By GINA KOLATA New York Times
A guy I know wanted to start a coaching service for runners. He’s pretty fast and had run some marathons and a 50-mile race. He also coached his wife, who had successfully run a marathon. He asked if I wanted to be a coach, too, or at least provide online training advice to clients.
I was taken aback. Me? For one thing, it would be a conflict of interest to sell coaching advice and also write for The Times. But aside from that, I am so dependent on my own coach that I live by his schedules and report back to him after each run. I could not imagine being the adviser rather than the advisee.
But his request made me wonder. How does someone qualify to be a coach? And why do so many athletes want a coach in the first place?
The answer to the first question, it turns out, is that anyone can say he or she is a coach. There are certification programs but no requirements that coaches be certified. Most coaches started out as athletes, but that is not a requirement either.
As for the second question, anyone who wants to improve might want to be coached. But the evidence for coaching’s benefits is, as might be expected, anecdotal.
It certainly is possible to train without a coach. The principles of training are well known, and widely available online, in podcasts and in the many books that have been written on training for various sports. Some who have used self-training programs say they are remarkably effective.
My colleague Henry Fountain, for example, hated running when he tried it 25 years ago. Last winter, though, he began training with a podcast that is supposed to train sedentary people to run 5 kilometers, or 3.1 miles.
“It was revolutionary,” he told me. Now he runs about three times a week and occasionally competes in 5K races.
Yet, as might be expected, coaches say their individual attention can make a real difference in a person’s performance.
If you are trying to train on your own, “the struggle will always be to maintain objectivity,” said Terrance Mahon, who coaches elite runners. That’s one reason a coach is needed, he added.
My coach, Tom Fleming, never had a coach of his own until he was halfway through his professional career as a distance runner. He wishes he’d had one earlier to help with training and, he said, to tell him to take it easy sometimes.
“I was highly motivated,” he said. “I needed someone to tell me to slow down.”
Yet some athletes avoid coaching.
One problem, some say, is finding a coach whose personal style suits them.
“There needs to be a perfect meshing of personalities,” said Joan Benoit Samuelson, who won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympic marathon. Although she coached herself for most of her career, there were times when she sought a coach. But “the personality thing just wasn’t working,” she said.
Frank Shorter, a mostly self-coached distance runner who won a gold medal in the 1972 Olympic marathon, made the same point.
“The word that comes to mind is ‘symbiosis,’ ” Mr. Shorter said. “It is a kind of trust, and it is also qualified by the personality of both.”
Mr. Shorter sees two ends of the continuum for athletes and coaches. At one end, he said, are people who “need to be told precisely what to do all the time.” These athletes “gain confidence by being told by their coach that they are ready.”
That describes me. I love having a schedule and a goal. And I love discussing each run with Tom. Who else, other than my friend and running partner Jen Davis, wants to hear how far or how fast I ran or whether my legs felt heavy?
At the opposite extreme are Deirdre Demet Barry, a professional cyclist, and the elite distance runner Ryan Hall.
Ms. Barry said she learned from her many coaches in her long career, but eventually decided she wanted to coach herself. “I realized there are a lot of different training programs that can make you good, but a lot of it is keeping yourself mentally happy,” she said.
She ended up with a nontraditional program — many more hours of riding in the mountains and less time doing specific workouts. Her performance improved until it was the best of her career.
Mr. Hall, who’d been coached by Mr. Mahon, decided last year to coach himself. “The beauty of coaching yourself is being able to be really flexible,” Mr. Hall said. “I am a slave to schedules. I would see these workouts lined up for each week and I would say, ‘I’ve got to do this.’ ”
Jen, my running partner, is uncoachable, Tom says, and she agrees. She runs long distances but seldom does structured workouts.
“My main running goal is to be able to run wherever and whenever I want,” Jen said. “I don’t think a coach can help with this.”
In fact, she said, “a coach is antithetical to this goal.”
She would like to get to the next level in her racing performance. But, she said, “I guess I’m just not willing to give up my running independence to get there. And maybe I’m not convinced that a coach can get me there any better than I can myself.”
As for me, I am staying with my coach.