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How Triathlon Coaches Work

Certain coaches design intensive one-on-one programs that are individualized for each of their trainees. Others prefer to work with groups of people who share the same needs and goals.
Certain coaches design intensive one-on-one programs that are individualized for each of their trainees. Others prefer to work with groups of people who share the same needs and goals.
Ryan McVay/Thinkstock

People who set out to compete in triathlons tend to be both physically fit and highly motivated. The idea of swimming, biking and running all in one day is just too much for the slouches among us to endure.

However, because of their impressive self-motivation and competitive nature, triathletes may be reluctant to hire a coach to help them prepare for the big day. This is particularly true when you consider that many perceptions are based on high school gym class, where the coach may have been a foul-tempered, overweight smoker.

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But triathlon coaches are a far cry from the dodge-ball tormentors of your high school years. Today, a growing number of novice and experienced athletes are enlisting the help of these experts in their quest for triathlon glory.

For those who may not be aware, a triathlon is a competitive endurance sport comprising swimming, cycling and running. Athletes who set out to train for a triathlon may be accustomed to working with personal trainers in their past efforts to slim down or bulk up.

Participating in a triathlon takes a special set of athletic skills, and it helps to be coached by someone with experience in the sport. It also helps if that person is a former triathlon winner who has coached others toward that coveted title. And since the sport has been around for several decades, there are quite a few experienced triathletes available to coach newcomers and anyone looking to elevate his or her game.

In the next section, we'll explore the science and strategies of triathlon coaching.

People who participate in triathlons come in all shapes and sizes and vary in age from children to senior citizens. It makes sense then that triathlon coaches also vary in their backgrounds and their approach to training. Still, there are certain things about which every triathlon coach should be knowledgeable, including:

  • Nutrition for triathletes
  • Exercise physiology
  • Strength training
  • Swimming techniques
  • Cycling expertise
  • Running skills

Triathlon coaching should also include economy training, a technique that prepares an athlete to endure the intense energy expenditure required during a triathlon [source: O'Toole]. This type of preparation can make or break a triathlete on race day. But perhaps the most important component of triathlon coaching is a good understanding of sports psychology. Knowing how to motivate people and help them to overcome their mental barriers to success is often the key to positive triathlon experiences for many athletes [source: USA Triathlon].

Coaching strategies will vary based on the type of athlete a coach is trained to help. Some specialize in coaching children or older runners, while others may focus on a particular type of triathlon course, such as Olympic or Ironman. Many beginners find that the swim portion of the race is the most difficult [source: Beginner Triathlon]. For this reason, they may decide to hire a coach to train for the swim event only. Some coaches may have expertise in only one or two of the three triathlon events, but there are many triathlon coaches who are qualified to train any athlete in all three events.

When it comes to particular methods of delivery training, some coaches may be quite specific. Certain coaches design intensive one-on-one programs that are individualized for each of their trainees. Others prefer to work with groups of people who share the same needs and goals. Still others may work exclusively in a virtual environment, offering their expertise to athletes via text message, e-mail, or various Web-based protocols. Finding a coach whose strategies align with your needs and goals can be challenging. In the next section, we offer tips for screening and hiring the right triathlon coach.

Once you've decided to hire a triathlon coach, the next step is finding "the one." The process of finding the right coach may take a bit of time and effort, but the payoff can be significant (it's a lot like dating). For some triathletes, working with the right coach can mean the difference between finishing a race in the lead and struggling to finish at all.

Before you hire a triathlon coach, carefully consider what you're hoping to gain from the experience. If you really only need help with the running portion of the race, hire a running coach rather than someone who specializes in all three triathlon events. If you're brand-new to the sport, it might be best to hire a generalist with plenty of experience with the many challenges each race presents. Logistical issues are also important, such as whether you need in-person training or can work with a remote coach. This will determine not only where you go to look for a coach, but how much it's going to cost.

If having a coach who is certified with USA Triathlon is important to you, a good place to start your search is USA Triathlon's national directory. There are also many Web-based training sites that offer coaching services ranging from prepackaged one-size-fits-all programs to highly individualized e-coaching strategies. Generally speaking, the more personalized the coaching, the more expensive the service will be. The upside is that the more you're willing to spend, the more selective you can be. When screening a potential coach, be sure to ask about his or her personal history with the sport of triathlon as well as the performance results of any previous triathlon clients.

Once you've covered these basic screening questions, you can focus on the most important issue: whether or not you and your potential coach are compatible training partners. This may be a matter of personality, whether your schedules are similar or how much time you're willing to commit to your training. Just keep in mind that there are a lot of different coaches out there, and you should take time to choose the one who is right for you. While it's true that the success of your training depends largely on your level of commitment, having the right coach can help you achieve your triathlon goals.

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Sources

  • Beginner Triathlon, "Seven Suggestions for Beginner Triathletes." (Aug. 5, 2010).http://www.beginnertriathlon.org/beginner-triathlon.html
  • Koffler, Angela. Washington, D.C., triathlon participant. Personal communication. (Aug. 2, 2010).
  • O'Toole ML and Douglas PS, Applied physiology of triathlon, Sports Medicine 1995, 19(4); 251-67, (Aug. 5, 2010).http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/7604198
  • USA Triathlon, certified coaching resources and information. (Aug. 5, 2010).http://www.usatriathlon.org/resources/for-coaches

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