New York Times Online Coaching Article
July 13, 2006
E-Mail From My Coach Made Me Do It
By CATHERINE SAINT LOUIS
LYNN Wilson trained for her first marathon the way many novice runners did in the 80’s — on her own. Her only goal was to finish, and she did, dead last.
For her next marathon nearly 15 years later, she followed an 18-week program she found online, and knocked 45 minutes off her personal best. “I was happy,” said Dr. Wilson, 49, a psychologist from San Diego. “But I thought ‘I can do better.’ ”
For one thing, she was plagued by questions. Was she running far enough? Should she allow a cold to slow her down? “I was driving myself crazy,” Dr. Wilson said. “I needed someone who knew more than I did to help me make those decisions.”
Dr. Wilson did something that an increasing number of middle-of-the-packers do: she hired a coach.
It used to be that only top athletes paid experts to get them to the starting line. But in a culture in which people are accustomed to outsourcing every chore — tax preparation, laundry, even the organization of a cluttered garage — it’s only logical that recreational athletes are engaging experts to help them figure out how to make the most of their modest skills.
By hiring strategists — many of them exercise physiologists or former professional athletes — to create realistic training schedules, people with a passion for cycling, running or triathlons are also finding that they can squeeze training into a day that is busy with work and family commitments.
Dr. Wilson began working with Greg McMillan, an exercise physiologist, in 2003. Since then he has designed daily schedules for her, telling her precisely how far and how fast to go, and at what heart rate. He’s also been available by phone or e-mail messages 24/7 to field her questions and set her straight.
Mr. McMillan, for instance, explained that Ms. Wilson’s habit of training hard every day probably made her a slower racer, because her legs never properly recovered.
More than anything, though, Mr. McMillan helped Ms. Wilson to eliminate the guesswork in her training. And he soothed her nerves.
This year she ran the Boston Marathon, on a brutally hilly course, about 50 minutes faster than any of her previous 26.2-mile races.
Endurance coaches are not personal trainers. Their task is not just to help clients become physically fit. Their focus is on the race and preparing for the physical and mental rigors of competition. In many cases, the coaches have raced themselves.
Today there are 1,420 USA Triathlon-certified coaches, up from 8 in 1997, the first year certification occurred, said Alan Ley, who manages the association’s coaching education program. Certification is highly sought; for the past four years, every entry-level clinic for coaches has filled up within 48 hours, he said.
The same is true for cycling. The number of coaches certified by USA Cycling has increased tenfold since 1999.
Tennis and ski coaches have been around for ages, but until recently, amateurs didn’t hire coaches to help with road racing or mountain biking, said Sam Callan, who oversees coaching education at USA Cycling. But, he said, after Chris Carmichael touted his coaching relationship with Lance Armstrong, many amateurs thought to themselves, “This Lance guy seemed to do so well with a coach, maybe I’d do well with one.”
In 2000, the first year Mr. Carmichael and four other coaches started working with amateurs through Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs, there were 50 athletes. In 2005, the company had 85 coaches and 4,000 athletes.
In most cases, coaching is done remotely, over the Internet, though some athletes, especially swimmers, work face to face with local coaches. Using programs like Training Peaks software, clients can transfer data from heart rate monitors and report how workouts went. Coaches can log on to tweak plans accordingly.
Other coach-athlete pairs bridge distance by periodically videotaping, say, a swim stroke or meeting once a year for a few packed days of technique analysis.
The cost of personal coaching ranges from $39 to $1,500 a month, depending on the services provided. Coaches can be found on the Web or through athletic organizations. Some of the popular sites are www.usatriathlon.org or www.usacycling.org, and there are numerous sites for private companies.
Mr. McMillan, who used to work with runners on an Olympic development team, said that thanks to the Internet, athletes of less than star quality have access to people who are the best in the world at what they do. “The result is more people are getting more out of their running because they have a guide,” he said. “They don’t make the mistakes they’d make on their own.”
That was a concern of Jenny Thorpe, an air traffic controller from Calgary. When she decided to start doing half-Ironman-distance triathlons, she had participated in enough shorter races to conclude that the cookie-cutter programs she was using weren’t enough.
“You don’t always know yourself,” said Mrs. Thorpe, 42, who sought out Pete Alfino of Mile High Multisport in Highlands Ranch, Colo. “I wanted to hire a coach to make sure I was training enough but also to figure out when I was overtraining.” She also had to determine how best to use the 8 to 16 hours a week she had for regular exercise. Now she e-mails or talks with Mr. Alfino daily.
“A coach gives you adaptability and flexibility you can’t get out of a book,” said Mr. Alfino, a veteran of four Ironman-distance triathlons.
Hans Bach, 45, wanted to learn to swim in the open water of San Francisco Bay. Now Gary Emich, the record-holder for Alcatraz one-way swims (374 and counting), swims or kayaks alongside him to give pointers.
Mr. Bach sought out coaches — he also has one for running — because he wanted to lessen his chances of “repetitive injuries from bad form.”
Many coaches become so close to their clients that they are familiar with their diets, sleeping patterns and major stressors — work, kids, even turbulent romances. “The way I coach, I’m part of their lives for the period of their training,” said Mindy Solkin, the owner and head coach of the Running Center in Manhattan. “I have a passion for the sport and compassion for my runners. They are my children.”
Empathy is key to the enterprise, said Hunter Allen, the founder of the Peaks Coaching Group, an online company with clients including pro cyclists, mountaineers bound for Mount Everest and even sedentary beginners. “Not that I’m all in my athletes’ business, but I care about them as people,” said Mr. Allen, a former pro cyclist. “To have a guide along the way, I don’t want to say it’s religious, but it has similarities.”
Some coaches limit their access, establishing set times to call once a week or providing more availability based on how much customers pay. But for coaches relatively new to the business like Mr. Alfino, it’s often hard to set boundaries. His athletes call him morning, noon and night. “I’ve sent some e-mails this week saying it’s gotten a little out of hand,” he said.
As in any relationship, breakups occur. Dr. Wilson, the San Diego runner, stopped working with her first coach for many reasons: she didn’t get faster in six months, she could call him only at an appointed time and, well, they didn’t really connect.
She adored Mr. McMillan from hello. “If I didn’t like him, I wouldn’t get as much out of his coaching,” she said.
Not every client is as compliant. Some disregard the scheduled workout, forcing the coach to rearrange the plan to satisfy whims. One of Mr. Allen’s charges even faked his heart monitoring data.
“We definitely ‘fire’ clients that are uncoachable,” Mr. Allen said. “It’s amazing to me. I’ve had clients who pay me a $1,000 a month and they don’t do what I say.”