Is A Coach Worth It?

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For a relatively inexpensive report, we all know how quickly we can blow our budget purchasing everything people tell us we “need” or “must have” if we are truly going to be a runner. There is a constant barrage of footwear, apparel, nutrition and gear commercials. That guy in the running group swears by foam rollers, yoga, magical shakes and his Fabletics subscription. That fast chick you see attributes her success to her chiropractor, her vegan dietician and her coach.

Most of us have limited resources, so how do we decide what’s really worth it? Where is your money best spent to make you the best runner you can be? One of those choices I debated for a long time was  the hiring of a coach.

The first time I heard of a “recreational” runner referring to their coach, I think I laughed to myself in disbelief. Seriously a coach?  Who did these people think they were? It’s not like they were going to the Olympics. Coaches are for high school and college athletes… and elites.  After school, if you weren’t good enough to be a professional runner, you just figured it out on your own, right? As the years went by, I found myself wanting better and more specific results from my running. It wasn’t enough just to finish, or to stumble into a small PR, I started working really hard and I captured my first Boston Qualifier. After that milestone, I began to think that maybe I needed to work smarter to achieve my next big goal. Perhaps it was time I got some help.  Maybe I needed a coach.  But was a coach “worth it?”  I had no idea where to start looking and wasn’t sure if I could justify the cost.

Nicole Camp, hamming for us
Money from coaching other athletes helps Nicole get to her own races, like the Trials and the US Half Marathon Championships.

While I was pondering this, my friend Nicole Camp mentioned that Brad Hudson’s group (Nicole trains with Hudson in Colorado) was starting a coaching program. The price was great and the money went directly to the athletes’ training and travel fund. I admired and trusted Nicole so it seemed like the time was right to take the plunge. I ran the Baton Rouge marathon in January of 2015 and started my training with Nicole soon thereafter.

I was excited to finally do things right and make sure I was focusing my effort on the correct things. But underneath that excitement, I was nervous. I was embarrassed to tell people I was working with a coach. What if I trained for months and showed no improvement in my races? Would people track my race results and laugh at me for paying a coach?  I wanted to prove that it was worth the time and money I was putting into it, but mostly I wanted to prove that I was “good enough” to have a coach.

One of the hardest but best parts of being trained by someone else is giving up control. It is both liberating and paralyzing. In the past, one of my favorite parts of training for a race was sitting down and planning out my training schedule for the next three to four months. I’d create a calendar in excel and lay out my long runs, pepper in some shorter races, and print it out so that I could cross off each run after I completed it. When I talked with Nicole she informed me that she would give me my workouts on a weekly basis… like Sunday night weekly basis! At first I didn’t know how to handle this. No spreadsheets, no calendars, how was I supposed to plan?!!! After a few weeks, I gave into the lack of control and I began to love it. I didn’t have to think about what I should do. I didn’t have to obsesses or worry about making up a missed run or how many 20 milers to do. Every Sunday night, Nicole told me exactly what to do.

My nervousness about being good enough didn’t go away though. I would worry all the time about my workouts. What if I didn’t get a workout in because I was sick and the kids were sick and my husband was out of town and I couldn’t get on the treadmill until 10 p.m and the rest of the week was filled with track and skating and swimming and soccer and [add in a million other responsibilities here]. What if I only got half the workout in? What if I couldn’t keep the paces Nicole felt I could keep? Was I letting her down? Was I letting myself down? Was I just proving that I wasn’t a good enough runner to have a coach?

Well April came around and with it the Boston Marathon. Nicole and I decided I wasn’t going to race Boston, it would be a training run for my marathon in June, so no pressure. Boston that year was a cold, windy, rainy mess and I went in with no expectations and a watch that decided not work that day. Somehow I ran my second best time ever. Needless to say, I was excited to see what the future held!

Nicole’s workouts were harder and longer than what I was used to, but I began to see that I could do them and they were paying off. She wasn’t asking for anything I wasn’t capable of doing. She understood that my biggest weakness was my mental game and even helped me with that by giving me books to read about mental toughness. The strategies explained in those books have stuck with me during every run.

In June I headed to Washington State for my next race. The temperatures got into the 90’s by the end of the race, and the course had no water on the last 5 miles. Despite all of that, I finished just a few minutes slower than my PR. I was disappointed that I didn’t have a huge breakthrough, but I knew the training regimen had made me stronger and tougher. There is no way pre-Nicole I could have run  that race in those conditions as well as I did.

I enjoyed the variety of Nicole’s workouts as the year went on and she prepared me for my next big race in Portland. With race day came a series of random issues beyond my control (see Are You Sabotaging Yourself with Race Day Woes?). Again, I didn’t see the PR I was looking for, but I was tougher, stronger, and able to handle far more than I ever thought possible.

As the year wrapped up I parted ways with Nicole. There was just too much going on in life for me to keep up with the aggressive schedule. I was starting to burn out and needed to back it off. I needed a break. I stopped training with her just six weeks out from my next marathon. I followed a similar plan to what she’d had me run 6 weeks before my last race, I just backed it off a bit. I’d skip a workout here and there to run with friends, or cut a cool down short by a mile or so. Best of all, I stopped taking everything so seriously. And it wasn’t a surprise that I finally got my PR.

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Pimento and her coach.

I have no doubt that I ran that PR because of the training schedule I had with Nicole. Because of her advice, I became a stronger runner physically, but  more importantly I became a stronger and smarter runner mentally. The late-night, long speed workouts taught me that my body could work hard even when it was exhausted. The tempo runs that seemed impossible taught me that I was capable of more than I thought. The higher mileage and additional weekly workouts taught me that my body was able to do amazing things. The PR that came after the pressure was off taught me that my own thoughts and expectations control my running more than anything.

Working with a coach taught me I have the ability to reach my goals and to be the runner I want to be, I just need to believe it. And when the time is right, if Nicole is still open to coaching, I will work with her again in the future. For now, I’m juggling too many balls in the circus of life to make it work.

But from my perspective the answer is yes, a coach is “worth it.” And not only am I a “good enough runner” to have a coach, so are you if you have big goals and want to achieve them.

So if you’re wondering if a coach is one of those “needs” or “must haves” for you, I would seriously consider giving it a try. Sometimes you need to give up control to see what you are truly capable of. Sometimes all it takes is a small tweak to make your hard effort pay off. It’s like trying to drive a nail in with a screwdriver. Eventually you’ll get that nail in, but a coach can be the one that hands you the hammer to get the job done.

Do you have a coach, or have you ever? Is a coach worth it to you?

I'm a running mom of two little girls, who is busy balancing life, work and marathon training. It's always training season for me because I'm on a quest to run a marathon in every state, while constantly striving to be the best runner I can be. Running has led me to some great adventures and I always have a good story to share!

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7 comments

  1. Congrats on that PR! I “fell” into being coached a couple months ago (ie: someone offered to coach me for free…so the price was right, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have done it.) I think it’s still too soon to be able to tell if coaching is right for me. My methods/training have been a little unorthodox in the past, so it’s weird to try and adjust to a more traditional coached model/schedule. My impressions so far are just…so-so. The coach is a really nice dude, but he just doesn’t know enough about me or my running style yet…and I don’t know enough about his methods to really trust them, either…so it feels like there’s still a disconnect somewhere in there. Probably just need to be patient and see what happens. I’m trying to convince myself that there’s no harm done if it’s not a great fit and doesn’t work out, but part of me will probably be frustrated if it ends up being a flop. It’ll feel a bit like a waste of his/my time…

  2. Thank you so much lady! I’m so happy for you and all of your balls (family, friends, etc)! You rock and am so grateful for the friend and athlete I have in you.

  3. I’ve worked with a coach for a couple of marathons, and it was definitely a huge improvement over training for my first 2 attempts. For this next training cycle, I’m considering making my own plan. I think it’ll be interesting to see how things go now that I have a little more experience (but probably a little less external accountability). I agree that it’s totally worth a try because it gave me exposure to different types of workouts and rationales for my training, but it is expensive to do every time.

  4. I decided to run my first marathon a few years ago, and because I am a type-A nutcase, I figured I might as well go for a BQ while I was at it. I hadn’t ever seriously trained for anything and didn’t really consider myself a runner, so I knew I needed some help.

    Long story short, I hired a coach, qualified for Boston handily and I just finished my third training cycle with this coach and nabbed my third consecutive marathon PR (check out nicholerunning.blogspot.com). She has helped me achieve paces I never thought possible. I love not having to plan out my running schedule and she keeps me accountable.

    For me it’s a worthwhile investment and I can’t imagine training without her!

  5. I’ve had 2 coaches in my serious running years out of college. My first one taught me a lot, especially about marathon running since I was new to the event. But it became difficult, because it was almost a “running is everything” type relationship, and very strict about the types of workouts/runs I was expected to do (even if I didn’t enjoy them). So later I found myself deviating from my training plans, and losing confidence in what I should be doing. It kind of burnt me out on competing for awhile. Shortly after qualifying for the LA Trials, I started working with a coach again for the first time in years. I ran with him for about 5 months until the Trials, and it was great. He didn’t write me daily workouts, which allowed me the daily flexibility to do what fit into my life’s schedule. He coached me at weekly track workouts (even unconventional ones that I wanted to do just because I found them fun) which was amazing, because I would never have pushed myself that hard on my own.
    I think more than anything, a coach is great for the mental aspect of running. Over the years you learn what works for you and what doesn’t. But a coach is very beneficial for bouncing ideas off, tweaking things in your training/racing, rebuilding your confidence after bad races/workouts, and encouraging you and helping you set realistic goals. If you find a coach that understands how running fits into your life, and together you set reasonable expectations, it’s very beneficial.

  6. This is such a great post – I had a coach for a brief three months and they taught me so much. I think the most important thing, for me, was they forced me to run fast and hard. Until then, I think I really didn’t know what hard meant, and I consistently then ran my fastest 5ks. Since coaching, I have continued to improve. I learned so much about myself as a runner, and I think, most importantly, what I could do if I just made myself hurt a little more in my workouts.

  7. I’m a relatively new runner and have only been doing it for about 3 years now. After a year of “winging” it and following cookie cutter plans I took the plunge and hired a coach. I whole heartedly agree that it is a worthwhile investment even for a newbie like myself.

    Getting faster was a large motivation for hiring a coach but another aspect was I wanted to avoid injury and burnout. Running while seemingly a simple sport is so complex. I was surrounded by friends that were always injured or running every run either too easy or hard. A coach has provided massive amounts of information, advice, confidence, and numerous other benefits.