When to Begin and How Long Should I Work with a Coach
The easy answer to when to begin is basically, as soon as you can! However, there is probably a little more refinement to this answer than just that. Ideally, you shouldn’t consider coaching as a short-term endeavour but a long-term progression. If you're curious about getting coaching for an upcoming race or goal, then give yourself at least 6-months prior to the event. Think of coaching similar to going to college. You don’t earn your degree in the first semester, and you have to study for a few years to earn that degree. After 3-4 years you graduate, ready to step into the world as a more educated, wise and capable member of society, and fitness really works the same way.
As a performance coach, I highly recommend thinking of coaching with at least a 6 to 12-month minimum commitment because you may not necessarily make as much rapid progress in the opening weeks and months as you might expect. Many aspects of fitness have to be put in place first and the progression will be incremental over time. You will become educated and build the discipline that future success will be borne from, gaining the know-how to progress your journey more efficiently and effectively in the months and years ahead. There are ways to temporarily improve fitness through short-term approaches but there are pros and cons to those approaches - many of which are not sustainable over the long-term and may also decline rapidly. Such approaches are useful for peaking for races, and I do use those approaches where required, but the focus at Couch to the Summit Performance Coaching is building a strong metabolic base of fitness (that takes years to build and years to decline once conditioning stops) and also improving all Ten attributes of Functional Fitness that aim to improve your health and capabilities as you age.
Most people tend to seek out a coach for one of two reasons:
- 1. They are beginners who are looking to start their running journey and don’t really know where or how to start.
- 2. Established runners who are looking to progress their advancement for a specific race.
Obviously, there are many exceptions to the above two reasons, but typically most people tend to fall into one of these two categories.
There is a danger for those who are looking to prepare themselves for an upcoming race, that they don’t necessarily give themselves and their coach enough time to build them up for a race. It doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but ultimately, if you’re thinking of signing up with a coach you should be focused more on races you want to do 6-months or longer away. That will give your coach time to set you up for success, rather than your short-term race ambitions getting in the way of that foundational development. Ultimately, building the aerobic base foundation and peaking fitness are two things that can’t be optimised at the same time.
If your race is in 2 or 3 months and you’re only just looking for a coach, then your training may be radically different than what I would normally do. This can be OK too, and if you have an upcoming race, I have substantial experience in racing that I can definitely help to optimise your performance for those races. However, there is always a trade off here. A short-term peaking build for a race will occur off of your existing aerobic base foundation, and there won't be time to develop this much. However, once the race season is over, it would be valuable for the athlete to switch focus to elevating their metabolic fitness so any future peaking for races will occur off of a superior platform.
Almost all the athletes I work with come to me with races coming up, but we do have a discussion about the long-term goals as well and then we come up with a plan that will work for both. I also ensure that your race goals are in line with your athletic history and progression and if the goal is beyond your reach in the time available we definitely have a conversation about potentially reassessing this goal. An athlete always has the final decision once they know the pros and cons of their choices. But ultimately, I recommend any athlete looking for success from coaching has to be patient and not get too caught up on the short-term results – and also to give the coach time to help you maximise your chances at doing well in a race. Look for a coach at least 6-month prior to any A goal race you might have.
I often ask my athletes to look further ahead than just 12 months, because really you should be building 2, 3 and 5 year plans for your fitness journey. If you are working to a long-term high level plan like this, then the coach is far more effectively able to plan your training progressions for each year to fit in and match this structure. Success with big endurance related goals takes many years of building the right foundation in your physiology. Almost all athletes only focus on year-to-year planning, but those who plan years ahead tend to rise to the top.
Friends and family often ask me how I am able to do some of the epic feats of endurance I have achieved during my life, and its simple, its just the product of a lot and lot and lot of easy days done consistently over a long period of time - along with a lot of focus on improving my functional capabilities over years. There is no one fancy workout that made me capable of doing something epic, its just the culmination of a lot of time, focus, and planning that all had an exponential effect at the back end.
High-capacity fitness and endurance ultimately arises from building up the quality and number of mitochondria in your slow-twitch muscle fibers. Mitochondria are the powerhouse of your cells and they are what generate ATP – which is what fuels your muscles and ultimately your endurance performance. An elite athlete can hold up to three times more energy in their muscle tissues than the average sedentary or unfit person. What I mean when I talk about building the foundation, is essentially improving the capacity, size and efficiency of your fuel tank. Most people are driving around in tiny mini cars with low-capacity fuel tanks and clogged/faulty fuel pipes and a deconditioned engine. We’re looking to upgrade that mini to a turbo-charged sports car.
A good coach will always work to build your foundation first. But building that foundation for fitness is often viewed as relatively “unsexy” training. This doesn’t appeal to athletes who are guided by their short-term emotions and desires. And thus, we have a world where a lot of people punish themselves with continual "no-pain no-gain" style endurance activities and end up not much further ahead than where they started years down the line. Believe me, that endurance sports are highly demanding and place a lot of stress on your physiology - particularly your mechanical side of things (injuries) and also hormones (fatigue). There are many perils along this journey and mistakes you can make if you're not really sure what you're doing. Many athletes are on the hamster wheel of short periods of motivation, followed by burn out (mental or physical) and long gaps in missing training.
You can only increase the quality and number of mitochondria through patient low-intensity endurance exercise. It’s really hard to have an athlete slow right down, because there is a big mental disconnect between going slow and wasting time/not making progress. Most people are busy so they want to maximise their precious and valuable brief training windows, and they think going hard often or all the time is the answer. It can to a point, but its not what works in real-world data. And its been relentlessly studied by sports scientists the world over. Slowing down unlocks endurance potential if you do it consistently and to understand how this work you simply need to understand human biology.
Our muscle tissues are comprised of either short-twitch or fast-twitch muscle fibers. Your slow-twitch fibers can work for hours on end, but your fast-twitch fibers fatigue in terms of minutes not hours. Short term high intensity exercise does rapidly improve fitness (primarily in your fast twitch muscle fibers), but it is not effective at all at developing and improving the quality and number of mitochondria in your slow-twitch muscle fibers. That is why the fittest high intensity style athletes in the world are insanely good in short-period athletic efforts, but they still have poor overall endurance. Their slow-twitch engine (the aerobic base) is still de-conditioned despite the high conditioning of their fast-twitch fibers. It's like putting a turbo engine in the mini without upgrading the fuel tank. A turbo engine isn’t going to run for very long on a small fuel tank.
It requires a lot of consistency and progressive volume increases to develop the aerobic base, and to be effectively consistent with volume increases you can’t be doing a lot of hard, fast or high-intensity running. It’s just not sustainable – or even fun for that matter. The no pain, no gain mentality to fitness does not work when it comes to the world of endurance performance. You must be doing most of your time training feeling relaxed and the effort feeling relatively easy. Then you start training the mitochondria in those slow-twitch fibers and that's what turns you into an endurance beast. That’s what makes training sustainable as you aren't so beat up and burnt out that you can keep getting out the door each day and that’s what makes you consistent. Consistency builds the aerobic base. There are no short-cuts, no gimmicks, no fancy supplements here that develop this better than simple training consistency. You must put in the time and effort. Then once the foundation is there, the sexy training can start to be layered in.
If you understand the value of slowing down and doing a lot of volume, then the next question is why do I even need a coach? Well there is so much more to the puzzle than just running slow as well. Your body still needs different forms of stimulus and volume to progress, and coaching is definitely both an art and science in how to effectively apply that to each specific individual. Past history, injuries, biomechanics, strength, mobility and other factors all come into the equation here too.
Most of the progress athletes are looking for require two core factors to be improved: aerobic fitness and mechanical strength and resilience. Aerobic base or foundation training works to improve both of these factors. However, the mechanical strength and resilience often is forgotten about in this story. When most people are focused on improvement they think often just in the “aerobic” terms, of increasing their feeling/perception to handle faster speeds (i.e. intensity). As fitness progresses, a speed you once ran at your maximum aerobic capacity, will begin to feel easier. But what is happening in this process is you are speeding up in terms of mechanical speed and thus the impact loads and forces of running are progressively increasing more and more.
Often the biggest factor that often destroys people’s ability to be consistent and build up their training volume is mechanical breakdown rather than fatigue. When the mechanical side of things break down, runners get injured. And beginners are most vulnerable to injury because they simply haven’t built up mechanical resilience.
The most important thing for an athlete to remember is that aerobic fitness increases much more rapidly than mechanical resilience does. That means to progress successfully, you often have to hold yourself back aerobically for a period of time until the mechanical strength and resilience has developed. Here is where the big danger for self-coached athletes comes into play. Often, we make big goals and progress too much when we are feeling good and training is going well. Its sometimes hard to see the forest from the trees and having a neutral observer controlling the progression is very important to keeping an athlete humble, modest and moving forward. Even some of the most knowledgeable elite athletes (who even coach other athletes) still often work with a coach themselves for this reason. We often think more of ourselves than reality reveals. A coach not only works to hold you accountable, but also to hold you back when the ego might start to appear.
There’s so much value to working with a coach and having someone doing all the heavy lifting over your planning and logistics for your progression definitely makes it easier to just turn up each day knowing what to execute without using too much of your precious mental bandwidth. I highly recommend letting someone experienced taking over the logistics and planning for you, so you can simply get out the door and execute the correct training process that will fast track your development as an athlete.