great coaches ultrarunning

How to Build Great Coaches, and Why it Matters for Athletes

By Jason Koop
CTS Coaching Director
Author, “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning”

Three new CTS Ultramarathon Coaches will start taking athletes this week. To get them ready, I have been taking them through the paces of education and development so I’m confident they have the tools to help their athletes succeed. I have always taken this process very personally, as their coaching is a direct reflection on my mentorship. Along the way, I have been thinking a lot about the disparity between the levels of education, experience, and mentorship among ultramarathon coaches. I can’t tell you what other coaches have done to prepare to be a coach, but I can tell you what mine do. I also can tell you that the way coaches are educated, mentored and seek ongoing development varies tremendously and makes a big difference. I see this in the podcasts, blogs and training articles that are produced in the space, as well as in athlete results and feedback. Some of this coaching and content is outstanding, some of it is good, and unfortunately, some is terrible.

Without a national governing body or professional association to provide oversight, literally anyone can hang a shingle and call himself or herself an ultramarathon coach. While no one gets into coaching with any sort of malintent, it has become clear there is a stratification of coaches working with ultrarunners. Over the long term, the market weeds out the worst coaches, but not before they leave a trail of wrecked athletes, ruined seasons and dissatisfied customers. Above them, there’s a large pool of milquetoast coaches who are competent enough to manage athletes without hurting them, but not knowledgeable enough to develop them beyond the level they would reach with a basic training plan. This group contains the “saw one, did one, can coach one” folks. The next group is comprised of current and former elite athletes, some of whom have both experience and great educations, and others who rely predominantly on what worked for them. The group I want to hire and train are professional coaches, the people who have a passion and aptitude for coaching, as a profession, and also happen to love ultrarunning.

Recent Ultramarathon Coach Acquisitions

I recruit coaches like I’m trying to build an all-star team, and the three newest additions to the roster are definitely all-star worthy. Duncan Callahan has been coaching XC skiing and ultramarathon athletes for nearly 10 years, and he’s a 2x Leadville 100 champion. Hillary Allen has her Masters degree in Neuroscience and structural biology and she set course records on the Speedgoat 50K, The North Face Cortina Trail Path 48K and was the US Sky Running Ultra Champion in 2015. Chantelle Robitaille is also an accomplished ultrarunner and exercise physiologist with a Masters in High Altitude Exercise Physiology.

The Coach Education Program

The educational process we currently use has been developed and refined over the last two decades of training and developing professional endurance coaches. While I’m not going to detail every aspect of the curriculum (it would take forever) it can be simplified into some important categories, listed in chronological order.

Customer Service and Building Relationships

‘Athletes do not care how much you know until they know how much you care’. I learned this common coaching cliché many years ago from one of my fellow CTS colleagues who was trying to demonstrate to a young coach why the athlete wasn’t listening to any of the advice she was trying to deliver. The young coach had all of her facts straight, but failed to build an initial rapport with the athlete, resulting in everything going in one ear and out the other. With that backdrop, we don’t start with energy systems, workouts, and data analysis. Those things are important, but they don’t matter if a coach can’t connect with an athlete, build rapport, communicate effectively, and establish trust. We start with key components of coaching, before we get to anything about training.

As an example, one of our initial pieces of coach training revolves around the first question they ask an athlete. The very first question. Should it be about the athlete’s goal, their background, their PRs, or something different? We spend a whole session and several follow-ups on what this one question should be, and how to utilize it to initially establish the coach-athlete relationship. It takes a lot of work to get this one question right, and as I recently opined via Twitter, “Being a good communicator takes work. It is more than being a talker or a writer or producing content. It’s about teaching, listening, creating connections and building trust with those around you.”

Energy Systems, Workouts, and Periodization

I look for people with science backgrounds when recruiting coaches. Most, but not all, of our coaches come to CTS with at least a Bachelors degree in Exercise Science. More importantly, I don’t even let them in the door without a thorough knowledge of exercise science, nutrition, recovery, biomechanics, etc. When I look at our ultrarunning coaching group, I see 6 Bachelors and 3 Masters degrees in Exercise Science, which is a good start. It means that the new coaches we bring in are not beginning from scratch. Rather, they are building on a fundamental working knowledge of exercise science that they have gleaned from a formal education,self-studyy, or both. It’s my job to expand upon that base knowledge, make it applicable to the athlete and ensure all of our coaches are working from the same playbook.

Data Analysis and Training Plans

Utilizing a sound working knowledge of exercise science, we then teach our coaches how to create and adjust training plans and analyze data files. These are some of the more visible aspects of coaching. While the training plan itself is usually viewed as the centerpiece or any program, the underlying information stemming from training devices and athlete feedback are the real linchpins. I am always perplexed when I speak with athletes who have coaches that have never analyzed their GPS files beyond the basic time, mileage and vertical gain, nor taken the time to ask ‘how did it go?” We spend time on what the nuts and bolts of each file, and the aggregate of many files, mean. This entails digging into the detail of paces, heart rate, Intensity Factor (IF), Training Stress Score (TSS), Acute Training Load (ATL), and an alphabet soup’s worth of analytics. This also entails how to gather meaningful subjective feedback from the athlete to integrate into the plan.

We ensure our coaches can build any training plan from scratch, as there will be no templates or pre-built plans to hide behind. This makes the coach think, plan, analyze and adjust every workout to best suit the athletes.

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As much time as we spend building plans and analyzing files, we spend even more time on the rationale behind a coach’s decisions and interpretations ‘Why’ are you doing what you are doing is the most common question asked This forces our coaches to think about what they are doing and and how to communicate the relevant information to athletes in a meaningful way.

Scenarios and Role Playing

One of the great things about working with a big team of experienced coaches is the ability to incorporate our collective experience into role-playing scenarios. Because we have a diversified team with thousands of athletes’ worth of experience under our collective belt, there is virtually no situation we have not encountered. We bring these ‘case studies’, sometimes routine but often times obscure, to the table and ask ‘what would you do?’. It’s less of an exam and more of a chance to put everything together and get comfortable with the rhythm of full-time coaching, different scenarios you can encounter as a coach and what it means to go through the process of prescription, analysis and feedback.

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Mentoring and Ongoing Continuing Coach Education

National Governing Bodies with coaching certifications, like USA Triathlon and USA Cycling, require Continuing Education Units (CEUs) to maintain your coaching license, but there is no actual oversight of the services licensed coaches deliver. Ultrarunning has neither a CEU requirement nor oversight. CTS Coaches are mentored and evaluated by more senior coaches and participate in weekly continuing education sessions for the entirety of their coaching career. That’s every week, of every month until they no longer coach. We organize these in blocks, spending several weeks in a row on one topic in particular. Topics range from heat acclimatization to a “schedule review” when a coach has to present an unnamed athlete’s training program and field questions about his or her rationale. Interestingly, some of the most impassioned discussions happen during the schedule review. I chalk this up to the fact our coaches care about how all of our athletes do, not just their own.

Why This Matters

I think all too often athletes settle for coaches that simply know more, or have more experience, than themselves. This is a low bar and ultrarunners put too much time and effort to ‘settle’ for guidance that is only slightly better than what they could figure out themselves. I am proud to say our bar is much higher, and we work our butts off to keep it that way. Make no mistake, all of this effort matters to the athlete. The way coaches communicate, their knowledge base, how they apply their knowledge, and how they continually get better at all of the above takes a coach from simply ‘knowing more’ to being capable of getting the most out of any athlete.

The education program we’ve developed and refined over nearly 20 years is a two-way street. Hillary, Duncan, and Chantelle are the most recent coaches to join the team, and they bring unique experiences, perspectives, and information that will enhance the knowledge base all CTS Coaches have access to. None of us are as smart as all of us, and I love the fact this team of coaches enables me to provide athletes with more than the sum of my own knowledge.

Comments 8

  1. While this all sounds fantastic (if true in the real world), what I miss there is taking into account factors like lifestyle, sleep quality/duration, work and family stress etc.

    1. In my experience with CTS, it’s true. When I’ve encountered life or work stress, I emailed my coach and, if necessary, my training schedule would be modified. For me, riding my bike and running function as stress relief, so modifications were usually due to my work schedule being changed unexpectedly.

      My coach and I communicate well. At one point last year, she noticed that though I was completing the assigned workouts properly, my ass was dragging way more than it should have been. I was just starting the second week of a build and she emailed me to switch to a rest week. That said, she also knows how and when to insert an item of manly footwear into a certain bodily orifice. 🙂

      I’m not a shill, just a satisfied CTS athlete.

  2. You don’t talk to all your runners as a standard part of coaching? Or is that just one person’s experience (see above comment)? Doesn’t matter how good you are if there are no conversations (email isn’t nearly enough).

    1. I’ve got the least-expensive contract, and I speak with my coach weekly. The CTS website specifies how often you speak with your coach based on the coaching package you choose.

  3. Pingback: Ultramarathon Daily News |Tuesday, Sep 25 |

  4. Nice commercial, & I’m sure you believe all that.
    I hired one of your coaches, explaining that I had an important race, & my primary concern was not getting injured.
    Following their advice to a T, I still got injured.
    Despite repeated email requests to my coach, no one ever explained the TrainingPeaks data to me. In fact, my coach & I NEVER spoke, not even after I shared that I had an injury.
    I’m sure their intentions were good, but between their other clients & their own training, this coach was likely just over-provisioned.
    Some feedback: rather than an open “let us know if you need a different coach” model, hire someone to contact every client & ask them pointed questions:
    Has your coach called you?
    Do you understand the training data?
    Is your coach meeting our promises?
    I think the answers will surprise you.

    1. @Kckc – My experience has been the polar opposite of yours. I’ve been working with my coach for over five years, and not once has she failed to fully answer any questions I had. She often goes above and beyond her contractual obligations to help me achieve my goals. On top of that, she’s a pretty badass runner too.

      I’m sorry your experience wasn’t good, but I don’t think it’s typical of CTS.

  5. How can I stop that “free download” thing nagging me every time I open one of your pages? I have already downloaded the free download.

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