To be or not to be (coached): Is that the question?

I’ve been chatting with some friends recently, on twitter and in person, about the pros and cons of hiring a coach. For years I’ve been on my own, and I’ve been really psyched about it. I have a fairly solid background in developing and executing the right kind of training, or so at least I think. I also have a graduate degree in exercise science, and my education in physiology (and general interest in the matter) seems to help. Plus, my background in collegiate running has given me an exceptional gift: I was part of the building and assembly of training plans, I learned how to properly prepare for peaks, how to taper right, and how to execute a focused season (or not). And I did this twice a year, for four years in a row. It was like a religion. This, and my history of training marathons over the last few years, has really helped me to figure out what works, what doesn’t, and what is just a waste of time. Even still, the question continues to linger about whether or not a coach would help make life a little easier (and me a little faster).

Here’s where I’m coming from:

Collegiate running: I was on a team that was coached by two different coaches (not at the same time, of course) who had completely different theories about running. My first collegiate coach, who I had during my freshman and sophomore seasons, was a Yooper with a strategy to get his athletes fast. Trouble was, sometimes his strategy backfired, resulting in burnouts and out-of-phase peaks. I remember the day I peaked during my sophomore cross-country season. It’s like it was yesterday… out there on Lahti Road doing 800m hill repeats. I was the fastest on the day, and I even grabbed the Lahti Road record! But it was training, and the rest of my season was shit. And we were still two weeks out from the conference meet. Needless to say, I learned that peaking during a late season training session, not at an “A” race, is not that awesome.

My second coach, who came along after our first coach resigned, was more educated in endurance physiology, and he was a fan of Jack Daniels (the PhD, not the whiskey). His training philosophy brought me to a 5K PR, made me a stronger and more efficient runner, and taught me the benefits of going long even if the race was relatively short. He encouraged his athletes to read, to educate themselves on the running and training philosophies, so we could better understand where his 2-a-days and 3.5hr runs were coming from. Terms like “LT” and “VO2Max” made sense long after I took classes on the subject, because who really pays attention in exercise physiology at an engineering school anyway?

Anyway, once I graduated and moved on, I wanted to continue racing (after a brief break sabbatical, that is). From what I had learned from my former (2nd) coach’s training strategies, I developed my own training plans. Each week looked something like this:

  • One long day (Sunday)
  • One threshold day (usually Thursday)
  • 2-3 recovery days (Wed/Fri)
  • a race, max-effort, or general intensity day (Tues or Saturday)

I also used two-a-days, both to get me in shape fast and to boost my aerobic fitness (LT), and before I knew it I was deep into training for my first marathon. I trained through the winter in Montana, but I did it all indoors. I’d hit the treadmill 6 days a week, somedays twice, running anywhere between 30minutes easy to 22miles while watching America’s Next Top Model. Sundays were my long runs, Mondays were almost always full recovery (off), Tuesdays and Thursdays would be a nice hour run in the morning with harder stuff in the afternoon. Wednesday and Fridays were recovery days, and Saturdays were either easy or longer intervals. That was my week, every week, from December to March, treadmill mashing and iPod tuning. Until, of course, I ran 26.2 miles for the first time outside in Napa Valley, California. And I was very satisfied with my finish of 3:22.

From there, it was all in some direction over a hill towards who knows what. I move back to Michigan and got back to training with some of my former teammates. I trained mostly outdoors from then on, but I kept my training schedule roughly the same. I squeezed in a few more marathons while working my butt off at school, and eventually got into a good rhythm. And with that rhythm came more challenges, including my introduction to triathlon. Instead of running every day, I swapped out biking and swimming. The key run workouts (the long run, the track intervals) would stay, but biking would take the place of the recovery and easy days. Swimming- well, that was something I forced myself to do once or twice a week instead of a recovery run or bike. And it rarely was fun (ok, endless relays were pretty fun).

With the planning of my first Ironman distance triathlon, I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing key running workouts, so my first training plan as a triathlete actually used a marathon-specific run plan. I based my training on a book by Pete Pfitzinger, which may not have helped my Ironman run but actually helped my post-IM marathon five weeks later (where I ran a marathon PR of 3:19). Anyway, I was a little more knowledgeable after season #1 of triathlon, thanks to trial-and-error, not to mention just having experience under my belt, and my second season in triathlon was more successful. I was more diligent about my training plan; I kept an electronic spreadsheet so I could update it and kept track of weekly training hours. I watched my season progress, and the ups and downs of my weekly hours fluctuate somewhat sinusoidally (thanks to my planned training cycles).

This season, though, I had more doubts about my training than ever. I was racing better, but I was also having a more difficult time planning my training. I know how to handle one sport, but how could I deal with three and still try to do well? I had a hard time answering questions like: When should I do my long runs and rides? When am I supposed to do my hard swim workouts? Do I swim hard on the same day as a hard track workout? Or do I swim hard on my run/bike off day? Or do I bike hard on my run recovery day? These were questions that I couldn’t answer yes or no to unless I just did it, but I was afraid and hesitant that I would make the wrong decision and make my season go south real fast. I also had problems with accountability. One poor decision that I made on my own was my post-A-race recovery; or lack thereof. I basically didn’t do anything for two weeks after Rev3 Full, and the three weeks leading up to my fall marathon were full of sitting around eating candy, drinking bourbon, processing words, and being stressed out. In hindsight, active recovery may have been more beneficial than the “recovery” I was doing- which was more or less just being sedentary.

I don’t even have enough fingers to count the number of times I questioned getting a coach. I asked friends who had coaches, and we talked about their relationships. I talked to friends that didn’t have coaches, and we discussed the pros and cons of hiring someone to tell me what I thought I already knew. I talked to friends that were coaches, and got some great, rewarding feedback there, too.  I feel like I am in a tricky situation, because I know enough about training to know what might be a good idea or a bad idea, and this makes it really difficult to wrap my head around the possibility of having a coach who could have different views and opinions about things than me.

There’s also something so rewarding in designing your own plan, laying down the tracks that can bring you to having a great performance. Knowing that I was able to race fast this season, on my own, by doing the work that I put in- the work that I developed- well, anyway, this idea tends to linger in my mind. Over the past several months, whenever I would consider getting a coach, I’d ask myself: Would a coach help, or would a coach tell me something I didn’t want to hear? And not to mention, can I even afford it?

Now, I understand that not everyone can design their own training plan, let alone stick to it. I definitely didn’t stick to mine like I probably should have. There are weeks in my training plan that are sparsely sprinkled with completed workouts. This season, the only accountability I had was myself, and that was better sometimes than others. But regardless, having a coach is not essential to the triathlete. There, I said it. Now all my friends who are coaches are going to stop talking to me.

But they shouldn’t, because there really does come a point when having a coach is beneficial. For example, beginners rarely know where to even begin, let alone figure out how they are going to fit in training in their already-busy schedule known as The Real World. Because, let’s be honest, who can hire a coach if you don’t have a job?

And even for the “experienced” athlete- there comes a point when someone who thinks they know everything (points at myself) might need some insight. There comes a point when ya gotta say: “OK, do I want to get faster with the help of someone else, or am I OK with rolling the dice?” I sat down and thought about it, I thought really hard. And seriously. I considered all aspects. How much will a coach cost, and how much can I afford? What will they offer me that I don’t already have at my fingertips, including a boyfriend that bikes, a kickass group of cycling buddies, and a running partner that runs the shit out of everything (ok, maybe that’s not what I meant)?

Most importantly, though, and this is the real deal: If I hire a coach, am I confident that I can put aside what I know think I know and trust what this other person tells me as true? Can I say: “Oh, I feel like I should be running for 5 hours if I want to do well in a HIM” and they tell me- “No, you’re flippin’ cheesefried nuts.” That’s the biggest step: getting over what you think you know. Of course, if we look hard enough, we can usually find what we’re looking for. It’s like those people that go to the doctor to get the diagnosis that they want to hear. Sure, some would call them hypochondriacs, but if the fifteenth doctor they see tells them they have a rare disease that no one else has ever heard of and will get them special attention, than its the fifteenth doctor they are going to trust.

Ok, maybe finding the right coach is not really that extreme. But hopefully, you get my point. It’s not just “hearing what you want to hear”, though. It’s also hearing what is right to you. Finding the right coach is finding the right pairing of personalities; it’s finding the person that you can relate with, and the person that is willing to work with you. And when you know, chances are you will really know. And hopefully for your wallet’s sake, that person isn’t Dave Scott at $600/month. Of course, I say that, because I am a measly grad student making $20K a year. I am sure there are triathletes out there that eat $600 for breakfast.

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Greater than 14,000 meters

I love the track. I love the controlled environment, the splits, the mindless repetition. I love the feel of smooth surface beneath my feet, the quickness of my cadence, the level ground. I love the bold white finish line and counting down the turns. I am in my element out there.

But for some reason, this season, I’ve been avoiding it. I’ve gone out there a few times, like when 5×600 repeats were on my schedule, but when it came to doing anything longer, I resorted to the trails. Maybe it was because my standby training partner is in her element on the trails. I’m easily convinced to change, especially if it means I have someone to chase after. And its not like change is a bad thing. Running on trails is lower impact and more neurologically challenging than running in circles over and over.

But this week, I knew I needed to find my interval nirvana. And I had a craving for something big, something that would take a lot of determination to get through. I modified my training plan from 5x600s to 10km worth of repeats. Add in the rest intervals, and my total distance racked up to over 14,000meters. 14,300 to be exact. While not the most epic or difficult set of repeats known to (wo)man, it was the biggest set I’ve done all season. And I was reveling in it.

I invited a few friends, and we met at a newly redesigned high school track. Up here, where the tracks get plowed by snow removal trucks starting in March, there is no such thing as a rubberized track. Just a smooth, crackless, even asphalt oval. And I think its absolutely beautiful.

We settled into our 10K paces for the first part of the main set, 5x800s. I was a little fast on the first two, but pulled back on the reins to avoid disaster later. We caught up with each other on the rest interval between (easy jog 400) before taking off as soon as we crossed the start line again. The 800s flew by. I almost wished I had made the workout 10x everything… maybe next time.

The 400s made my mind focus, but I couldn’t keep track of how many we’d done. Run a 400, jog a 200, run a 400, jog a 200, and it took me a while to grasp that odds were on the start line, evens were starting at the 200m mark. But I was focusing in my form, how my feet felt when they hit the ground. Where my knees were, where my hands were. I was focusing on my breathing, and I was focusing on holding back. Don’t chase the boys, I thought, just run your paces.

Louisa spectating after her long run

Regrouping was the best part. The guys would walk until I caught up, and we’d jog until the start line, and then we’d funnel into a line as we took off. It didn’t need guiding, everyone knew what we needed to be doing.

I’d finish the same distance behind the boys each time, comfortable with my pace and trying hard not to kick it in on the windless home stretch. The back stretch was windy, though, and I started sticking with Jesse on the first turn to be protected from the wind.

The 200s breezed by. Run a 200, jog a 100. Less rest, and unintentionally faster paced. I upped the anty, worrying less about my 10K time and focusing more on my ability to stay in control of my form, fast on my feet, and light. My legs wanted to burn it up, but I held back until the last five.

Two and a half hrs and two bottles of Kola/BananaNuun, and I was headed home. That was faster than I thought it would be. I was expecting 3 hours, pain, crying, maybe puking, definitely whining. I heard none of that. I didn’t dole out any of it. It was a piece of cake (ok, maybe not exactly), and my legs weren’t even trashed afterward. I was actually itching for more.

I didn’t do more, of course. I simply went home and made a protein shake. Seven more days of quality. Intensity. Recovery.  Then it’s time to taper for Rev3 Cedar Point.

2010, here I come!

I am super excited to race this year. Last year’s triathlon season, my first attempt at tri, was a blast, and even though I only did three races, it was like a party every time. Who’da thought exercising for 11 1/2 hours would be fun? Uhh… this girl. Racing in 2009 brought me some incredibly great gifts:

  • a new sport (or three sports, I guess I should say)
  • a marathon PR (3:19 at Columbus, five weeks after IMoo)
  • a new team
  • a new outlook on racing
  • a new set of goals

But, in order to reach my goals (see bel0w), I need to build myself stronger than before. The next few months for me will include some major BUILD periods where I throw down major hours with an elevated heart rate. I’m investing in tools that will get me there (CycleOps powermeter, road bike, music for the trainer/treadmill!). I’m even going to start keeping a more robust training log! I will get there.

So without further adieu, I give you my 2010 goals!

  1. Another marathon PR (shooting for 3:10)
  2. My first ultra (I think this is the typical endurance-junkie’s next-step, but I seriously want to do one and want to do one well!) – Voyageur 50mile
  3. Break 11hours in the long course tri (Rev3 Cedar Point!)
  4. Break 4:45 in the half iron tri (many opportunities too, including Rev3 races in Knoxville and Quassy)
  5. Race my first road crit!
  6. Mountain bike more – and race (and stop being so afraid of falling with clipless pedals!)
  7. Be a successful race director for the Kuparisaari Tri
  8. Be a supportive teammate, partner, and friend!
  9. and of course… Have fun!

So, join me at some races this summer. Tri, running, biking- whatever! I’ve posted my tentative schedule on the right. You can use my code (trakkers118) to get $10 off Rev3 registration fee for any (or all three!) Rev3 events. I’ll be there with bells on … or at least a bell in hand!

To Wisconsin and Back!

What better way to train for the Ironman than to spend a weekend in Iron County, Wisconsin? I was lucky enough to be invited by my friend, Laurie (who is also training for IMoo), to head down to Hurley, Wisconsin, via bicycle. But the real icing on the cake? We were to sign up for the Paavo Nurmi marathon as a relay team the next day. This may sound like a nice, easy, breezy training weekend, but it’s more than 100 miles from Houghton to Hurley, over glacial cut mountains. And so the story unfolds…

Laurie, along with a few other women (Ann and Diane), Adam, and myself met at Laurie’s mother’s place in Atlantic Mine, about three miles west of Houghton. These ladies are extreme! Like I said, Laurie is training for IMoo, too, and she’s already done it before in 2007. She knows the ropes, and was able to give Adam and I some excellent insight during the ride down, our downtime, and the ride back home. Ann and Diane (along with Amy, who joined us for the half-marathon on Saturday) train with Laurie and on their own. They are easily convinced to be put through the ringer, all for a little athletic fun, I suppose. Ann and Amy are excellent runners; I remember when I first moved back to Houghton in ’07, I raced against Ann in the Canal Run. She’s one tough cookie. And Amy kicked my butt last year at the Canal Run. I tried so hard to keep with her, but she dropped me at mile 5 and I never caught back up. Diane joined Ladies’ Road Riding nights a few times, and she is very excitable and can hammer hard on her Orbea. So I knew these chicks were some serious business. Adam and I were in for a real training treat.

On Friday morning, we loaded up the Durango (Amy would be meeting us that evening in Hurley and was Diane’s partner for the relay) and headed off on our bikes. It was a lot of climb climb climb, descend descend descend, not in that particular order. The roads were great, though. I absolutely love the route along M-26 from Atlantic Mine toward Ontonagon. It’s great pavement, typically not too much traffic, and rolling hills with great scenery. The trees kind of canopy the road. Just outside Toivola, along a beautiful stretch of highway, a deer popped out of the woods and ran along side of us. It was a little unnerving not know when he’d want to cross the road, but we gave him space and the little guy jumped across the highway. We flew down the hills just east of M38, but once traffic started picking up a little more (there seemed to be a lot of RVs out there this weekend), things got a little more hairy.

The ladies, myself, and Adam pushed through the rolling terrain. Some of the hills were long and gradual, and some were the out-of-the-saddle approach. It was good practice in getting in and out of the saddle, and I am so excited to be comfortable on my race bike. There were some downhills that we’d fly on, and it was great to be riding such a long distance with a group of people that were so excited to be out and doing something like that. We would enjoy our breaks, and Adam and I had a chance to hammer out +20mph in some areas.

We stopped every 20 miles or so at gas stations for a stretch and a snack, and it made for the perfect rest intervals. Adam and I told each other we didn’t want to push it too hard with the race the next day, but we found ourselves cruising at 21-23mph on some stretches… which brings me back to the rest intervals- very well deserved! Unfortunately, I disobeyed all rules about race-day nutrition and was a little too excited to eat garlic rice crackers and dill pickle chips from the grocery store in Bruce Crossing. Luckily, the IMoo aid stations probably won’t have garlic crackers and dill pickle chips. If they do, I think I will still be ok… because I really don’t want to eat either of those anytime soon. You can check out the bike route that we took here on my Garmin Connect. I didn’t get the entire route, because after starting off from some of the gas stations I didn’t always hit the start button on my watch, but you’ll get the drift (and 103 out of 106 of the miles).

Anyway, by the time we got to
Ironwood, it was just around 3pm, Laurie, Ann, and myself went for a quick transition run. We then settled into the hotel room where we enjoyed a well-deserved rest. Amy arrived around 630pm, and we ventured to The Liberty Bell for some food. The claim to fame of the Bell is their pizza, and Laurie was really excited to go. Unfortunately, the service was terrible. Win some, lose some, I suppose. I had the chicken Cordon Bleu, which wasn’t the most delicious pre-race meal I’ve ever had, and I was still quite hungry afterward. Luckily for me, and the rest of the group, there was a gelato stand right next door! Cherry chocolate almond screamed my name.

We got ready for the morning and went to bed. In the morning, Diane drove Laurie, Amy, and Adam to the bus pickup. I ended up getting really bad stomach cramps (usually get them from not eating enough) and was balled up on the bed while Diane was away. It cleared up about an hour before we were to leave to go to the half-way point. Phew! That’s the last time I’m eating a high-protein, no carbohydrate dinner pre-race, and I am sure the junk food all day didn’t help.

The halfway point of the marathon, where the handoff was located, was in Gile. This was a really cool park near the flowage.

The half-marathon point, in Gile, was right by a park and was a great spot for a relay transition. The leaders came through while Ann and I were warming up, and it was exciting to see the mix of marathoners, half marathoners, and five person relay folks. I was jogging along the route that the first-half follows, and saw Amy coming in. She was cookin’! I hurried back to the handoff location and waited for Adam.

Adam coming into the exchange
Laurie coming into the exchange

Adam came into the exchange quickly, and the chip-relay was smooth. His time was around 1:47, which is a 3:33 marathon. Being that his “goal race” would be a marathon under 4hrs, I’d say he’d be able to crush that goal. So, that’s exciting!!

After I wrapped the chip around my ankle, I took off and headed through the rolling hills. I felt good the whole race. There were a few climbs that seemed to keep going, but nothing too daunting for the 13.1miles until the end. I tried to stay relax, not push it too hard at any point, just keep focused. I paid attention to my form, keeping my shoulders relaxed, and running forward. I kept an average 7:27 pace, which is about a 1:37.35 half marathon. There were a few miles that were over 7:30s, with one even at 7:53, but there was also a steep hill in that one, so I wasn’t too worried about it. Having a strong finish really made the whole race worthwhile. My time was not too bad at all for such a hilly course, and had I run the half marathon open, I am confident I would have placed in the top spots. It made for a great marathon-pace run, because for me to do a 7:27min/mile pace on a flat marathon course would give me a personal best (right on 3:15, which is my current goal). Check out the elevation chart:

Yikes!

Post-race, it started to rain a little, and I was cold but not really that excited about the Mojakka (fish) stew. I found a cup of Mountain Dew and a banana, and waited for Ann to come through. I tried to cool down with a quick jog, but my legs were tired and I wasn’t too excited to run anymore. We finally found Amy and Adam, so Ann, Diane, and I were able to shower at the hotel before leaving Ironwood. We stopped at the Dairy Queen in Bessemer for some ice cream (and lunch, I suppose). Yay for a well-deserved M&M blizzard!! I slept the entire way home…

The Paavo Nurmi would be a sweet marathon to do, it would definitely be challenging and not necessarily something I’d try to get a PR for. All in all it was an extraordinary weekend with some awesome athletes.