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Fitness Concepts Coaches Corner

How to Choose a Triathlon Coach
© 2016 by Ken Mierke

Congratulations on your decision to hire a running, cycling, or triathlon coach.  Having a trusted expert to guide you will improve your experience in the sport dramatically.  Every athlete improves from the expertise and objectivity offered by a qualified coach.  You will train more efficiently, getting a better return on your investments of timer, energy, and passion.  You will improve your technique and learn better ways of doing everything involved in reaching your goals.  In addition to gaining greater mastery of the sport, you will enjoy the process more.

I can speak knowledgably about choosing a coach because of a variety of experiences.  As a former world champion triathlete, I have worked with a number of coaches and had good and bad experiences.  I have been a professional coach and owned and managed Fitness Concepts, a running, cycling, and triathlon coaching company in Fairfax, Virginia for twenty-two years.  I have supervised more than thirty staff coaches in that capacity.  I have provided business coaching and technical instruction to thirty-six different coaching companies.  I have also served as the USA Triathlon Regional Athlete Development Coordinator, taught at several coach certification clinics for USA Cycling and USA Triathlon, and was Event Director for two International Coaching symposiums.  Through these experiences, I have seen the common pitfalls and I’ve learned what works, and what doesn’t.  Hopefully this insight will help you make a confident choice as you commit your running or triathlon life to a coach.

Look for more than athletic success…
One word of caution: the businesses of running, cycling, and triathlon coaching are almost completely unregulated and anyone can call themselves a “professional” coach.  My dog Rover could.  Many athletes who have had some success decide that this would be an easy way to make some extra money and that it would be fun to help people train for triathlon.  While they usually have the best of intentions, there is much more to being a professional coach than being an experienced athlete.  Shaquille O’Neal cannot teach you to be 7’1” tall. 

A successful athlete is not necessarily qualified to help you, no matter how fast they are or how smart or experienced they are.  We coach with our brains, not our legs.  Unfortunately, athletes tend to look for celebrities as coaches. 

Successful athletes know what worked for them, but if your genetics are significantly different than theirs, which is extremely likely, what will work best for you may be very different.  Most qualified coaches are/were successful athletes, but they also studied physiology, biomechanics, nutrition, psychology, physics, and many other areas that provide a comprehensive background.

Look instead for the race results of their clients.  While you might be impressed that I’ve won world championships, that should not affect your choice of coach.  That I have a long list of successful athletes who have won races and improved dramatically should.  My clients have won 9 world championships and 29 national championships.  Six have made the podium at the Hawaii Ironman and hold course records at Ironman races, dozens have qualified for and completed the Hawaii Ironman and more than a hundred have qualified for the Boston Marathon.  My resume as a coach is about THEIR results, not mine.  As you search for a coach, look for the successes of their clients, not their own.  My company produced a flier once asking “Are you more concerned with your coach’s last bike split, or YOUR next bike split”?  That I can sustain high speeds doesn’t mean that I can help you sustain your highest speeds.

Academic background required…
As I mentioned, I have won two I.T.U. World Championships and placed second twice, but I prefer to boast that I hold a degree in Exercise Physiology with minors in Nutrition, Biology, and Psychology.  Look for a coach who has a degree in Exercise Physiology or who has studied extensively under someone who does.  Experience, both racing and coaching, is important for sure, but you don’t learn the fundamentals of biomechanics, physiology, nutrition, psychology, etc. with hands-on experience, but by studying. 

When I started coaching professionally, the most high-tech communication equipment I had access to was a fax machine and we paid enormous fees for long distance phone calls to anyone who didn’t live nearby.  In those days, athletes looked for the best coach in their town and all of my clients lived within a few miles of my business.  How things have changed.  We now use email as our primary communication tool, clients can download video from another country to have me analyze their running technique, I can analyze wattage, cadence, pace, heart rate and even stride length and vertical displacement from Garmin Connect.  We no longer pay long-distance fees for phone calls.  Even some busy athletes who live or work within a 15-minute drive of the office prefer primarily phone and email instead of in person meetings.  Now, many athletes look for the best coach for their needs, not just the best in their town.

Decide how important seeing your coach for face-to-face meetings is to you.  While long-distance coaching can be very effective, especially for more experienced and advanced athletes, some athletes should choose a local coach.  If swim lessons are the most important part of what you need, geography will play a role.  If you are really looking for a highly qualified coach with the specific areas of expertise you prioritize, you may have to look outside of your town.

The company…
A successful coaching company will have many advantages to offer a triathlete that an individual coach will not.  A larger company may offer more resources than an individual coach, some of which may be beneficial for you.  Successful companies will have testing laboratories to improve your workout efficiency and may also have high tech equipment such as underwater video equipment, altitude chambers, hyperbaric chambers, hyperoxic training equipment, electro-stim devises, Computrainers, Vasa Trainers, PowerCranks and other useful training tools.  A larger company will have equipment that you can borrow, such as Compression Massage Boots, bike travel cases, race wheels, aero helmets, and altitude chambers.  Certainly this should not be the primary factor in selecting a coach, but it is a factor to be considered.

Nobody ever hopes or expects to need insurance and no coach wants to pay a big premium every month, but the reality is that unexpected things happen.  Every competent coach will have insurance that covers both coach and client.  Make sure that a coach has insurance and, if not, look elsewhere for more professional help.

In this age of specialization, nobody can be an expert in everything.  A good coach will have a broad expertise, but even the best will lack in depth knowledge in important areas.  Top coaches have a network of experts that they can access for specific assistance for their clients needs.  A coach should have access to equipment experts for swimming, cycling, and running, a variety of medical experts, sports psychologists, other top coaches and many more.  Hiring a coach with a network gives you access to a hundred professionals for the price of one.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, triathlon can be a very expensive sport.  One of the benefits an established coach provides clients is discounts on products and services.  You may actually save money by hiring a more expensive coach.  If your coach can get you 15% off bike accessories and labor, running shoes, nutrition for training and racing, and many other expenses, it can amount to hundreds of dollars per month savings.  Consider this carefully when choosing a coach.

Sports Science
Modern, scientific methods work.  While there is absolutely an art to applying scientific methods optimally to each unique individual, a coach who is not up to date with the latest scientific methods will not be able to give you the level of guidance you deserve.  Certainly you are not a lab rat, but chose a coach who has studied what happens to lab rats under different circumstances.

A laboratory that tests aerobic threshold, lactate threshold, and VO2 Max as well as fat burning and movement economy will improve your training dramatically.  Find a coach who knows how to analyze the results to optimize your training and racing.  He will be able to determine much about your individual physiology – efficiency of movement, muscle fiber types, and they types of training that your body responds to best.

Trains the mind as well as the body…
Joe Friel says that the three most ignored areas of training are movement economy, nutrition, and psychological skills and I agree completely.  Developing stronger psychological skills is not just for athletes with “problems” any more than training is just for athletes with weak bodies.  Any good coach addresses attitudes, beliefs, self-talk, psychological mode, and works to train the athlete mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as well as physically.  See how a prospective coach responds to questions in this realm before hiring him.

Listens before he speaks…
One of Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Successful People is “Seek First to Understand, Then To Be Understood”.  As a coach who has worked for years to build this storehouse of knowledge, it is so tempting to, in a well-meaning way, throw that knowledge at anything that moves.  In college, I had a professor that requires the entire class, at the beginning of the semester, to write in huge letters across the top of every page in our notebooks, “Understand the Problem”.  That was a powerful lesson for me.  Just as doctors must diagnose before they prescribe, make sure a prospective coach hears you out thoroughly before offering solutions.  Knowledgeable, but inexperienced coaches will want so badly to help you with their information that they won’t listen for long enough to be able to know which of their knowledge will help.

YOUR Lifestyle…
Every athlete varies in the investment we want to make in our sport.  As a professional coach, it is easy to assume that an athlete making the investment in hiring a coach wants to invest a huge amount of time and dedicate his life to the sport.  Many of my clients are not elites who train twenty-five hours per week, but busy executives who balance long hours at the office, a spouse, children, church, and other civic responsibilities.  Some even want to relax for at least a half-hour a week.  Be sure that you chose a coach who will be on the same page with where the sport fits in your life.

You get what you pay for…
Like any business, coaches charge as much as the market will bear.  If you pay a Yugo price, you’ll get Yugo service.  You obviously need to work within your budget, but understand that a coach who charges high rates can do so for a reason.  What seems too good to be true, probably is.  I’ve been a full-time professional coach for 22 years.  In that time, I’ve written hundreds of articles.  When I client has a question, I probably have a three-page article that I spent a week researching and writing.  I can provide real value to the client in the time it takes to click “attach”.  A less experienced coach can spend more time with you, but even if she’s willing to spend two hours a day with you, she can’t give you the benefit of knowledge and experience that she doesn’t have.

Do your homework…
Signing on with a running, cycling, or triathlon coach is a gigantic commitment.  Be sure to do the research to determine who is right for you.  Spend time on the company’s website, check with references, and have a meeting with the coach in which an extensive checklist is covered.

Don’t ignore the subjective…
Who is right for you will include both objective and subjective aspects.  Make sure you cover the checklist of items discussed in this article, but check in about the subjective too.  Does he give you energy?  Do you leave the workouts or meetings smiling and feeling good?  Does he seem to get what you’re after in the sport?  Does he know when you need a pat on the back and when you need a kick in the butt?

Working with a highly qualified coach can be one of the best investments you’ll ever make.  Good luck!


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   8301 Arlington Blvd, #T3
   Fairfax, Virginia  22031

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