How to Choose the Right Triathlon Coach for You

Head Coach Chris Bagg working with CBCG athlete Devin Salinas at our 2017 Bend Training camp

Head Coach Chris Bagg working with CBCG athlete Devin Salinas at our 2017 Bend Training camp

by CBCG Partner Coach Molly Balfe

So you’re ready for a coach. You’re committed to taking your triathlon training to the next level, and you’re cognizant that expert guidance and accountability is the best way to get there. Hiring a coach provides you with an ally and guide who can help you achieve your goals, manage your time, and take the guesswork out of your training, but the complex worlds of triathlon training, racing, gear, and nutrition can be overwhelming for new (and seasoned) athletes. For the self-motivated athlete, there is no shortage of info available online and in print, but you will quickly find that not only are there are several different schools of thought, but many of those theories directly contradict each other!

How should you proceed? If navigating the online options for coaching can be overwhelming, then how could you even begin to search specifically for the right person with whom you will forge a meaningful relationship? How do you find a good match? What is a good match?A cheerleader or a drill sergeant? Someone who pushes you or reins you in, or both? Whether you’re looking for someone to help you out for a few months as you find your bearings or are set on finding a long-term coach to help you continually improve, it can be tough to begin this process.

#CBCGcoach Molly Balfe working with camper Sarah Barkley at our 2017 Bend Training Camp

#CBCGcoach Molly Balfe working with camper Sarah Barkley at our 2017 Bend Training Camp

We at the Chris Bagg Coaching Group are passionate about the coach-athlete relationship. We love this sport, and we want you to find an ideal coach who doesn’t just have that love in common, but whose style and approach creates the best rapport to empower you to be the fastest, happiest, and healthiest you want to be. To help you along your way, we compiled a list of suggestions that we think will help you identify a qualified coach who is the right match for you.

Dive in. The first thing we recommend is to stop second-guessing your desire to hire a coach. We are inundated with disclaimers from athletes about not being fast enough, young enough, fit enough, strong enough, or whatever enough to take their training seriously. In all honesty, very few coaches make their living working with elite athletes. Most coaches were drawn to this profession because they are passionate about the sport and want to support athletes as they work towards their goals. Athletes participate in triathletes for a myriad of great reasons; they want to stay fit, get healthy, challenge themselves, and create a healthy lifestyle. These are all serious reasons, and we take your commitment seriously whether you are looking for podia or finish lines.

When you have made the decision to hire a coach, begin with a self-assessment. Define your reasons for seeking assistance so you can articulate them to the coaches you meet with. Here are a few recommendations to help you clarify what you are hoping to get from your coach: 

Know your limiters. Where do you struggle the most? If you aren’t sure, take a look at your recent race results and where you ranked in the swim, bike, and run (and while you’re at it, check out those transitions!). If you had the fastest bike split in your age group, but you ranked 30th in the swim, your coach may well want to focus on what is happening in the water. If there are big improvements to be made, it may help to spend a few weeks or months focusing on one sport, as it is extremely difficult to make considerable gains in all three sports at the same time. Many coaches use the “off” season to spend targeted time on the sport that holds an athlete back. This way, as the race season approaches, the plan can focus more on intensity and volume across all of your training.

Identify your short- and long-term goals. How will you know that your season was a success? Where do you want your training to be in five years? You and your coach need to be on the same page about where your training is headed, so tell them what your goals are and ask for their feedback about whether they think your goals are achievable. If your goal is to complete a race, you may only need a season of training to get there. However, improvements take time (and the faster you become, the harder those minutes and seconds will come by). Most coaches are looking for athletes who are in it for the long haul and hoping to get stronger and faster each year. The longer we work with you, the more we know about your specific needs and how you respond to training. Short-term goals can be extremely motivating, but should ultimately move you toward where you hope to be in the long-term.

The Author, Molly Balfe, in her Element, Working with Athletes on Swim Technique

The Author, Molly Balfe, in her Element, Working with Athletes on Swim Technique

Consider your capacity. Think about how much time you have to devote to training. We all know that life gets in the way of training sometimes, but it is helpful to be aware of whether an athlete’s job requires frequent travel or if they have other obligations (family, other hobbies, getting the band back together) that will determine their available time for training. Especially for longer races, the weekend time commitment can be significant, so make sure that you have the support of the people in your life. If you do travel frequently, you should expect to integrate your workouts into your travel schedule so your training isn’t derailed. If your schedule is typically flexible, but you know you have a few busy weeks each year, make sure you communicate that in advance so your coach can design your plan with these periods in mind. Every coach-athlete dynamic is different, so after you have determined your needs, we recommend embarking upon your search by taking into account the following: 

1.  Strengths – Make sure that the coach you choose has the sport-specific knowledge to help you improve on your limiters. If you are one of the many triathletes who struggles with their swim, make sure you choose a coach who has a history of helping swimmers become more competent in the water. If you know nutrition is holding you back, make sure the coach you select can provide you with the information and feedback you require to help you manage your diet and race needs. Most coaches can provide some level of guidance in each of the three sports, but if you are hoping for specific improvement, make sure you find someone with specific expertise. Likewise, if you already have a long history in one of the three sports, make sure you find someone who is able to provide you with workouts and training that will match your ability and experience.

2.  Availability – How often do you need/want/expect feedback? Are you looking for a static plan with little or no direction or do you want to be able to communicate directly with your coach about a schedule that is tailored specifically for you? Regular email and/or phone communication allows coaches to make real time decisions based on how their athletes are responding to training. In person meetings are rare, and are typically more expensive (especially if they involve evaluating your technique, which is generally a consultation and comes with an additional fee). How frequently you hear from your coach should be explicitly agreed upon by the coach and athlete. The amount of access you have to your coach varies considerably - be clear about what you expect and what your coach is offering.

3.  Style – Are you looking for a cheerleader? Someone to tell you to get off your butt and stop making excuses? Some combination of the two? Know what keeps you motivated and look for someone who can work with you in a way that you find motivating and productive. If possible, talk to some of their former or current athletes to find out more about their experience. If a coach has a reputation for being hard on athletes and you know you need a little fear to keep you motivated, this could be a great match! However, if you know you tend avoid conflict, you may well end up hiding from this coach so you don’t get in trouble. This is not an effective form of training, and does not benefit you. Find someone who works with you in a way that will best ensure your success.

4.  Experience/Education – Make sure your goals align with your coach’s interests and expertise. If you are new to the sport, ask whether a coach has worked with beginners. If you are hoping to qualify for Kona or get your pro card, make sure your coach has a specific plan to help get you there. If you are hoping to balance a busy schedule while getting fit and having fun, choose someone who knows how to be flexible and supportive. Great coaches never stop learning about the sport – they want to be aware of the best new techniques and any worrying trends that are emerging in triathlon. Ask your coach how they stay sharp and increase their sport-specific knowledge. Many coaches hold certifications in the sport; these do not mean that they are more skilled than other coaches who do not, but it does guarantee a baseline level of knowledge.

5.  Cost – There is a lot of variation in coaching fees. In general, coaches who are the most experienced and accessible (meaning how often you can contact them) are also the most expensive. These are typically career coaches who give a good percentage of their time and energy to their coaching business. They work with several athletes and tend to have a great deal of experience. The most economical choice is typically buying a static training plan, but you lose the benefit of a coach’s guidance. When making decisions about cost, be honest with yourself about how much you can afford and how your investment aligns with your goals.

6.  Location – If you want to be part of a triathlon team or are hoping for one-on-one evaluations, it can be helpful to look for a coach that is nearby. However, with the constant evolution of new internet-based evaluation tools and techniques, this may less critical. Many coaches are using video analysis to determine where their athletes can make improvements. Phone and Skype communication can also help bridge the geographical gap between you and your coach. If there is someone who you really want to work with, location can often be overcome.

Finally, we maintain that the absolute best way to know whether a coach is right for you is to talk to them. Much like finding the best house, car, bike, or trainers, sometimes if you simply feel like you click, and you like what they have to say about their style, that should indicate that you will work well together. Remember that you are accountable for at least 50% of the relationship between you and your coach. If something is missing, or if you feel like you need additional help in a specific area, make sure you ask for it clearly. Coaches are highly invested in their athletes’ success, and we want to see you happily and healthily participating in this sport for years to come.

The athletes at the Chris Bagg Coaching Group are all bound by the same goal: to become faster, happier, healthier people. It's an ethos shared by all the coaches at CBCG, and nicely wrapped up in our motto: Go Fast, Have Fun, Be Nice. We think that keeping these three principles in sight at all time lead to strong performances and happier lives.

We are taking new athletes! Our roster of experienced coaches is ready to form a relationship with you, and help you get better, faster, happier, and healthier for your next training and racing season, so meet the coaches , learn how it works, and become a member of the CBCG family, if, and only if, we’re right for you