Training FAQ: Do you need a coach?

Managing editor Chris Case speaks with coaches, researchers, and sport scientists to answer your training and nutrition questions.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

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Dear Chris,
I seem to have plateaued when it comes to performance. Year after year, I try to improve but I’m just not making progress, despite the fact that I read as much as I can about training, I listen to the Fast Talk podcast, and I am devoted to the sport. If I want to improve, do I need a coach? What makes a good coach?

— John Embrun

Dear John,
Thanks for your question—it’s an important one, and something we get asked a lot. I’ll start with an anecdote from a famous book (for runners) that coach Trevor Connor introduced me to, called “Daniels’ Running Formula.” In it, Jack Daniels lays out what he considers to be the four ingredients of success. The fourth ingredient is “direction,” and he describes it as follows:

Direction, the final ingredient of success, refers to a coach, a teacher, or a training plan that can be followed. Of the four ingredients of success, direction is probably the one of least significance, should one of the ingredients have to be eliminated. I say this because direction is the only ingredient that can have either a positive or negative influence on the athlete… it is possible for absence of direction to be better than bad direction.

It may seem a little strange to hear one of the most decorated running coaches of all time say that coaching or direction is the least important ingredient of success. And it raises an important question: Do we really need a coach?

It’s worth pointing out that Coach Daniels didn’t say coaching was a bad thing. He just said a bad coach is worse than no direction. So, of course, he offered his thoughts on what makes a good coach:

If the term coach refers to the person who directs the improvement or refinement of running performance, then a good coach can answer the question, ‘why are we doing this workout today?’ A good coach produces beneficial reactions to training, creates positive race results, and transforms the athletes he or she brings into the program into better runners (and better human beings.)

That’s a tall order. However, I spoke with Neal Henderson, owner of Apex Coaching and current coach of time trial world champion Rohan Dennis, among other elite athletes, who strives to be just such a coach. I also discussed these questions with Rebecca Rusch, formerly an adventure racer, now a decorated cyclist of mountain bike, gravel, and bike-packing events around the world. Rebecca currently works with CTS coach Dean Golich; for many years she went without a coach. Finally, I chatted with Ciaran O’Grady, a coach with the Dimension Data WorldTour team.

Here’s what they had to say:

Do you need a coach?

Neal Henderson: “From my perspective, there are clear advantages to having a coach, and most people would benefit from having a good coach. That being said, a bad coach is clearly worse than no coach. Having someone with an athlete’s best interests in mind, as any good coach would, is what it comes down to. Coaching can come in a lot of different forms and formats. Nowadays, when someone says, ‘I have a coach,’ they mean someone that prescribes a training plan, there’s a review of some type, and it’s kind of a regimented sort of relationship. There’s also the athlete that just wants someone to look at their files and tell them to do more or less of that next week. That’s not what is most valuable, in my opinion, because you don’t get a sense for someone’s motivations and where they’re trying to go and, in that scenario, the coach doesn’t look beyond the data. Both of those things are critical. I’m a science guy, I love the data, but I will absolutely not sacrifice an athlete’s mental health to try and get that data.”

Rebecca Rusch: “You can get so much from a good coach—they know the science, they know the individual, and they can serve as a mentor and psychologist in many ways, as well as an adviser and friend. The good ones can do this. There are plenty of sucky ones that don’t do that. You pay your $19.99 and that’s what you get. The personalized coaching services out there cost more because they are your mentor, your friend, they’re holding you accountable, they’re tough love when you need it—there’s a lot more to it than just the science.”

Ciaran O’Grady: “If you’re going to try and self-coach, you have to be diligent about it, you have to be willing to make the investment to get the proper knowledge, and you have to try and find a way to take your ego out of the equation, by being objective and saying, ‘Oh, that didn’t work.’ That said, having a coach is a valuable asset. To have that accountability, to have someone planning your training and knowing that they’re going to review it over the course of weeks and months. You’re paying them to deliver a service, that objective accountability—someone is taking the time to tell you, ‘I think this is the best way forward for you,’ and they’re the ones that are educated and qualified to deliver that.”

What makes a good coach?

RR: “Working with a coach is a relationship, like being in a marriage. Just as in a good marriage, both parties will be elevated by that relationship. I’ve been an athlete for 30 years, in many different sports, and I’m not the typical athlete. I told my current coach, Dean Golich, that I wasn’t ever going to do a four-hour ride indoors, and I live in a place with a long winter. And, as a good coach, he found a way to accommodate that. There is a give-and-take of me telling him what I needed, and him telling me what he needed from me, and he would find a way for it to work because he knew I wouldn’t do the work otherwise.”

NH: “Another thing about a coach is the importance of the psychology of an athlete, and understanding there is no one-size-fits-all approach that works for everyone. What motivates them, how to motivate them, you have to understand all of that and more in order to change the training appropriately. Being able to create a trusting relationship first with an athlete is critical. There’s a lot of learning about the person that takes place to understand if you should go down a road with an athlete or coach in the first place. For me, that psychology and being able to make a connection with an athlete is first and foremost what I look for at the start of any coaching relationship. If we don’t have that to begin with, everything else is going to be a hard row to hoe.”

RR: “Imagine taking an online Spanish course—the material is there, you’re a smart person, you do the practice, and then you graduate. And then we can imagine going back to that one teacher we had in our lives that you loved, and you went to class with excitement, and though they were presenting the same information, you got so much more out of that personal experience than just an online course that is black and white. A good coach, like a good teacher, elevates your experience.”

For much more on the coach-athlete relationship, listen to episode 61 of the Fast Talk podcast, which dives deep into the questions of whether you need a coach, and what to look for in a good coach.

For more training advice, check out the VeloNews Fast Talk podcast, your source for the best training advice and most compelling insight on what it takes to become a better cyclist. Listen in as VeloNews managing editor Chris Case and our resident physiologist and coach, Trevor Connor, discuss a range of topics, including sport science, training, physiology, technology, nutrition, and more.

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