Last Updated on December 23, 2021 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
Training for an ultramarathon can be, for lack of better terms, lengthy, involved, and sometimes overwhelming (as both an ultrarunner and coach, I can vouch that occasional tears may be part of the process). So finding an ultramarathon coach that is not only qualified to help you reach your goals, but is a good fit for YOU personally, is important.
But with the ever growing popularity of ultramarathons has come an influx of ultramarathon coaches marketing their services to potential customers. While this is not inherently a bad thing, it is also important to recognize that not all coaches have the same experience, offer the same services, or may have the same coaching methods or philosophies.
Qualifications and abilities aside, what makes a coach ideal for one athlete, might not be the same for another. So how do you go about filtering through the sea of coaches to find one that’s right for you?
How to Choose an Ultramarathon Coach:
In part one of this three part series, 11 Pros and Cons of Hiring an Ultrarunning Coach, we identified all of the reasons hiring a coach – or may not- be helpful to you in navigate the ultra training process.
In this post (part two) we’ll cover the the steps you need to take in finding the right ultramarathon coach for you, as well as numerous other factors that will help you identify what YOU need from a coach.
And lastly, in part three, we examine whether or not using a generic, pre-written “cookie cutter” training plan might be a better option.
As you may already know I am an ultramarathon coach. My husband and I co-founded Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching in 2017, which has grown to a very successful team of 6 coaches since then. We have helped ultrarunners accomplish all sorts of ultra goals, from a first 50K to a first 100 mile buckle, PR’s to overall podium spots, and everything in between.
But I will be the first to tell you that not every coach is going to be the BEST coach for a given client…and that includes me.
While I pride myself in my knowledge and experience in the field, and have confidence in my ability to be a good coach, I fully recognize that my approach and personality is not for everyone. or, that the cost of my services is within budget, or the method in which I deliver workout assignments is preferred.
Point being, I assure you that in this post, I am not trying to sell you on my coaching services.
Rather, if you’ve decided that hiring an ultrarunning coach is the right decision for you, I hope that this in depth guide to choosing the right ultramarathon coach for you helps simplify the process of identifying and connecting with the perfect coach to help you meet your needs.
Step 1: Ensure the Coach is Qualified and Capable
In other words, make sure they are qualified – and able – to do what they claim to do.
I know, what an aggressive way to start this post! Alas, it’s the year 2021 (nearly 2022), and the internet – more specifically, social media – has both blessed us and cursed us by allowing anyone who wants a “presence” to have one. There are a million reasons why this is a wonderful thing, hell, it is the platform with which I’ve built both of my businesses.
However, it’s also resulted in an onslaught of people claiming to be experts, when they have no business doing so. Unfortunately, the fitness, health, and sport industry is woefully unregulated. As such, anyone can hop on Instagram or build a flashy website and claim to be a coach, without repercussion.
So, the first thing to do before considering hiring an ultramarathon coach is to vet their ability to actually do what they say they can do.
Do They Have Sport Specific Credentials?
Let me be the first to acknowledge that credentials alone do not make a good coach.
Coaching athletes is an artform. A coach has to have the ability to take their knowledge and education and apply it to real world situations. They must have the ability adapt and adjust training and programming as needed utilizing safe, effective, and scientifically proven methods.
Further, a good coach has to have the ability to reach, connect, motivate, and educate their clients. In short: just because someone is smart enough to pass certification courses, does not mean they necessarily have the practical skills or personality to coach.
But, all of that said, having credentials proves that the coach has, at bare minimum, the level of knowledge in the field required to pass the certifying exam (though I will certainly argue that some certifying courses/clinics are superior to others, and therefore that level or depth of knowledge may vary greatly).
More importantly, in my opinion, having the proper credentials displays a level of professionalism from the coach. It shows that they care enough about what they do to seek specific education in the field.
Do They Offer Services Other Than Run Programming?
If you are interested in more than JUST run programming, dig a little deeper to see what the potential coach offers, and more importantly, is qualified to offer. Examples include:
- Resistance/strength training (check to see if they a certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, exercise physiologist, etc. )
- Nutrition services (are they a registered dietician or do they hold advanced credentials in nutrition? More on this below).
- Sports psychology (do they hold credentials in the mental health industry?)
- Gait analysis (do they have training in analyzing the biomechanics of runners?)
It’s important to note that some coaches or coaching groups partner with other professionals who are qualified to do many of these extra services, and will refer clients out as needed.
Look Out for Professional Red Flags
As I mentioned earlier, the industry is relatively unregulated, and as such, many “professionals” in the fitness and sport industry act in a very unprofessional manner, and do things that are either out of their scope of practice, or even downright unethical. Some red flags to look out for include:
- Diagnosing injuries – unless they are a medical professional.
- Claims that they can “fix” any sort of injury.
- Prescribing or requiring any sort of day to day nutrition – unless they are a registered dietician or hold advanced credentials in nutrition. (Note: general suggestions, like “try eating half a bagel before your run if you are struggling with energy levels” is within a coach’s scope of practice. Saying things like “eat 100 grams of red meat within 30 minutes of your workout” or “take 5000 IU of vitamin D per day ” is out of the scope of practice for most – even for those with the majority of basic nutrition certifications.
- Making bold claims that you absolutely will finish a race / hit a certain race time /etc.
- Agreeing to train clients for unattainable goals. For example, agreeing to train a client for a 100 miler in only 12 weeks when the client has no ultra experience and a small running volume base.
- Suggesting a client ignore medical advice
A good, professional ultramarathon coach will not claim or promise that they can “do it all”, will stay within their scope of practice, and will not hesitate to refer a client out to the appropriate professional when necessary.
Knowledge vs. Personal Running Ability
It can be tempting to want to hire a local ultrarunning superstar, or an elite runner you follow on social media. But does this successful runner know how to coach others in addition to being a good runner themselves?
It’s important to remember that personal success as a runner does not necessarily equate to having the ability to replicate that success in clients.
So, just because a runner won a 100 mile ultra with an impressively fast finishing time doesn’t mean they are qualified (or even understands how) to teach others to do the same.
On the other hand, just because a coach hasn’t completed a specific distance or run a certain finishing time, doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t qualified to successfully help another runner reach those goals.
Coaching abilities do not rely directly on running abilities, and vice versa.
Specific Experience (both as a coach and as a runner)
The “scope of practice” versus “scope of knowledge” conundrum: just because you are qualified to do something, doesn’t always mean that you have the knowledge to do that something correctly.
Here’s an example: I am a certified exercise physiologist. I have worked in and out of gyms for the last 11+ years. I have trained countless clients in the weight room. If someone came to me tomorrow asking me if I would train them to compete in a bodybuilding contest I would say no.
And it’s not because I’m not QUALIFIED to train them – I absolutely do have the credentials saying that this sort of training is within my scope of practice. However, I lack the specific knowledge of the nuances of bodybuilding specific training, as well as the endless experience or knowledge of everything else that goes into body building (diet, prep, those crazy tans!) Therefore, would be doing that client a disservice by trying to coach them.
The same goes for the running world.
A very competent, very successful coach who focuses on training half and full marathon runners and has not run further than 26.2 miles at once themselves may not know the first thing about ultramarathon training methodology. Nor would they know, without experience, what it’s like to push through a low period at mile 80 of a 100 miler, at 3 am in the morning, when all you want to do is lay down in the trail and go to sleep.
(That’s where those aforementioned potential tears may show up, incase you were wondering).
The same goes for a strength and conditioning coach who doesn’t run, or a triathlon coach who once ran a 50K on paved roads. Are they qualified? Yes. Do they have the appropriate working knowledge? Probably not.
Step 2: Identifying What Coaching Styles Matter to You
A lesson I learned quickly early on in my running career is that not every coach / client fit is going to be a GOOD fit.
Early on, when I decided to give triathlons a try, I thought it would be a good idea to hire a coach. While very experienced, knowledge, and successful (his clients had achieved some impressive accomplishments under his watch), his communication style and approach was brash, and that left me feeling unnecessarily intimidated.
If I would question a workout, he’d simply tell me to “trust him, he knew what he was doing” (meanwhile, at the time I was pursuing a degree in exercise physiology, and so my questioning was out of curiosity rather than being accusatory). If I had to miss a workout because full time college, raising two babies, and a nightly job bartending took precedence, I was met with zero leniency.
While the latter was certainly my fault, I realized quite quickly that what I needed from a coach, and what this particular coach offered, were not a good fit.
Soon thereafter I began my career in the fitness industry, first as a personal trainer and later as an ultramarathon coach myself. That’s when I began to realize from the view point of the professional, rather than the client this time, that again, not every coach / client fit is going to be a GOOD fit.
And that’s OK. It is not necessarily a reflection of the ability of the coach or the client, but rather, that the coaching style or offerings do not necessarily meet the needs of the client.
Like many things in life, even the very specific niche of ultramarathon coaching has variances. While some coaches may offer broad services to a wide variety of athletes, others may focus on working with clients from specific populations, or with very specific needs.
Do you have a specific area of focus that matters to you?
For example, if you are a beginner ultrarunner, you may not necessarily want to (or want to pay for) a coach who works almost exclusively with elite athletes and may prefer the approach of a coach who works mostly with beginners.
If you are gunning for a brutal mountain100 miler with a ton of vertical gain and loss, hiring a coach who specializes in timed track races (fast and flat) isn’t ideal.
If you’re a busy parent who is constantly juggling “life”, you may want to work with a coach who specializes in just that…helping athletes balance the demands of ultramarathon training with the realities of life.
If you are pregnant, recently post-partum, or anticipating pregnancy in the future, you may want to work with a coach who has continuing education in training pregnant or post-partum clients.
Finding a coach that specializes in your needs will help you get the most out of your coaching-client relationship.
One on One Coaching?
Do you prefer to work exclusively with one single coach? Or is a team approach acceptable to you? If considering a coaching group that employs many coaches, be sure to ask if you will be working exclusively with one coach or if you will be working with multiple coaches.
Training Philosophy / Coaching Approach:
Does a certain philosophy or approach matter specifically to you? How does a coach approach their training from a methodology standpoint?
You may see many coaches cite that they follow “science based” or “evidence based” coaching. And in my opinion – all coaches should. Methods without proven, peer-reviewed evidence showing that they are safe and effective should be avoided.
But, even the “science based” training methods can vary. Some coaches prefer to train using heart rate zones . Others prescribe paces, or rate of perceived exertion (RPE). Some coaches strictly follow the methods of other professionals, such as Dr. Phil Maffetone (MAF method), Jack Daniels running formula, Jason Koop/UESCA’s approach, etc.
Hopefully though, a coach is able to utilize all of the above and more to train an athlete based on their needs.
Do you want an ultramarathon coach with a hard-ass, drill sergeant, “no excuses” type of approach? Or do you want a coach that completely understands that an occasional missed workout because you had a frustrating day, and just wanted to relax at home after work instead?
Do you want a coach you can good-naturedly joke with (while remaining professional, of course) or do you prefer a very focused, “business only” approach?
Do you want a coach that will be more than happy to explain the rational and/or exercise science behind your workouts, versus a “just trust the process and do the workout” kind of coach?
None of these examples are right OR wrong (well, other than the “don’t question it/just do it” approach). The type of motivation that works for an athlete can vary wildly from person to person. And further, a skilled coach will know how and when to shift from “drill sergeant” to “fun camp counselor” in appropriate situations and with certain clients.
Pro Tip: What you don’t want is a coach who is an enabler or a pushover. Remember that you are hiring a coach for a very specific reason: to give you professional guidance to help you best reach your goals. It would be unethical for a coach to not point out repeated behavior that is hindering your training. If you are looking for a coach who lets you do what you want whenever you want in regards to your running, even to the detriment of your race goal, you may want to second guess your reasons for wanting to work with a coach in the first place.
Level and Type of Communication Desired
Do you want a coach who checks in with you multiple times a week, or are you content with a once a week check in?
Do you prefer a weekly or monthly phone call, or is frequent communication through emails and workout comments adequate?
Again, there is no right or wrong here. In my experience, some clients want and need frequent check ins, where others are pretty self sufficient, and a once a week check in is satisfactory.
The important thing to remember is that you find a coach who is comfortable with and offers up YOUR desired level of communication. As long as your expectations are realistic (i.e. don’t text them at 11 pm and expect an immediate response), you should never feel like a bother or a hassle to your coach.
On the other hand, if your coach requires a weekly video call check in, and video calls either aren’t your thing, or you have other factors making these meetings impossible, perhaps that isn’t the best ultrmarathon coach for you.
Step 3: Look at the Fine Print of Coaching Packages
Not all coaches or coaching teams offer the exact same services. Further, a single coach may offer various coaching packages with different tiers of coaching. It’s important to know what you are getting – and what you are NOT getting – when deciding to work with a coach.
In-Person or Virtual?
Will you be meeting with this coach in person or virtually? If they live near you and in-person is an option, how many in person coaching sessions will you receive?
Communication Type and Frequency:
We just talked about this above, but be sure get an exact answer. How often do you expect to hear from this coach? How often can you reach out to the coach? And through what means can you reach out to them? Email? Phone call? Text?
While most coaches offer unlimited communication in regards to answering questions or comments, not all coaches offer up unlimited phone or video chats. And these may vary based on the package you choose.
Communication Response Time:
If you send a coach a question, comment, or concern, how soon can you anticipate to hear back from them?
Pro Tip: be sure to clarify with your potential coach their preferred method of communication for the fastest responses. I let my clients know that if they need an immediate answer, a direct email is best. If they send me a message as a workout comment through their training platform, there is a good possibility there may be a delay in the comment notification. If the send me a direct message through my personal social media profiles like Instagram or Facebook, there’s a good chance I might not check my messages in time.
Method & Frequency of Workout Delivery:
How will your coach let you know what workouts you need to do, and when will they do it? Will your coach use an endurance training platform, like Training Peaks or Final Surge? Will you be given one week at a time? Two? A full month or mesocycle?
Is there an “app” available for smart phones?
This may vary based on both the services offered, the coach’s preference, or even the needs of you, the client.
More is not necessarily better, especially if the coach anticipates needing to make multiple adjustments to the plan based on the clients progression and needs.
Frequency of Training Plan Analysis and Updates:
Will your coach be looking at your completed workouts daily, weekly, or monthly? (And HOW will they be able to see your completed workouts? This goes along with the method of delivery mentioned above). How frequently will they adjust your plan, based on both your progress or your needs (for example, you found out you have to work next weekend and won’t have time for a long run, so need to adjust your plan accordingly). Again, this may vary based on the packages and level of services offered.
The cost for ultramarathon coaching varies wildly. I’ve seen everything from $25 a month for group coaching, to $1,295+/month for premier coaching from some of the top coaches in the world.
In general, one on one individualized ultramarathon coaching currently seems to average between $100-$150/month, though there are certainly outliers.
Remember, in general, you get what you pay for. It makes sense that a coach who charges nearly $1300 a month will be on call for their clients via text or phone at all times. The same cannot be said for a client in a $25/month group coaching setting. That’s not to say that one client is more important than the other, but rather that just like in any other industry, professionals are paid for their time.
Is there an Upfront Cost or Minimum Commitment?
Some coaches or coaching groups may require start up administration fees, as well as an upfront or minimum monthly commitment. Be sure you understand what is required from you, and also what sort of pro-rated refund will be offered (if any) in a case of injury or other circumstance where you may have to stop training.
Step 4: Read Current or Past Client testimonials
On paper (or, in reality: on the internet) a coach may look amazing. But, nothing beats actual reviews from other runners who have personally worked with that coach.
Read client testimonials and reviews. Reach out to the running community to see if anyone is willing to share their experiences. Do not be afraid to ask more specific questions, other than “would you recommend them?”. If you have important specifics that matter to you in an ultramarathon coach, ask current or former clients about those specifics.
Step 5: Interview Your Potential Ultramarathon Coaches
Interview your potential coaches in whatever format you are most comfortable with. Whether it be over email, or requesting a phone call or zoom meeting. Do not be afraid to reach out to multiple coaches until you find one that feels like the right fit for you.
While I mentioned above that “time is money”, coaches should offer some sort of free consultation, to not only let you ask questions, but for the coach to decide if they are able to help you reach your goals, and if you are a good fit for their services as well.
Remember, the coaching relationship goes both ways! If an ultramarathon coach politely tells you that they cannot help you, do not get frustrated or angry. If anything, admission that your needs are beyond their scope of practice, knowledge, or comfort level is an incredibly professional response.
Step 6: Choose Your Coach!
Now it’s time to choose your coach! While I’ve gone into great detail in this post (brevity is not my strong suit, which is probably while I enjoy running 100 milers), the bottom line is that what qualities and offerings in a coach matter most to YOU is very individual.
Listen to your gut instincts on this one. Finding someone who believes in you and will support along your ultramarathon journey matters far more than simply choosing a well known coach or coaching group simply to say you are “coached by them”. (Of course, that’s not to insinuate that they won’t be a good fit!)
Final Thoughts on Finding an Ultra Coach:
Working with an ultramarathon coach involves building a relationship between you and the coach. As with any relationship in life, it takes time to build that trust and connection.
Approach the early stages with patience, but at the same time, do not be afraid to advocate for what you need or what you hoped to get out of working with a coach (remembering, of course, that things like “seeing results” does take time).
Ready for part three of this series? Head on over to “Free Ultramarathon Training Plans: Are They Worth It?” to learn more about the pros and cons of generic/static training plans.
For more information specifically on working with myself or Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, please visit our website: www.hartendurancecoaching.com