I know that this is an unusual question from someone who coaches athletes, and has been doing so for nearly 20 years, but it has been on my mind for quite a while now. Bear with me on this and hear me out. I am NOT saying that coaching is a bad thing, or that athletes should not consider using a coach to work toward their goals. Quite the opposite. As the sport has grown, the coaching profession has grown also. With so many newcomers coming into the sport, the need for knowledgeable guidance has taken on new importance. Even the experienced athlete often reaches a performance plateau and seeks guidance in the quest to improve. It took me 8 years of racing to build the confidence (and fitness) to tackle my first IRONMAN distance race. Today, I have athletes doing the distance in their first year of training and racing. Sounds great, right?

So, where is the problem, then? Let me go into a little personal history to begin. I got into the sport quite accidentally. I had recently quit smoking cigarettes and found myself looking into the mirror and seeing a thin, but unfit 40 year old who had never done anything athletic and had no idea of how to get myself in shape. I bought a cheap bike and started regularly riding around a local park. Looking through a bicycling magazine, searching for advice, I saw an ad for the “Coors Light Biathlon Series” (the term “duathlon” for run/bike events did not yet exist), and there was one coming to my town in just over a month. Hmmmmmm…I could maybe do this. I started adding some running to my still new riding routine and built up to the 3 miles needed for the race (5k/30k/5k). Race day came and I actually finished, even though I hadn’t considered what the second run would feel like AFTER the first run and the bike ride. I was excited and started looking to more events to enter, although there were more TRI-athlons than BI-athlons then, like now. Problem was, I couldn’t swim. Right at this time, I also discovered that there was actually a local triathlon club. Really? I had to look into this. That changed my life.

Joining this club gave me the opportunity to ride, run, and learn to swim with a great group of people who shared whatever they knew with each other. We had group rides every weekend. We had weekly track sessions and hill workouts. There were no triathlon coaches at that time. Everyone, even the pros, learned from trying things, keeping what worked, and discarding what didn’t. And we had a lot of fun together. During that first full year of my journey I did my first triathlons and ran my first marathon. I subscribed to every related magazine and read every book I could find about cycling, running, and “how to swim”. Then I moved across the country a year later.

Fortunately, I found another tri club in my new town and made more friends. We rode together, ran together, had a few beers together, and had a lot of fun. I took what I had learned from my first club and started heading up weekly run sessions on the track. That’s around the time that USAT started developing their first coaching program and certification process. I was ready and took the jump. Years later I am still at it. BUT…I have been watching the climate slowly change.

Cyclists still do group rides. Runners have still group runs and workouts. But it seems that triathletes that are coached (I am not talking here about the event specific training groups that some coaches put together) seem to be slaves to their training calendar. I know that we, as coaches, talk about the importance of consistency and following a goal driven plan, but what was once a fun group activity seems to have evolved into a solitary endeavor. On my weekend long rides I see so many single triathletes, down on their aerobars, staring at their bike computer, grinding away the miles. It is no wonder that there are so many “one and done” athletes. When I entered the sport the largest age group at most races was 30-34. Today it is usually 50-54. Younger people are either not coming into the sport, or not staying.

When an athlete calls or messages me that they want to go hiking with their spouse on a day that is a bike day I say, “Go on and have fun! I’ll shift around the schedule to make it work.” If their kid’s soccer team makes the playoffs and they need an unexpected Saturday morning freed up, it’s my job to rework the weekend. They want to go riding with a few friends on long run day? Things can be moved.

I typically do my long rides in the summer at around 150w (I know that’s not stellar, but I’m a 70+ year old skinny little guy). If someone who is not quite as strong wants to ride together, or I want to ride with a group to give some tips, I plan it for my recovery week. If I can’t arrange that, I simply TAKE a recovery day and have some fun with whoever is along on the ride. This summer my A race was planned for IRONMAN 70.3 Boulder (thanks, covid, for my DNS). On the Facebook pages there were always questions about the course. Having done this race many times, I know the roads quite well. I ride them almost every weekend. I have been on, and headed, the IRONMAN Certified Coach Event Team for this race and the full 140.6 in the past. I have taken many athletes on the course and given pointers, stopped to wait for slower riders, and hopefully contributed to their race day success. This year was different. From early in the year, until the race in August, I posted every week that I would be riding the course, when and where I was starting, and that I would welcome anyone to join me. I had lots of comments like, “My coach has me doing….”, “I have to ride at XXX watts for…”, “Are you stopping? I can’t stop during my rides”, and on and on. Yet these are often the same people asking for course advice. During the entire summer I had not one single person show up to ride, even though I saw many of them out on the course alone.

My point is, if we want to instill enthusiasm and keep people in the sport, we have to keep it fun. Most of them already have a job and responsibilities. They don’t want another. Ride with your friends. Stop for coffee and conversation. Meet for a run, followed by an adult beverage (if you choose). Have breakfast together after masters. Just let your coach know that it’s important and ask how to make adjustments to the schedule…or let them do it. That’s what you pay them for. I love working with my athletes and want them to love working with me. Believe me, it’s the people that guided me through my first couple years, and those experiences, that are responsible for me still being here. Every once in a while ignore the numbers and just go out for a good time.