Sunday, March 15, 2015

Coaching & The Next Chapter

During this time I've been fake-training for NVM, I've had in the back of my mind this giant question about what I was going to do after that and before Santa Rosa at the end of August. It's kind of a weird amount of time; I don't want to start seriously marathon training before June (come on, now; three months is just PLENTY of that business as long as I have a good base), but it isn't really enough time to both recover from Napa and squeeze in any serious training for anything else. And then I'd be like, "Eh, I'll figure out when I get there."

And hey! Now I'm here, and it's times to figure some things out.

It's times like these when I really appreciate having some kind of coaching situation lined up. I say "coaching situation" and not "having a coach" because to me, truly being coached by someone means that s/he is writing individualized workouts for you, personally, adjusting them regularly based on frequent one-on-one feedback, and the two of you are in fairly regular contact about how things are going.

Obviously, that is an awesome setup but unfortunately it tends to not come particularly cheap. Like most of us, I only have so many running dollars to spend per month and I have to allot them based on where I've found that I get the most bang for my buck. For me, I think I get quite a lot out of my gym membership, massages for my busted-ass right leg, and occasional one-on-one sessions with a running-centric strength coach, which doesn't leave a whole lot left for paying a running coach if I'm going to, like, run any races.

So, instead, I have RunCoach, which is a sort of semi-customized plan based on my history & scheduling preferences. I get my workouts from the website & then enter information afterward (or whenever I get around to it) about how it went, which is monitored by a couple of coaches who do a kind of quarterly one-on-one consultation with me about how things are going and what I should focus on next, and also let me bug them with occasional freaked out emails in between.

It's pretty cool, actually.

I think this costs me like $40 a month instead of like $400.

I will now briefly defend the idea of plain-old-ordinary-average recreational runners getting coaches if they so choose.

Sure, some people will roll their eyes at the very idea, like, "Seriously? This is not the Olympics on the line, here. Follow your training plan and don't do anything stupid. Who needs to pay someone to tell you that?"

I disagree, though. For some reason some people see working with a professional in a sports-related hobby as really different than doing so in a non-sports related hobby and as somehow wasteful and narcissistic unless you're really good with a lot at stake.

If you think about it, though, having a coach isn't really all that different from taking lessons at something. A person might be like, "You know, I've always wanted to learn ballroom dancing." Getting a teacher is actually a really effective way to achieve that goal! Or, someone who is a pretty okay self-taught pianist might be like, "You know, I'm not bad, but I wonder what I could learn from getting some lessons." Completely reasonable!

So, to me, if you are a recreational runner and want to see how much you can improve or even a brand-new beginning runner who doesn't feel like just bumbling through on your own via books & the internet, spending a little money for some guidance from a pro makes a lot of sense and can potentially get rid of some of the stress of trying to figure out on your own what all the right things (or at least better things) for you to do are.

Second, I actually think that getting a coach makes MORE sense for recreational runners with day jobs and other commitments and overall limited time who are paying for our hobby out of our own pocket, because we don't have 18 hours a day to spend doing our own research and consulting a bunch of experts that our big-name sponsor is paying for, which kind of leaves us with trial and error + the internet, which may be free, but may or may not be particularly efficient (or effective).

On the other hand, it can be pretty efficient to have an expert whose job it is to say, "Based on this/that/the other thing, I think you should do x, y, and z." Sure, I still enjoy reading books and articles and what have you about physiology and training philosophies and all that, but at the end of the day, it is also nice to know there are pros with decades of experience and quantifiable results to whom I am paying actual money that I can ask, "What do you think about [race/training strategy/etc.]?" And they will say, "We think [thing] because of [reasons]." And I can be like, "DONE" & get on with my life.

Will different experts sometimes disagree? Obviously. But this is why you do your research ahead of time and decide who you're going to trust, and if you feel like you CAN'T just pick one person to trust and are going to second guess them all the time & be like "BUT I READ THIS THING ON THE INTERWEBZ," you probably shouldn't get into a situation where you're paying anyone for advice that you're only going to maybe sometimes kinda-sorta take, and that's fine.

(Of course, some people have no desire whatsoever for a coach or don't feel like it's worth the money for them, and there's nothing wrong with that either. Diff'rent strokes, yo.)

I say all that to say: My personality and relationship to running is such that I really would not want to be in the position of figuring out the next six months totally on my own, and it is worth my $40/month not to be. So, I've been emailing with Coaches Tom & Ashley post-NVM to try to figure some stuff out regarding what's next.

Things I Know:

  • Santa Rosa Marathon (8/23) is my goal race, the goal being to run a 3:30 or thereabouts. This doesn't seem unreasonable, given that my current PR of 3:36:27 was set on a hot day with a torn muscle in my leg where I walked limped most of the last four miles.
  • I'm signed up for American River Parkway Half on 5/2 and Bay to Breakers on 5/17.
  • I don't want to start doing "earnest" marathon training with speed work & threshold intervals & what have you until maybe 12 weeks out from SRM because I know from experience that I just burnout or get hurt, and if I'm in pretty decent shape base-wise, that's about all the time I need to peak & get in really good race-specific shape.

Things I Don't Know:

  • Should I race ARP all-out or just run it at goal marathon pace?
  • Should I run another non-goal marathon in late May (say, first half easy & first half at goal pace)?
  • Should I race PrideRun 5K on 6/27?
  • Should I run Jungle Run Half on 7/12, and if I do, should I race all-out or do it more as part of a supported long run?

The Answers, via A & T:

  • The way Napa went is indeed shocking and exciting & we feel like you might have some potential for significant improvement if we can keep your aerobic base up & injuries at bay.
  • Don't try to race ARP all-out, because no matter how good you feel or what anyone tells you, you will not fully recover from running a marathon at any pace in less than 8 weeks and maybe up to 12.
  • For the same reason, if the goal is to target SRM for a really great PR race, squeezing another marathon in, even an "easy" one, is not the way to go. (If the goal were just to finish three marathons in a year and feel good, on the other hand, it might be fine.)
  • Go for the 5K and maybe even another 10K in there somewhere if something catches my eye - They will serve as good fitness gauges & won't require significant recovery time.
  • Go for the half - Six weeks out from the marathon is great timing for a tune-up/longer fitness gauge.


Behold, The Plan:

  • Spend the next eight weeks running mostly easy miles & gradually building mileage back up as I recover, adding in some short hill sprints to get my body ready for speed work.
  • Shoot to run 8:00 miles at ARP & see how that feels, knowing I may be only just fully recovered from Napa.
  • Start "prep" speed work in May.
  • Take it easy at Bay to Breakers.
  • Start legit Santa Rosa training in June.
  • Race the heck out of PrideRun as per usual.
  • Race the heck out of Jungle Run in July.
  • Frikkin' kill it at Santa Rosa in August.



  1. You're a good writer, and a good defender. Perhaps you should have gone to law school! Which is to say, I would have classified myself as the type to poo-poo coaches for recreational runners, but your defense is sound. I've toyed with the idea of one myself, given my two hip surgeries - surely I am doing something wrong? But I am worried that it's way too easy to get a coaching certificate. I would want someone who had years of experience coaching, for example, collegiate runners. And that is frankly more money than I'm willing to pay. RunCoach might be a reasonable alternative.

  2. I agree with Gracie...I really like your reasoning about getting a running coach. I bought myself a guitar for Christmas and it proved so much harder than I expected that I haven't played it for months...and thus I need to get a proper teacher once I'm finished my college courses. So why do I think I can maximise my running ability without a coach?? make a good point!

    Really excited about watching you crush Santa Rosa! You have a great record at wine country races!

  3. I've defended working with coaches before, usually on the basis of "I have a highly unpredictable work schedule so having someone there to tweak my schedule is very helpful." But I like your "it's a hobby like any other hobby and you can benefit from a professional's advice" argument better. Good luck with Santa Rosa training!! I have the feeling you're going to kill it.

  4. Huh, this all sounds like a great setup! I want to know more: do do they make the plans, which you then customize? Or do you say, this is what I'm thinking of using, and then they adapt it for you? It sounds like it's potentially a happy medium for people who don't need much handholding, but who still want a professional to weigh in from time to time. Can't wait to cheer for you from afar @ Santa Rosa!

  5. I have a coach and I'm fully aware that I'll never go to the Olympics. Mine is fairly reasonably priced ($50 per 4 week block) and I have access to sessions that I probably wouldn't do so whole-heartedly if I was doing them by myself. Like speed - sure I'd do it but when there's someone just in front of you and someone on your tail you tend to give it that bit more. And I figure it's probably cheaper than going to the gym.

  6. Do not listen to the people who say getting a coach as a recreational runner is a wasteful extravagance. By that same logic, so is everything.

    Sounds like you've got shit figured out...

  7. I've only been running for a few years and I've only been training seriously for about half of that time. I'm still at a point where I can take a premade training plan and get good results. So for me, right now, I don't think that I need a coach. That said, I know I am going to reach a point where it becomes more difficult to make improvements and at that point I will probably want to consider getting a coach.

    I appreciate that you shared the insights your coaches provided about choosing races, etc. I feel like some blogs that I read are just "My coach said do X, so I did X." I like hearing the rational behind the decisions and training.

  8. This whole 'should recreational athletes get coached?' debate reminds me of this New Yorker piece by Atul Gawande: (if you can't access it, go to the cached version). I think your arguments are pretty sound. I've been a part of coached *groups* where everyone does the same one-size-fits-all workout or a few versions thereof, but the rationale for that is it forces a bit more accountability on me (like Char said). And the coaches explain their philosophy for the workouts.

  9. You mentioned that coaches may disagree and as a former coach I am not fully onboard with the 8-12 recovery recommendation. Just like a one-size training plan does not fit all, the conventional wisdom of waiting 2 - 3 months between "hard" run marathons does not apply to everyone. I am not implying that coaches A & T are incorrect, but I am saying that it depends on the individual.

    Our bodies dictate what training is more beneficial, what distances we are best at, and how quickly we recover. With respect to recovery, in addition to how we are built, factors such as the race course, the weather, hydration, nutrition, age and a host of others things all figure into how quickly it takes us to recover. And since we are all different, those factors have different impacts.

    There are two people who can really help you and your coach make a determination on what recovery period is best. One of them is you. You know your body and you know your history. The second is your sports doc (if you have one). I know that sounds a bit odd, but bear with me. I have had the same sports doc for over 15 years. She knows my body, how it reacts to injury and how it reacts to therapy. She has also told me that I recover from injury 50% faster than most runners in my age group. That is valuable information you can share with your coach to help make decisions around what training to do and when, as well as setting up a race schedule.

    At the end of the day I am not saying that 8-12 weeks of recovery is bad advice. What I am challenging you to do is to understand if it is right for you. You could be recovered in four or five weeks and go all out or you may need 15 weeks of recovery before you can go all out again. Just like a training schedule, it's personal.

    On last comment and then I will shut up. If you are going to go the coach route it makes sense to have a dedicated sports doc and massage therapist. I am not going to go into how often one should get a massage (I go once a month because that is what I can afford), but massage should be part of your training regimen. Finally, if you can afford it, a nutritionist. A good coach will be able to provide you with resources/choices for all the above roles.

    Happy training!