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Intelligent Cycling Training

Selecting a Coach
by Jake (Terry) Zmrhal

Throughout our youth we learned from a variety of people: our parents at home, teachers in the classroom, coaches in athletic arenas, and instructors in the arts. In college, most of our guides were professors. Once past college we have mentors, advisers, and managers to help us grow, learn, and strive towards our goals. Most often as adults those people help with our professional lives. What about our athletic pursuits? Have you ever thought about engaging a coach to help and guide you? We often hear about coaches for top athletes, but coaches are available for all levels of athletes, even you!

Almost every one of us, regardless of the sport we participate in, could benefit from having a coach! This article will help guide you through the process of deciding not you want a coach, and then how to find one that's right for you.

I. What does a coach do?
Think about your favorite teacher, mentor, or professor you've had in the past. What did you find valuable about their role? Was it their expertise? Was it the structure they provided? Was it their encouragement and support? Coaches fulfill these same roles; the difference is the coaches' area of expertise.

The most important thing about any coach or mentor is his or her expertise. The mentor is a tremendous source of wisdom, knowledge, and experience. In particular the coach either has experience coaching other people similar to you, or has personal experience in various cycling events, training, and environments. The coach uses that experience as a foundation when communicating with you about your cycling and your goals. While a coach may base coaching around cycling, in order to fulfill the role as coach, the trainer needs to understand not just cycling but many related subjects—physiology, nutrition, psychology, strategy, goal setting, etc. The integration of this information by your coach is part of what makes the services so valuable.

The most practical application of her knowledge is providing a structure to meet your goals—that's the training plan. Everyone has different needs and resources (time, equipment, genes) to work with. A coach evaluates what your capabilities and goals are and then lays out a plan for you. That plan will prescribe the purpose of the workout, how much you should ride, how often, the intensity, how much you should stretch, and how much you should rest. Following that plan the best as you can is your job!

Sometimes a full training plan isn’t always necessary. You might already be self-motivated and have a training plan set up. A coach can still help evaluate it and provide feedback on the suitability of the structure you've provided for yourself.

Do you remember homework in school? Were you a procrastinator? A coach is there to hold you accountable for your workouts just as teachers held you accountable for your homework. For some that's all they really need—just someone to say “did you do your homework and how did it go? ”

A coach provides support and encouragement to meet new challenges. The coach provides support when you’re having a tough week or dealing with an injury. When you’ve had a great day or event the coach pats you on the back and say great job.

Training is a process, it doesn't happen all at once. As you move through the season, the cycle of feedback between you and your coach will be one of the most important parts of the process. As you train and learn, your feedback about your training can provide the coach valuable information about where you are and the trainer can adjust your training as necessary. The coach can watch for overtraining and suggest some recovery, or see great results and move the plan forward.

Not every coach will provide every one of these attributes. Some coaching programs assess the rider and then the coach provides a training plan, which you follow on your own for the year. Other riders want weekly contact and constant feedback. You will need to evaluate what you are looking in selecting a coach.

II. Types of Coaching
Coaching has many forms; the most basic is a one-time local clinic. There are numerous local clinics given by bike shops, cycling and triathlon clubs. Some clinics are speakers, others may demonstrate new riders and riding skills, still others may focus on randonneuring. These clinics are a great place to start learning skills as well as starting your search for a coach.

The next big step is a coaching camp. There are dozens of these camps in the US and in Europe. This can be a long weekend or a weeklong trip. These camps have well-known coaches and authorities who give talks during the camp as well as on-the-road training. Some options here include the Carpenter-Phinney camps in Colorado, PAC Tour camps in Arizona, Stephen Roche camps in Corsica, and the John Howard School of Champions in California. One important thing to remember about these camps is that they are short-term. You need to be self-motivated and soak up the information at these since once you get back home you're on your own. Nonetheless they can provide valuable information and reminders of activities you take for granted.

Many local cycling teams have coaches. While these generally aren’t geared toward long distance events, they can help with information and techniques as well as providing some basic structure and group rides. Just be aware of the focus the training program and training rides, as they may not be the type of focus you are looking for.

Finally there are the one-on-one coaches. The best part of individual coaching is having personal attention and a magnificent source of information. But remember, coaches need to make a living doing their job. Coaches may charge anywhere from $200 for a one-time evaluation and training plan to a several hundred dollars a month! You have to determine how important your goals are relative to how much you are willing to spend.

III. Selecting a Coach
The first thing to do before you hunt for a coach is to figure out what you want and need from a coach. What are your goals? Do you need expertise? Do you need accountability? How much contact do you need? Weekly? Monthly? How much time can you spend every week training? You can use this article to help you answer these questions, and coaches will pose more.

Where do you find a coach? Coaching resources are scattered so it's not as easy as one might hope to find a coach, but here's a list to start from.

  • UltraCycling ads and training articles,
  • VeloNews ads and training articles,
  • Coaching camps,
  • Ask your riding partners for recommendations,
  • Check with a local Leukemia Society Team in Training chapter for coaching contacts,
  • USA Cycling website
  • local cycling teams,
  • And of course a web search.
During your initial search for a coach, some factors to consider are:

a) fit: does the coach have experience with other riders with similar goals to yours. Just because someone has done a lot of a certain type of riding doesn't make him or her a good coach.

b) certification: coaching is both an art (gained through experience) and a science (gained through education). Make sure the coach has either academic training and/or certification from a national organization.

c) local vs. long distance: are you looking for hands-on help with techniques or a coach who will provide structure and accountability via the telephone or e-mail?

When you contact a coach make sure he or she knows what you are looking for so she knows where you are coming from and so she can assess whether she can help you—not every coach-athlete combination will work. Points to discuss with a potential coach.

While this article talks about coaching for you as a cyclist, this can apply to almost any sport. Hopefully this article gave you some insight into what coaches do and provided some hints on how to go about finding a coach. Good luck with your search for a coach and reaching your goals!

Originally published in UltraCycling. Reprinted with permission.