Qualities Of A Skilled Ultramarathon Coach
With fall upon us, time is nigh for many ultrarunners to both reflect on the past year and look toward the future. Always looking to improve, this is frequently the time for runners to reassess how they train and race, and how to best achieve their goals.
More than ever, individual runners are looking toward hired coaches to provide guidance and development toward long-term goals. The demand for coaching is growing, and the void for skilled guidance is being filled by individuals of varying backgrounds, abilities, and cost.
How does one choose a quality coach? What factors should be investigated when considering hiring the services of a coach?
My personal background in sports medicine began with coaching, and elements of coaching are central to patient care and my interactions with the ultrarunning community. Many of my friends I consider skilled coaches, and we have been watching the development of these ultrarunner athlete-coach relationships with keen interest.
Top ultrarunner and good friend Jacob Rydman is a collegiate coach at William Jessup University in Rocklin, California. Along with head coach Parker Daniells, Rydman has successfully maximized both running talent and personal development of scores of young student athletes over the past seven years.
While the stat sheet boasts multiple conference cross-country titles and national championship berths, both Rydman and Daniels are most proud of their achievements in developing healthy, well-rounded human beings in the context of relationships, community, and spirituality.
The dual emphasis–on physical and personal development–has resulted in sustainable, positive gains for these runners that maximize their potential on and off the race course.
I was able to sit down and talk to the pair: about what individual runners should look for in selecting a quality, skilled ultrarunning coach, and how to maximize that relationship. What we came up with is a collection of factors.
[Author Disclosure: I am a coach, and (though sparingly and predominantly through gait-analysis service) I do provide coaching services. The following guidelines are not a promotion of my services or personal values–nor do I consistently do these things well. They are a collection of factors and ideal qualities that all runners should demand from a coaching relationship.]
Qualities of a Skilled Coach
Training, Education, and Experience
When I asked Daniells, a three-time California Pacific Conference Coach of the Year honoree, about what skill sets an ultrarunning coach should have, he answered my question with another, “Do you want to be a coach, or a Coach?”
What he was referring to was those who coach based on personal experience and opinion versus those who have formal training, education, and meaningful experience in the profession. Daniells boasts bachelor’s and master’s degrees, the latter in exercise science with a sports-psychology emphasis. He also has specialized certification through USA Track & Field.
When coaching athletes of all abilities, Daniells recommends finding a coach with specific education and certifications. Having a thorough understanding of human physiology, training theory, and specific needs of endurance runners is crucial. He says, “A certified coach will provide proper training within a system.”
Both Daniells and Rydman agree that this degree of education should be the basic standard for ultrarunners looking for coaching guidance: finding a true Coach rather than another runner who happens to coach.
Prospective athletes should look for a coach with these levels of education and experience:
- A bachelor’s or advanced degree in exercise science;
- Certifications through USA Track & Field–basic Level 1 and advanced Level 2, specific to endurance running; and
- Experience coaching individuals and teams in a structured environment (high school, college, or club level).
Fundamental education and experience ensure basic qualifications across many factors. “Coaches should know about running mechanics, training theory, and the mental side,” Daniells points out–far beyond the minimum knowledge about workouts and training schedules.
Formal education and coaching experience also ensure basic levels of accountability and oversight. In order to achieve degrees, certifications, and coaching positions, coaches must (to some degree) prove what they are selling is safe, sustainable, and successful. On the other hand, online runners-turned-coaches in private, for-profit settings have no such accountability.
Besides basic education and experience, prospective runners should took at a coach’s results–not just what athletes they coach. “It’s easy for a coach to succeed with talented athletes–that doesn’t make them a good coach,” Daniells points out. On the flip side, “Just because they don’t have talented athletes, doesn’t mean they’re not great coaches.”
Rather than looking at a coach’s client list, thoroughly look at the long-term coaching record of the individual. How have their athletes progressed over the past several years? Are they stronger runners today than they were a year (or two or five) ago?
Fiduciary Responsibility: Always Have the Big Picture in Mind
Another seemingly obvious tenet of quality coaching is that the skilled coach should always have the runner’s best interests in mind. That goes far beyond runner satisfaction and goal achievement.
Runners pay skilled coaches to act in their best interests, and coaches have a fiduciary responsibility to do what’s in their best interests, even if the immediate actions run contrary to short-term wants and desires.
A fiduciary is a legal and financial concept, defined by Wikipedia as a relationship where:
“..one person, in a position of vulnerability, justifiably vests confidence, good faith, reliance, and trust in another whose aid, advice or protection is sought in some matter. In such a relation good conscience requires the fiduciary to act at all times for the sole benefit and interest of the one who trusts….such that there must be no conflict of duty between fiduciary and principal, and the fiduciary must not profit from his position as a fiduciary (unless the principal consents).”
What this means in the context of a coach-runner relationship is that the coach must act in a way that preserves the runner’s best long-term interests. It often requires sacrificing short-term performance and gratification–of both runner and coach–in exchange for big-picture payoffs down the road.
This is a central component for Daniells and Rydman at Jessup: emphasizing the runner-coach experience as “the journey, not instant success.” Each season is “a year of learning,” according to Rydman, slowly building, rather than aggressively pushing. Both coaches agree that the runner’s best should come later: in the season, and in a four-year career. This often requires a conservative approach early on.
Like a financial advisor, the skilled coach with fiduciary responsibility often must instill discipline on the runner to not do too much mileage, intensity, ‘adventures,’ or racing in order to protect the runner’s long-term health and development.
A fiduciary responsibility involves providing what the runner needs, not what they want. For some runners, it indeed involves running farther and faster. Many runners require such accountability to put in the requisite long runs and daily mileage to safely and successfully complete their goal races. For example, a busy professional who wishes to complete his first 100 miler might very well need structured long runs of minimum time and distance–without which they may put themselves in danger on race day.
But more often than not, the fiduciary responsibility involves down-regulating running volume and intensity, and race frequency and effort. While the coach may look great in the short term with a runner who frequently races and wins, should this approach jeopardize the big picture, the coach is failing in their fiduciary responsibility.
This can be a difficult thing for the coach, as the less-disciplined coach’s ego often benefits short-term from the rapid achievements that often come from aggressive, overzealous training and racing. As such, the second component of the definition: the coach should not aim to benefit from a runner’s achievements (namely through social-media driven promotion and marketing) if they even remotely jeopardize their long-term, sustainable performance. Such behavior is often a red flag that a coach does not value the fiduciary relationship.
A financial advisor should never advocate risky investments for a sensitive investor; likewise, a skilled coach will never allow aggressive, risky training and racing if it jeopardizes sustainable, successful running.
A skilled coach will always prioritize long-term goals at all time, always keeping in the end in mind. A favorite quote of my former collegiate coach, Sean Harnett, sums it up well, “I coach based on what my athletes will think of me five years after they’ve graduated.”
Nurture Without Enabling
As such, a skilled coach with a fiduciary responsibility will be a skilled nurturer who encourages growth and development. This has two components: affirmation and challenging. A skilled coach should affirm positive qualities and achievements throughout the process, pointing out strengths and identifying and celebrating improvements along the way.
But the other more difficult aspect of nurturing is to challenge. Runners enter a coaching relationship because they want to develop and grow, but that just as often requires challenging belief systems and possibly breaking old, dysfunctional habits. Often such habits and belief systems have at one point been vital to achievement and happiness, but they now may be an obstacle to further growth.
A skilled coach will nurture with both affirmation and challenge, encouraging yet motivating the runner to venture somewhere different, outside the comfort zone.
They may involve a higher level of training volume and intensity, but more often it will involve doing something differently: less training, developing new skill sets, and exploring new parts of the athlete to find untapped potential. This can be an uncomfortable process–for both runner and coach–and often requires a form of ‘tough love’ where a coach must maintain discipline and delay gratification for later down the road.
Beyond nurturing is enabling, a concept where a coach allows the athlete to perpetuate negative, dysfunctional habits that compromise the big picture. Often, enabling behavior is passed off as ‘giving a person what they want,’ and keeping them satisfied. However, enabling behavior undermines long-term growth.
For a coach-runner relationship, it may manifest as the coach who too readily accepts excuses: the runner who is too busy, tired, or stressed to complete the training schedule, or those who succumb to cramping, blisters, or other ailments on race day. But on the other end, an enabling coach allows a runner to continue to overtrain or over race–by running beyond the volume and intensity guidelines–because, “Well, they really like it, and they’re doing well, so…”
A nurturing relationship in coaching is not unlike parenting: to truly love another person is rarely to give them everything they want right now. Rydman and Daniells recognize this fine line, and, at times, dispense both discipline and sensitivity at once. “Sometimes you have to challenge them, but often they just need to be loved on,” says Rydman.
A skilled coach will nurture such that, over time, the runner transcends previous limitations and achieves at a higher level–as a runner and a person.
Pricing and Services
It is striking the differences in services and pricing. Most coaching “packages” offer training schedules and guidelines, as well as a finite amount of communication, usually via phone, e-mail, or video-chat options. Other coaching services abound, and might include “nutrition services” (a rather opaque offering of nutritional guidelines) or one-on-one interactions.
Coaching plans should include, at minimum, these services:
- A comprehensive, individualized assessment (see below);
- A structured training plan based on individual needs and goals;
- Communication options–ideally unlimited–in order to give and receive feedback on the plan and athlete progress; and
- Periodic in-person interaction.
A strong bonus would include comprehensive gait analysis and periodic check-ins on stride efficiency, which is a critical component to running performance that should not be overlooked.
Pricing between one coach and/or company and another are shocking. Some of the best coaches in the sport offer services for as little as $100 per month, or a structured three-month plan for only slightly more. On the other end, there are structured plans costing over $1,000 a month.
Do your homework. Compare services and offerings, then do some hard analysis about what you’re getting for your money. More money does not mean more quality. Ask around, find out what you want and need, and then go for the most experience for the best value.
Components of Skilled Coaching
This may seem obvious, but a coach should–at the onset of the coach-athlete relationship–conduct a thorough assessment of the runner and their background. This assessment should include:
- Running history: How long have you been running? Mileage? Types of runs and workouts, and paces (easy days, long runs, intensity work).
- Performance history: Racing background (numbers and types of racing), personal bests.
- Injury history: What are the previous injuries? Where, when, and why (e.g. running-related triggers)?
- Cross-training or previous athletic background.
After collecting a history, the coach should try to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the runner, including:
- Preferred mileage;
- Favorite (and least favorite) types of runs, workouts, and races; and
- Best (and worst) performances.
Each runner coming through the Jessup program has different skills, abilities, and backgrounds. As such, Rydman and Daniells must tailor their approach to each individual based on these backgrounds. While this is more work than a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach, continuous individual assessment is central to success of the individual and the team.
The most important questions to ask when goal setting is, “What do you hope to gain from the coach-athlete relationship?” That question is not as simple as it seems. The obvious answer may be a time, distance, or finishing goal. But it may be other factors, as well, including:
- Run with less pain, to avoid injuries and burnout; and/or
- Run with more joy in training and racing.
Based on those desires and needs, a skilled coach then helps answer perhaps the most important coach-athlete question: “Where are you now, and where do you want to be?” This is a multifactorial question that includes overall fitness, physical and mental strength, logistical factors related to the goals, and specific skill sets required.
Based on all of that information, a skilled coach will then be able to draw correlations between a runner’s history, strengths and weakness, goals and desires, and how they interact with their successes as well as shortcomings. From there, it is time to get to work.
Resource Assessment: Running in Context of Life
A skilled coach will now have a good idea of where the runner is at and where they want to be. But in order to determine a plan of action to get there, there must be an inventory of resources.
One of the biggest mistakes made by runners and coaches, alike, is a failure to accept that running (and all elements of training and racing) comes from the same ‘pot of time and energy’ as the rest of life. A skilled coach must ascertain what the runner brings to the table outside running. A thorough assessment of resources must include an inventory of non-running factors:
- Job description, “What are you doing with your body?” (e.g. sitting, standing, walking, heavy labor);
- Number of hours per week;
- Commute time; and
- Travel outside work hours related to the job (e.g. meetings, remote clients).
- Marriage and family demands, how much is expected of the runner (e.g. child care, home-improvement tasks, spousal/relationship time); and
- Friends and social schedule.
- How well does the runner manage and attenuate stress?
- What resources or coping strategies do they have to reduce stress? (e.g. yoga or meditation practice, helpful grandparents, an understanding spouse)
Nutrition and Sleep
- Is the runner making good choices and maximizing nutrition and sleep for maximal training and recovery benefits?
Above all else, the skilled coach must strike a balance between available resources and the demands of the coaching plan and the rest of the runner’s life. In effect, the skilled coach acts like a financial advisor in asking what you already have and what you need to reach your goals. Far more often than not, the ultramarathon runner who seeks out a coach must be told to run less than they wish to run. Yet, that is the only way to maximize potential.
Failure to do so–and simply providing a calendar of workouts without any sensitivity of the cumulative demands of life–will invariably result in a breakdown as the body will sooner or later collapse under the weight of an imbalance.
Stress management is a central component of Daniells’s and Rydman’s work at Jessup. “Stress management is everything. How can we better manage stress and support one another?” Rydman points out as the major theme of this year’s team. Since moving to the more competitive Golden State Athletic Conference this year, Rydman told his athletes, “If we’re going to compete at this level, we have to maximize our abilities and the only way to do so is to manage stress and get the most from our potential.”
Strategies on the Jessup team include group and one-on-one communication sessions where athletes are able to vent frustrations, resolve intra-team conflict, and effectively manage the stress that invariably comes as a young student athlete. Ultimately, both Daniells and Rydman emphasis that, “Running should be in sync with the rest of life: school, work, social, and family life.”
These concepts are equally important for the individual ultrarunner. When a skilled coach helps a runner through this resource assessment, it provides a motivation to better stress management as a way to improve running. But this will only happen if the coach recognizes The Runner as an integrated part of The Person–and that all life factors impact running.
‘The Big Rocks First:’ Specificity in the Coaching Plan
Once the assessment has been done, there is invariably a sober realization that resources are finite. A skilled coach must then prioritize. What is most important toward goal achievement? Specificity rules all in maximizing performance, and in ultramarathon running; it is everything.
Too often, zealous coaches and athletes want to do it all: base mileage, tempo runs, hill repeats, long runs, track sessions. They’re all important, and this magazine or that social-media post will point out the tremendous benefits of each. But when resources are finite, what is most important?
There is a parable about rocks in a jar and how the best way to maximize the capacity of the jar is not to fill it with sand or pebbles. Rather, the big rocks–the specific requirements for the goal race–must go in first. Then, by adding the pebbles (strength and intensity work) to shore up weaknesses, and sand (cross training, running volume) to bolster overall fitness, the jar can be filled.
A skilled coach will not be greedy. They will prioritize what is most needed–for the event and for a runner’s strengths and weaknesses–rather than try to apply a basic, grab-bag formula of running fitness. This is where experience counts. Finding a coach who has experience preparing (or him/herself racing) for a specific event–such as Western States, Hardrock, or the IAU 100k World Championships–is invaluable for specific preparation.
Hone–But Don’t Hammer–The Strengths
Each runner has his strengths: they could be pace consistency, climbing and/or descending, or finishing speed. And each will thrive in certain types of workouts: short intervals, long tempos, or fast-finishing long runs. A skilled coach will recognize those strengths and hone them: helping the runner to utilize the strengths in context to goals. But equally important for the skilled coach is to avoid excessively hammering them.
The skilled coach, in their role as financial advisor, will acknowledge this primary resource and do everything to protect it. Hammering the strength–be it through excess base mileage, long runs, mountain climbs, or grinding tempo runs–leads to physiological monotony, which is a major factor in overtraining, injury, and burnout.
The runner, with help from the skilled coach, will learn how to use the strengths to augment and improve other often weaker but important areas of running. For example, a runner whose strength is hard, fast running on smooth surfaces might apply that strength to a more rugged, technical surface through trail tempo runs. Or a mountain-goat climber might learn how to scale those peaks after performing interval work on the flat parts of the trail.
A skilled, disciplined coach will use the all-out strengths of the runner sparingly, saving them as rewards in the training cycle, and for when they’re needed most: the goal event.
As skilled coaches, both Daniells and Rydman recognize the importance of periodization, of doing different types of necessary training at different points in the season. This often sacrifices early and mid-season performance, but again, the emphasis is on ‘peaking’–or performing at one’s best in the focus race.
Hammering the strengths all season long runs counter to this approach. Daniells is quick to point out that other, hard-running teams with early results frequently fail to peak when it counts. “Just because it produces positive results right now doesn’t mean it’s working” in the long term, he says. Periodization and peaking requires patience and discipline–a foundation of skilled coaching.
Work Weaknesses in the Framework of Needs
A skilled coach will acknowledge the weaknesses in context to goal achievement. There are many skill sets for a successful ultrarunner, but not all apply to the goal event.
That said, shoring weaknesses should be specific to needs. Running a race such as Western States with its prolonged climbs and descents must include–you guessed it–prolonged climbs and descents. But training vertical is doubly important if it is a relative weakness of the runner.
However, if a Western States runner lacks technical-running ability, having them do repeats down a mountain of scree is equally superfluous as a Hardrock runner performing long trail tempo runs. Both are important skill sets, but only in the context of the goal.
A skilled coach will recognize weaknesses within the demands of the goal and put in place a plan to improve them. This should also include specific training-race events for the runner to rehearse these elements in a competitive setting.
Weaknesses should also be addressed off the road and trail. This may include the addition of stability and strength work, or flexibility exercise. Or, in the case of the Jessup team, it may require mental training such as positive visualization and other mental exercises designed to improve confidence and toughness on race day.
Coach the Person, Not Just the Runner
The ultimate goal of the coach is to coach the person. Without consistent, face-to-face interactions, this can be a challenge for both coach and athlete, but that doesn’t make it any less important.
To maximize performance, both coach and runner must try to understand a runner’s deepest motivations. And after answering the question, “Where are you now, and where do you want to be?”, the most important long-term, big-picture question is this: “What are you running from, and what are you running toward? The answers to this question hold the deepest desires and drives of the runner: a road map toward maximizing potential as well as avoiding conflict and pitfalls.
Running in general–and ultrarunning in particular–draws people in search of healing. Often, we run from previous addiction, abuse, or poor health, or run toward strength, self-worth, community, and affirmation.
As such, a skilled coach must grasp those needs and how running fulfills them. A coach might value rest and recovery as part of the training cycle, yet if they impose mandatory time off for client whose daily run is a vital part of stress relief and self-worth, this may create conflict. Likewise, allowing unrestricted high mileage to a client with an addiction history may be enabling a runner to replace one addiction with another.
If any part of a coach’s training plan jeopardizes the intrinsic value of running to a client, that represents a threat not only to performance, but to quality of life.
A major emphasis of Daniells and Rydman at Jessup is this holistic coaching. “Before you can coach, you have to build a relationship first,” Rydman points out. “You have to learn to love [the athlete] as a person, and develop rapport and respect.” Only then, will trust develop between coach and athlete. Once trust is developed, the coach and athlete can venture to new places together. Developing a holistic coaching relationship allows the skilled coach to learn how to best nurture the runner, and enhances a coach’s ability to maximize a runner’s potential and enjoyment in the sport.
Lastly, a skilled coach–one who understands running in context of the person–acutely understands that a well-rounded person makes the most successful runner. A skilled coach will encourage investment in non-running areas of life, including work, family, and friend relationships, as well as investing time in the ultrarunning community and giving back to the sport. Giving to others enhances self-concept: a person’s beliefs about their true value and abilities.
A healthy, well-rounded, fulfilled person is a stronger, happier runner. Rydman and Daniells know that, and their results with young people on and off the race course speaks volumes about this approach.
A coaching relationship can be one of the most fulfilling, enriching experiences in life. And the nurturing, helping, mentoring relationship is a core element of the ultrarunning community. Every runner hoping for a long, sustainable, fulfilling career should consider a coach, but do your homework. Find a skilled, conscientious individual who is passionate about promoting healthy running and passing on the lessons they’ve learned over the years to you, to enhance your joy and achievement in the sport.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
- Do you have a coach from high school, college, or adulthood that fits Joe’s description of a skilled coach? If so and without naming names in order to preserve/respect the privacy of coach-athlete relationships, what were the qualities of that coach that you especially appreciated?
- Again, without naming names, what is an example of a time in which a coach has worked toward making you a better person and a better runner?