How To Be Coachable
So, you’ve invested in a personal triathlon coach to provide a customized training plan for you. It could be someone you’ve just employed or someone you’ve been working with for a while. It might surprise (disappoint) you that getting more value out of that appointment does not involve sending them off to do another coaching qualification. It could be up to you.
As a coach, my goal when I design a training plan, far more important than finding the right balance of volume and intensity, is for it to be sustainable. What do I mean by that? I mean, is it something that’s going to fit into your lives and be repeatable week after week for years, not just for a 12-16 week training block before a goal race. Why do I care? Because the physiological adaptations that take place over, say three years, are going to be far greater than even the best structured, well adhered to “training block.” I could take your test data, get your background and write you a plan for 16 weeks that I think is 100% optimal to get you physically where you want to be. That approach might work for some pros, but in my experience it doesn’t work for very many of the people who I coach whose number one priority in life isn’t triathlon. (Funds to feed themselves and their family tends to rank higher and, as spouses of triathletes know, amateur level triathlon doesn’t do much to contribute to that).
OK, so now you know my goal of writing a sustainable plan. What does that have to do with you, the athlete? Well, because they don’t teach it at the coaching courses, and because it’s different for each athlete, I rely almost exclusively on feedback and communication from you (and not your watch) to come up with this plan.
Reading the data
Even with the least communicative athlete, with the advent of GPS sports watch technology, I have access to all the physiological details of the workouts I proscribe. Today’s athlete doesn’t even have to take the step of manually entering what they did after a workout like they did before the age of instant uploads. I’ve taken track running workouts recently where athletes, despite having access to very precise, detailed data on their wrist, can’t even tell you how many seconds it took them to run their intervals in real-time (they’ll look at the graphs and tables later).
I think many athletes assume with this rich array of physiological data they provide, their coach should have everything they need to optimize their training plan. Wrong. As an example, how about I give an athlete 10 x 100s in the pool with 20 secs rest, identical to the set I gave them six weeks ago, and they did the same average splits. Can I immediately assume they haven’t improved? Not unless I know how hard it felt for them or get the context. Did it feel easy to them (perceived exertion - it’s the golden metric your watch won’t give me) or did it half kill them to hold those splits? If the same set felt easier to do today than it did six weeks ago then they’ve probably made gains, even if the data was the same. Or were there other factors impacting the session? How did they sleep? Were their arms tired from a strength workout or paddles set you did two days ago? Did their guts hurt from eating too close to the workout? All very important impactful stuff that your watch can’t (yet) tell me unless you write it down for your coach to see.
There’s no such thing! I get it you don’t want to write an essay about each workout, and some workouts like an easy run, might be so routine and uneventful you might not need to comment. Don’t ever think you’re bothering your coach by telling them stuff. Listening is the most important part of their job and you’re paying them to do it. A good example of useful communication for the female athlete to give is on their menstrual cycle which of course has an impact on both training and racing and in very individual ways. The amount of info I get on this varies between the females I coach but don’t hold back on sharing these non-training related stressors with your coach if you want to get the most out of them. Only share what you’re comfortable sharing but just letting your coach know you’re having a tough time personally is enough for them to make changes to the plan that will keep you on track physically without having to completely pack it in. Again, your watch can’t tell me if you missed Friday’s workout because you were exhausted from the training you did at the start of the week or because your boss gave you hell all day and you needed a drink. This reason you missed Friday is a very important piece of data for a coach because one indicates you might be reaching a physical limit in the plan and the other was a one-off life event that perhaps can be made up for on the weekend. Most of the stuff I read in training logs, whether it’s emotional and physical, is very relevant to my goal of building a sustainable plan, and might not even be stuff you consider is important, but it could be something an experienced coach has found to be a factor impacting performance.
Compromising for Sustainability
Now this might seem a little soft coming from a coach but the other really important information I need from your training plan is are you enjoying it? Now, I don’t mean was it easy or blissful but was it something that you were motivated to do, and when you did do it, did you feel good about it and are you motivated to do it again?
I listen to a lot of podcasts of coaches of elite athletes and they say a lot of interesting stuff about the physiology of training and the psychology of racing etc. but one thing they hardly mention is athlete motivation. It’s not important for them, or even worth mentioning, because elites are mostly highly motivated to do whatever it takes to be the best. Their limiters are most often physical fatigue or injury. Tapping into what motivates them is largely irrelevant to these coaches because their athletes are just going to follow the plan regardless of how fun it is.
Finding out what in a training plan is motivating an athlete is important to me because I believe motivation to train is the single biggest limiting factor to an amateur athlete’s performance. And yes, even over time constraints and physical capacity limiters which are the ones athletes usually present. I believe both can be overcome with increased motivation. I’ve met CEOs with kids who wake up and get two hours of training done between 4:30am-6:30am in the morning. It’s an extreme example, but it’s to point out that they don’t have more time than you and I, but they do have more motivation. Now, I always say that I can’t coach that sort of motivation, it mostly comes from within, but there are things I can do to provide a motivating environment for your training. And I’m prepared to compromise on some things in your plan to do that if it will make your plan sustainable.
What do I mean by compromise? I mean I’ll sacrifice the absolute physical optimization of a workout for one that’s close enough but more enjoyable. A good example is group swimming (like a masters swim program). We all mostly agree that swimming laps is boring. I will routinely encourage athletes to integrate masters group swimming into their plans even if I don’t think the workouts are 100% aligned with their goals (triathletes don’t need to do breaststroke ever BTW). I would much rather my athletes get up early and go make some new friends they regularly want to see at a masters workout than do my, much better customized for them, workouts by themselves in the public lanes sometime during the day.* Why? Because in the long run if they enjoy the sport more and end up going more frequently and for longer then I’ve achieved my goal of a sustainable, enjoyable plan.
So back to how you can help your coach. Tell them what you like but also be open to at least trying different modalities of training that might help build a motivating training environment for yourself as well as increasing your fitness. You can’t say you don’t like swimming in a group if you’ve never tried it. You can’t say morning training doesn’t work for your life if you’ve never set your alarm. If you’ve given it a go and you don’t like it, tell your coach and they’ll have to figure it out. Don’t like swimming in a pool at all? I’ll write you an all open water swim program, because even if I think pool swimming is the optimal way to train for swimming I think I can get you 90% of the way to your goals in the open water and it's a far better alternative than trying to convince you to do something you’re sure you’re going to hate.
So far my suggestions on being coachable, and getting the most out of your coaching engagement, is about communication; about what you’re doing, what’s going on in your life and how the training is making you feel. The last bit is about honesty, and I’ve put it last because I can’t think of many instances where athletes are lying to me (what would be the point?). I do think that some athletes might hold back on the communication because they somehow feel they’re “letting me down” by not completing the plan as prescribed (see my blog for more of the limitations of proscribing training in general). When really, you're not ever letting me down (I don't care about you THAT much lol), it’s that the plan that I wrote for you has let YOU down in that it’s not successfully matched either your life or motivation. What your responsibility is is to be honest, to yourself and to your coach, about the reasons why the plan didn’t work. Was it really the hair appointment or could we, had we been sufficiently motivated, snuck that run in elsewhere in the day? Once we have an honest answer, we can make the right adjustments to find that sustainable path.
*Not everyone is motivated by the social aspect but many are and it’s the reason I built a team around my coaching business and is an integral part of it.
Thanks for reading and, if you made it this far, be interested in hearing the reactions from athletes and coaches to these thoughts. I’m very interested to find out how AI is going to factor in all these human elements when it spits out its training plans and us coaches are replaced by the robots!