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February 7, 2011 | Triathlon Training Blog

Self-coaching vs. Hiring a Coach Can be a Tricky Choice

For many triathletes the decision between self-coaching vs. hiring a coach is a no-brainer.

I mean, if you already spend a few thousand dollars a year on buying equipment, gadgets, race entry fees and travel, discounting all the sacrifices you make to train, hiring a coach who cares about you and mentors you to optimal performance on race day is only logical.

But for every successfully coached triathlete, there is one who takes the road alone—some all the way to the Ironman World Championship in Kona.

Granted, most Kona qualifiers have natural-born talent and good genes, but they also work hard.

Kim McDonald ranks among them. The 56-year old veteran triathlete ranks consistently on top of his age group, has garnered multiple National and World Championship titles, and trains with the Pros. While he leans on his friends and coaches like UCSD’s triathlon and swim head coaches Terry Martin and Ron “Sickie” Marcikic for training pointers, he enjoys many aspects of self-coaching.

By contrast, a relative newcomer to the sport, 44-year old Julie Dunkle, had a rough start into triathlon in Jan. 2007 until she met her “coaching mate” Kevin Purcell.

Since she started working with Purcell in late 2007, the former nationally ranked college swimmer quickly rose to success from winning local races to becoming a two-time Kona qualifier.

Last year, after earning her USAT level 1 coaching certification and starting her own coaching business, Dunkle tried self-coaching, but realized quickly that she wasn’t the type of athlete to succeed on her own. So she teamed up with Purcell again.

So the question remains, which option is best for you?

I’ve asked the two athletes about their training approach, McDonald being self-coached for the most part, and Dunkle being coached. I’ve also asked them about the pros and cons of working alone vs. with a coach, their lessons learned and tips and considerations for training on your own. I’ve also injected some of my own observations having both been coached and having followed a basic online training plan in the hope that we can all learn a thing or two from each other.

Pros of Self-Coaching

  • Flexibility

Being a self-coached athlete gives McDonald the flexibility during the week to train whenever it fits and allowed him to train with people who will push him.

In his own words: “I do a lot of solo rides and runs, but I’m one of those athletes who likes to work out at least a couple of times a week with others. The downside is, I need to be careful about burying myself with too many hard workouts during the week, since I train with people who are younger and faster than I am.”

  • Keep A Training Log Book

McDonald has been in the sport for more than two decades. Keeping a log book with entries about his Power meter history, times hit during key workouts, self-testing and at key races, has allowed him to figure out what works and what doesn’t during training and what to look for when things go well or not so well.

Hitting certain key numbers during workouts gives him the confidence to execute well on race day.

“If you can’t go back to your log book and see if you need more rest or find out what the problem is and fix it before your key event (it’s not a good thing),” McDonald said.

  • Become Your Own Best Guinea Pig

Keeping a log book allows you to become your own guinea pig.

McDonald learned over the years that three weeks of high volume with one week recovery during his base period; two weeks on and one week recovery during his build and peak weeks, worked best.

He noted that it took many years of trial and error to figure out what worked and what didn’t work for him.

  • Learn to Listen to Your Body

No one knows your body like you do.

Even the best coaches would need to work with you for a good period of time to learn how you respond to training stressors, how much recovery you need during certain times during your training plan, and what intensity and volume during various times will boost rather than hinder your performance.

So when you follow your own training plan and pay attention to how your body responds to different stressors, you can learn a lot. Having an elevated resting heart rate is a sure sign of overtraining.

Ignore the associated symptoms (sore throat, stomach issues, fatigue, irritability, etc.) and you’re likely to end up sick (often with cold symptoms), injured or chronically fatigued.

Cons of Self-Coaching

I would agree with McDonald and Dunkle that every athlete can benefit from hiring a coach.

After seven years in the sport, I still enjoy the camaraderie of coached workouts at UCSD and know that our coaches, Terry and Sickie truly care about the athletes.

I am still taking swimming lessons from Sickie and consult with other local coaches—We’re lucky so many wonderful coaches call San Diego home.

That said, for some people self-coaching simply isn’t an option.

Dunkle said that while her first tri season was a lot of fun, she bonked severely, blew up in races and was sidelined by a stress fracture. Her chief problem: ‘Over-achiever syndrome.’

  • Overachiever-Syndrome

Often, triathletes have the opposite problem from ‘regular folks’ who see every workout as a chore.

Many triathletes thrive on beating up their bodies and need someone to keep them in check.

Dunkle certainly fits into that category. After two Kona-qualifying events, earning her USAT Level I certification, and learning a ton from her coach, Dunkle wrote her own training plan and started to get “greedy.”

“I was diligent about writing a plan that included the necessary volume for an Ironman, I added more intensity then I had ever done and a recovery week became a recovery day or two,” she said.

Even when her legs ached and she was tired all the time—a sure sign of overtraining—she pressed on. Ten weeks out from Kona, she couldn’t get her heart rate up, her Power meter numbers were low and her run suffered. She called Purcell to bring her back on track and he did.

  • What Works For Someone Else Doesn’t Mean It’ll Work For You

Every individual responds differently to training stressors, training volume and intensity, nutrition, recovery and some people are more prone to injuries than others. A coach can help you figure out what works for you.

Why Hire A Coach?

  • A good coach will help you define weaknesses, strengths and then address them

Dunkle said her coach helps her simplify and structure her life. Married with two teenagers, Dunkle works part-time and coaches a few athletes now, but still leans on Purcell to give her the constant feedback and support she needs to maximize training and performance.

  • A good coach can help you with your goals and maximize your performance

 “We practiced nutrition, long days of training, discussed how I would be feeling throughout the Ironman, practiced all facets of the race so by the time race day came I was ready and successful,” Dunkle said.

Next week, some thoughts on “customized” online training plans

By Marion Webb
Marion Webb

Marion Webb is an ACE-certified Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Webb has worked as a longtime award-winning business journalist, covering fitness, small business, health care and biotech issues. A competitive age-group triathlete and two-time ITU Long Distance World Championship qualifier, Webb competes mostly in the Half Ironman (70.3 miles) and (140.6 miles) Ironman distances.

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