The Self-Coached Athlete’s Toolbox

While the practice of hiring a professional coach is becoming increasingly popular, the majority of triathletes are still the masters of their own destiny. In a recent web poll conducted by Triathlete, 62 percent of readers reported that they were self-coached.

Being in charge of your own training comes with its own set of challenges and pitfalls, but while it’s certainly true that there are many advantages to having a coach, you can self-coach to success if you have the right tools.

To inventory just what those tools are, I talked to two age group athletes who have figured out how to self-coach, achieve their goals, and stay sane in the process. Dave Schell of Johnstown, Colorado has almost entirely self-coached for the past six years to numerous top 20 age group finishes in 70.3 and Ironman; and Shane Niemeyer of Boulder, Colorado has self-coached to his first two Kona qualifications as well as his most recent age group win at 70.3 New Orleans. Both men race in the competitive 35-39 age group, juggle training with family and full-time jobs, and are also triathlon coaches themselves. (Disclosure: Schell is also my personal coach). Having that coaching perspective helps them to build in some safeguards against some common self-coaching pitfalls.

Here’s what you’ll want in your "toolbox" to self-coach effectively.

A pre-written training plan

Flexibility is one of the primary advantages of self-coaching, but in order to achieve your goals you'll need a long-term view, too. For those just starting out with self-coaching, Schell advises that you have some sort of roadmap for a 12- to 16-week plan towards your most important race. "Find a training plan for your distance, then tailor it your schedule and life. If it's on paper, you’re more likely to do it and stay accountable without a coach", he says.

Schell sketches out an annual training plan at the beginning of the season based on his first important race, starting to plan consistently swim, bike, and run workouts about six months out. At about two months out, he marks his calendar to shift to more race-like sessions. Then, he fills in the details of the plan by two-weeks blocks, similarly to how he plans his athlete’s schedules.

Niemeyer also sketches out an annual training plan for each season. As the run is his limiter, he plans a large run block at the beginning of each season, and then schedules key assessments of his training plan 10, eight, and six weeks out from an Ironman to stay on top of his form. Knowing his body is on a three-week training cycle, he marks recovery weeks and races. From that point, he fills in the detailed training plan on a weekly basis, spending about an hour a week planning. Because his plan is structured with a long-term vision but also based on regular assessment of what's happening with his body and his life schedule, he is able to be close to 100 percent compliant.

A training log and a comprehensive set of training data

One of the biggest challenges to a self-coached athlete is in looking at your own training objectively. The most powerful antidote to subjectivity is data: a diligently kept training log, and a comprehensive set of devices to record your training and racing.

Schell, who trains with pace on the swim, power and heart rate on the bike, and pace and heart rate on the run, says, "Having a training log is huge because it allows you to actually measure know if your training is working or not. Otherwise you're just relying on races, and with different courses and distances in triathlon, it's hard to see that improvement unless you're doing the same race year after year. That's a long time to wait to see if you've improved or not."

Data helps you to make informed decisions about when to rest and recover, as opposed to basing it purely off of feel or emotion. Like many driven athletes, Niemeyer can tend towards doing too much, and he leans on the numbers to make decisions on when he needs to back off. "I use power, for example—if I'm not able to hit the wattage I think I should for a given workout, I need to re-assess and re-evaluate things."

A strong sense of internal drive and motivation

Accountability is another hurdle for self-coached athletes, and it works both ways.

Some athletes struggle to stay motivated without someone looking over their shoulder. "The biggest thing [for self-coaching], if it's going to work, is that you have to be willing to suffer," says Schell. "A lot of people have a hard time suffering alone." But because the types who rely on external motivation are probably most likely to hire a coach over time, self-coached athletes more often need the discipline to hold back in training. As Niemeyer says, "some athletes need to be bridled", particularly when others are involved. While training partners can be a resource for motivation for a self-coached athlete, they can also be a liability. "If I roll out with someone else, there's the potential to get caught up in their workout," without accountability to a coach, he says. To prevent that, "I try to let my riding partners know my workout ahead of time, and if our workouts are somewhat similar sometimes we'll try to integrate them somehow." He also does most of his easy rides alone.

Continuing education

Without a coach, you'll have to educate yourself about training science and how to build a plan. In addition to triathlon training books, or dedicated swim, bike, or run training books, Niemeyer says, "Use some sort of evidence-based resources to keep abreast of the best available science." Niemeyer reads the Journal of Applied Physiology, the American College of Sports Medicine journals, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association journals. He also researches the training logs of top cyclists like Cadel Evans, and marathoners like recent Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezighi, for ideas of how world-class athletes organize their training. Finally, he attends clinics occasionally to get hands-on instruction and new information.

A consistently applied methodology

One last challenge to self-coached athletes is to avoid the "analysis paralysis", and ensuing anxiety, that can come from making your own training decisions. Both Schell and Niemeyer acknowledge that the real challenge isn't in finding the information, it's in deciding which information to follow. "In the beginning," Schell says, "you're just looking for any information you can find, and something like The Triathlete's Training Bible is a great resource. But over time, you start getting hit by too much information, and it all contradicts itself, talking about different methods and what the latest, newest thing is. It can be hard to filter through all of that. As a coach, I think that's one of the value-adds I bring to my clients—being that filter."

The key, he says, is to pick a method and stick to it consistently. "There's no secret, best method. Use your judgement, define your philosophy, and then just be consistent. The training principles are generally the same, it's just the way it's delivered, whether it's a simple workout or one that's so complicated you have to tape it to your top tube to finish it." To ensure he's continually incorporating new stressors into his own, Schell stays on top of his pace, heart rate, and power thresholds and simply ratchets up the goal paces or outputs in his workouts as he achieves new fitness thresholds. "The goal of triathlon in particular is to go as steady, fast, and long as you can. There are really only so many ways you can build that kind of fitness. So last week, for example, I set a new power threshold. Going forward I'll do the same workout, but it just gets harder. It's really just about repetition and progressive overload."

Niemeyer agrees. "One thing is for sure. If you talk to 10 different coaches, you'll get 10 different methodologies. But the best ones will be consistent in their application of training workload and rest."

Schell applies a keep it simple stupid training philosophy to himself and to his athletes. "You can drive yourself crazy thinking, ‘Should it be 4 x 6 intervals, or 6 x 4?" he says. "But the most important thing is just that you're consistent and you're accountable. Because in the end it doesn't matter if it's the most perfect workout in the world. It doesn't help you if you're not doing it."

[Photos: The matchless Timothy Carlson]