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Identify the Right Coach for You

Today, there’s no shortage of training information, tips and tricks circulating in every form of media. The challenge now isn’t finding the information, it’s filtering out the proven methodologies from the unproven or just plain foolhardy advice. A well-trained coach can help you filter out the nonsense and keep you focused on the task of reaching your personal athletic goals. But how do you choose a coach that’s right for you?

The coach’s role

To start, find a coach with a solid understanding of exercise physiology and the functions of workload. Preferably this individual has an education that includes in-depth study of exercise physiology, kinesiology, anatomy, nutrition and sports psychology.  This, coupled with real-life experience as an athlete, lays the foundation for a solid coach. In addition, a good coach must also possess a solid grasp of training fundamentals, such as cross-referencing key indicators including speed, heart rate, watts and perceived exertion.

Getting started

Part of putting these fundamentals into practice involves the selection of marker sets to establish your baseline indicators and to assess your progress throughout the season. Only from this point can a truly customized coaching program be designed for you to ensure you reach your goals.  Then, taking into consideration the full calendar of activities you plan to participate in, your coach will design your program based on the principle of periodization: developing your fitness within a series of micro-cycles that target different training metrics such as strength, endurance and speed, interspersed with adequate periods of rest and recovery to ensure you keep building from cycle to cycle.  Once your program has been created, it’s important for your coach to monitor your training and recognize the symptoms of over-reaching and over-training. Each training cycle must have a clear purpose and must effectively prepare you for the subsequent phase. Building in recovery during each micro-cycle is critical, as all too often I see athletes arrive at race day over-trained, injured or doubting their abilities.

Ongoing analysis

A solid understanding of the biomechanics of each element of the sport will help your coach to analyze your swim, bike and run technique. We all have flaws in our technique. A good coach will search for and point out biomechanical problems and then prescribe specific corrective drills to help you overcome them.
This will go a long way toward staving off injuries and improving your performance. A significant component of this corrective/preventive strategy comes in the form of a comprehensive strength-training program that prescribes exercises specific to your individual strengths and weaknesses.

Eating to win

Now that your coach has you effectively and efficiently swimming, cycling and running your way to your next great performance, the question of nutrition and supplementation becomes important. Your coach should be able to provide intelligent advice on endurance nutrition and which supplements to take to complement your diet and workloads.  In addition, he or she should be capable of designing a caloric intake and fueling plan for pre-race, race and post-race nutrition. This plan should be based on your present fitness level, environmental conditions, the length of the race, your body weight and the intensity at which you’ll be working.

First-hand knowledge

Having a coach who has been (or is) an athlete can sometimes be an advantage. As the date of your goal race approaches, your coach should help you create a plan that not only addresses your race-day tactics, but also provides strategies that will help get you to the start line in a sound mental state.

Assessing the athlete/coach fit

A coach can be well trained and highly successful but often, due to no one’s fault, a coach/athlete relationship may not flourish. I’ve seen brilliant coaches that fully grasp the scientific applications of training but don’t have the empathy or awareness to connect with particular athletes.

To summarize, here are 10 key traits to look for in a coach:

  1. A combination of education and experience.
  2. An understanding of the fundamentals of workload.
  3. An ability to cross-reference key training indicators such as speed, heart rate, watts and perceived exertion.
  4. The ability to design a program for the full training year (periodization, micro-cycles, rest, etc.).
  5. An attention to the details of your training and the astuteness to recognize when it’s time to make changes (e.g., to recognize symptoms of over-reaching/training or mental burnout, etc.).
  6. An understanding of the biomechanics of swimming, cycling and running and the ability to prescribe drills and exercises to effect corrective changes.
  7. The knowledge of the principles of endurance nutrition and supplementation and the ability to prescribe a fueling plan that is tailored to you.
  8. Any advice and guidance for your individual race-day tactics.
  9. Excellent communication skills.
  10. A motivating personality that fits you.

With the growth of triathlon has come a growth in the number of coaches available to help you achieve your personal best. Shop around carefully, check for USAT-certified coaching credentials and ask for references. You’ll be a better athlete for it.

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