How to Interview a Running Coach

Chicory, far right, with coach Matt Ebersole (the one without a medal) and other members of the Personal Best Training group.

New year, new you! Is this the year you take your running to the next level? And maybe that has you considering hiring a running coach to help you get there. But how the heck do you pick one?

Since 2016, I’ve gone “coach shopping” five or six times and I’ve worked with four different coaches. I’ve talked to about 20 coaches on the phone and looked at countless websites. I thought I knew what I was doing at the beginning of this process, but it turns out I did not. I learned an awful lot along the way, however, so if January has you asking yourself how to go about hiring running coach, here are some of the lessons I learned.

First, where does one look for a coach anyway? There are plenty of websites, including the Road Runners Club of America and Coach Up. You might find flyers at your local running store, or check with local cross country coaches. You can also stalk follow online runners you admire and find out who coaches them. It doesn’t take much to be allowed to hang out your shingle as a running coach, so finding a way to cut through the chaff is going to save you a lot of time. For me, word of mouth has been by far the most reliable method.

The most important thing in finding a coach is getting the right match. It’s critical that you be honest with yourself and with prospective coaches about what you are looking for. Different people want different things from the coach-athlete relationship. Try not to judge your own desires here. You don’t need to want what other people have or want. You need to find a coach who fulfills your needs as a runner and those needs vary from person to person. Think hard. This relationship matters and getting it right can have an enormous payoff.

Basics to Consider

Price: Of course price matters and the running coach market is so weird that supply/demand or quality/cost ratios are pretty random. I’ve found some fabulous coaches who didn’t charge at all and some not-so-great ones who were really pricey, plus everything in-between. You should not be going broke paying your coach every month.

Offering/what you get: Coaches offer a range of “products.” That may be an individualized training plan catered to your current fitness level and your goal race, but with no additional support. Or, you might have a coach that meets with you in person and oversees your workouts. Many coaches also operate virtually. There is also a plethora of coaching groups, both in-person and online.

Communication: Some send a weekly training plan and touch base once a week, or less often. Others expect (or put up with) daily interaction. Some give a lot of feedback about particular workouts, while for others it is minimal. Communication might also take place in person, by text or email, or over the phone. Figure out what works for you and be up front about it. This was one of the most important variables for me to get right.

Certification and experience: The Road Runners Club of America and USA Track and Field both have certification courses for coaching, as do some other organizations. But the coaching market is unregulated so anyone can call themselves a running coach and set up a website to sell their services. (Hi, we see you, Instagram.) Certification does not necessarily make someone a better coach but it ensures that person has some basic knowledge. On the other hand, an introductory coaching class can be accomplished in a weekend, whereas learning to be a really excellent coach probably takes years. And, some people may have other training in lieu of a coaching certification — like a master’s in exercise science. It makes sense to ask about both certification and experience.

Training approaches: This is the area where I learned the most. When I asked coaches about their training philosophy, everyone said the same thing: “I treat my athletes as individuals.” That was not very helpful. I had a real breakthrough when I started this conversation differently. Instead of a blank slate question, I began asking something more like “I have heard of Jack Daniels and I have friends who are using heart rate training. I’ve also read that book, Run Less, Run Faster. Is your approach to training similar to any of those or if not, who are some of your important influences?” This question helped establish that I knew a little bit what I was talking about, but more importantly, it moved the conversation to the specific information I was looking for. Because I want to run marathons, I also asked potential coaches how they structure the long run. That question worked because it turned up a wide range of variability and also sometimes got coaches talking about other aspects of training.

Add-ons: Strength training and nutrition are both areas that matter for running. Some running coaches also offer nutrition and strength training and some don’t. Despite obviously impacting running, these are areas that require totally separate training from the coach’s perspective. When interviewing coaches, consider whether you want an all-in-one package with a coach who could also offer strength training workouts and/or nutritional advice. At a bare minimum, you want to be sure not to end up at-odds with your coach on these topics.

Coach Avocado chats with one of her athletes postrace.

Other Questions to Ask

How many runners does a coach work with and how many of them are like me? A ballpark overall number here will be informative. While ideally a great coach can coach anyone, in fact, not all runners are the same. I told potential coaches that I am an adult-onset athlete and that I am ambitious in my running goals, but I have a family and a full-time job. I’m also 49 with zero serious athletic experience prior to my 40s. I’d like a coach with experience working with similar runners, rather than someone who specializes in Olympians or people just coming off the couch.

Is the coach fast (or previously fast) and does that matter to you? To be straight – this isn’t something I asked. This information is easily available via Athlinks and I just looked it up. It is absolutely possible to coach people who are much faster than the coach personally happens to be. But my preference is for a coach who has some faster times under his or her belt at some point, so I checked.

What label does the coach use for runners: Athletes? Runners? Clients? This one wasn’t a deal breaker for me by any means, but I do think language shapes thought. Whatever your feelings are about how you describe yourself, it helps to be in alignment with your coach on this question.

Coach age and gender: My feminist soul told me coach age and gender shouldn’t matter, but my runner’s heart told me it might. I’d like to think these things are irrelevant but I’m not naïve. Coach-athlete is a relationship between two humans and humans don’t come in neutral boxes. It’s ok to listen to your intuition here. Better to get the relationship right and worry about the philosophizing separately.

Do you have a specific interest you want to share with your coach? I realized I wanted a “running nerd” for a coach. I’m having a full-blown love affair with the sport of running and I want someone with whom to share this enthusiasm. I want a coach who follows running news and knows the history of the sport and enjoys talking about it. I also have a scientific bent and I’m happy to “deep dive” on a lot of running topics and eager to have a coach to help me do that. Think about whether you have a specific interest you might want to share with a potential coach.

Have you ever shopped for a running coach? How did that process go and what questions did you ask?

 

 

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6 comments

  1. Great post! IMO, a coach’s training plan isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if you and the coach aren’t a good match. While many coaches out there are good at their job, for me it was really important to find a personality that meshed well with mine, as this is someone I’ll need to be in regular communication with.

    1. Thanks! That is what I discovered also. Getting the personalities to match up is critical! I’m glad you’ve also found someone you like!

  2. I lucked out and found my coach through a referral. Other than knowing that I wanted someone who I could actually talk to in person, and perhaps even run with, I didn’t know enough to have prerequisites. I just needed to find someone local. Nichole (nicholerunning.blogspot.com) turned out to be ideal for me: a competitive runner, a statistics nerd, personable, enthusiastic, who provides individualized plans for each of her athletes (I like being called an athlete!) She’s quick to reply to my questions and willing to change my plan at any time if needed. She provides invaluable strategies for races and can give me unbelieveably accurate predictions of my race times. She also organizes training runs and mock races for her team (I like being on a team!) She coached me through three training cycles, multiple races and helped me achieve PRs I never even dreamed of. I hope that everyone gets to work with a coach like her.

    Great article Angelica!

    1. Thanks so much! It’s wonderful when it all clicks like that, isn’t it? I like the term athlete too, or runner, either one, but actually not “client”. Congrats on your great racing!

  3. I started with my first running coach 4 months ago. I’m 33 and at the time had a 14 mo old, who had just weaned and I was still struggling with some postpartum things (weight, core strength, etc). This has been my best training cycle EVER, I finally feel fast again, just in time for my half marathon this weekend.

    For me selection was based on 1. cost vs what she provided (running plan, core work, interaction), 2. her personality is great 3. she’s FAST and 4. she had no problems adjusting my workouts so that I can run them all with my dog (ie no track workouts where the dog is not allowed).

    1. How great that you feel so prepared for your race! I’m sending you lots of good wishes. And I LOVE that your coach writes dog-friendly workouts! That’s exactly the kind of personalized touch that goes a long way toward making the coach-athlete relationship a success.