The Art of Coaching

Art palette and brushes with a lot of colors

   At a recent panel discussion I was asked by a member of the audience how to manage an IRONMAN training schedule for someone who didn’t have a “normal” work schedule. My initial response was to determine just what the questioner meant by “normal”. Upon finding out that he was a pilot, and his schedule changed frequently, I was able to give some advice on flexibility and finding ways to make the workouts fit his schedule. It very rarely works the other way around. We’d all like to plan our perfect training schedule and then plan our life around it, but that isn’t an option for 99% of us.  As we didn’t have time to delve very far into this, I have been thinking about it since and decided to take the discussion a bit further.

   In today’s world, the “normal” 5 day, 40 hour work week seems to be a quickly fading remnant of the last century. However, many of us, as triathlon coaches, have developed models based on the 7 day week with 5 work days and a 2 day weekend. We typically plan around this, using what is often referred to as the “basic week”. The “basic week” model usually places the long run/long bike days on Saturday and Sunday and then uses a planning session with the client to put together the rest of the week in a manner that seems to fit. Thus, we have “if it’s Tuesday it must be swim/interval run” ….every week. The sessions change. Duration and intensity changes. But the “basic week” stays the same. This can work for (maybe) half of our clients.

   That brings me back to the gentleman at the event. He doesn’t have a “basic week” that works for him. His situation, like many others, demands some creativity. This is where the Art of Coaching begins. This is where the fun begins. Now I’ll go into some detail on how to make the IRONMAN dream become reality for the client who has no time to train. Actually, he only thinks he has no time to train because he has probably looked at generic plans and “basic week” plans that make no sense in the life he lives. He really has plenty of time to train but it needs to be managed differently., creatively.

   First of all, we have to sit down and look at everything realistically. We need to devise a long term plan with goals and benchmarks along the way. Commitment to these goals must be established, because IRONMAN is all about commitment. How far out should the IRONMAN race be? This year? Next year? Longer? Current fitness level, along with prior commitments, plays big in this. Let’s say our client is reasonably fit and wants to complete his IRONMAN in late summer, giving us a little under a year to prepare. Now the planning begins.

   I like to use a linear calendar for my long term plans, rather than grids and pages. It just works better for me. Onto the timeline I put today and I put RaceDay. Okay, now there’s some space to fill in between these two points along a straight line.

   This is where targets, benchmarks, and goals fall into place. I may want to see the long bike day at 3 hours by 4 weeks and 4-5 hours by 8 weeks, for example. Based on fitness and ability I will block out my big buildup/taper in the final 9-12 weeks. FTP testing at certain intervals and a few key workouts at points along the line. Benchmarks to test the plan come into the picture. All of these are plotted on the calendar. Now, the plan is taking shape, but without any specific schedule at this point.

   With a constantly changing work schedule the creativity has to come to play. I often can’t schedule more than two weeks ahead, sometimes weekly. A conventional schedule doesn’t fit these situations, but we have already put important markers on the calendar and now I weave in the workouts that will bring it all together. Workout priorities become critical with these time constraints. What is more crucial where we are in the timeline…distance or intensity? Maybe a long workout needs to be split up through the day. That 15 mile run may become a morning 5 and a late afternoon 10. What is more important…the 10 mile tempo run or the track speed session if the week only has time for one or the other?

   These clients are the clients that need the most guidance and these challenges are what make my coaching business enjoyable. I love problem solving and thinking outside the box. With so many available pre written or computer generated plans available to the athletes, the coach’s role has to be more than sending a training schedule every month. I see myself as a mentor, consultant, time manager, and cheerleader, all in one. Finding the finish line by using many different routes to fit the varying needs of today’s clients is where the artistry lies.