Coaching Versus Doing It Yourself | March 18, 2013
Our high school cross country coach used to have us do laps around a city park. It was rolling terrain with some woods on the far side. I would get to the woods, out of sight of the coach, and walk a short stretch. It felt like heaven to get that little break from the otherwise punishing workout. One time after finishing a lap, I was bent over hands on knees in the standard ‘Boy, did I give it all’ pose, when the coach checked his stopwatch and said, “Let’s not walk under those trees anymore. Okay?”
That, in a nutshell, tells you volumes about what you can expect from good coaching. Why not just do laps around the school campus instead of taking us a couple of miles to the park? Because the rolling terrain of the park emulated the golf courses where our meets took place. A lap was about one mile. Two laps equaled the two miles we ran in meets. So the coach essentially simulated a meet every time we went to the park, and he had such precise knowledge about each of us that he could detect when my time was off by about ten seconds and call me out on it. The targeted workout put us to the test. He knew our potential and he knew when we fell short.
Of course, most ultrarunners are do-it-yourselfers. We tend to be self-motivators or we probably wouldn’t be running mega distances to begin with. We pick goals that appeal to our sense of adventure, that stem from what our friends are doing, or that reflect the mystic of ultrarunning. Do a fifty mile race. Get through Leadville. Qualify for Western States. Training plans usually involve a target number of miles per week, lots of long slow distance on weekends, and maybe a little tempo running or speed work thrown in. If we think about training phases at all, it is usually pretty general, that is, lay down a base, train hard about a month out from the target race, and then after a taper, hope to peak on race day.
This kind of “coaching” yourself or coaching each other actually fits well with a sport where for many competition matters less than just being part of the race and getting to the end, but it is going to leave some questions on the table. Are you reaching your full potential? Are you training wisely and efficiently? Are you minimizing your exposure to injury? Working with a coach can supply you the answers to these questions.
Coaches bring knowledge and experience to the table. When you bring your goal to a coach, he or she will evaluate where you are now and then be able to block out the steps to follow and the timeframe it will take you to achieve your goal. A coach will have a plan informed by working with other individuals with similar abilities and similar goals. He or she will match training methods to your goal. Someone wanting to lower their 50K times will be looking at tempo runs, intervals, hill repeats, and other speed workouts. Someone going from the 50 mile distance to the hundred will get a much different mix of workouts.
Your coach will also be monitoring your progress and checking results. If you’re not making satisfactory progress toward the goal, the coach can make informed decisions about adjusting your plan. Coaches measure themselves by how well you achieve results. They are going to be honest and tough in their assessment of you, more honest and tough than most people are able to be about themselves.
A coach also has another tactic that by definition you can’t supply yourself, that is, the element of surprise. Maybe they have a secret plan to get you unstuck should you find yourself flagging. Maybe they will switch up a workout when they see you getting in a rut. They might have you try something new or put you with a group to get you motivated. There’s a wonderful section in John Parker’s great running book, Once a Runner, when Quenton Cassidy, the miler protagonist, puts himself in his friend’s Denton’s hands to guide his training at a crucial point in his preparation to challenge the world’s best mile runner. Quenton is a little surprised when Denton calls for a set of 20 quarter mile intervals, a tough workout, but one he’s handled before. He expected more.
Quenton pours himself into the intervals. When he’s done, Denton springs the surprise: twenty more quarters, a grueling double whammy. Quenton struggles through twenty more high quality repeats and is ready for his incredibly hard won warm down, but Denton keeps him jogging around the track, as if it were just another break between intervals. Then Denton announces, “Twenty more.” Of course, half the technique was keeping the extra intervals a secret. Quenton has given every interval its full measure, believing he is almost done. Could he have done that if Denton had called for sixty straight intervals? The last twenty intervals destroy Quenton, put him in supreme agony, but the book implies that this workout is crucial in making him the runner he needs to be to succeed.
I ran into a friend at the American River 50 one year. His goal was to run Western States in under twenty-four hours. He’d signed up with Scott Jurek, seven time Western champion, for a personalized training program that included a camp and then regular follow up by phone with the express purpose of training for Western. As we ran along, I discovered that he was on a particular pace that day with a very specific time goal for the race. It was all part of the plan. He told me about things he’d learned at the camp: stride rate, running form, foot strike, and so on. He told me things I hadn’t learned about in twenty years of ultrarunning. He went on to finish the race right on schedule that day and a few months later he claimed his silver buckle at Western States with ten minutes to spare.
So it all comes back to your goals. Are you achieving your goals in ultrarunning with your self-styled training routine? Or are you curious about how much farther and faster you could go? Working with a coach might lead you to that crucial workout where you go from just running to being the best ultrarunner you can be.