot instead of bubbly. My legs cramped. My body shivered. I felt like a heap of garbage, which was an improvement over how I felt during the last 16K of the race. I did manage a PB and a just-barely BQ – 3:34:53, per the official results, or seven seconds under the time I – but it was not the sub-3:30 my training had suggested was possible. I h-h-h-hate marathons, I choked out between sobs to my sympathetic fiancé (who’d heard all this before). Why do I do this to myself? I’m never running one again.

That was a lie, of course, but every marathoner should ask herself, Why do I do this? Why train for months for one painful day that will take weeks to recover from? Why shell out the cash to hire a coach (I paid $130 per month to work with Shay) if a perfect race isn’t guaranteed? Because – in spite of my experience – the right coach will improve your training experience, enable you to become fitter than you’ve ever been, and teach you important lessons about the marathon.

Lesson 1

Aches and pains must end before training can begin. A couple of years ago, during and after every run, my right hip would hurt. I consulted a trainer at my gym who told me to stop strength-training and start stretching. When that didn’t work, I went to see a physio, who told me to stop stretching and start strength-training. When that didn’t work either, I simply continued to run through the pain. Two unpleasant, subpar marathons later, I knew I needed help.

When I first hired Shay, fixing this issue was at the top of our to-do list. She and her go-to chiropractor and physiotherapist had me do a strength and flexibility assessment via Skype. It included basic moves like planks and side planks that left my right hip sore for days. Turns out, I was both weak (in my hips, glutes, and core, especially on the right side) and tight (especially in my right hip).

Many runners share these problem areas, Gregg says: most of us sit too much, which displaces activities that help maintain proper movement patterns and allows the glutes to lie mostly dormant. When you run, the glutes should be propelling you forward and stabilising your femurs. If they stay dormant, the body shifts the work to other muscles that aren’t built for that kind of stress. In my case, this shift caused my right leg to move in a way that wore on my labrum, the fibrocartilage in my hip joints, and the overuse of the area made my right hip flexor even tighter.

It’s like you have a flat tyre, Shay said. Imagine if we could get your weak side functioning like your stronger side does – exciting prospect! Gregg prescribed a strength-training and stretching routine that successfully held off the hip problems throughout the rest of my training. I finished my goal marathon hurting in a lot of places, but my hip wasn’t one of them.

Lesson 2

A strong foundation is key. My go-to training plan pre-Shay started at 40KM per week and ramped up to a max of 77 in 13 weeks. The low-mileage starting point worked for the kind of runner I was: I liked to follow a training plan, run a race, then take the next month (or two, or three) to slack off while I still can before starting my next cycle. But the rapid ramp-up would leave me physically drained – I’d often get sick during the taper – and mentally hating running.

Due to my extended breaks, neither my musculoskeletal system nor my cardiovascular system was primed to handle even the first week of that plan, Shay says, so I built my entire training cycle on a shaky foundation. Imagine a nice stair-step progression, she says. You were trying to make this huge box jump instead of walking up the stairs. That metaphorical box jump is what likely led to my many pre-marathon colds: stress of any kind can have a negative effect on the immune system, Hamilton says, whether it’s from working too many hours, separation from a loved one, or running too many KMs too quickly.

The ramp-up’s stress took a toll mentally as well, and the fact that I was training on my own likely made it worse, says Dr Cindra Kamphoff, director of the Centre for Sport and Performance Psychology in Minnesota in the US. That plan you download online may not be great for you, and if you hit a hurdle in your training, it’s going to be difficult for you to know what to do,she says. Coaches have an individualised approach, and it’s easier to trust that they know what’s best.

I spent a year training with Shay, first for a spring half and then for Wineglass. Due to my injury history, she took care to increase my mileage slowly. There’s a lot that goes into the decision of how much volume a coach gives an athlete, Hamilton says. Doing more may not be the right thing. I always ask: how little can I get away with and still get them to their goal?

Over the course of the year, Shay helped me build a base that allowed me to average a little over 77KM per week throughout the 16 weeks leading up to the marathon. This preparation along with my coach’s support helped even the most intense training weeks feel, well, not that bad. I never experienced the I’m so sick of running feeling I had in every previous marathon training cycle, and I arrived at the starting line healthy.

Lesson 3

Power isn’t just for sprinters. At the beginning of each week, Shay would populate an online calendar with my workouts for the next seven days. The first time I saw a hill-sprint workout there, I said aloud, Oh, hell no. And then, Did she forget what distance I’m training for? To me, one of the perks of training for a marathon was avoiding the all-out, lungs-and-legs-burning, I-can-taste-blood kind of speed-work that 5K runners endure regularly.

I emailed her to ask about this odd-seeming workout. Most runners have stronger engines compared to the structure needed to support the engine, Shay replied. The goal of hill sprints isn’t necessarily speed but the ability to recruit more muscle fibres as you fatigue in workouts and races.

Shay went on to detail another benefit of these workouts: improved form. I’d sent her race photos to show how my right leg kicks out at the back of every stride, likely a product of the same issues that led to my hip injury. With any type of hill workout, it becomes very difficult to have sloppy form, so integrating hill sessions can help with form corrections, she said. Hill reps are a great way to become aware of how you are powering forward.

As strange as it was for me to try workouts that involved 10-to 20-second uphill sprints with 90 seconds of complete walking/standing rest, they worked as promised. I started to feel like I was actually drawing power from the glutes I was working so hard to build in the gym, especially at and above half-marathon pace. I really noticed this in the half I completed six months before Wineglass, where I ran a two-minute PB.

Lesson 4

Never do the same workout twice. Two workouts common to many plans are mile repeats and Yasso 800s. And while both are worthy options, doing the same workouts week after week (and training cycle after training cycle) stops challenging your body – and your mind. Doing the same thing makes you stale, Shay says. Your body responds to different sorts of stimuli to make different adaptations. Doing different workouts at a variety of paces only serves to enhance your fitness. Run SMART Project coaches like Shay use a recent race or time-trial time and a running calculator developed by the group’s founder, legendary running coach Jack Daniels, to determine what your paces should be for different kinds of workouts. Shay regularly assigned me runs with segments at threshold pace (slightly faster than half-marathon pace, meant to improve endurance) and rep pace (roughly 1600m/mile pace, meant to improve speed and running economy). Some workouts included repetitions based on time, while others were based on distance. Some had me running all reps at a single pace, while others had me changing paces two or three times. I regularly had to write my workouts on my hand before heading out to remember them – they challenged me physically and mentally.

Lesson 5

If you have a time goal, not all long runs should be slow. Many training plans feature a weekly long, slow run, prescribed at one to two minutes slower than goal marathon pace, which is fine if your main goal is to finish the race. I was listening to a talk that [elite running coach] Renato Canova gave and he was poking fun at American marathoners, how they say, ‘In a marathon, anything can happen,’ Shay said. That shouldn’t be the case. Americans do so much running faster or slower than marathon pace, then they’re trying to race at a pace they’re not familiar with. You shouldn’t step onto the line and think, What’s this pace going to feel like?

To avoid overworking me, Shay alternated: One weekend she’d give me a long, slow run, and the next, a long run with segments at marathon pace. I built up to a couple 32K runs that had 20 or 22 of those at goal pace. The point of these workouts was to train my body and mind to run at that pace, and to build my confidence in my ability to hold it for a whole marathon.

I ended up enjoying the interval-like long runs more than the two-to three-hour steady-state slogs. Changing paces kept my mind engaged, and I felt post-long-run fatigue I hadn’t experienced since the first time I attempted 28 and 30K runs – a good thing. Marathon training is not easy, so you should never feel like you’re breezing through it, Shay says. If you do, you’re not reaching your potential or training properly.

Lesson 6

Treat your guts with respect – and not just on race day. I remember being at a bar the night before the first 16K run of my first marathon-training cycle with a friend who was also training for her debut. We decided to order cheese fries to go with our beer, for carb-loading. Unfortunately, as my marathon ambitions became more ambitious, my diet didn’t change, not even in the days leading up to my races. I would eat and drink with reckless abandon – the more kilojoules, the better, right? – and then I would wonder why I spent most of race morning in the porta-loo. I must have really bad pre-race nerves, I thought.

Luckily, I hit the wall during my last long run before the marathon, complete with pre-run gastrointestinal rage. Alicia asked what I’d eaten the day before, and I told her – lots of pasta, beer, snacks. . .about what I’d eat the day before a marathon. You ate around 10 servings of gluten/wheat, she replied. Combine that with a nervous digestive tract and you will have problems. Wheat is such a big offender for so many people.

Depending on the person, the potentially inflammatory component in wheat may be gluten (a protein composite), fructan (a short-chain carbohydrate), or something else entirely. Nancy Clark, a registered dietitian and author of Nancy Clark’s Sports Nutrition Guidebook, says consuming too much fibre from whole-wheat products could be more irritating to some people than the gluten. Quantity also matters: Some people can tolerate a normal amount of wheat, but when you eat a lot, it sort of tips the balance, Clark says. The dose may be the poison.

To be safe, Shay had me eliminate wheat almost completely the day before Wineglass. I had a slice of toast with breakfast, then switched to other carb sources for the rest of the day. I snacked on bananas, rice cakes, and Rice Chex. Lunch was a turkey wrap on a corn tortilla; dinner, a salmon fillet with white rice. The next day, I needed only two fingers instead of two hands to count the number of times I went number two pre-race. Was it the lack of wheat? Maybe, says Shay: It could have just been you were more careful about what you ate. But I do know that for the first time, I arrived at the starting line hydrated, and it was wonderful.

Lesson 7

Don’t hang your happiness on your finishing timeI tell my athletes that phenomenal performances are a combination of a really good training plan, really good execution, and the alignment of the planets, Hamilton says. The reality of the marathon is: you will be training for at least a few months for a single day. It is unlikely that everything will come together perfectly. It might be windy. You might have a cold. It might be windy and you might have a cold.

Or you might fall prey to a seemingly inexplicable bout of insomnia. Two nights before Wineglass, I awoke at 2am and couldn’t fall back to sleep. On race-day eve, I managed only an hour or two of shut-eye. I never had that happen in training. (I also never read on my light-emitting e-reader before trying to sleepexcept for the two nights before the race.) I could barely string together a sentence as I pinned on my bib race morning, and despite months of dedicated training, neither my legs nor my brain felt primed to compete.

In my dopey state, I broke one of running’s cardinal rules: Don’t Try Anything New on Race Day. With my breakfast, thinking it might give me a boost, I had a fizzy, caffeinated sports drink that I was used to consuming post-run. Instead, it created a hostile gastrointestinal environment for all the fuel I would take in during the race. By 28K, my mantra had become, Move forward without vomiting. I fell short of my lofty goals, I didn’t enjoy myself, and I walked away bitter.

Rigid expectations aren’t helpful, Kamphoff says. Let’s say my goal is to run a 3:30, and I might believe that I can because I’ve had a coach, and then I get in the race and that’s not happening for me that day. The race can go wrong mentally long before it goes wrong physically, she says, and even a PB can feel like a failure.

A few months after Wineglass, I met Shay in person, and we talked about what I should do next. You need to choose a goal that inspires you, she told me. It seems obvious, but it made me realise something: I’ve been so focused on qualifying for the Boston Marathon for the past few years that I never stopped to consider whether the pursuit was making me happy. And it wasn’t!

Since I’m not a runner who loves every moment of marathon training – especially not the parts that happen above 21 degrees Celsius – I’ll never be one to say, Well, I didn’t nail the time I wanted, but the journey that got me to race day was so worth it! The race itself has to be worth it. From now on, I’m skipping fast marathons – which are only fast if it’s cool and you’re healthy and you get some sleep the night before – and entering ones that advance my goal of running 42K in every state. To me, the journey of marathon training is worth it if it literally takes me to a place I’ve never been before. I may never have realised that without Shay’s help.


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