Questions for coaches

I’ve worked with four different coaches in the past year. I’ve had email or phone contact with at least 15 more and I don’t want to think about how many coaching websites I’ve looked at. When I parted ways with Coach Cowboy last summer, I thought I knew exactly what I was looking for in a coach and that I had some idea how to find that person. Boy, was I wrong. The coach search has taught me a lot, both about myself and about what questions work when interviewing a potential coach and I thought some of that information might be useful to share. Some of the questions are pretty specific to me, but if you are looking for a coach, they might help you think about what things would be specific to you, and that’s what ultimately matters.

In terms of finding a coach, word of mouth works best. There’s a lot of chaff out there. It’s close to free to set up a website to sell your coaching services. RRCA (Road Runners Club of America) is probably the most popular coaching certification course, but you can get certified with one weekend of instruction plus an exam. That’s a great start, but one weekend doesn’t make a person into a great coach. Almost all the coaches who cleared my first hurdle and made it to the phone call stage were people recommended by someone I know. If you are looking for a coach, ask around. Ask at your local running store. Ask in online running groups. In-person coaching can be fabulous, but lots of coaches are virtual and that can work out too. You’re going to save yourself a huge amount of time by starting with a recommendation. I’ve been known to stalk people – that is, figure out from someone’s blog who their coach is and then contact the coach. Hey, whatever works!

Once you’ve got a couple of people in mind, it’s time to figure out what to ask them. Of course you want to know how much they cost and what exactly they offer. It’s also reasonable to ask about certification though in my experience, that is one of the least important factors. The cost and the offerings will be all over the map and most people are certified. Furthermore, you need to find the right coach for you. Athletes definitely want different things and coaches may work better or less well with different athletes.  So how do you sort out who might be a good match? I found that when I asked potential coaches about their approach to training, every single one said he or she treated everyone as an individual. It’s great that there’s so much individuality out there, but that makes that bit of information useless when trying to sort out one coach from another. I eventually did find a new coach though and I’m super happy about that and really excited to start working with him once this foot heals up! So, these are some of the questions that worked for me.

The Basics:

Price: Of course this matters. I talked to one coach twice who I really liked, but he is just too expensive for my budget. But, as DC Rainmaker points out, in this case, it really isn’t true that you get what you pay for. Price is wildly all over the place so keep looking until you find someone you can afford rather than breaking your bank account.

Services: Coaching is a booming market. Particular coaches may have a range of offerings, such as a training plan for a particular race or different price levels based on how much contact they have with athletes. Some coaches will also come work out with you or hold an in-person training sessions where they watch you run. You can join a training group such as the ones offered by the Another Mother Runner folks. British elite runner Tina Muir has brand-new training plans and a great FaceBook group too.  These groups and others like them might have a standard training plan and some kind of support through FaceBook or some other group. Think about what you want and will be comfortable with. I knew I was looking for individualized coaching – that is, a coach who was going to make a training plan for me specifically and give me feedback on how things were going. There are some very tempting groups out there, but for me right now, an individual coach-athlete relationship was the only thing I wanted.

Certification: You might as well ask about this though I don’t think it’s very important. The major coaching certification organizations are RRCA and USATF. Almost everyone hanging out their coaching shingle is certified, but the certification courses are so short that they are just the very beginning of learning how to coach. Still, you might as well ask.

Years experience as a coach: This is an important question so don’t skip it, but be open to different sorts of answers. In general, more experience is probably better because I think you learn a lot over time as a coach. But I received excellent coaching from someone who had coached a lot of football and swimming and very little running, prior to agreeing to work with me. Someone who has grown up around running and coaching might be great or might have a hard time explaining basic concepts to a beginner. On the other hand, a brand-new coach fresh off a weekend RRCA training course might make a lot of mistakes or might be excellent and probably affordable. Getting a feel for a person’s history as a coach matters.


Communication frequency: This is an important factor for me and again, the offerings are all over the map. Some coaches regulate communication very carefully: you might be allowed one phone call per week, for example. Some prefer to communicate only through email. Some want you to write up a summary of the week’s training. Again, the important thing here is to think about what you want and to try to get information about whether the coach is willing to do that. Communication turns out to be probably the number one factor for me, assuming that a few other pieces are in place. I want to communicate with my coach almost every day and I want him or her to be okay with that. One way to cut through possible vagueness on this issue is to ask coaches how often they communicate with current athletes. But when my new coach offered that communication was his forte, I knew I was on the right track.

Communication/workout format: A coach has to somehow send you workouts and there are lots of ways to do that. I have received workout schedules by email, by text, through Training Peaks, through Final Surge, and through the VdotO2 program. No one has offered to send workouts via carrier pigeon yet, but you never know. Having used all these different formats, I have a clear preference personally for one of the online workout calendar programs (Training Peaks, Final Surge, etc). An online calendar is going to give you a record of your workouts in a way that is easy to look over – far superior to text or email or pdf. Plus, online workout programs will generally sync with your Garmin or other watches so you don’t have to type in your data manually. That said, for me, this is not a deal breaker. Furthermore, having used three different online workout calendars, I haven’t noticed much difference among them. If you train by heart rate or have other particular data you want, it might be worth investigating what program a particular coach uses. This factor will matter more to someone who is more data-obsessed than I am.

Training approaches, etc.

Training philosophy: This is the million dollar question, the one I thought I understood and therefore the way I would choose a coach when I started looking last summer. Nope. First of all, it turned out to be surprisingly hard to get potential coaches to engage with this question. “What is your training philosophy?” “I treat all my athletes as individuals.” Repeat almost endlessly and therefore meaninglessly.

My breakthrough technique here draws on something I learned from interviewing German politicians, of all things. When people assume you know very little, they start at the beginning. Therefore, demonstrating some knowledge, even potentially incorrect knowledge, can sometimes jump start the conversation. Therefore, I re-framed this question as something like “Of course everyone is an individual, but different coaches draw more heavily from some training philosophies than others. I have friends who swear by Jack Daniels and others who train only by heart rate. Then there’s this Run Less, Run Faster book that some people like. Would you say your approach is closer to one or the other of those?” By the time I started framing the question this way, I already “knew” I wasn’t interested in heart-rate training or Run Less, Run Faster and I was admittedly kind of fishing for Daniels, but I was also open to other ideas. I don’t know what the potential coaches thought of this question, but it sure moved the conversation along faster.

Some coaches brought up approaches I had never heard of or put heart-rate training into a context where I thought I could tolerate it after all. The number of Lydiard devotees this question turned up surprised me and sent me down a fascinating by-way of “what is the difference between Lydiard and Daniels anyway?” fielded by friends in Sub30. Asking the question taught me that I knew way less than I thought I did, but also that I was looking for a coach who was ready to engage with me at this sort of level. One coach’s willingness to jump quickly to technical aspects of running impressed the hell out of me. Another’s hesitancy to dive into these matters caused him to drop off my short list. The insight that I was looking for a coach willing and able to talk about this subject was at least as important as the particular philosophy anyone subscribed to.

Long run thoughts: As someone focused primarily on the marathon distance, the structure of the long run really matters. This means how does the mileage of the long run build over the course of a training cycle, but also what is the internal structure of a particular long run. Here again – I thought I knew a lot more than I did. Having discovered the glories of a long run that is not just Long Slow Distance, but contains some paced intervals, I figured that was the way to go. Honk. Maybe for someone coming off a few successful marathon cycles in a row, but perhaps not so much for a novice marathoner or someone coming off injury. Maybe putting hills into the long run is more important than putting marathon paced miles in there. Maybe the internal structure of the long run varies over the course of the training cycle. Hmmm. Maybe this is one reason I want to hire a coach instead of go it alone.

Strength training: This is a two-part issue. First, can the coach provide strength workouts? Second, what does the coach think about how to integrate strength training and running? For both of these, potential coaches turned out once again to be all over the place. Some coaches are also certified in personal training and are happy to provide running-specific strength workouts. Other coaches don’t feel qualified to do so. Some coaches have really specific ideas about what strength work runners should be doing and when. Others think time spent on the gym is time spent not on the road and prefer that runners devote as much time as possible to running.

As usual, the important thing is to find a match that works for you. I enjoy strength training. I have a personal trainer I adore. I also think strength training is important for runners in general and critically important for female masters runners in particular. One coach I liked a lot doesn’t have his runners in the gym much and ultimately, this one might be a deal breaker for me. I think strength training is probably the most important thing I’ve done to get faster. Plus, Tough Guy Trainer should be earning twice as much money from me, considering our sessions practically double as therapy. In any case, it turns out I don’t need a running coach to provide strength workouts, but I do want a running coach to help figure out how to integrate strength training and running sensibly.

Nutrition: Again, this is a two-part issue. Can the coach provide nutrition help (either in general or during races/long runs) and is there an overall match in philosophy? I’ve never worked with my running coach much on nutrition. I rely on Tough Guy Trainer for overall nutrition help and I haven’t struggled with nutrition for racing. But for some people, this is going to be a critical issue, so if that’s you, be sure to clarify.


What does the coach call his or her “people”?: Coaches might refer to the people who pay them as clients, athletes, runners or possibly something else. I have a small preference for the terms “runner” or “athlete”. I think those are labels that aren’t easy for everyone to claim and using them helps shape your mindset. Again, for me, this is a preference, not a deal breaker.

How many runners does a coach work with and is coaching his or her full time job?: How I wish I had thought of asking this one from the beginning. I have talked to coaches with fewer than five athletes and coaches with more than sixty. The answer to this question will help you get a sense of how much individual attention you can expect. Lots and lots of coaches are balancing their coaching gig with some sort of other job and that also plays into this equation. But more outside work and more athletes mean less time per athlete. There are only so many hours in a day for everyone. If you get a sense that you might end up a cog on someone’s big wheel, listen to your gut.

How many runners “like me” does the coach work with?: As I interviewed more coaches over time, I got a lot better at it. This question ended up working really well. I phrased it like this: “I am a mid-40s adult onset female athlete with a full-time job and two young children, trying to qualify for Boston. Despite my outside commitments, I take my running very seriously.” Then I included a list of my five marathon times. Once I started asking this question, I got answers like: “I currently have six athletes who are very similar to you.” That’s much better information than the more typical “I coach everyone from beginners to Boston qualifiers to people trying to get to the Olympic trials.” I’m sure some coaches are talented enough to coach everyone. But frankly, I don’t want to be a coach’s first attempt at a BQ and I also don’t want to be the only person trying to get to Boston while everyone else is trying to get to the Olympics. Some of my best friends and training partners are former collegiate athletes. I can tell that coaching them is not the same as coaching me, someone who spent pretty much all of college in the library. It really doesn’t matter if a coach is famous or can coach famous people if they have no idea how to help you in particular.

Is the coach a running nerd? [or, substitute your particular interest here]: When I first started talking to coaches last summer, I had no idea this was something I cared about. As my running obsession has grown, though, it turns out I like to follow running news. I’m interested in what elites are doing, in running history, in what science might have to say about various aspects of the sport. This revelation should not have been surprising. I’m pretty much a nerd by profession. I even managed to geek out pretty seriously over wedding planning. But to have a coach with whom I can indulge this particular passion? Well, that’s pretty glorious. Once I understood this about myself, I realized I wanted a running nerd coach who knew more than I did. I probably wouldn’t eliminate someone based on this category, but I considered it a serious plus.

Age and gender: You don’t have to ask about these because they are easy enough to figure out. My feminist soul told me coach gender shouldn’t matter, but my runner’s heart told me it might. I’d like to think these things don’t matter, but I’m not naïve. They probably do. Coach-athlete is a relationship between two humans and humans don’t come in neutral boxes. I have strong opinions and a bossy streak and sometimes a lot of self-confidence. I am going to ask a million questions and expect good answers. I am also trying to take my running to a level it hasn’t been before, something I care passionately about, but am not sure I can do. I’m coming off a pretty rough year of injury. Those things leave me vulnerable and a bit scared sometimes. Everyone’s personality is probably a unique mix of confidence and vulnerability and I think the important thing here is finding a coach who is a good match. I’m not really able to articulate how, but coach age/gender probably goes into this. It’s ok to listen to your intuition here.

Coach speed: Do you care if your coach can run fast or has run fast in the past? This might or might not matter to you. I have actually never asked about this because it seems a rather awkward question. My head believes fully in the idea that you can coach someone to a BQ even if you yourself have never run that fast. My gut tells me I’m going to have more faith in the program of a coach who can run fast or has previously run fast. My head says it doesn’t matter if a coach personally specializes in 5Ks or ultras or some other distance. My heart says, it belongs to the marathon and my coach had better at least understand the appeal.

Social media presence: Is your potential coach on social media? Go ahead and look that person up. If they have a blog that you love, that might be a big plus. If their twitter activity makes you crazy, that’s a potential minus.

This is a lot of questions. Plan on conversations with potential coaches taking 45-60 minutes at least. After all, this is a choice that really matters because you’re going to invest a lot of time and money into training with this person and hopefully they are going to invest in you as well. If you have any thoughts on these questions or want to add your own, please do so in the comments!

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4 Responses to Questions for coaches

  1. Mark Sekelsky says:

    I remember when I passed my RRCA test my first thought ala Grouch Marx was “I’m not sure I want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” 😉

  2. Karen says:

    Hi Sarah, this is very helpful, thank you! When I move back to Canada next year I plan on exploring the possibility of a coach – one that will understand an over-40 adult onset female athlete 🙂

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