My experience of being coached

Maryanne left a comment on one of my posts in which she asked about working with a coach. Here’s what she said:

As someone who is new to the idea of working with a coach, I would love to hear your thoughts and recommendations on this topic….i.e., what to look for, roughly what would cost, if you’ve found it more beneficial than going it on your own or training with a group, any negatives/drawbacks, etc.

It turns out I have a lot to say about this, so I’m going to cover it in 3 posts. This one will describe my experience with getting coached. There will also be one about the costs of coaching services and one on why it has made sense for me to have a coach.

First, my experience of getting coached…

I took up triathlon six years ago, at the age of 60. The first year (2007), I did one sprint. I intended to have a full season of racing the second year, but my schedule was interrupted by starting a new job. I managed to do a duathlon sprint (Max Performance’s New England Season Opener) the day before I started the job. But then I gave up racing for a year until I was sufficiently established in the job to back off a little from 10-hour workdays to make time for a serious training program. But I continued working out as much as I could, to prepare for the following year.

I was very haphazard about the training in this period. I never planned a workout until just before I was ready to start it, and most workouts consisted of a 3.5-mile run at tempo pace, a 30-mile bike ride with the neighborhood riding group, or a half-mile swim at the YMCA near my office. I did everything at the same intensity. For the biking and running, I used a Garmin Forerunner with HR functions, and I faithfully uploaded the data files of my workouts. I sometimes looked at my HR curves, and they showed me nothing useful.

The picture is a chart of my heart rate for a run I did before signing on with a coach. See any pattern? I didn’t think so. Without a pattern, there’s nothing useful to learn from it.

Heart Rate Chart

The HR chart for an unplanned, undisciplined workout just looks chaotic.

The reason they showed me nothing was that I didn’t know 1) how to structure a workout based on heart rate or 2) what to make of the chaotic charts that resulted from my sessions. As you can probably imagine, I wasn’t actually improving. But at least I was reasonably regular about it, and when you put in enough miles, you build a little endurance.

After a year of my haphazard self-directed workouts, I resumed racing in 2009. I decided to start the season by doing the tri instead of the du at the Season Opener. It was a great race. I placed 158 out of 347. But I was on the podium in the 60-64 age group, which is to say I was second out of two! One of the advantages of being a geriatric triathlete is that there are generally so few competitors in your age group that you get to spend a disproportionate amount of time on the podium.

And I got a little bag full of prizes. The bag included what appeared to be a season’s worth of apple-cinnamon Hammer gels and a coupon for a free month’s coaching with B&S Fitness in Salem, MA. I looked at the coupon and thought, Why not? So I called up and spoke with Brandi Dion, who runs the B&S Fitness coaching program, and she set up my free month. She had me complete a questionnaire about my fitness and my goals. It was the first time I’d thought about such stuff.

The way it worked, and the way almost all coaching relationships work these days, is there’s a website where the athlete has an account. The coach uploads a plan for the athlete, which appears on a calendar in the athlete’s section of the website. The athlete performs the activities on the calendar, uploads the data files from whatever device he or she uses (or writes up time and distance), and makes comments on the workout about how easy or hard it was, what it felt like, and so forth. The coach reviews the results of the athlete’s workouts and adjusts the plan in whatever way is needed to stay on track to reach the athlete’s goals.

We tend to think of coaching as focused on the workouts, but in fact, in good coaching, the workouts are only a means to an end. The coach intends the workouts to damage your muscles in a very specific way, and then you rest (or train at a more relaxed level) to let the muscles recover. The recovery heals the damage, and the healing makes the muscles stronger. So the purpose of a workout is to set you up for recovery. That’s where the work is done.

In order to achieve this, you need to work in cycles: hard workouts interspersed with easier workouts or rests. But the cycles don’t just happen during the week. You also have hard weeks interspersed with easier ones. Usually, the pattern is hard week, harder week, hardest week, easy week. That’s an oversimplification, but I’m just trying to explain why my self-directed workouts, which were always at the same level, were sort of futile.

So there’s a pattern to the weeks, and there’s a pattern within the weeks. And there’s a pattern within the workouts. Hard workouts will usually be characterized by intervals of intensity interspersed with periods of recovery. The workouts I got from B&S Fitness were far more disciplined than anything I was doing myself. Brandi sent me an information sheet providing the terminology of the workouts, complete with a chart explaining how to recognize heart rate zones. The chart said in zone 1, for example, I should be capable of singing. In zone 2, I should be able to talk. In zone 3, it would be hard to talk. And so forth. The plans Brandi uploaded to my website gave me what I called scripts for each workout.

The scripts prescribed how to do the workout: so many minutes in zones 1&2, so many minutes in zone 4, followed by recovery in zone 1, and so on. With the descriptions of how each zone should feel, I didn’t even need to know ranges (in beats per minute) of my heart rate zones, which was a good thing, because I was quite unsure of what they should be. (That rule of calculating your maximum heart rate by subtracting your age from 220 is not prescriptive; it originated as a statistical summary of a particular population of athletes. If you use it, don’t use it for anything but a starting point.)

After my first B&S workout, I uploaded the data file, and looked at the chart. Instead of the mess I was used to looking at, this one had peaks, valleys, and plateaus that corresponded to my higher intensity efforts, recoveries, and sustained efforts. It was beautiful. It was scientific. I was hooked.

The chart shows cadence, pace, elevation, and heart rate for one of my workouts this past spring. The red line is heart rate. Notice how it echoes the green line, which is elevation (blue is speed and brown is cadence). This workout was a set of hill repeats. The pattern of the red line tells me I did this workout more or less correctly.

Elevation, heart rate, speed, cadence

The chart from a well-scripted workout can have a nice aesthetic.

Then Brandi gave me a lactate threshold test on the bike to reliably establish my heart rate zones, at least for the bike. (They are slightly different for the run.) Following the program she set for me, I got more fit than I’d been in previous years, and the rest of the season went well for me. Of my three remaining races that year, I placed first in my age group twice.

I did another two years with B&S Fitness, and I had great results, including my first half-iron: Pumpkinman at South Berwick, Maine, where I placed third in my age group (out of 8!) in 2011. I decided to take a month off after that and go back to my own haphazard workouts while I figured out what to do next.

I wanted to see if I could coach myself. I joined a triathlon club, NorthEeast MultiSport (NEMS), hoping that I could get guidance and information from other triathletes. The great thing about NEMS is it has an email list, and members post to it when they plan workouts, so if you want to work out with somebody else, you can join them. But in the off-season, I discovered, there weren’t very many organized workouts going on. And I found it difficult to get to the meetings and the parties. So I never met anybody to get advice from.

And then I read an article in a triathlon magazine about Mark Allen Online, the coaching service set up by the legendary Mark Allen. I went to the website and found that it was quite inexpensive for the basic service, which is maintenance (i.e., training without a goal). The way Mark Allen Online works is that you follow a maintenance plan until you get a certain number of weeks away from your next race, then you upgrade to a plan designed to get you to the race.

The Mark Allen Online system is highly automated. It has an intake questionnaire just like the other services, but then the website’s program creates your workout plan from your answers to the questions. I continued with Mark Allen Online for a couple months. But I was never conscious of anybody there looking at my files. I’m sure it was a good plan, and I suffered no deterioration of my fitness. But I didn’t feel I was making progress, and I began to realize I would have to opt for a higher level of service (at a higher cost) in order to get any real interaction.

It was still off-season when I entered an indoor bicycle time trial sponsored by NEMS. At that event, I met the club president, Colin Cook. Colin’s coaching service is Peak Triathlon Coaching. He lives in the same town as me, and it seemed to me there might be some advantage in having a coach who lived nearby and whom I could meet from time to time if it was necessary. So I made an appointment to talk with Colin and during our talk, I signed on with him.

Working with Colin has been similar to the other services in that he puts my plan up on the website, and I do the workouts and upload my data files. But I get frequent comments from him about my workouts and my progress. He’s certified in Functional Movement Systems (FMS), and we had another appointment in which he assessed my movement patterns. He is also a certified swimming instructor, and we had a session at the pool in which he assessed my swimming and gave me some pointers.

And, when we were just a month away from Mooseman 2012, he went with me to the Mooseman site to ride the bike course. That was important, because it includes a category 3 hill which is quite brutal. Of all my experiences of getting coached, this one with Colin is the one in which I’ve felt I’m being watched most closely.

Until it was interrupted by the accident a month ago, I was having a pretty good season. I beat my previous best time at the Season Opener by 6 minutes or so. And I beat my previous time at the Greater Nashua Y Triathlon by 4 minutes. I missed my goal at Mooseman by more than 20 minutes, but it was a race under particularly difficult conditions, and in a 70.3-mile race at my level, 20 minutes isn’t an enormous gap. Note also that I placed third in my age group. I did that race at the highest fitness of my life.

Mooseman was June 3, and my accident was 3 weeks later, June 24. After the accident, Colin didn’t give me any workouts at all for the next month. But I began working out again within a couple weeks, and he has been reviewing my results. Now, a month later, he has put up a new schedule for me this week. It is considerably reduced from my training volume of a month ago, but he’s bringing me back gradually, and he continually tells me to listen to my body.

Getting coached has been invaluable for me, and it has brought me further along than I could have done on my own. In my next post on this subject, I’ll discuss why.

Today’s weight: 158.1
Waking pulse: 54