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Do You Need A Running Coach?

One running coach explains the importance of getting coached and how it's not just for elite athletes.

As a 22-year old post-collegiate runner in 2004, I thought I had it all figured out, so I decided to start coaching myself in preparation for my first half marathon and marathon that fall. I’ll spare you all the nitty gritty details, but the fast forwarded version of the story is that I quickly ended up injured, frustrated and impatient, injured again, and even more frustrated. It was a vicious cycle, but I learned some valuable lessons and, most importantly, developed an appreciation for what a good coach can do for you.

A major reason for my collegiate success was due to my coach Karen Boen. Yes, she was technically sound—her background was in exercise physiology and she was a top-level athlete in her own right—but more importantly, she taught me the value of developing a relationship with your athletes, taking the time to understand them as people first and athletes second, and that coaching is more than just plugging X’s and O’s into a spreadsheet.

Coach B was always looking out for the long-term, carefully progressing my training from year to year and intentionally holding me back or forcing me to rest when I surely would have ended up running myself into the ground (which, when left to my own devices, I did).

I was someone who benefitted from having a coach. As an athlete, motivation wasn’t my problem, but harnessing that ambition in productive ways was not my strong suit. When in doubt, which was often the case since I no longer had anyone else planning my training for me or keeping me in check, I would do more. But I stopped doing the little things, like strength training and mobility work, and generally developed bad, lazy habits.

I learned the hard way that you can only get away with those things for so long before they come back to bite you in the backside. It was learning from my own mistakes, and seeing countless other runners making many of the same ones, that led me into coaching.

Does every runner need a coach? The short answer is no. In fact, there are many runners ranging from newbies to experienced marathoners who do just fine on their own. They don’t need motivation or accountability and have discipline and patience in spades. They know their bodies well and have learned how to listen to it when it starts making noises. They have no problem pushing themselves but they also have the intuition to adapt workouts on the fly or cut a long run short when things aren’t going well. They don’t overthink things and aren’t afraid to reach out to someone when they have questions. They always keep a longterm view in regard to how they want to progress as an athlete and appreciate that improvement comes gradually and consistently. If this sounds like you, keep doing what you’re doin’!

If you’re the opposite of the person I just described, however, keep reading and see if you could benefit from having a coach. If you’re not sure what you should be doing in training, have trouble getting out the door on a consistent basis, are getting stale in your workouts, constantly staving off injuries, plateauing in your performances or just generally not having fun with your training, it might be worth considering handing the reins over to someone you can trust to take you where you want to go.

That last bit—trust—is key. At its core, coaching is a trusted relationship, whether it’s a virtual arrangement based on text communication and phone calls or you’re meeting up with a training group for an hour or two a few times a week and getting realtime feedback on your form or someone telling you how you’re looking on the last interval of a workout.

Coaching isn’t just for elite athletes. Regardless of your age, ability level or goals, a good coach will work with you to make training fit into your life, not the other way around, and help make it more enjoyable and productive. Having someone you can learn from, communicate, be inspired by and receive regular feedback from can go a long way toward helping you achieve your goals.

Think back to when you were getting involved in sports or extracurricular activities for the first time. How did you learn to play the game or develop new skills? Who motivated you to stick with it when you got frustrated? Or helped you gain a better appreciation for what you were doing? It’s more than likely that you had a coach, teacher or mentor who met you on a particular path and taught you how to navigate it until you either lost interest, fell out of touch with that person or felt competent enough to follow it on your own.

As adults, we can better appreciate and understand the role that good coaching and mentorship played throughout our lives and how it’s affected our individual trajectories as athletes, students, musicians, or whatever path we chose to follow. But it’s also not too late to experience it as runners, whether we’re just getting into the sport, or trying to get better at it after all these years.

Originally published December 2016.