Taking It to the Next Level

Fitness coaching options for every ambition.

Who says that pro athletes are the only ones who deserve private coaching? Today there are more coaching alternatives than ever – and they’re no longer an exclusive resource for elite athletes. Whether your goal is to finish your first marathon in four hours, better your time in an Olympic-distance triathlon or become a CAT-1 cyclist, coaching programs abound for the regular Joes and Jills of the world.

Getting expert advice and support can be a powerful tool in achieving the next level of performance in your favorite sport, but not every coaching method fits every athlete. When choosing a program, it’s important to consider your goals, personality, motivation level and schedule.

E-Coaching

The essentials: Many of the best coaches in the world offer services through Web-based programs, emails, podcasts and follow-up phone calls, allowing people to train when and where they want.

One of the most successful Web-based programs is Carmichael Training Systems (CTS), founded by former professional cyclist Chris Carmichael, who has coached Lance Armstrong for more than 15 years. “Lance traveled a lot for racing and training,” Carmichael says. “So about 90 percent of our interaction was by phone or email, and it worked. After his first Tour de France victory, I thought, ‘Why can’t I offer this type of coaching to everyone, regardless of their geographical location?'”

Athletes who sign on with CTS fill out a detailed questionnaire and complete an intense eight- to 10-minute field test in their sport, which allows a remote coach to gauge fitness levels and customize a training plan. Throughout the training period, data from heart-rate monitors and power meters (for cycling), plus feedback from the clients, help coaches analyze progress and tweak training schedules as needed. Two-way communication is important, so if the online coach you hire doesn’t seek out personal performance data to produce your training plan or isn’t available to answer questions, consider looking elsewhere.

The frequency of communication for online coaching programs depends on the coach you hire and often the training package you choose. For instance, at CTS, the level of communication increases with price – ranging from $39 to $1,500 a month.

The appeal: If you’re someone with an unpredictable schedule, who works long hours or travels a lot, online coaching allows you the flexibility to work out at your own convenience. E-coaching also provides an easy way to connect with a coach who lives far away.

The challenge: Online coaching isn’t for the wishy-washy. It takes a high level of honesty and built-in dedication to complete the workouts unsupervised and unassisted. In other words, you have to want it.

The hunt: An online search for “online coaches” or “e-coaches,” plus your sport (for example, “triathlon,” “bike” or “swim”), will bring up a plethora of Web-based coaching programs. You can also ask fellow athletes for recommendations.

One-on-One Essentials

The essentials: One-on-one coaching allows for face time with the expert. You can hire a coach to improve something specific, say, your freestyle stroke, which might require only a few sessions together. Or, you can work with a coach long term, in which case he or she will provide a training plan and meet with you for certain workouts.

Having this extra supervision and immediate feedback can build confidence. Not only can an expert eyewitness encourage you when you’re frustrated, he or she can also modify your workout when necessary.

“A coach won’t know your potential without actually seeing how close you are,” says Matt Hess, a Palm Harbor, Fla.–based coach who works with competitive swimmers and triathletes. And, he adds, up close, a coach can observe a decrease in performance, lack of energy or other symptoms of overtraining. A local coach can also focus on correcting form when you’re fatigued.

A long-term local coach typically employs online and telephone communication in between personal sessions.

The appeal: Hiring a local coach is a good option for people who prefer personal instruction and want supervision to correct or improve technique. Having a coach witness your workout can provide an extra helping of motivation and a high level of accountability.

The challenge: Where you live could limit your options for finding a suitable coach for your specific needs. Cost can also be a deterrent – one-on-one coaching typically runs anywhere from $50 to $100 an hour.

The hunt: Many governing bodies of various sports list coaches on their Web sites (try www.usatriathlon.org, www.usacycling.org or www.usms.org, for instance). Local clubs often enlist the help of coaches and can be a good resource to find one, as well.

Group Training

The essentials: Group training can be as informal as a weekly neighborhood run or as extensive as a 100-mile bike ride. Group workouts tend to have a leader, whether it’s a fellow athlete who takes charge or a certified coach who provides a training program.

Group training is a constructive way for most athletes to meet their goals, and it’s often an ancillary form of training for those who are also coached privately. It provides a social element, which can be important for those who have little time to interact with people outside of work and competition, and it offers a level of support that’s hard to come by on solo workouts.

Tom Ryan started the Dallas Athletes in 2001 to provide group-training opportunities to help people meet their fitness goals and sustain their enthusiasm. A 20-year triathlon veteran, Ryan began sharing his knowledge in a workshop for beginner triathletes. Once the workshop ended, however, athletes wanted to continue meeting to train and support each other. What began with four members is now a 400-plus-member organization that offers some 30 group-training options a week for swimming, cycling, running and triathlon.

He says that what has made his program successful are the sorts of things people should look for in a group-training program, namely: reliability, a high volume of workouts so that athletes can fit training in around their personal and professional obligations, a coaching team that can cater to different levels of ability and speed, and a high level of energy and enthusiasm to sustain motivation.

The appeal: You don’t have to be a people person to prefer training in numbers. Many athletes like the synergy and accountability found in group workouts. Those who tend to hold back on their own will benefit from the friendly competition of a group dynamic.

The challenge: Some people struggle to schedule fitness into their already-busy lives, and group workouts, often at set times, require participants to find a way to make it work.

The hunt: Some popular group-training options include United States Masters Swimming, which offers a national network of coached group-swim workouts, and Team in Training, a fundraising program through the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society that helps people train for marathons, triathlons and cycling events (www.teamintraining.org). Many better health clubs and specialty sports stores offer group workouts or can refer athletes to local clubs, teams and programs.

Kara Douglass Thom is a frequent contributor to Experience Life.

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