How to Get the Most Out of Your Coach

Getting Started

Taking on an IRONMAN or IRONMAN 70.3 is a great challenge.  A challenge that is complicated for most amateur athletes due to the unavoidable struggle to integrate the necessary training load to be prepared within the dynamic stressors of normal life.  Many athletes decide to employ a coach to partner in their journey, which can be of great help.  But to truly maximize the benefits of a professional coach, the athlete must be a major stakeholder to ensure the relationship is fruitful and beneficial to their performance.  So, how do you find the right coach for your needs, and how do you maximize the relationship to allow performance gains? Let’s investigate.

Defining Athlete Success

Before diving into coaching, let’s frame my mindset when it comes to athlete success.  No matter the level, I seldom see athletes thrive with a myopic lens and singular focus of just considering endurance training.  If the supporting elements of nutrition, functional strength, and recovery are ignored or not integrated into the global plan then the chances of real gains are much less.  This is your first clue into looking for your best-fit coach. If the sole focus is training prescription and execution, without guidance on the broader lens, then I don’t believe you are going to get truly effective coaching.  Your "program" should be made up of endurance training, strength, nutrition, and focused recovery.  You must realize your coaching is much more than pretty spreadsheets and fancy intervals.

Finding the Right Coach

You only have one athletic journey to take, so it is important for you to find the best-fit coach for you.  Long-term relationships are always the most fruitful in terms of performance gains, so when you are in search of a coach I urge you to do your homework.  When an athlete reaches out to me for one-to-one coaching, I typically urge them to go out and chat to a few different coaches, just like they would if they were purchasing a new car or house.  Any coach that is over-zealous in nature and pushes you to sign up immediately certainly carries a red flag. This is your journey, and you own it.  The best coaches realize that an athlete-first mindset is the most authentic way to approach coaching.  I would much rather you talk to five or so coaches and find the best fit, instead of just following an ad in a magazine, or chasing a reputation and signing up on impulse.  Realize that you are entering a relationship, and communication is going to be paramount to success.  So ensuring you want to spend time with this person and you are able to communicate is rather important.  Equal to this is the realization that your coach is not your friend, at least in their primary role. Here are some considerations in finding the right coach:

  • Your needs for coaching.  Is a local coach who you can meet and train under their supervision critical, or does a longer-distance relationship work?
  • How you respond to feedback.  Do you respond better to strong directives and being challenged under strict standards, or is it more effective to have a collaborative and nurturing relationship?
  • The coach’s leadership and communication style.  Are they collaborative or dictatorial?  Do they like email and text, or prefer phone conversations?
  • Prior athlete success.  What type of athletes does your potential coach have prior success with?  Male, female? Do they have a history of developing great runners, which is your weakness?  Do they typically guide athletes of your level?
  • Feedback and communication.  It is worth getting a firm grip on their communication style and ensure that it fits your needs and situation.
  • Culture and community.  While it is an individual relationship, you are buying into a methodology and culture that the leader has created and fostered.  Does the culture resonate, are these "your people?" By way of an example, outside of my elite and pro squad there is little doubt that the Purple Patch community is primarily comprised of time-starved athletes looking to achieve results but thrive in other areas of life.  This typically means a wide range of ability but a common thread of busy lives, performance within the context of that life, and typically family-focused and busy professionals. That is our general makeup, so while I can and do coach the time-rich amateur who has all day on the weekends to swim, bike, and run their tail off and is obsessed with online forums and wind tunnels, that isn’t our central DNA of our group.  Find your people, it is worth it.

I will add to this search what I believe makes a good coach.  There is one central piece to the puzzle, and it isn’t the methodology.  There are many ways to develop great training plans, and no coach has the ultimate magic recipe for training success. What is common among high-quality coaches is that the ‘coaching’ extends well beyond training prescription.  For me, there are two components of quality coaching:

  1. Prescription of a smart and appropriate training program for the athlete.
  2. Education on the intent of the program and how best to execute as it is intended.

The second part of that puzzle is the coaching piece and critically important.  If your coach cannot explain and communicate why they are prescribing what they are, you should head for the hills.

I also believe that the above must be applied to the needs and observed responses of you, the athlete.  I would urge caution with any coach who is overly formulaic with a "one size fits all methodology. Athletes are funny little animals, and many respond to training stimuli very differently.  Success is about applying the appropriate methodology for you and how you respond. I have some athletes on a higher load and weekly volume program, while other athletes of equal ability and success requiring more minimal training hours and a tilt toward higher intensity.  Dumping a single approach across all athletes may create success for some but will likely leave many more under-performing or on the scrap heap of fatigue or injury.

You Have a Role to Play

It is a coaching relationship, not a coaching dictatorship.  For your relationship to prove fruitful, you have a critical role to play in success.  When we consider athlete success, we typically break down the key components into:

  • Appropriate training program
  • Education and guidance
  • Accountability
  • Feedback
  • Community.

When it comes to accountability and feedback, these can not only be centered around the actions of the coach, you are equally responsible to facilitate this.  There are a few things that can help this process:

  • Be very clear about your needs.  If you need to be held to account in the execution of training or adherence to the program itself, tell your coach.  It can be empowering for the coach to be told, "I need to be called out if I am skipping sessions, don’t nurture me, push me."  That sets the stage for the coach to provide you with what you need. Equally, if you tell your coach something along the lines of "I tend to respond poorly at being shouted at or told off and react much better with a partner" then the coach should be able to adapt style and communication style to help.
  • Provide real feedback.  Most coaches will want to see your metrics (power, heart rate, pace, etc.), but that data is much less useful if not within the context of the subjective review.  Getting habitual about reviewing how each session went, how it felt, and any personal observations or questions are really powerful in crafting context, facilitating conversations, and allowing the coach to be more effective.   If your power is really down and performance is poor without knowing that you have been up for three nights with a sick child at home, the coach will be busy just looking for training response. Context is everything for you and the coach.
  • Bring your questions.  I encourage you to be an active participant in your journey, and a part of this is coming to feedback and review sessions with questions and topics that bubble up for you.  Don’t just expect the coach to lead the conversation or feedback. Prepare and engage the coach, you are driving as much as the coach is, and needy athletes are typically the best to work with, however ironic that sounds.
  • Make it a quest to stand on your own two feet.  Throughout the coaching journey, you should aim to become more and more empowered to be able to self-manage, make smart decisions on the fly, and understand your training journey.  I always joke to athletes that my job is to make myself irrelevant. but there is a kernel of truth to the statement. The more you own your journey, the more effective the coaching relationship will become and the better your performance.
  • If you don’t understand why - then ask.  Any prescribed training session should carry specific intent, and it is important that you execute to that intent.  This means if you don’t understand the meaning or goal of sessions, you should always ask. If the coach cannot explain then, well, you can guess the action I suggest you take.

Final Thought

One final thought around being effectively coached, and one that is so often missed by both coaches and athletes.  Being a great coached athlete is not about punching the clock and simply checking off workouts prescribed like a list of tasks.  Life is not a spreadsheet, and therefore it is tough to apply a strict spreadsheet of training to life.  I often giggle when an athlete reports a great week of training simply because they hit every session. Realize that effective training is that which facilitates positive physiological adaptations, so ensure you and your coach maintain a dynamic mindset when it comes to the execution of the training program.  This is central to great coaching. It isn’t about getting an athlete to hit every session, but to become empowered to make smart decisions to adapt and evolve training relative to life and prior training. Rhythm and intent of training always trump punching the clock and simply checking off sessions.


Please visit our Triathlon Coaching page to learn more about how you can be coached by Purple Patch.