cts coaching principles

Key Principles Professional Coaches Use to Change Lives and Develop Champions

In an era when algorithms amplify gimmicks and 7-second soundbites, athletes are inundated with contradicting and confusing messages about how coaching works. Some athletes fail to see the difference between a professional coach and a hobbyist whose main qualifications are their own competitive results. As of this year, I have worked for CTS for half my life. In that time, the coaching profession has grown, sports science has evolved, and trends have come and gone. Through it all, I’ve had the opportunity to help more than 100 professional coaches communicate their ideas and expertise in written, video, and audio formats. So, for athletes who aren’t sure what we do, how we do it, and why it’s valuable, here’s what you should know about the training principles and methodology CTS Coaches use to help athletes achieve their goals. 

What makes a coach a professional?

There is no all-encompassing certification process for endurance coaches, which means there’s no barrier to entry for the coaching profession. Anyone can hang a digital shingle and call themselves an endurance coach, and that makes it difficult for athletes to be educated consumers. 

Professional coaches dedicate themselves to continually learning the craft of coaching. Although there is no standardized combination of degrees and certifications, most professional coaches have an undergraduate or advanced degree in exercise physiology/sports science, as well as sport-specific coaching certifications from National Governing Bodies (i.e. USA Cycling, USA Triathlon) or reputable certification organizations (i.e. National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), United Endurance Sports Coaching Academy (UESCA)).

A person does not necessarily need to coach full-time to be considered a professional coach. However, coaches improve with experience and challenge. Repetitions matter, and in coaching that means you must do a lot of coaching – both in terms of time and number of athletes – to obtain the wisdom necessary to do a great job. Meaningful progress is hard to achieve when you only coach a handful of athletes in your spare time. Almost by definition, athletes are a secondary or tertiary priority for hobbyist or side-hustle coaches. 

CTS established its in-house coaching education program more than 20 years ago. It encompasses a screening process for vetting potential new coaches, course work and evaluations to ensure new coaches are proficient in sports science and coaching methods, ongoing mentoring and continuing education for all coaches, and quality assurance monitoring. CTS Coaches have also been authors and instructors for National Governing Body coaching education courses, as well as UESCA courses. As a result of this mentoring and ongoing education system, CTS Athletes benefit from the cumulative expertise of the entire coaching collective.

Overarching Philosophy: Focus on the Human First

Before talking about how we coach athletes or what training paradigms we use to improve performance, it’s important to understand our North Star: We coach humans.

To coach a human you must consider all aspects of their life. We cannot coach you as an athlete without considering your lifestyle, career, and relationships outside of sport. And it goes beyond integrating your training plan into your personal and professional schedules. We’re talking about balancing priorities, understanding your personality, learning how you respond to input, how you express yourself, what adds to your confidence and what diminishes it. 

There is no formula for this type of philosophy, which is why we refer to coaching as a craft profession. Coaches meet athletes where they are. The conversations we have, the communication channels we use, the data set we prioritize and share, and the training we create are individualized to each athlete. As you’ll see below, this influences every touchpoint we have with you.

Apps are not human first

Training apps, static training plans, and even AI-assisted training plans offer great convenience and a lower price point. They occupy an important space within the spectrum of training guidance available to athletes. As always, though, automation comes at the cost of human interaction. And in the case of preparing a human being for competition, we believe human interaction is critical. Apps and AI can use algorithms to adjust their plans and advice based on your input, but they lack the perspective and wisdom to consider what’s not in the data: you.

On top of that, a lot of the data you generate is junk, or at least needs to be viewed with a grain of salt. Just take Heart Rate Variability. The utility of the data can be affected by when and how consistently you measure it, the equipment used, medications you take, and other factors (read more on this from Coach Jason Koop). Power meters sometimes glitch during rides and races. Heart rate monitors lose connectivity or spike to 220 bpm. GPS signals get muddled by steep canyon walls. And sometimes your subjective feedback is what you wished you felt like instead of how you actually felt. All of these are things coaches work through with athletes and their data. More importantly, coaches are there to inspire you and introduce you to new information and methods you’re not already familiar with. 

Training Philosophy: Fitness First

Prospective athletes often ask, “What kind of training do you use?” What they mean is, which named training paradigms do CTS Coaches adhere to? Are we just “Time-Crunched Athlete” coaches? Or Polarized? 80/20? Just Zone 2? 

There is no single periodization model or training paradigm that fits all athletes optimally. The concepts from “The Time-Crunched Cyclist” work for athletes who have limited time to train. Grand Masters (60+ year olds) who have retired and have all the time in the world to train benefit from periodization models that leverage that availability. Pros and emerging elites benefit from 80/20 models because they are training 16-25 hours per week. Polarized training is necessary for high volume athletes because you must go easy most of the time to be able to go hard enough to stimulate positive adaptations from intensity.

“Fitness First” is the best way to describe the CTS training philosophy. The goal is to guide an athlete to the highest possible fitness level in time for their goal. This is because superior fitness gives you the best chance to seize opportunities and cope with adversity. Coaches pull from a deep understanding of periodization models to devise training to develop superior fitness that addresses the demands of your sport and goal.

How is “Fitness First” different from what you might experience elsewhere?

Fitness first means we don’t chase marginal gains in place of optimizing the fundamental components of endurance performance. Nor do we get stuck on a one-size-fits-all training zone or intensity (i.e. the current social media obsession with Zone 2). Sometimes focusing on fundamentals means spending lots of time on repetitive, simple (but not necessarily easy) workouts. We’re not going to prioritize heat or altitude training that might net a 2-3% improvement while you have the potential to improve lactate threshold by 20%. We’re not going to rearrange your nutrition strategy around ketone esters before making sure you’re consuming enough total energy before, during, and after training. 

Training Strategy: Minimal Intervention

‘Minimal intervention’ is another important strategy within the CTS Training Philosophy. This means coaches aim to prescribe as little intervention as necessary to achieve maximum benefits. Your time and energy are finite. Being efficient and eliminating wasteful or low-value efforts creates more opportunity for recovery and positive adaptation.

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A minimal intervention training strategy is sometimes confusing – even frustrating – to athletes. You feel driven to do more. You want to fill all your available training time or contrive workouts that seem effective because they’re complicated. Maybe you want to add activities just because you can. Recovery modalities are a good example. Sleep is the best thing you can do – by far – to enhance recovery and promote adaptation to training. If recovery spins, massage appointments, and cold water immersion sessions add more scheduling stress or physiological stress than getting more sleep… then sleep more (and better). 

Don’t mistake activity for value. One of a coach’s most important tasks is to keep you from getting in your own way. Removing extraneous effort and meaningless stress creates space for effective work.

Data Strategy: Use Training Data to Perform Without It

CTS does not currently have its own app. We use the Training Peaks platform to provide athletes with coach-created, customized workouts, to aggregate and analyze your data, and gather your subjective feedback. Beyond that, we are data and app agnostic, meaning we meet you where you are, with the devices you have and the training apps you prefer. Our coaches are experts at training cyclists with power meters and indoor cycling apps, and ultrarunners with GPS, heart rate monitors, and data from wearable devices like Whoop, Oura, Garmin, and Fitbit. But we also work with athletes who train by perceived exertion and have no interest in devices. Data can play an important role in coaching, but great coaching can’t be all about the numbers.

The most important aspect of our coaches’ data strategy is that we use training data to teach you how to perform without it. The endgame is not that having so much data guarantees success, it’s that when it’s time to perform you know how to succeed without access to a single data point. Reliance on data during competition is weakness. Our job is to use your training data to optimize your performance capacity, teach you how to access that capacity, how to interpret your mental and physical responses, and how to adjust for adversity and capitalize on opportunity.

An example I use frequently is to ask an athlete (or coach) to prescribe the optimal pace for an athlete four hours into a 10-hour event, climbing a 10% grade at 11,000 feet above sea level, in a thunderstorm with ambient air temperature of 38 degrees Fahrenheit and a 15 mph headwind. Oh, and maybe they forgot to eat 10 miles ago and don’t have a rain jacket. Endurance events are unpredictable. Data is essential for getting you ready. In the moment, you must know how to read the situation, interpret your mental and physical responses, and make the best decisions you can. No number on your handlebar or wrist can always tell you what to do.

Summary: Stop Leaving Your Preparation To Amateurs

You may be an amateur athlete, but please stop leaving your preparation to amateurs. Put another way, you don’t need to be a professional athlete to work with a professional coach. Is there any other area of your life where you prefer amateurs to professionals? You don’t own the biggest house on the block, so the amateur roofer is good enough?

Worse yet, have you decided to train yourself rather than hire a coach? It’s not that training is rocket science. You’re smart enough to figure out a training plan. There is more than enough information out there to learn how to analyze training data. You’re probably smart enough to figure out contract law, but you hire a lawyer. You can research immunology, but hopefully you go to a doctor. And certainly, you’re smart enough to fix your own car, but you don’t.

A professional’s value increases exponentially when the going gets tough. When things go wrong, you want someone who has seen it before and knows how to get back on track. That’s what education, experience, and repetition give a professional that you don’t have. It may be your first broken collarbone, layoff, divorce, or new baby, but we work through those with athletes every season. And similarly, it may be your first time racing Leadville, or La Ruta, Western States, Ironman, or National Championships, but we prepare athletes for those every season, too. 

Your goals and challenges are your own, but you don’t need to face them alone. For a greater chance of success, work with a pro, especially if you aren’t one.

By Jim Rutberg,
CTS Media Director, Pro Coach, and co-author of “Ride Inside“, “The Time-Crunched Cyclist”, and “Training Essentials for Ultrarunning

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Comments 9

  1. Good article. There is a saying in business “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. Keeping track of your workouts and outcomes are a key to measuring your success on what is working and what isn’t when looking at your exercise program. A trainer can definitely help in this regard.

  2. Pingback: What Working With A Coach Can Do For You - Chris Carmichael

  3. Not everyone can afford to hire a professional coach. That’s what I love about CTS. Your cycling workouts can be downloaded from your website for free. I love these workouts! Your articles and podcasts provide a lot of great information. I was fortunate enough to attend one of your camps in 2016. I learned a lot working with your coaches for a few days.

  4. I’ve made some great gains in my physical fitness and cycling while working with my CTS coach Renee. She embodies all the points you made in your article. Very happy her and CTS.

  5. CTS Senior Coach, Andy Applegate, has helped me ride back to a high fitness level after open heart surgery, Covid, pneumonia, and getting past 70. His concerns and skills addressing my total health and fitness have been a huge support that fixed training plans just don’t offer. Also, his ability to help merge my single and tandem bike training intensities and opportunities has been a crucial aspect of keeping my fitness improving and my relationship with my tandem partner thriving.

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