3 Things to Look for in a Running Coach (and 1 to Ignore)
The idea of hiring a running coach may be new to you — and it can be confusing trying to decide which coach you should hire and why.
At the risk of being self-serving, let me go over a few things that I think you need to look for in a running coach, and one big thing I think you should ignore.
Yes, I meet the criteria I’m laying out here. No, I don’t think I’m the right coach for everyone.
I have frequently told runners that I don’t think we’d be a good fit and encouraged them to look for a different coach. Now, then … the things to look for:
1. ADVANCED CERTIFICATIONS
Just like with any profession, you want to know that the coach you’re considering has the proper credentials.
There are two main providers of coaching education in the US — the RRCA and USA Track and Field (USATF). Both offer entry-level certifications. These entry-level courses are available to anyone who signs up and pays, so if you’re looking for a serious running coach, it’s good to look for advanced certifications.
If you're looking for a serious running coach, look for advanced certifications.
For USATF, that means Level 2 School (there is also Level 3 option that is very rare).
Level 2 School is a rigorous, 6-day-long course focused on a particular event group (endurance, sprints, etc.) that includes:
— Classroom curriculum developed and presented by some of the top coaches, physiologists, and biomechanists in the world
— Multiple written exams on physiology, training theory, and biomechanics
— Group projects focused on training plan design
And since it’s a residency-based program it generally turns into a 24-hour-a-day running-nerd-fest (side note: this was one of the coolest weeks of my life!).
USATF Level 2: need to apply and be accepted, not just sign-up
You also have to apply and be accepted into Level 2 School on the basis of your coaching resume and experience — this is definitely not a pay your money, get your certification type of course. You can trust that anyone with USATF Level 2 Certification will have an in-depth understanding of running from the physiological, psychological, and mechanical perspectives.
2. COACHING EXPERIENCE
Of course, knowledge is important, but you should also look for someone with experience. This may seem obvious, but there are several aspects of experience that you’ll want to consider:
• How long they’ve been coaching
Like any skill, the longer someone has been coaching, the more opportunity they have to learn new techniques, try different methods, and improve at their craft.
The longer they’ve been coaching, the more things they will have seen and done, and you can benefit from their accumulated knowledge.
• Variety of experience
A background working with a variety of runners can also be beneficial. A miler is going to train differently than an ultra runner. But there are tips and tricks that you can learn from coaching each that apply to the other.
When a coach is writing a training plan, it’s good to have as many different tools in their toolbox as possible — and that requires varied experiences.
• Experience with someone like you
As part of that variety of experience, you want to make sure they have experience coaching people like YOU! Someone may have coached an Olympic medalist, but is that going to be helpful if you’re getting back into running and looking to break 1:45 in the half marathon?
Finding a coach that has experience with the type of challenges you’ll face is vital for setting you up to succeed.
• Profession vs. Hobby
Many coaches do it as a hobby rather than a profession. That does not disqualify them from being a good coach for you. But someone who is a coach by profession may be more, well, professional — both in their coaching and in their dealings with you.
When you choose a coach, you want to make sure that they’re responsive when you have questions, provide your training in a timely manner, and are committed to your training. The last thing you want is a coach who decides they don’t have time to coach anymore or who you can’t get in contact with during the final build-up to your race.
3. APPROACH AND PERSONALITY
As with any relationship, it’s important to find a running coach that is a good match for you. You may need a coach that is very rah-rah and the cheerleading sort. Or maybe you need more low-key encouragement.
Athlete-centered coaching is key
One thing I think is vital is finding a coach who is “athlete-centered.” By that I mean, someone who wants to work around your life, your schedule, and your goals. It’s important to have an understanding of the expectations that both you and your coach have.
A coach should work around your life and goals
For most people, running is not the most important thing in their life — a running coach should support and work around you, not the other way around!
Finally, there is one thing about coaches that I think is NOT important at all … how fast they are.
If someone is a fast runner it’s tempting to think that they can teach you to be a fast runner, too. But the truth is that performance as a runner has very little to do with coaching ability. If you look at the best running coaches in the world, most were mediocre runners at best (Alberto Salazar is a notable exception).
In some cases, being a good natural athlete actually is a detriment to being a good coach. If things come naturally and you don’t have to work at it, study it, and really learn how to do it — it’s really hard to then teach someone else.
Because of that, it should be pretty far down your list of criteria when looking for a running coach. It’s much more important to have an experienced coach, with advanced credentials, who is a good fit for your personality, than someone with great PR’s.
About Coach Carl
Coach Carl is a USA Track & Field Level 2 endurance coach who works with runners of all ability levels to reach their goals. He has been featured in Runner’s World, Women’s Health, Men’s Fitness, and Competitor. For information on his coaching services, click here.