What to Look for in a Trail Running Coach?
Coaching is a big investment in your time, money and health, and vetting and choosing a coach is likely to be challenging process. This often requires quite a lot of delving into the unknown and potential blind trust. However, there are some things you should be looking for to make the process more selective and enhances the chances of a good fit.
First thing to know is that not all coaches or coaching teams offer the exact same services. It’s important to know what you are getting when you sign up with a coach. Is it in-person or virtual? What is the method and frequency of activity planning? What is the style and frequency of communication? You may wish to figure out exactly what you are looking for personally so you can ask a prospective coach if they are likely to be a good fit.
A good place to start is to look for the “Philosophical Fit”. Finding a coach who specialises in the style of running or training you want to be doing and who you intuitively connect with on some level is how I found my first coach. Before signing on, it’s important to learn about a coach’s philosophy and the more information a coach is willing to provide is often a good sign of a passionate and open coach. Lack of information about a coach’s philosophy and detail about what they can offer may be a sign that the coach is less-focused on coaching as a career and may not give you the attention you deserve. You want someone as dedicated, focused and passionate about your targets and interests as you are!
Secondly, you want to ask for a coach’s qualifications – both certifications and their sporting CV which documents their experience in the sport – which you should verify through other official websites (such as as race results). Just because a coach is smart enough to pass a certification course, does not necessarily mean they have the skills or ability to coach effectively, but proper credentials does display a level of professionalism from the coach and demonstrates they care enough about what they do to seek specific education in the field.
You should also ask for how long they have coached for, and look for testimonials from clients to gauge the success of the coach. Coaches need to have your long-term development in mind, so it’s important to read what their clients have achieved over 2-3 years under their watch. Have they improved?
Reviewing their social media can also help verify their legitimacy and experience.
You want someone who is willing and able to explain the why behind the proposed training progression. You want to work with a coach you feel comfortable communicating with and who is readily available and responsive. A good coach will be your mentor, sounding board, and confidant. There must be trust that is increasingly fostered through their interactions. Not every coach and athlete fit will be a good fit – even if the coach is still a good coach. Some people just won’t be the right fit. Don't be afraid to interview multiple coaches.
It’s also important to find a coach who understands the distance and terrain you will be racing on. Trail running is multi-disciplinary with many different style of events from 10k's, half marathons, marathons, ultra-marathons, stage races, vertical races, technical skyrunning style races and so on. You may wish to find a coach that specialises just in one area that you are focused on, or you may wish to work with a coach who specialises across multi-disciplines to improve all your capacities as an athlete.
A professional coach will not claim or promise that they can “do everything”, and will stay within their scope of their experience, such as claims they can fix any injury or even diagnosing injuries. A good coach will not hesitate to refer an athlete to other appropriate professionals where necessary.
If you’re an experienced runner looking for competitive results, then you will want to find a coach who has a science and experience-based approach.
Don’t be afraid to ask a prospective coach about any failures they’ve had as an athlete or coach. Failure is a core component for the development of proper experience and overcoming adversity. A coach who hides failure is often a red flag. We all learn through our failures and coaches learn through their failures as both an athlete and a coach. Success is built upon the failures of the past and a coach who promises only 100% success ahead may not necessarily be a good fit.
Ultimately, whoever you choose they should help to expand and increase your enjoyment in the sport. If you aren’t finding passion and motivation to train then it’s a sign you need to communicate more effectively with your coach to find a training progression that motivates you better. A good coach is flexible and will be willing to help you find the best style of training that works for you and not just focus on one style or way to train.
The Components of a Great Coach
A coach should be above all else: a leader, motivator and disciplinarian; inquisitive, knowledgeable and educated; experienced; consistent in quality; dependable and accountable; a listener and flexible in their communication approach; methodical, possess strong organizational skills; honest and trustworthy; and finally, put’s the athletes needs and safety first. All of these things are essential to being a successful coach.
A coach needs to figure out how each athlete learns best, and how to motivate and encourage each athlete in the way that works best specifically for them.
A good coach can listen and relate to their athlete. A coach may make a suggestion that may not always line up with an athlete’s feedback. Often an athlete always won’t be fully open in relating difficulties outside of their athletics that might be affecting their training. A good coach must be able to notice changes in their athlete’s behaviour, motivation, energy, and attitude and adjust for them. It is equally important to know when to back off and give an athlete space. In general, the longer an athlete works with a coach – and the stronger the bond between the two parties develop - the more open the athlete becomes about other areas affecting him or her.
The coach/athlete relationship is a two-way street and requires thorough feedback from athletes to be successful. The athlete is learning from the coach and the coach is continually learning from them. Without a coach understanding how an athlete is responding to their training, a coach is not able to effectively adjust the program. This is how coaching stands apart from just following simple generic training plans. Without effective communication between the coach and athlete, it is almost certain that the resulting program will be ineffective.
A Coach is a Source of Motivation
A coach is a source of motivation and encouragement to help get the most out of an athlete. Some athletes require more motivation and encouragement than others.
A good coach will learn what style of communication works for each athlete and foster that relationship based on the preferences of the athlete. Some people need a hard task-master and others require a softer nurturing style of encouragement.
When signing up with a coach you should be clear on what style of motivation works for you.
It is important for a coach to be flexible with athletes and the demands of their lives, but as a motivator, a coach must make sure an athlete stays on track to elicit the results they are looking for. This means a coach helps an athlete structure and schedule their training in a way that gives them the best chance for success.
Training is often only useful if it is performed in the way it was intended, thus a coach’s role is to oversee an athlete’s training metrics and ensure the proper training progression is being completed. The coach works as a problem solver to help an athlete work through issues that may be affecting successful progress.
A coach has to absolutely be 100% honest with an athlete. A key component to professionalism is honesty. It is the professional responsibility of a coach to inform an athlete whether their goals and expectations for themselves are too high given their current ability/fitness level. Part of a coach’s role is managing an athletes’ expectations, which means occasional hard conversations about what is or is not possible.
A good coach knows when to step-in and is not an enabler. It is unprofessional for a coach to not point out repeated behaviours that may be hindering your progress.
Also, a coach must be humble enough to know they don’t know everything. It is impossible for a coach to have all the resources required by an athlete. If an athlete asks something the coach does not know, then part of being honest involves knowing when to say they do not know something and will find out the answer or direct them to someone who does, rather than lie or bluff their way through it.
A Good Coach Educates their Athletes
A coach is an instructor and educator, so ensuring their athletes understand exactly what they are supposed to do and the reasoning behind is paramount. Ultimately, educated athletes are engaged athletes, so getting an athlete to be an active participant in the training strategy is so crucial to ensure everyone is on the same page.
It’s the coach’s responsibility to convey information to athletes in an effective manner, demonstrating continuity with no mixed signals.
A coach should: Provide explanations for the program design; be positive and encouraging; be realistic in the expectations for the athlete; be clear and concise; provide feedback and honest critiques.
A Good Coach Nerds out with Passion and Enthusiasm for Training Science
A good coach recognizes that accurate training science is a moving target and is constantly learning. As new research results are released, training methodologies can either be validated or debunked to reflect the new findings. A coach’s responsibility is to stay current in latest sports science developments, along with what is happening within the sport to be a truly effective coach. A sign of a good coach is they demonstrate a strong passion for the sport and learning more about it.
A coach should also be willing to challenge the status quo to a point. Long-standing training practices cannot always be taken at face value. Thus, coaching should always be dynamically evolving, but not descend into a process of randomness, which will only give random results.
A coach must fully understand the fundamentals of exercise science before it can be applied successfully. The training must have a basis in science and applied within the scope of their experience. Once a coach has studied the theory behind a training practice, then they are likely able to deduce whether a training practice is valid and applicable to an athlete. If a coach is not constantly learning and applying this knowledge, then the coach is regressing, and possible their athletes’ results may regress as well.
The Best Coach isn’t Always the Best Athlete
When searching for a coach, you may try to find the coach who was the most successful athlete. Some of the most renowned endurance coaches weren’t or aren’t the best endurance athletes.
It is common for coaches to promote their business by using their personal achievements. This demonstrates a coach’s experience, but it is not a prerequisite to being a quality coach. A coach should at least be an experienced and enthusiastic athlete but personal success as a runner does not necessarily equate to having the ability to replicate that success in clients.
Being a talented elite fast runner may not lead to being an effective coach for slower runners because such a talent can’t always relate well with slower runners. They may better relate to beginners if they had a difficult progression in their formative years, but if they've spent their entire life training from a young age, they may not relate to the difficulties of starting later in life. An elite athlete can relate better to elite athletes so this might be a consideration if you're at the top level and you're looking to squeak out some extra performance. Also, an elite athlete might also derive their coaching practices based on their own training. A coach who has suffered through some level of adversity as an athlete, might relate better to the needs to developing athletes and athletes also suffering adversity. These are all things to think about.
A good coach knows that any training methodology that works great for one person may not work great for another. A quality coach will learn, study and know when to utilise multiple approaches that work specifically for the level of the athlete, rather than just training someone based on their own solitary experiences. You can determine what might be the best fit by interviewing the coach and asking about their training history, their qualifications and passion for training science, and how this relates to their coaching philosophy.
A Good Coach is Open and not Secretive
When seeking out a coach, it is important to consider how much information a coach is providing and how busy they are with other demands. For example, many coaches just provide their experience and achievements as an athlete to attract clients but little more detail than that. Some coaches believe that if they give out too much information, then the athlete might then gain enough knowledge on how to coach themselves. They then provide little detail about their training processes publically and also privately when coaching an athlete.
The role of a coach is to act in the best interest of their athletes and to help them reach their goals. This effectively means that the coach must educate the athlete on the training process and reasoning behind it, which also runs the risk an athlete may then self-coach at some stage. A good coach accepts this reality and knows that holding back any information is unprofessional.
A coach’s willingness to explain the science and provide significant information underpinning their training programs serves to legitimize the coaching practice. Certifications, number of years coaching, and client testimonials all help to provide further legitimacy.
How Popular and Busy is your Coach?
It’s important to consider whether a popular or high-profile athlete can give you the attention you deserve if they are also moonlighting as a coach on the side. The coach could be juggling too much workload, a full-time career, a busy family life, and their own training as an athlete to fulfill.
Sometimes these coaches’ gain so many athletes they have no choice but to cap the number of athletes they coach directly and sub-contract athletes to other coaches they have employed. Not that there is anything wrong with that, its just something to consider. If you are signing up to coach with a big name, be prepared that you may be coached by someone else entirely. However, this does not mean you are not getting the benefits of their training approach. A good coach will train their sub-coaches appropriately and also make it clear they may not be the one coaching you before you sign up.
It’s important to consider whether your coach is coaching as their career, or just a side-gig, and also you might like to ask how many clients they might currently be working with and how much attention they can give to you. Many coaches cap the number of athletes they work with based on their bandwidth. A good coach will do this because if they cannot give every athlete 100%, then they shouldn’t be working with more athletes.
At Couch to the Summit Performance Coaching, I do my best to embody all these principles in my coaching practice. I hope this gives you a better idea on what to look for and I look forward to working with you if you decide to choose me as your coach! Feel free to contact me with any questions you might have about coaching (whether with me or anyone else), there is no obligation to sign up. I'm happy to help you make the best decision for yourself.