How to Become a Certified Running Coach

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about how not every runner should be a coach, even with the easily-available and quick online certification options. However, that doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t become a coach.

If you’ve done a self-evaluation and decided that you have the knowledge, experience, and gumption, there are many paths to becoming a running coach. Personal training certifications are all similarly formatted or in an online format and similarly priced. University degrees obviously take a little foresight, but many of those degrees aren’t focused singularly on coaching. Finally, some great coaches don’t have a certification at all, and that’s an option worth considering, too. Let’s break down the options.

How to Become a Coach

The simplest way is to call yourself a “coach.” Honestly, there is literally nothing required to call oneself a “running coach.” Let’s get that out of the way. To coach others, especially adults, you need no formal training, certifications, or licensing from any sort of governing body. However, there are several certification programs available to boost your coaching resume. The quality of those depends on what you want to get out of each program.


One such certification program is the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) Coaching Certification Program. The lowest level program, Level I, has existed for many years, with the Level II program only being developed long after the need was necessary. The Level I program provides a basic outline of coaching and business management, but hardly touches on the theories of coaching.

The idea behind the RRCA program is great because it brings more coaches into communities around the country. All of the coaches go through the same program, so they are trained in a similar fashion. There are RRCA clubs across the country that these coaches can join; once in the club, the coaches have the ability to assist local runners. Unfortunately, the Level I course’s brevity only allows it to skim the surface of coaching. There are no continuing education requirements, and the exam is open book, multiple choice.


USATF day 4 2018 (42992541971)
Photo: jenaragon94
The USA Track & Field (USATF) coaching program is totally different from the RRCA’s. Not only does this program address running, but it encompasses field events and technical events as well. There are currently three levels of the program that build upon the knowledge from the previous level. The program is set up for anyone from entry level to professional. This program is great because it requires hands-on experience and delves more into the sports science side of coaching. The downfall is that it is a lot more information than a running coach needs unless she is actually coaching track and field.

Personal Trainer and Other Online Running Coach Certifications

Aside from the two main programs above, there are dozens of other coaching certifications. Just in researching this article, I found two running-specific certifications that I had never even heard about; these can be completed entirely online. There are ample personal trainer certifications, as well. Just be wary – I saw one advertised on Groupon a few years ago, and I don’t know about you, but I’m probably not going to use Groupon for something as important as coaching or training other people.

University Degrees

This is probably the most intensive training a coach can have, but is not necessary. Coaches who studied some sort of exercise science, kinesiology, or a related field will have a background in how the human body moves. They may better understand injury prevention and how to develop a stronger runner. Couple the degree with people skills and experience coaching runners, and they can be a valuable resource.

Pyramid Schemes, Multi-Level Marketing Schemes, etc.

I had to throw this option in here because I had an old acquaintance approach me as a “coach,” trying to tell me how I could run my own coaching “business.” The problem is that she was not certified in any way, shape or form, and the way that these pyramid scheme coaches make money is through the supplements they sell you, not necessarily selling you workouts or improving you as a runner. This is rampant across social media and a lot of the times when you see the word “coach” in a person’s profile, they are in some sort of pyramid scheme.

I love that more people are trying to get into fitness, but buying into a multi-level marketing scheme is not the way to do it. The workouts can be great (let’s be honest, I’ve done some of the videos), but beware of their “coaches” who may or may not know proper techniques for the exercises that they are instructing you to do.  And be aware of the sales tactics for the shakes and supplements. The way these coaches make money is by selling products and earning a percentage of what their recruits sell.

Ultimately, workouts: good. Selling of supplements: not so good.

Experienced Runners

Like I’ve said before, just because someone can run well does NOT mean that they can coach well. In the runner dating world, we tend to call this phenomenon “speed goggles.” In the same way that we think “that person is attractive because they are fast,” we tend to think “that person can coach because they are fast.” Wrong, wrong, wrong. There are many factors that go into creating a great coach:

  1. Experience coaching: A coach is going to learn from their athletes’ successes and their shortcomings.
  2. Experience under other coaches: A coach can learn a lot from working under other coaches, either by directly being coached or by being an assistant to another coach. Obviously the more coaches a person has worked with, the more philosophies that they will have been exposed to.
  3. Running experience: This is important, for the simple fact that if they don’t know how to run, they won’t be able to teach it effectively. But, having a coach lead you through a large marathon experience can help calm the nerves if they have been in your shoes before. My first Boston experience was chaos. My second was a lot better because I knew what to expect. I could have used an experienced coach that first time to lead me through the process.
Awesome coaches like Rue want their prospective athletes to ask them tough questions.

Overall, the best experience for coaching comes from a combination of personal experience, education, and just genuinely being absolutely geeked about running performances. Some good experience will come from performing well as a runner before becoming a coach. But just because someone may have been a top runner does not mean that they can help you run well. A teammate of mine had been coached by an elite athlete and was running really well, but the extreme mileage caught up with her and she broke. She’s an injury-prone athlete and was running way out of her league. Had she stayed healthy, I’m sure she could have done some amazing things, but her body has never responded well to training in that manner. Damn speed goggles.

Coaching is a growing business, and there are many paths to get there. The work doesn’t stop with the certificate, however, as many running coaches will tell you. You also have to find athletes, set realistic yet competitive prices, market yourself, and more. It’s a dream of a job, but not an easy one.

Are you a coach? How did you become one? What do you want aspiring coaches to know?

Blueberry is a very late 20s ex-collegiate runner living with her two cats in the mitten state. She is training to break all of her college PRs but really dreams about running long distances someday, but faster than her last attempts. Her writing is mostly about running on a club team, making kids run, and trying to run faster than men.

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