Choosing a Coach

Hey, I know how this looks. Here I am, a professional coach, telling you all the reasons why I think you should hire one. It's not exactly disinterested science on my part. What I'd like to focus on here, however, is only in part on the benefits of having a coach. Primarily, I'd like to discuss what you should look for if you choose to hire a coach, and further, why a coach might be a luxury you don't need. As a coach, I'll put my biases and self-interest up front for you so you don't have to read between the lines.

Before you consider coaching, the first step is to define who you are as rider and what you're trying to get out of the sport. What are your goals, if you've set any in the first place? Perhaps it's best to start by simply asking yourself why you ride, something I've addressed in my articles here before. Fitness? Competition? Escape? Regardless of the level at which you participate in cycling, one thing we can all probably agree on is that riding is more enjoyable when we feel good on the bike. That might mean setting a PR up Mount Washington, breaking 5 hours for a century, or winning the Tour de France. At the same time, most of us aren't professional cyclists with unlimited time to train. We have families, houses, jobs — real life, for the majority of cyclists. Within those parameters and at either end of the spectrum, it's clear that we're all committed, serious cyclists who want to be the best we can at what we do.

My coaches and I work with riders at every point along that continuum. Yes, we have some top athletes, national champions, and World Cup winners. But we also have a large portion of clients who are Masters or Category 3 riders, for whom bike racing is perhaps their biggest passion, but not necessarily their biggest priority. Family and work come first, which means that most of these riders are trying to fit their training and racing into a very narrow and often changing time frame. This is where a coach can make a difference for a rider trying to make it to the next category, or be competitive in their age group.

In this situation, a coach can be many things, and take on many roles: consultant, time manager, psychologist, friend, perhaps even cattle prod. When you have limited time to train, it means that you don't always have time to read the latest training book and develop your own program. It means you don't have time to waste on the bike doing training that won't benefit you or ignores your body's response to the training you do. Just as you might pay someone to work on your car, renovate your house, or do your taxes, if you're time is valuable, it's worth it to have a professional coach planning and evaluating your training. Yes, you could do it yourself, but not with the same results, and not without a time commitment you might not be able to make.

Price is an issue as well, and again, you need to have a clear idea of what you need and how much you're willing to pay for it. It's helpful to think in terms of the amount of attention you want and can afford. Are you looking for someone to plan your training on a daily, weekly, or monthly schedule? Do you want them to evaluate your training logs and make changes to your workouts in that same time frame? Do you want to be able to reach them by telephone when needed, or is e-mail communication enough? Do they have to live close by, or be at the same races? Do you want them to analyze data files from heart rate monitors or power measuring devices? When you hire a coach, you're essentially paying for expertise, access, and attention. How much you need or can afford are the main factors in choosing a level of commitment. To keep it in perspective, a year of coaching with a fair amount of feedback is normally about the same price range as a new set of wheels or perhaps a titanium frameset. Which do you think will make you faster?

When you're shopping for your coach, you should view it almost like hiring an employee or even responding to a personal ad. Interview them, ask some hard questions, and make sure they're someone you can communicate well with. Knowledge and experience, both academic and practical, is important, but perhaps more so is the ability to communicate that knowledge and experience. I believe a good coach should be a teacher, not a dictator. It's important not only that you know what workout you should be doing each day, but why, and how it's going to benefit you in the long and short term. You want a coach you can develop a relationship with, and communication style is the primary factor in deciding if that's going to be the case. The best exercise scientist in the world might still be a bad coach without the communication skills necessary to deliver their ideas to a client, or understand who their clients are as individual people.

With all this pro-coaching rhetoric, there are still times where your time and money might be better spent on other things. If, for example, your work schedule is so demanding that you're lucky to get in two rides a week, then clearly hiring a coach is overkill. Working with a coach is a commitment for both parties, and to get the most out of the relationship you need to be able to maintain your end. That means making sure you're diligent about keeping a training log and submitting it to your coach on a set schedule. It means making sure that you're providing your coach with as much input as possible, so they can provide you with as much feedback as possible. If keeping up with your part of the bargain is a challenge you won't be able to meet, whether it's a minimum number of hours of training per week, recording your training in a log, or communicating honestly what you do with your coach, then you're throwing money away.

You might view coaching as a luxury, but in a sense, cycling in itself is a luxury. On one hand, cycling in its purest form is a simple, affordable means of transportation. I ride a 20-year-old Columbia 3-speed to my office and back each day. When cycling becomes performance oriented, from fast touring to racing, it becomes an expensive, luxury sport. Many of us spend a small fortune on fancy bikes, shoes, pedals, wheels, entry fees, travel, etc., all for something that is essentially a hobby, albeit a hobby we get tremendous enjoyment and satisfaction from physically, mentally, and spiritually. If you're trying to maximize that enjoyment, doing so with the guidance of a good coach turns out to be a bargain.