Get a Coach
Five steps to find a trail-running mentor
Illustration by Ben O'Brien
I used to think that a coach for trail running is like a tour guide for travel. When it comes to training, like trip planning, I can research, plan and do it all myself. Unless you’re trying to medal at a high-stakes race or explore a hostile destination, who needs a coach?
Or so I smugly thought until I stared at the puzzle of our family calendar. How would I train and recover around a series of shorter races while building up for a 100-miler in the midst of an erratic schedule involving kids, work and travel?
It suddenly hit me that I needed a coach, who would handle the planning, monitor my training and take my race readiness to a new level. But searching for a coach who is the right fit can be as hard as finding the right doctor or architect: Areas of expertise, styles and personalities all differ.
If you ask someone to coach you simply because you’re in awe of his or her race times and physique, you might make a big mistake.
“The fact that someone is an excellent runner does not mean they will be an excellent coach,” notes Liza Howard of San Antonio, Texas, past winner of the Javelina Jundred and Rocky Raccoon 100-milers and a USA Track & Field national champion in the 50-mile.
As with others interviewed for this article, Howard has both the perspective of being a trail-running coach and of being coached. Her coach is Matt Hart, who writes Trail Runner’s Ask the Coach column.
She and others say, when hiring a coach, you’re embarking on a relationship that will strongly influence your life for at least several months. You need to partner with someone you trust and respect enough to relinquish control of your routine and put your training in that person’s hands. It behooves you to devote time to find the right person.
Getting into a relationship.
Ultrarunner Jimmy Dean Freeman of Los Angeles, head coach and founder of the Coyote Running group in Southern California, says a coach-athlete partnership “is like a dating relationship: It takes at least a month of feeling things out to get to know each other’s styles and develop your compatibility. In that first month we’re putting our best self out there. All the habits and tendencies of the athlete and coach may not the surface until you work together for a while.”
Ian Torrence of Flagstaff, Arizona, the head ultrarunning coach for McMillan Running Company, prefers working with clients for at least two years, saying it takes that long to see the most significant growth and development in a runner. Many coaches offer monthly packages with a three-month minimum, but “three months is a very short time and basically all you can do is help a runner stay healthy and not go overboard before a big race,” says Torrence. If the client is training for a first ultra, he adds, then the coach can also “help with race-day nutrition, gear and that sort of thing.”
Given that Googling “running coach” yields hundreds of results, how do you find one that’s right for you? Try these five steps.