Behind every successful distance runner you’ll find a running coach somewhere in the background. Most of us think a coach is just there to give us training schedules, but that’s a relatively minor part of his or her role.
Running is a healthy, inexpensive activity that keeps us fit and teaches us self discipline at an age where these valuable lessons will stand us in good stead forever. However, there are many pitfalls in distance running that we can easily fall into if we blunder along without knowing what we are doing—and the younger we are, the more we rely on a coach to help us through our early years as distance runners.
Here are some things to look for in your running coach. One of the most important things a coach brings with him is objectivity. Your coach is your personal sounding board. He listens to you talk about how you feel, how confident you are about your current racing fitness, your hopes, ideas, and synthesizes these thoughts. He does this without having your personal thoughts and feelings interfering with hard decisions that have to be made about your training program.
So when a coach recommends that you get more sleep, or try eating more carbohydrates, or slow down your training runs, or that you do more stretching in your cool-down, listen to him. He’s seeing things from an outside perspective, and is highly likely to be right. A good coach will also not hesitate to discipline you if you need it—this is most effective, however, when done privately and used sparingly.
And yes, a running coach is expected to deliver good training schedules based on sound principles and experience and should keep up with his reading on running training techniques, and attend training sessions on new developments. You should be able to ask your coach about almost anything to do with running, from how to tie your shoelaces to what sort of sports drinks are the best to take.
What’s more, the coach’s schedules should be based specifically on his knowledge of you, and what you need most in your training. A good coach will take your previous running experience into consideration when prescribing your workouts and races. He’ll look at your goals, how much your training pace, and recent racing times. You’ll know that your coach’s training schedules are sound if your team’s injury and illness rate is low. This means he is using proven techniques to make sure you are not overtraining or overstressing yourself. A good coach should also be there when things go wrong, to do a post mortem and quickly figure out a plan on what to do about it. A coach who demonstrates flexibility in his approach to training, has your best interests in mind.
Motivation as one of the coaches’ most important functions. A good coach will make you feel confident about your training and racing, will challenge you to perform better, and make you believe that you will perform your best. I’d like to think that I witnessed distance running history one Sunday in New Zealand in 1974, when I had just returned from a training run with John Walker. Walker had cranked through a hilly 18-miler at just over 5 minutes per mile, all by himself, leaving the rest of us miles behind. His coach, Arch Jelley, said to Walker, “Judging from that run, John, I’ve never had a runner as fit as you. Keep running like that and you’ll break 3:50 for the mile in Europe next year”. Walker looked at him, saw Jelley’s poker face, and said, “Yeah, you know I think I can do it”. And sure enough, Walker went under 3:50 the following August, 1975 in Goteborg, Sweden.
Finally, one of the most valuable coaching skills is strategizing, with the athlete, how the race should be run. Beware the coach who says, “Just go out as fast as you can and hang on to the finish”. Unless you’re the best runner by far in the race, this is advice for a tactical disaster. The coach should take your fitness, your competitors, the weather, and the course into consideration.
A running coach then, is a jack-of-all-trades. He’s there cajoling you to run your intervals faster one day, then congratulating you on a fine performance the next. Above all else, your coach should want you to enjoy the experience.
You can find more useful information at my running website: www.running-training-tips.com.