Do ultra-runners really need coaches? Part one…

Do everyday ultra-running hacks need a coach to help improve our performance? Surely a coach is just for elite runners? Or is it just simply a way of getting ourselves out of bed each morning because we lack the motivation to do so ourselves?

Just over a year ago, Marcus wrote an article looking at the roles of coaches within the sport of ultra-running, so we thought it timely to revisit this area, and this time with an experiment. When I first ventured into the ultra-running scene, I was pretty dismissive of people who employed the services of coaches. What would an everyday, normal hack such as myself want with a coach? I’m never going to win races, so why bother?

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the article, you’ll have to forgive the slightly self-centred nature of this piece as I use myself as a case study. I don’t like focusing an article on an individual, but in the interests of research someone had to do it! Always keen for a challenge, and to prove myself wrong (one of my favourite past times), I set out to use myself as the guinea pig for this experiment to see if everyday, normal runners need or would benefit, from having a coach.

The experiment – Two methods and some madness…

My experiment took two forms. One to train for a race without the services of a coach, and then one with a coach. There were two things I wanted to uncover, namely, would the differing regimes and approaches firstly a.) improve my times and b.) how would the actual journey of training be different?

Madness... but genius
Madness… but genius

Now, it’s pretty hard to do the experiment complete justice without picking the same race for each of the formats, that I accept. Nonetheless, I set out two races and two goal times, which were naturally laughed at by some of my running friends:

  • one was to complete 6ft track in sub 4:15;
  • the other to run a sub 10-hour Glasshouse 100kms.

Importantly, the journey to get there is just as significant too. Training is where 95% of the journey is made. This is where the blood, guts and spews are manufactured. The race is simply the icing on the cake.

Part one – No coach

The first part of this journey looks at how I fared without the services of a coach, training for what is probably my favourite race of the year in Australia, the infamous 6ft track marathon (45kms). This race is seen as a bit of a stepping stone for those ‘roadies’ as we like to call them into the trail and ultra scene. It’s got it all in terms of fast-flowing downhill, some juicy climbs, an agonising undulating mid-race, before a steep and sometimes, tricky descent into the finish line. I tend to label it as four races in one, all of which require different forms of training to get the result you want.

Like all good ultra runners, I for the most part start my training all wrong. I think one of the biggest mistakes we tend to make is the temptation is to go ‘long’ right from the get-go. Generally, I’ll ramp the kilometres right up there at around 120 a week with 40-50km long runs at the weekends. Invariably, this leaves me pretty smashed most of the time. That was until a family came along and made itself comfortable in my home.

This is both a good and bad thing. It’s good in that I simply don’t wish to train all hours of the day, my family comes first. It’s bad though in that what little time I did dedicate to training, I was of the belief that it had to all be at 100mph with no respite.

With hard and fast constantly in my head, most of my sessions would revolve around hard tempo runs, stairs ‘death’ training and ‘hospital’ intervals sessions (Not because I’d end up there, but because the sessions were done in front of a hospital and we thought it was a nice take on how hard the sessions should be!). This was then all followed up with a 40-50km run at the weekends. Sounds good yeah?

Well to be honest, it got me fit that’s for sure, but boy was I constantly knackered and always feeling like I was on the edge of an injury. There were pretty much zero recovery runs included in that block of training, because in my head, ‘what use were they?’ I had limited time and I needed to train hard and fast. So hard and fast I went.

What was the result? Well the good news for me was that I PB’ed 6ft track by quite a distance, finishing in a time of 4:21, so something must have worked. But could I have done it a better way? For sure. I remember getting to the top of the climbs at Pluviometre at the 26kms point just before the Black Ranges stretch of the course. I stood still, took a breather and thought, “Boy… I am trashed’. Had I gone out too hard? Only slightly. What had hit me was the three months of smashing myself to bits in training.

6ft track profile
6ft track profile

In the end, I held on for a time that I was very pleased with. I knew I’d trained hard, but the reality was that I hadn’t trained sensibly or effectively. What’s more, the journey wasn’t enjoyable as it could have been. I used to dread the speed sessions because I was constantly shattered. Long runs were done so hard that I’d have to lie down for 20 mins afterwards to get myself together. I recall one training run on 6ft track had me lying in the back of a Ute trying desperately not to throw up. Good fun, but man it hurt at the time.

Will a coach make any difference though?

For the second part of my experiment, my choice of coach was a pretty easy one. Andy DuBois is a name our readers will have seen regularly on our pages as our go-to man for advice and tips in the ultra world. Not only that, but Andy has finished in the top 50 of UTMB.

Andy DuBois
Andy DuBois

‘Nuff said as far as I’m concerned. Easy decision.

Andy’s way of coaching immediately started out differently to the way in which I normally plan a training regime for a race. Instead of mapping out an entire programme a month in advance as I would typically do, it’s done week-by-week. Now this sounds obvious, but for me and many others I’m sure, it’s not common sense in that we put that into practice ourselves.

Andy analyses your past week’s performances, then creates your programme based upon what you did. It also starts very gently and in contrast to how many ultra-runners plan, short and hard to begin with – particularly for a flattish, fast 100kms that Glasshouse is the second race in this experiment.

This method of training was quite new to me and while not wanting to give away all of Andy’s secrets, I’ll outline how this journey has progressed in part two of the article, and as we get closer to the Glasshouse 100kms in just a few weeks time.

*Andy DuBois is a contributor to Ultra168 and choosing him as a coach was done purely on reputation alone. None of Andy’s coaching is provided for free, and is paid for at Andy’s full rate.


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I'm a mediocre runner who can bat above his average when I train hard. A man of extremes, I do enjoy everything life offers and consider it an absolute pleasure just to be able to put one foot in front of the other and let my mind wander somewhere different.

2 thoughts on “Do ultra-runners really need coaches? Part one…

  1. I have been coached for the last couple of years, and I think it probably improves my performance, but that is not the main reason for getting coached. What I like about it is I don’t have to think…all I need to do is put the shoes on and run. No worrying of “am I doing enough” or “am I doing too much”, “should I run X km in a group run my mates are doing just three weeks before race day”, “the hammy is stinging a bit, should I run or rest” etc etc. Without a coach these types of questions do my head in constantly, being able to get told what action to take is for me just so much better. And the best bit, if I don’t perform, I can blame the coach! 🙂

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