How to choose an online running coach

As an online running coach I’m obviously a big believer that a coach is a good investment in your running. It’s not just for the elite, in fact many of my clients make up the back half of the field. If you want to take away the uncertainty of what type of training you should be doing, if you want to reduce your risk of injury if you want to improve your performance or want to take on a race that scares the pants off you then a good running coach can help. Above all though a good coach will help you enjoy your running more.

Over the last few years I’ve seen a big increase in the number of online coaches, which is great for the runner, more variety and different price points make coaching an affordable option to just about anyone. However, like any industry, there are good coaches and let’s say not so good coaches. How do you go about determining the good from the not so good? A few pointed questions and a bit of research can help you sort through the good from the average.

Pick a coach who specialises in the event you are training for.
The training principles for a 5-10km race are very different to a 100km mountain race. Whilst it is of course possible to help athletes with a wide range of distances a specialist coach will have more knowledge and experience than a general one. It’s not possible to specialise from 5km to 100 miles. Just like a knee surgeon has a lot more knowledge and experience in dealing with knees than a general GP, a specialist ultra coach will have more knowledge and experience than one that coaches a wide range of distances. Specialist by definition means that’s what they specialise in. At Mile 27 we specialise in marathon and longer and all our research and experience is in improving performance over those distances. If you want to improve your Park Run then yes, we could help, but you’d be better off finding a coach that primarily coaches 3km, 5km and 10km runners as they would have far more experience in getting your Park Run time down. If you want to run faster over mountainous terrain for 50-100km then that’s what 90% of our clients are training for.

Make sure the programs are uniquely written for you.
Your program should be written from scratch every week and designed specifically for you, fitting in with your lifestyle rather than asking you to fit the sessions in as best you can. The whole idea of having a coach is to have a plan that works for you, one that’s realistic and fits in with the available time you have.

A few questions regarding how the coach adjusts the program to your work/life/family demands will usually help determine whether the plans are truly unique for each individual.

Ask the coach if two runners with roughly the same ability would have the same training plan. If the answer is yes then look elsewhere. Every runner has their own strengths and weaknesses and a truly personalised plan should be tailored to those.

At Mile 27 we have many athletes of similar ability training for the same race and all their programs are different since no two runners are the same. Even if their finishing times might be similar some might need to work on their climbing, others descending, some on shorter, faster speed work, others longer tempo runs etc etc. An analysis of a runner’s previous training and results combined with a detailed questionnaire help us get an understanding of where each runner’s strengths and weaknesses lie. This is something that any good coach will do.

Does the coach research the race you are training for?
At Mile 27 we have coached athletes from all over the globe in all kinds of races but as soon as we have a client doing a race we haven’t heard of before one of the first things that happens is we research the race . Whats the profile like, how much vertical, what kind of terrain is it run over , typical weather conditions etc etc, often we can find some you tube videos showing parts of the course and race reports can be helpful to give a better picture of the race . The more we know about the race the better we can prepare the client. This sounds obvious but don’t assume it happens.

A good coach will take steps to know you as a person not just a runner.
They will take the time to get to know you, understand your strengths and weaknesses, what you like and don’t like in training and racing, what motivates you. They’ll understand you have 3 kids and find it hard to get out for longer session or you work long hours and sometimes 45 minutes is all you have time for and they’ll work with you to optimise the time you do have for training. They’ll understand you have a stressful job and sometimes you need an easy week even though training wise you haven’t done a lot. They’ll know what motivates you and demotivates you and adjust their training plans accordingly.

Does the training take into account the clients external stressors ?
A good coach should also adjust plans for when you are sick, for when you are on holidays, or even when you are simply stressed at work. Sometimes the advice given is simply follow the plan as best you can, but often that’s not the best advice. Adjusting the plan to take into account the external stresses in a client’s life is one of the reasons to have a coach in the first place.

Avoid pre-written programs.
I’m not a big fan of pre-written training plans as I don’t believe they offer much at all. The majority that I have seen consist of nothing more than a bunch of numbers of how many kms to run each day and how to progress those numbers up each week. The downsides to this approach are that it assumes that all races of the same distance can be trained for the same way. Training for a 50km flat race should be very different to training for a 50km hilly trail race. People coming from a road half or marathon running background often make the mistake of thinking the same training principles apply and it’s just a matter of increasing the volume they run. But for trail runs particularly the actual number of kms you cover in each run is far less important than the time spent training and the type of terrain you are training on.

Pre written plans also rarely give much direction on hill, speed, tempo seasons and if they do, then whether you are 20 years old or 60, or training for a flat road race or a mountainous race the program makes no distinction.

The argument for these, usually free, pre-written plans is they are a good starting point – I disagree and think they aren’t a good starting point at all. They lead the novice ultra runner into thinking it’s all about how many kms per day which is a very ineffective way to train for an ultra. Those seeking something for free would be far better off spending some time on the internet looking for some articles on how to train for the type of race they are planning or racing and then tweaking it to suit their situation. If you sign up to the Mile 27 blog for example you get a free PDF book on the key training sessions for an ultra which you can then tweak to your fitness level.

Does the coach stay up-to-date with the latest research?
Our understanding of the human body changes quickly as more and more research allows us to have a better understanding of how the human body works. Some of the basic tenants of training that seemed unquestionable years ago have been shown to be incorrect. For example the idea that any more than 2% dehydration causes a reduction in performance has been shown to be completely false. Static stretching is another example – in the 80s and 90s it was thought to prevent injuries but now there is a big move away from static stretching as the research has not supported it. If your coach isn’t staying up-to-date with the latest research then I’d look elsewhere.

How can you tell if they are up to date? One way is to see if they write regular, good quality articles for blogs, magazines etc. Those who take the time to write good quality articles usually spend more time researching, since once you put something to ‘print’ you open yourself up to be challenged on what you are saying. Another way is ask them how much time they spend on research each week. Any good coach will be allocating time every week to looking at research. I spend a minimum of 30 minutes every day on research, often longer, and the research is constantly driving my training principles and coaching methods to improve.

Have they coached athletes with a similar ability to you in the race or similar race to the one you are training for?
If you are doing a 100 mile race and the coach has never coached someone doing a 100 mile race then I’d look elsewhere. If you are an elite and the coach has no experience with elites then look elsewhere. But the reverse also applies. If the coach has never coached a back of the pack runner and works mainly with elites I’d be looking to see who else is around. You want to feel confident that your coach has experience coaching people like yourself with similar goals to what yours are.

Is your coach easily accessible?
Your coach should be easily accessible so they can answer any questions you have throughout the training week. For example if you miss a training session your coach should be able to advise on how to restructure the week to give you the best training outcome and for that reason I’m not a fan of limiting access to the coach to a specified number of times a week. I believe the coach should be there for every client whenever needed. At Mile 27 we structure our prices and the number of clients taken around being able to provide that service. Of course a coach cant be at beck and call 24/7 7 days a week but clients should feel confident that if they have an urgent question the coach will get back to them in 24 hours.

Ensure there is quality control if you have a coach that is part of a company.
If a company has more than one coach how do they control the quality of the programs being written? Do all coaches follow the same principles or are they all different and free to do whatever they want coaching wise? At Mile 27 all new coaches go through an apprenticeship where all programs are reviewed by me to ensure that no matter which coach a client has, the coaching principles their programs are based on and the standard of service they get will be the same.

Does your coach have some form of qualifications?
Qualifications – this is a tricky one as there is no coaching qualification for ultra running at the moment. Athletics Australia qualifications currently only go up to marathon distance. Anyone who thinks the same principles apply to 100km trail events doesn’t understand ultras. So whilst it’s good for coaches to have some qualifications to ensure they understand basic human physiology and coaching as it applies to running, for ultra coaching both experience in doing ultras plus experience in coaching ultra runners counts for more than a higher level athletics qualification. More qualifications and experience coaching 10km to half marathon runners doesn’t make you a better ultra coach. However more study on the human body and then applying that to ultras can produce a much better coach.

Can your coach advise on strategies to minimise injuries?
In addition to qualifications as discussed above, outstanding coaches will have an in depth knowledge of the human body. This will allow them to not only set programs which will minimise your risk of injury in the first place, but also if niggles do occur, allow them to modify training so that you can continue to build fitness without making the niggle worse. For example if you have a slight high hamstring tendonopathy can you still train and if so what kind of sessions? If you have an ITB problem do you need to rest for a month or can you still run? If you have just strained your calf how long before you can run again and how should you build back into it? Great coaches can keep you running safely around these types of injuries and niggles getting you back to full fitness ASAP and if you can’t run, can advise on how to keep fit until you can. (If you are curious, then high hamstring tendonopathy avoid speed and fast hills, those with ITB problems can often do short intervals and returning from a calf injury takes longer than you think and many people rush back too soon and reinjure it).

What’s included in the package?
Does the training include advice on nutrition, gear, race planning, race selection, training the mental side of running, data analysis (e.g. Strava, Movescount and the data they display) etc etc. Running an ultra is about way more than just the training. If you want to improve your performance then addressing the mental and nutrition side of things is vital. A good coach will discuss the mental side of things in training and especially racing, they’ll go through a pre race plan that isn’t just a series of split times – they’ll talk about pacing, nutrition, how to approach it mentally, how to troubleshoot any problems you may encounter along the way and how to enjoy the race as much as possible.

Finding the right coach for you
As you can see there are a lot of factors that go into making sure you pick the right coach for you. Take the time to ask lots of questions so you know exactly what the coach offers and the coach knows exactly what you want out of coaching before signing up.