Expensive Alarm Clock or Must Have Team Member ?

During the C2K 240km ultramarathon, the role of pacers and crew became very evident as the field stretched out across the wide expanse of the Kosciuszcko National Park. Nutrition, clothing, reworked splits, encouragement and all round support was called upon throughout the 30 plus hours most of the competitors were out there.

I had the pleasure of pacing Andrew Vize for around 12 of those hours and during my time, I was called upon to motivate, cajole, check-in and often do a whole lot more than just run alongside him. This led me to think about where does the normal pacing duties end and when does a more coach-like role take over ? The mind pondered this for a while and it led me to a bigger question.

Is there a role for coaches to play in making ultrarunners perform better ? And if there is, what sort of coach are we looking at ? As a coach comes in many different guises now adays.

Then a few days later I interviewed professional distance running coach Sean Williams and I was staggered at how many people read this post. Within a few hours nearly 1000 people had read his unique insights into how he coaches some of the worlds elites aiming for the Olympics in london next year and beyond to those just starting out on their running careers. This got my wheels spinning still further.

As with most posts on Ultra168 we often call upon the collective knowledge of our readers to help provide input, debate and problem solving. So a few days ago I reached out over email to as many elite athletes and coaches as I know to gauge their opinion. The responses I got back were very interesting and sometimes surprising.

Why were they surprising? Well for one I had made some large assumptions about the type of support and preparation the elites of our sport would get.

I am sure you are thinking that athletes like Kilian Jornet, Anna Frost, Jez Bragg and Kami Semick have legions of strength & conditioning, mindset, nutrition and track coaches poring all over them during their training sessions. Well you would be wrong, most of the athletes and coaches I spoke to apply an as needed approach to their training when seeking input and expertise where as some utilised specific input for specific races.

Rather than try and paraphrase their comments, I thought I would let you read their comments as the debate flowed over email in response to my questions.

Kami Semick

Image courtesy of TheNorthFace.com

My experience is with a “marathon” coach. Our agreement is that he helps me with leg speed and I maintain my control over the distance/endurance side of training. Occassionally I have to cut down on his quality sessions as I recover from longer training runs. But I do think there is benefit from working with a coach, even if their focus is not the ultra distances.

I think coaches or even “mentors” are helpful at both ends of the talent range – for those who lack motivation, I think someone helping to establish training rythms and key workouts is helpful. I also think that ultra runners get into the mindset that more is better, especially when it comes to long, slow distance. I think runners at all levels and of all distances can benefit from mixing up their training – whether it be adding strength or speed – which I believe is aided by some type of either a coach or a really good reference source (book, magazine article, etc).

Sometimes the ultra runner personality is hyper motivated lending more to over racing and over training. Again, a coach or a mentor can be helpful in “reigning-in” the enthusiasm and helping to establish focus.

Would I advocate that people pay for coaching? Not necessarily, as again I think that a mentoring relationship (experienced ultra runner to a newer runner, or a coach outside of the stream of ultra running mentoring a more experienced ultra runner in establishing goals), or solid reference material also works. I personally will take articles from Running Times on speed or strength and experiment with adding those to my training. I also have a marathon coach who I have a mentoring type relationship – he helps me with speed and I manage my distance workouts.

Karl Meltzer

Image courtesy of iRunFar.com

An ultrarunning coach and marathon coach are two different beasts, An ultra coach can teach how to run far, and manage the distance. Seems to me up to a marathon, it’s more about speed, something an ultrarunner doesn’t need much of. No one runs fast at mile 80, not even Kilian Jornet or others like him

Dave Mackey

Image courtesy of RunningTimes.com

I have never used a coach and I am pretty happy about it.

It is my impression the leap to ultras, especially 50 mile and 100km and up is such a huge world that one could decrease the slope of the learning curve.

There are so many variables that come into play with ultras when compared to marathon or shorter distances.
But once you pay Karl Meltzer to give you all his hard earned secrets you will be winning races and can start your own coaching business, and maybe even beat him in a race one day if you’re young enough 😉
The issue with US ultra coaches which I find annoying is half or more of them have limited experience and no professional training, slap a logo on their blog and charge $175 per month.

I seriously think a coach needs a professional certification or many years of smart successful ultra running experience (ie Karl) to be able to charge potential clients as an ultra running coach.

Greg Vollet

Hi Marcus, for me, the trail running coaching is much more mental. You have to prepare people to not only focus on their bodies and how to deal with the pain, but more on all the environment around them. When you are ready mentally, psychologically, emotionally, then you’re more likely to perform successfully.

Jez Bragg

Image courtesy of Jez Bragg blog

I once had an ‘ultra running coach’ but I ditched him when I realised I knew more than him 😮 Experience is the key thing with ultra running, learning as you go along – listening to everything but just putting into play the things you believe in. I actually think there is more to be gained from a mind coach, not neccessarily someone from a sporting background.

I’ve worked with someone on this basis for the last 12months or so and there is definitely loads of potential.

Cost is a big factor in all this though – for me it’s about priorities – I would far rather pay for weekly sports massage rather than pay for a coach.

Adam Chase

I agree with what’s been said, other than Dave’s statement about self coaching. I taught him everything he knows 😉

Seriously, the mind training is spot on and it also helps to have someone help on the nutrition and simple race prep and on the logistics front.

I sent an Aussie who wanted an ultra coach to Ian Torrence and she had a solid (top ten) first ultra at The North Face 100km in the Blue Mountains last May and credited Ian for that.

Anna Frost

Image courtesy of Salomon.com

I had a coach while I was focusing on shorter distance mountain running – essential for speed and hard hill reps. He now just mentors me…basically tells me if it feels good, if I am performing then keep doing what I am doing.

Im not sure if i can really speak with any value as I have only done 2 months of my life with a proper ultra focus.

But what I have learnt from that, is what I did do…worked. Or luck was on my side.

As far as I can see, we can only do what we can fit in…people have lives, family, work as well as running, so often their 2hr run has to be their ultra distance training because that is all they have. So do they really need a coach to tell them that? I am not sure.

There is a lot of trail and error to find what works and what doesn’t and whether there is a coach involved or not – it is up to the athlete to find the motivation to do what they can.

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Image Ultra168.com

I have not used a coach but I have been a coach. The people who seem to benefit from coaches the most are those who have difficulty finding the motivation to run and maintaining the motivation to run.

I think if you have the right motivation and the right drive and a training program works for you, at the end of the day the coach may not be necessary ?

However, if you get stuck in a rut of if your running results seem to be stagnant a coach could be just the right thing you are looking for ?

Matt Hart

Image courtesy of Matt Hart’s Blog

A coach, regardless of the distance you are training for can allow busy people to not worry about the planning and scheduling aspect of their training. They can just look at the schedule and head out the door. There are many ways to skin a cat, and in fact a plan is better than no plan. So I’d say if the alternative is no plan and just going by feel than a coach (even a bad one) will help performance.

Setting some baselines and checking in on them through the process is very helpful because you can see if you are progressing in the right direction, etc.

There is a reason top athletes have coaches. Is it necessary for success? No. Will it likely help? Yes.

The more experienced and motivated you are, the more you can do on your own. The more interested you are in physiology and training theory the more likely you are to read up on it.

But what if you don’t have time for that? Maybe you work 50hr weeks and have a family.

I just read an article by Xterra Champ Conrad Stoltz who has been a pro for 20yrs… and he said he feels like the first 5-6 were a waste because he was self coached and made every mistake imaginable. He seems to attribute some of the benefit to an objective eye when it comes to planning his season. When he was self coached he simply raced too much. That is the same reason I personally like having a coach. I can get carried away with volume and lose perspective. I need someone smart looking at what I’m doing and where I’m going.

So, as you can see, even at the elite end of the field, it all comes down to what works best for you and if it aint broke don’t fix it !

As we always say, listen to everyone, follow no one !

Have fun making those 2012 New Years Resolutions and maybe consider seeking some advice to make next year the best ever!

And don’t forget to set the alarm !

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6 thoughts on “Expensive Alarm Clock or Must Have Team Member ?

  1. Stoltz may have started out making every mistake imaginable – but I bet he learnt from those and didn’t make all the same ones again. Got to wonder why Matt Hart, as an ultra coach, would endorse bad coaching over self coaching.

    Great article Marcus, really interesting insights and diversity of attitudes. Thanks for the thought provocation : )

    1. It is a difficult one Roger, there are so many variables when the distance increases and as AJW recently covered in his blog, the mental aspect really escalates the longer you are out there. Similarities to other elite sportsmen from other disciplines points to coaches being critical to success, yet we are yet to see the evidence manifest itself here.

  2. Without ever being an elite level runner, I have joined various training groups between my time living in the Blue Mts and Wollongong when at Uni. By far the most valuable coach I have seen was a club coach working out of the Springwood Athletics Club in the late 90’s.

    What set him apart in my opinion is that he had a deep knowledge of physiology and energy systems. His sessions were based on knowing the ins and outs of how long energy systems take to be fatigued at various intensities and the recovery times required for those systems to recharge. He was also a PDHPE teacher, so his communication skills were outstanding.

    You knew the sessions you were doing were constructed base on the needs of the session rather than just being something he had read in a book somewhere and thought it sounded like a tough session to put his athletes through.

    Interestingly he was all voluntary time. Never charging anyone a cent for his time.

    1. Was just thinking that last sentence might be misinterpreted. It was purely an observation that you can find valuable advice from both professional and amateur coaches. In no way a criticism of people who have made a professional in coaching.

  3. Marcus thanks for gathering these insights in to what the elites think of coaching. Interesting to see the range of views and approaches.

    As a newbie to ultras, a coach work for me as I don’t have others to train with (young kids make running groups hard!), or constant access to other runners, so having an ‘online’ coach keeps me focussed and also means my family are slightly more accepting that yes, I do need to go and run for 6 hours. Also, again not having others to push myself against on a regular basis, having someone set speed and hill sessions that push me is great.

    I certainly have come much further running in 2 years than I would have pushed myself to do. It also gives me a good sounding board for setting goals. However, I am sure it would not be the same if I hadn’t chosen someone with ultra experience and who coaches other ultra runners often doing the same events – direct knowledge of courses helps. Perhaps with a different coach I would have settled for ticking off my original marathon goal?

  4. I like what everyone contributed to this post, I used a coach in the fall of 2009, he had great credentials, he had won JFK twice, his other athlete set a course record at JFK in 2009, I didnt actually follow his schedule or plan and paid for it that day when I found myself all alone 30 miles into JFK on the towpath with tired dead legs from a little 14 hour run I did 3 weeks prior when the schedule said 4 🙂 Howard is a great coach, had I adhered to his schedule who knows what else I could have done that fall? My 13:06:52 100 mile split was also against his plan and I paid for that too 20 miles later when I had to call it a day at the 24 Hour National Championship.

    I especially like what Andy had to say about motivation. As one that has hit both ends of that spectrum I think ultra running has a lot to do with motivation. Jez also hit the nail on the head with his point about a mind coach that has no athletic background. Hal, Scott, Wardian, Geoff, Mackey and Karl would be guys I would hire to coach me if they ever slow down, but since I still have to race them that would be a conflict of interest 🙂

    Adam Chase and Scott Jurek were big mentors for me when I got to run with them in Costa RIca. A guy like Phil McC or Connie G would be an awesome coach for someone looking for a big 24 hour run. Mark G has shared tons of advice with me over the years, and guys like Clifton are eager to help the new runners. Eric and I exchanged tons of messages leading up to JFK in 2009. He is a great person. Bob Sweeney shared tons of advice and insight with me in 2009, always pointing out that I race better after a break from ultras…..but isnt that what ultras are all about helping each other push our limits?

    I am a RRCA certified coach and soon to be a USATF coach too, but I dont think I could ever coach someone to inflict the pain upon themselves it sometimes takes to suceed in this sport 🙂

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