Part two – Do ultra-runners really need coaches?

If you read part one of the article, you’ll have read how I fared without the services of a coach for the 6ft track marathon back in March this year. Like I said before, apologies for the rather self-centred focus of these articles, but I do hope that the experiences I’ve had will help others in deciding how to shape their own training and races. While offering advice and guidance too – that’s what we’re all about.

Just to recap, things went well and I posted a time I was pretty pleased with.¬† But the journey to get there was a tough one. I trained hard, probably too hard in respect that perhaps some of my training wasn’t suited to me and what I had set out to do. The main theme of that training was to run hard and fast, as in my head, my time was so limited so everything had to have a purpose. But it got me really fit. I was faster than I’d ever been in my life and I was pretty happy with my efforts to ‘self-train’.

As mentioned in article one, there were two things that I was looking to achieve in this experiment. The first was to hit a goal time, but more importantly to enjoy the journey of training. I’m one of those guys that loves training. It gives me a sense of achievement, purpose and direction. It’s also where I find some of my best ideas come from too, given the ability to just switch off from everyday life and just have your mind focused on a simple action.

6ft track start 2013
6ft track start 2013

Before we get into the experience and detail of working with a coach, it’s worth noting that my experience and goals are obviously far different to anyone else. What works for me (or doesn’t work!), may have the opposite effect for other people. In pulling this together I did ask Andy as to how much information he was comfortable with me sharing and the response I got was pleasing and makes me realise that I choose the right person.

Above all however, you have to want to be coached by someone. This may sound like a very simple statement, but unless you’re willing to be open and cast your assertions aside, working with your coach will be impossible. It’s the same in any walk of life, you can’t coach someone who doesn’t want to be coached.

Getting underway… I feel the need for speed!

My training with Andy started in May, following a short break after 6ft track. What struck me immediately with Andy’s sessions was the variety and specificity of the training, compared to my rather mundane and ‘ground-hog day’ style. As a typical ultra-runner I’d start with lots of long-ish, average paced sessions, a hills session and maybe some speed work later on in the programme.

Speed sessions were more than regular, they we a massive focus
Speed sessions were more than regular, they we a massive focus

Andy’s approach is the complete opposite in that if you have a big stretch goal like I do (sub 10hr Glasshouse), you can’t get there without being quick – so that’s what we needed to work on. Naturally a big mountain run would require a different focus, but the principle is the same, in order to run quickly, you need to practice running quickly.

Whereas I used to do the obligatory 10 x 400ms in the second half of my training for 6ft track, Andy’s sessions had me doing speed work pretty much as session number one, and what’s more, they would vary considerably with each designed to build up speed and strength in different ways. They were brutal, but after 3-4 weeks I could really feel the improvements coming on, and the proof was in my flat speed times too.

Speed work is probably low on the agenda of most ultra-runners and when we do it, for the most part we probably stick to one, maybe two different types of sessions. Each speed session with Andy was different and looking back, all designed to build me up gradually to a point where even I was surprised at just how quickly I could run, but more importantly, hold that pace over 5 or 10kms. I can safely say that I’ve never been quicker in my life and the proof is in my training times. I’m running 2-3 minutes under my ‘official’ 10km PB off the back of a 150km week and that is due to the way in which Andy has constructed the speed sessions to have me peaking just at the right time. Sessions would start short and sharp (8 x 450m sprints), and gradually build and build over longer distances with less recovery time.

What a coach can do is look at your times objectively and put in place a speed work plan that has seen me maintain a fast pace over longer and longer distances. It’s this speed work that will help me to maintain a good consistent pace for the 100kms, but will also ensure there is strength in the legs at 92kms when I’m dying on my ass trying to hit that sub 10. Importantly, the journey to get to this point has been awesome. The variety in the programme has kept me interested and more so, I have someone objectively looking at what I’m doing rather than my own biased eye and mind.

Going long, but not that long…

The other major difference with Andy’s programme was that the weekend long run wasn’t really long at all for the first 5-6 weeks. Normally I’m used to heading straight out into a 40km+ run. Not so now. For weeks I’d sit on ‘just’ three hours long run time at the weekends, and it would seriously make me consider if I was doing the right type of training for a 100km race. Indeed for those first eight weeks, I was really questioning if Andy knew what he was doing with the long stuff. Typically I’d be thinking that for a 10hr effort at Glasshouse, I should be knocking off 5hr runs for fun by now and that we need to build up to 7 or 8 hr runs. I remember emailing him saying that I wished to peak with a 7hr run. I haven’t done one and it doesn’t matter because I feel confident that it’s not required.

Long runs were... ermmm quite short to begin with
Long runs were… ermmm quite short to begin with

Indeed I was pretty worried that my endurance would be seriously lacking and that I wouldn’t have ‘the legs’. To test this, I entered the recent Glasshouse Flinders Tour 50kms as a pre-cursor to the 100kms. Up until that race, my longest run was only around the 40kms point and there had only been 1-2 of those. For me, this would be a real test as to whether Andy’s approach was right, or if this coaching thing was a load of rubbish.

The Flinders Tour 50kms race went beyond my expectations. I set a goal time of sub 4:30, as in my mind to be in with a chance for a sub 10 100kms, I had to be running around this time. In the end, I probably had what I’d regard as my best result yet, coming in a good 10 minutes below my expected time. Importantly though, I felt great in those last 10kms and that for me was the real test as to whether the training I’d done would see me right.

Is it worth it?

Having had a good 12 weeks or so under the guidance of a coach has made me realise that it’s pretty hard to take an objective viewpoint of your own training. Coaches are removed emotionally and see¬†purely the numbers, while listening to what you say and how you feel. Runners I find generally fall into two camps, those that are highly self-critical and will push above and beyond (therefore burning themselves out or get injured), and those that are probably not honest with themselves i.e. lazy. In both these instances, a coach can really help you to improve your training and ultimately race results too. On the one hand they can reign your neck in, on the other they can kick your ass and be someone you answer to.

As much as we might not like it, very few of us can look at ourselves and make objective judgements about who we are and what we can realistically achieve. Some of us have expectations beyond reality, some of us don’t do ourselves justice and underestimate what we can do. This is true not just in running, but in all forms of life. I see it within my working life and it’s why as part of what I do, I love coaching and mentoring people. But can I coach myself and train for a race? Yes I can, I’ve done it before. But will I be doing myself justice by doing the right type of training? Probably not right now.

Importantly, I don’t have to think when I use a coach. I just look at a programme and run. Now some people may not like that. Part of the fun is devising your own training regime I accept. But when you have a million and one things to do, this is a luxury that some people love. Is it worth the money some of you maybe asking? Again it’s about what kind of value you place on your training and racing. no-one can say it’s right or wrong, it’s about what works for you personally.

When I look at the numbers for my training as I approach the race in a few weeks time, I’ve only really done on average 80kms a week for the last 10-12 weeks. But I feel fitter, faster and stronger than at any point in the last five years since I started running ultras. The only thing to do now is to go out and run this sub 10 in just under two weeks time. Have I got it in me? Who knows. So much can happen on the day and these last few weeks are all about mentally preparing myself for what I need to do. A heap of things could go wrong, but I just have to try to control those factors that I can. One of those is the physical training, which is my mind has gone fantastically well. Another is the mental side too (another article entirely!), along with nutrition and gear.

Time will tell, and we’ll find out at 3:29pm on Saturday 7th September if I’ve got it right. If it happens, then great. But if it doesn’t I won’t get hung up on it. Why? Well the journey has been great and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed training for it… that for me is good enough.

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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.

4 thoughts on “Part two – Do ultra-runners really need coaches?

  1. Great stuff Dan, ive enjoyed reading this series. As someone who trains with no structure, having a running coach is something I may well consider next year. By the sounds of it Andy would be a first choice for me.
    I’m dead excited to hear how you go up at at Glasshouse. Your 50km time suggests you’ll romp home – but we know all too well nothing is certain during an ultra.
    Good luck mate, i’ll be rooting for ya!

    1. Thanks Ian, one thing I would add that I neglected to place in here is that there are no times or goal time associated with the training. In other words while I might be doing a tempo session, the actual pace at which I run is very much decided once I get running. For example. I did a tempo session last Friday and in my head, I’d place ‘tempo’ at around 4min kms for me… as soon as I started running, 3:45kms felt comfortable, so I carried on at that pace. Sometimes, I think we can limit our own potential by trying to say that we should run at a certain pace. The great thing about having a coach is that they will give you structure, but you then should decide how that session should be run and not stick to what you think you should be running.

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