Are Ultra Marathon Running Coaches a Sham?

Shacky and I are engaged in an interesting debate today that I’d love to hear your opinion. It was provoked by an article by Geoff Roes, posted this morning. You can see the full text here:

Read: 100 Mile Ingrigue: Embracing the Unknown

Roes’ argument is that there is not currently, and may never be, a training plan for 100-mile races. In his opinion, the 100 experience is so unique to the individual, that it’s almost impossible to be guided with a training plan of any sort. Basically: Just go out, get the miles in, and do it.

I liked his way of thinking and very much agreed. It also reminded me of this other great post I read this morning, essentially saying the same thing in relation to barefoot running.

Read: Barefoot Running: TMI Problem

In the comments section of the article, Roes was asked about the value of an ultra marathon running coach. His response was:

I don’t think anyone needs a coach to reach their potential for running 100 miles, and in many cases I think aspiring 100-mile runners are held back by having a coach.

That said, I do think there are several basic things one needs to learn before they have the tools to be able to find what works best for them. In most cases, having a coach will be extremely helpful in getting you more quickly to the point of being able to figure your own thing out, but once you’re to that point I think you’ll just be holding yourself back if you continue to rely too strictly on the guidance of someone else.

It is worth noting though that I don’t think these same thoughts apply to shorter distances, and there are very few runners out there who are focused solely on the 100+ mile distances.

For most ultrarunners, I think it makes perfect sense to have a coach, but to be very aware that what your coach is having you do probably applies a lot more to shorter ultras than it does to 100s.

I found this intriguing but also a little confusing. What makes the 100 so different compared to a 100K or 50 miler? I do understand the difference in logistics (ie. sleep, etc), but wouldn’t the same basic “tools” apply?

I’ve only completed one 100-miler and my expertise on this topic is so low, it’s laughable. But I do love the 100 distance and I’m insatiably curious about it. I’ve never had a running coach for any ultra, so I can’t speak to their value either way.

My gut instinct is to think that an ultra running coach has little to offer for ANY distance. I would think that all ultra experiences are unique and therefore difficult to coach?

If that’s not true—if there truly is value in coaching a shorter ultra distance, why not coach 100 miles?

In my limited experience, I consider it an all-or-nothing type of deal. Either coaches are useful for all ultras, or they aren’t. Am I wrong?

Have you ever had an ultra running coach? What sorts of benefits do these coaches offer?

Is a coach perhaps only useful for competitive ultra marathon runners, whereas people who want to “just finish” don’t need to invest in a coach?

Would Shacky and I benefit from a coach (not competitive, but want to race a lot more 100s)?

Is this like the barefoot running coach debate all over again?

Read: Barefoot Running Coach Certification: Why It’s a Bad Idea

What are your thoughts/experience?


My Final Thoughts on 100 Miles

How to Train for Your First Ultra Marathon

My New Trail Running Life

12 responses

  1. Very interesting post! I don’t feel like a coach would offer much in the ultra arena, but what the heck do I know? I feel like you can find everything you need in books and from other experienced ultra-marathoners.

  2. Well, I guess in 6 months I could answer this question. I just went and hired Ian Sharman to coach me thru to my first 100k in October. I have had a running coach who helped being me thru the marathon and has been a great shoulder to lean on and provide guidance. However I felt there is a huge disconnect between trying to competitive doing shorter distances and doing the Ultras. There are things that my coach hadnt had the experience to share. I think finding a coach who is open and not rigid to helping you push, plan adjust and adapt to what you will be going thru is key to newcomers to the distance. I went with someone who’s been successful because they can see what I may be unable to see.

  3. The problem here is volume and cash. There is not enough ultra runners to give feed back on good coaches and like any other sport once a good coach is recognized then cash becomes an issue because it gets really really expensive. I’m always amazed at how professional athletes recover so quickly from injuries and It takes me months…Oh its because i dont have the sponsorship and cash for good support to help me heal and stay on top of the game. Of course coaches are a good idea at any sport, just not all are good and not everybody can afford them.

  4. Coaching is much more than making sure someone follows a training plan. So the question “Is a coach helpful for an ultra?” is different than “Is a training plan helpful for an ultra?”. Of course, the answers to these questions probably are specific to the coach/training plan and individual.
    I’m not sure a coach or rigid training plan would be helpful. However, I could see it being beneficial at putting your mind at ease and giving you confidence as you toe the line.

  5. If the goal is to improve, get faster, stronger – everybody no matter where in a field would benefit from a coach. Or at least some structure. The benefits of simply running more have a curve of improving for some time when you start, and then it’s stuck. The difference between a training plan off internet (or book) and a coach is the accountability. Not everyone needs it. That’s why I think coach’s services are way too expensive, because in a big scheme runners pay for someone to answer to of whether or not they did something that pushed them more than a strolling jog. Anybody who’d tell you they will give you the tricks you didn’t know will lie. Training for an ultra is similar to any marathon training, just a couple more miles here and there and specificity if a mountain race involved. No brain surgery. However, if someone can’t stick to something and yest still wants to go and finish a 50 or a 100 in good standing, one may get help from a coach. Just like a personal trainer or a yoga instructor. It’s about motivation and accountability.

  6. I agree with Olga: after DNF-ing at Wasatch 100 twice, I wasn’t sure that I could ever finish it. My “training plan” was to go out and run as much as possible all the time, with very little structure. After hiring Ian Torrence last summer for 4 months (and myself having established an already strong platform to start training on… I had the miles, I just didn’t have the structure) I finished my first Wasatch 100.

    With his guidance, I felt stronger throughout the summer and avoided over-training. I missed a total of 2 or 3 workouts the entire summer, mainly because I had someone to answer to. Without a coach, if I didn’t feel like running that day, or didn’t feel like doing hills, or didn’t feel like doing intervals (I had never trained with doing intervals before) I would not have done them. Having a coach made me not only responsible to the training plan that Ian set up for me, but also made me more responsible for myself.

    I came up with my own nutrition plan over the years that works for me. He didn’t have anything to do with that. But he did lend me the consistency to my training weeks and months that I desperately needed. I’m certain that I couldn’t have done it without him. And now, I have the basis to run more 100s, and the confidence in myself that I can do it again, successfully, without overtraining.

    • and honestly to address “RC”‘s reference to “cash”: I thought it was worth every penny that I paid to McMillan Running. Yeah, it was expensive ($200/month) for online coaching, but the feedback that I got was quick and helpful. It was short-term, and a good investment as far as I am concerned, because now I have the tools to do it for myself.

  7. Although I acknowledge there are some seriously competitive ultrarunners out there, I think most ultrarunners are racing for fun and personal accomplishment. There is a very different vibe at an ultra compared to a road race – where else would you find a racer who is happy to stop and take a picture of you in the middle of the race? Or offer you food or electrolytes and walk with you for a while if you don’t look so great? I don’t really need a coach to teach me how to enjoy myself on the trail; and I’m not sure there’s a coach out there who could have prepared me for the mental toughness I’ve needed to face the difficulties I’ve encountered and overcome on a hard run. Maybe if I was more talented and had the ability to be an elite runner, I would feel the need for a coach. As it stands, I like finding my own way, making my own mistakes, learning from my fellow runners, and worrying more about if I brought enough beer to share than my finish time.

  8. From my experience running at the university level, my best coach was not the one with the elaborate plans or ridiculously complex workouts. Mostly we did out-and-backs on grass for speedwork, and one long run on every weekend. The rest was just easy running at whatever pace felt best. However, he was an excellent coach because of what he did helping us with our recovery. He made us do yoga for athletes 2-3 times a week. He made sure we got a massage once a week. He made us do abs after every easy run. He scheduled one barefoot running session each week (strides on a turf field). He made us eat or drink something sugary right after every intense workout because studies showed it improved recovery time. He reminded us to constantly wash our hands and keep our hands away from our faces as we got closer to a key race. He didn’t try to stop us from drinking but insisted we go out early so that we got a good night’s sleep. I achieved all my 10-k and shorter pb’s during one 16 month period where I didn’t get a cold or an injury, and never had to miss more than 1 day of training in a row for any reason. I think coaches can have a huge role to play at any level (including 100 miles); for competitve athletes the issue is not so much designing workouts as it is speeding up the recovery process.

  9. I’ve been a running coach for 16 years and I think the keys to training someone for a 100 miler would be feedback and change. As a coach I would focus on strengthening them and making sure they had the mechanics as well as an understanding of racing but when it came to the plan that would have to be fluid. Giving someone a set plan for something like a 100 just isnt practical due to all the variables that come with so much distance. I think a coach could be helpful for any distance and any runner but for the 100 milers it’s almost more a partnership. That’s not to say that everyone needs a coach because they obviously don’t but having a source for consistent advice and to have someone there to help you through the journey can be valuable.

  10. oy. i was just talking about this with someone who came seeking coaching advice for a first 50. i do think a coach can help someone who has never run a long distance before, not even a marathon. but, most ultrarunners come from the marathon, so no – a coach is not neccesary and probably a hindrance. (this is coming from a coach!) i have a friend who races every weekend of the year, all distances and surfaces. literally. sometimes 3 races in a weekend. but he never trains or runs at all during the week. i have friends who won’t do more than 2 twenty mile runs back to back before a 100- 200 mile race. i have friends who run ultras on 40 mile weeks, and friends who run ultras on 120 mile weeks. i know people who train for time on their feet. others just for miles. some run up and down hills with a truck tire chained to their waist. some just do what they can when they can. some are regimented and watch the clock for those perfectly timed and paced walk breaks, bring a tackle box with perfectly arranged supplies, and stress about their outfit 2 weeks in advance. and other friends who show up, grab a bagel and just go by feel.

    i have done almost all of these things!

    what i know is that most ultrarunners will try everything once. and as our goals change, our approach may change. at first i just wanted to finish. then i wanted to do well. now i just want to have fun and as many new experiences as i can. perhaps it’ll change again. but all of these phases made me train differently.

    in my experience i think a coach can be valuable to anyone who wants to be a serious competitive runner. BUT they will require you not to over-race. that means less races per year (3-4 ultras or LESS), and perhaps to be very strict about diet and cross training. the entire enterprise is counter to what most ultrarunners want – go with the flow, do lots of races, have lots of adventures, eat pizza, and not worry. i say – if you have ZERo experience and it’s your first race, or you are actually trying to win or make money – get a coach. otherwise – work it out for yourself.

  11. also – damn. 100 miles breaks all the friggin rules. just do what you can and survive it – there is no way for the average person to adequately train to run 100 miles. you do yer best and cross your fingers.

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