A running coach can help a runner to breakthrough. Or break down. That’s just one reason it’s important to vet a running coach.
As a sport, running generally sets low hurdles for becoming a coach. Requirements run the gamut. Youth, scholastic, collegiate, recreational, and elite programs have their own varied process for vetting coaches. And things get even fuzzier online.
Full disclosure: As a coach myself, I’ve been hired and volunteered at several levels, in person and online, since 2003. Sometimes without even applying, others with extensive applications, interviews, plus athletic department and safety-first requirements. Sometimes even without background checks (eek).
So how or why can a runner trust a coach to foster a positive experience?
Vetting coaches can be tricky—not just in running, but for all sports—since there is no standard system of accreditation, says Julie McCleery, Ph.D., director of research-practice partnerships and research associate at University of Washington’s Center for Leadership in Athletics.
“But we should expect that coaches have some training,” McCleery says. “A coach’s number one job is to keep athletes safe, physically and emotionally.”
On-the-ground coaches to be trained in first aid, CPR, concussion protocols, and SafeSport, anti-abuse training and reporting policy. Depending on the program, she says, you might also look for youth development education, positive coaching training, and other sport-specific credentials.
“The current predominant coach training model is one of apprenticeship: You coach how you were coached. And while there is a lot of value in the experience of having been an athlete, it’s also useful to have coach development in order to learn what that particular coach or system didn’t teach you. But because of the nature of sports, we don’t have agreement on what the standards or qualifications are of coaching,” McCleery says.
Given that lack of agreement, you need to create your own criteria. Here are five tips for ensuring you get a great coach:
1) Check out qualifications, certifications, and acronyms
Coaching running is both science and art, so no one degree or certification guarantees a great coach. But education in (or curiosity research of) physiology, training methodology, and biomechanics helps. Same for psychology, communication, and organization.
USATF itself handles an educational certification program. So does Road Runners of America, and the US Track and Field and Cross Country Coaches Association (USATFCCCA), and a handful of private coaching businesses. Which is the best? It depends on your specific goals as an athlete—and how a proficiently a coach tailors training and competition to meet those goals.
Beth Baker, founder of Running Evolution, created a coaching certification program specifically for training beginner runners who face a steep improvement curve. “I saw a need to coach people who were not competitive but just wanted to get out there, to not hurt themselves. A lot of people use running as a way of life, not to win races. I also wanted to educate coaches on all the ‘new runner’ needs, from a very basic standpoint, so they can offer the nuts and bolts to their clients.”
The best way to find out how a coach is qualified? Ask. In particular if coaching requirements or standards aren’t listed on an organization or coach’s website, ask about their expertise, education, hiring requirements, background checks, safety policies, and any other relevant credentials.
2) Search (and poke) around
Word-of-mouth is a valuable tool for vetting a coach. Angelina Ramos, University of Nevada Las Vegas cross country coach, recommends talking to current athletes, not just the coaches themselves. Potential student-athletes and adult runners looking for a club can observe a practice.
“There’s a lot you can pick up on,” Ramos says. “[You] can ask athletes, ‘Hey is that normal? Are they acting nicer than normal? What’s a typical day for them? What’s the craziest thing they’ve ever said to you? What’s the scariest thing they’ve ever said to you?”
Alumni or previous athletes may be willing to share their experiences, too. But know that coaches, like other humans, can evolve over time. Just don’t be shy: ask your running buddies, local running groups, or at your specialty running shop for recommendations, references, and real-talk reviews.
Next, try Googling, reading bios, and skimming reviews. Search the USATF and RRCA lists, or specifically for women coaches on Trail Sisters. And, preemptively, check the SafeSport Disciplinary List and USADA’s sanctions for doping rule violations.
3) Have a conversation, or a thousand
Before hiring a coach or joining their team, start a discussion about their philosophy and background. For example: What’s your training philosophy? How do you motivate athletes? How do you write training and set goals? How do you talk to or work with athletes if they don’t perform up to your expectations, performance-wise or behaviorally? How do you measure success or evaluate athletes?
For potential collegiate runners, this conversation is especially essential. “I would encourage a recruit to treat it like they’re also interviewing the coach, not just that the coach is interviewing them,” Ramos says.
Former collegiate and pro runner Arianna Lambie found that open communication with her coach Dena Evans formed a strong foundation when she ran for Stanford. “I remember wanting to do everything my coach said,” she says. “She was extremely open, communicative—and I think that is one of the key qualities in a good coach. That you communicate to your athletes but also that you are there to listen to your athletes. She was always looking at the individual.”
For all runners, initial conversations hold valuable clues for a potential athlete-coach relationship—which is vital for good coaching, says UW’s McCleery. “Strong coach-athlete relationships are built around caring for athletes as people and also caring that they improve and develop skills as athletes. Skill development and performance improvement is ultimately an exercise in deep caring. Effective coaches create formal and informal routines to get to know their athletes and to help their athletes build relationships with one another,” she says.
On-going communication—talking about questions, concerns, hopes, dreams, even so-called taboo but important topics like periods—allows a coach-athlete relationship to flourish because it keeps a coach attuned to her athlete’s needs. The attuned coach can adjust course. Maybe the training plan requires more tweaks, or a motivational approach needs to be adapted, or a medical expert is called in. It’s about adapting to the situation at hand.
4) Don’t confuse athletic success with successful coaching
It takes more than running fast, or coaching athletes who run fast, to be a great coach. As admirable as competitive and elite experience and winning records are, accolades don’t necessarily correlate with the kind of coaching that taps into an athlete’s potential—not just in a race, but in life.
An on-going study at the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership in Athletics has preliminarily identified 15 core “ambitious coaching” practices that positively impact both performance and individual development.
“Ambitious coaching is about believing that social-emotional growth and peak athletic performance are mutually reinforcing, not mutually exclusive,” says McCleery. “Another tenet of ambitious coaching is that self-awareness and reflection are imperative to good coaching. The best coaches are always adjusting to what they learn from athletes, from research, from what works or doesn’t work one season to the next. I’ve heard people say that good coaches learn more about themselves than their sport during their careers.”
5) Trust your gut
An athlete’s “instinct and intuition should always be their first gauge,” Ramos says. “A leader should always make an athlete feel safe. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be pushed outside their athletic comfort zone. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be pushed to grow and evolve to their highest self as a human, as a person, as an athlete. I’m not talking about comfortable in that regard but they should always feel that they are respected, that they are never degraded, that they are never condescended [to] and…there should be a foundational level of respect and closeness that the coach and athlete has created across time.”
This might be tough for a freshman three weeks into a program, she says, but even as you create an athlete-coach relationship, ideally respect and an open-communication policy stands.
Lambie says, “Your coach should be your point person for everything. You should feel comfortable talking about everything related to training. That said, they should surround themselves with resources. No one should hesitate to seek more information.”
A great coach knows when to refer an athlete out when issues rise beyond their expertise or training. Think a short-list of credentialed, licensed experts: mental health professionals, registered dieticians who specialize in sports and eating disorders, sports medicine doctors. Because strong, fast running is optimized only on a foundation of health and well-being.
Elizabeth Carey is a freelance writer and running coach based in Seattle, Washington.