Considering a coach?

This season, I hired a coach. I’ve written about it a little bit here and there but wanted to share why I did it, how I chose one and how it’s going so far. Runner’s World has an interesting article in the latest issue, but it doesn’t appear to be available online yet. They did publish this piece earlier in 2015.

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Coach Matt Ebersole congratulates Jesse Davis, who qualified for the Olympic Trials by a whisker at the 2015 Monumental Marathon. (Credit IndyStar)

Right before New Year’s I had a phone conversation with Coach Matt Ebersole of Personal Best Training. I had been kicking around the idea of hiring a coach for some time … years, really, but I hadn’t found quite the right fit. I wanted to find someone who would understand my running background and goals — having started running in my early 20s and  moving up quickly to the marathon, I’m not your standard post-collegiate runner. Nor am I quite the a “bucket list” type marathoner, either. Many people want to “just finish” their first marathon; I wanted to qualify for Boston (and did).

I first talked to Matt when finagling my way into the seeded coral for the half at Monumental in 2014. I hadn’t raced a half or full recently, so I didn’t have a qualifying time fast enough. But I was hoping to run right around the qualifying time at the race. Being a curious type, I looked up Matt’s training company after seeing it in his email. I had seen his athletes at other races, including the Carmel Marathon, and his training services piqued my interest. For the past year I’ve kicked it around in my head and after two successful years of racing, I decided I it might be time to take the plunge.

Matt has more than 25 years of coaching experience, including 8 Olympic Trials qualifiers. (Really, basically 9 — one of his athletes left for an elite training group after November’s Monumental Marathon and just qualified for the trials at Houston.) He’s also coached dozens of Boston qualifiers, but plenty of more recreational runners, too.

Many people search online for a coach first, then narrow it down. I went at it a little backwards, I guess, having a good sense that Matt would be a good fit. If I had changed my mind about that, I’m not sure if I would’ve looked for someone else or not.

Our first conversation went great. We talked about individualizing training plans and how there’s no one perfect training plan — and that we’d shape my training based on what worked best. My own preferences and strengths will shape the plan — the amount of mileage, the types and frequency of workouts — will all be tailored to make me the best runner I can be.

I gave myself some time to think about it after our call, but knew pretty soon that I would be signing on. It makes me nervous — it’s a commitment. Not just because of the money, but because I’m putting it out there that I want to reach certain goals and I’m willing to take some serious steps to reach them. The idea of not reaching those goals is what makes me nervous — I don’t want to look like a fool for paying a coach and not getting there. But that means the onus is on me. I have to do the work so I don’t look like a fool. And that’s the commitment.

For me, a coach is a way to both put pressure on myself and take pressure off, if that makes sense. I don’t have to figure out the schedule. I just have to get up and do the work. But the pressure is on me to do the work. If I don’t do it, I can’t blame Matt if I’m not successful.

After deciding it was a go, we had a second conversation to go over more details, including fleshing out my running background, current routine and goals. Matt also walked me through different methods for gauging effort so that we would be using the same terms in the same ways. He also set me up on Training Peaks, a training log site. It allows Matt to post workouts including pretty detailed explanations, then when I sync my Garmin, it loads in my data. Then there’s room for me to add comments and track shoes, plus add daily metrics like weight, sleep, etc. While Matt is only scheduling my running workouts, I also upload my cross-training session to Training Peaks so he can see all of it. Same for sleep and weight — I want him to have access to the full picture so that if things aren’t going right, we can quickly identify why.

Matt loaded in my first month into Training Peaks, but said typically it’ll be about 3 weeks at a time. He also reviewed my first week of training and provided feedback (also in Training Peaks), and will continue to do that every few weeks.

While Training Peaks is our main method for communicating, I’m not limited to that. I can email or text him as needed, like when I’m not sure about a workout or if I run a race and want to share results. This week I also sent him a list of races on my radar to get feedback on which ones I should do and which I should skip.

What I have learned about working with Matt is that I have to find more nuance in my running. Typically I consider runs on a 1-to-4 scale: really easy (7:50-8), pretty easy (7:40-7:50), quick (7:20-7:40) and speed/race/chased by a bear (anything under 7:20). Obviously there are specific workouts, like tempo runs, that call for a faster pace that isn’t the same as racing, but readers will also recall my tendancy to skip workouts so … moot point.

Matt, though, has like 10 points on his scale.  Friday’s run was a great example. 8 mile “moderate” run with heart rate 70-75% (easy runs are 60-75%) plus striders at 800-1600 race pace, not an all-out sprint.

Also, because the Training Peaks phone app doesn’t give me a weekly mileage total, I’ve really just been running. Last week I was over 50 miles and didn’t realize it until the last run was in the books. Leading up to Monumental Marathon last fall, where I ran 3:10, I peaked at 55 twice (and two weeks at 48-49). So to already be close to peak mileage from last season at the start of this season is pretty exciting.

The workout variety has also been interesting, with steady-state, hills and other threshold workouts. My long runs are currently following an up-down pattern, with a longer run one weekend followed by shorter but with part of it at half-marathon pace.

So far, we’ve been working together for three weeks and it’s been great. Obviously I can’t make any judgements about the success of his coaching yet, but I can say the experience has been really positive. This morning he emailed and told me I did a great job on my workout — which was great since I did it solo on a treadmill at 5:30 a.m. Almost a tree-falling-in-the-forrest situation — it was nice to have someone acknowledge the work I put in early this morning.

I think a coach holds you accountable and relieves the stress of finding a canned plan to follow and not knowing if it’s working or not — especially if you’re like me and haven’t worked with a coach before. In many ways, I’ve spent years figuring things out as I go. How much mileage is enough? How much is too much? How many weeks? How fast should my easy days be? Now I just click on the app and do whatever it says! It is an investment, but it’s an investment in myself. To fit it into my budget — we’re saving for a house and we’re just 18 months from having paid for our entire wedding — I quit getting my nails done. Coaching services are actually cheaper than manicures, and I feel better about nailing a workout anyway. 😉

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