Monday, 7 March 2011

Coaching

It’s unlikely that anybody in life becomes successful without a little help along the way, even the most self centred must have to admit that somebody was there to help them at some stage of their life. This is where coaching comes in, and yet there are many people running without a coach. I’m not sure what the reason might be, it could be that they don’t know how to get a coach or it could be that they don’t think they are good enough for a coach or it might even be that they think they are good enough without a coach.

Whatever the reason, I disagree, and I should know, as I owe my success to the coaching I’ve received over the years. Also as a coach and personal trainer I know that my own coaching has helped others to achieve success. Having said that, not every coaching experience is good and you should be prepared to change your coach if you are not satisfied.

When I first started running, in 1989, I was completely clueless. On my first run, with members of Belgrave Harriers, I was taken on a long run, and left for dead when I couldn’t keep up. Thankfully, despite not knowing the area, I managed to find my way back to the club house. I’m amazed, but grateful, that this first experience didn’t put me off and I returned the following week for more. Luckily, this time, a couple of 800m runners took me under their wing and had me doing a far more appropriate session for a beginner.

At some point during that summer, having decided I was going to be an 800m runner, someone suggested I went down to the local track to get some coaching. I turned up, on my own, not knowing anyone, and found a coach. It was daunting seeing so many people running around the track with such speed, grace and confidence. The coach asked me to run a lap of the track at 80% but as I wasn’t entirely sure what that was I just ran flat out. When I got back to the coach I was exhausted and couldn’t do any more running that night. The coach in question seemed more interested in his more established athletes and didn’t have any time to talk through my experience or offer encouragement so I went home and this time didn’t return. I did however go back to the club house the next week to continue training with the 800m runners.

This arrangement suited me and after some months I started training twice a week, then in the winter I found cross country and raced regularly. Naturally I became fitter and stronger by this arrangement but I was still lacking any kind of direction. For the next year I just trained at whatever anybody else was doing and racing all distances from 100m to the half marathon. I was enjoying myself but I wasn’t actually achieving a great deal. In the autumn of 1990 I decided it was time to try coaching again.

I was introduced to another club coach and this time I met everyone before the session started and the other lads in the group were all of a similar standard and similar to myself too. The coach ran with us and was not significantly better, such that this made it worthwhile for him to do so. However it was noticeable that his coaching was directed solely at himself and there was no real guidance for anyone else, he also had a tendency to try to prove he was the best in the group by always ensuring he was first in any repetition. Still this wasn’t a problem for me as I was improving, enjoying myself and became good friends with Adam Armstrong (who used to be in Grange Hill) and Junior Galley (who was to become a National Champion over the marathon distance). Where it did become a problem was the following June when we both entered the same race. At some point, coach, decided to drop out whereas I came third. When the race was over the coach was gone, he’d left without saying a word and we didn’t see him again. I’m sure it can’t have been because I was ahead of him before he dropped out!

So once again I was coachless, the group drifted apart and I was left to make up my own training. During the following winter I injured my anterior cruciate ligament and took a five week break. While I was out of action I decided I was going to join up with another coach and asked Arthur Bruce if it was ok to join his group. I didn’t know Arthur but he was well spoken of around Belgrave. Arthur was in his 60s and had been a good athlete during the 1950s, from which period he was able to tell us numerous stories about his contemporaries. The other good thing about Arthur’s group was that there was a good mix of individuals but also included Charlie Dickinson, who was, and remains a very talented Masters athlete. I also brought along two of my contemporaries, James Ryle and Mark Anderson. After I regained fitness Charlie, James, Mark and myself were all of a similar general ability, although Mark was a specialist middle distance runner, James was a strong cross country runner and Charlie was a good longer distance runner, I was yet to find my area of expertise and in the end became reasonably good at all three.

Arthur didn’t attend all our sessions, but he was there regularly enough and between the members of the group we drove each other on. Arthur introduced me to fartlek, which I really enjoyed, and to train at above race pace. He also taught me to be selective in my races and to ease down and rest appropriately. We also incorporated hills and regular time trials into our training. Within a year and a half with Arthur I reduced my 10000m time by two minutes when winning the 1993 Surrey 10000m in 30:33.7. This ranked me in the top 50 in the UK and gave me a huge amount of self belief that has never left me.

After winning many more championship medals and setting some good times over multiple distances I left Arthur in 1998. Over the summer I had a problem with my back that caused a great deal of pain in my calf muscles when I ran. After unsuccessful attempts at resting and comebacks I decided to see a specialist and ended up taking a 5 month break. When I decided to come back I thought the only way I could regain my motivation would be to try something different. So I started working with David Lucas. I’d known David for a few years as he was coach to one of my great rivals, Jim Estell. With David I trained over longer distances with shorter recoveries. I also did a lot more training on my own which helped me build up my mental capacity to push myself. As a consequence I also started to enter road races, Arthur had restricted my road racing to concentrate on the track. David got me back to winning ways and I again started to produce good times. Some of the coaching was now becoming remote as I spent time working in Germany and Slovakia but it worked as I was good at interpreting David’s requirements and he knew me well enough to know how far to push me. David was also there to help me in my first, and so far only, marathon, in 2003.

Throughout my years training under Arthur and David I had always retained some level of autonomy and made some training decisions by myself, this was more evident in my later years as I tended to be away from home a lot and had built up quite a good knowledge of training. So when I moved to Edinburgh in 2005 I decided I would become self coached. I still employed some of the methods of Arthur and David but also started looking around for inspiration from others and even picked up a good session from an article I read about Andy Badderley (though I adapted it significantly to cater for my requirements the original idea was good). I also took advice from local coach Alex McEwen.

Since turning 40 I’d started to think about qualifying as a coach, I’d been running for 16 years and had a good knowledge of how to produce the best in someone. It was also evident that I was no longer able to perform to the same level as my earlier days and I wanted to give something back. Unfortunately my move to Edinburgh also meant a move into shift work, and whilst I was still able to train myself at odd hours, including sessions in the wee hours of the morning, I could not make any commitment to other athletes. So I put my qualifications on hold until moved off shift. Even then it was not easy, as I waited almost a year to get onto a UKA course. I qualified as a level 1 assistant coach and spent many Tuesdays assisting at Meadowbank with the youngsters. But my heart was in coaching middle distance and with more mature athletes so once I was qualified I switched to assisting Alex McEwen’s group, which was great fun. I did get a reputation for inflexibility on recoveries but it was in their own interest and actually, I did occasionally give them an extra couple of seconds recovery. It was great grounding for me but it looked like I may have to wait an unknown number of months before I could move onto my level 2 coaching as UKA were reorganising their courses. This was unacceptable to me, as I’d made a commitment to coaching, so I made the decision to train to become a Personal Trainer.

This was a great decision as, although I knew lots about running and different energy systems, I’d never used weights, I’d rarely done any core workouts and never did any abs workouts. I learnt so much in a short time and also qualified as a run leader, which allows me to lead a group of endurance athletes (effectively coach them but you have to be careful with wording where UKA are concerned).

I’ve now been a qualified Personal Trainer for about 16 months and it’s great to be in a position to guide others through exercise plans, ensuring they use correct form, and ensuring they do appropriate training in order to achieve their goals. Whilst I have a number of non running clients I do still attract some who want me to help them with their running and I do this in three ways;
  1. Organise the training and stand in one position with a stop watch to keep them appraised of repetition times and ensure they stick to recoveries, I can still be pretty tight on these but it all depends on how the client reacts to the recovery.
  2. Run alongside the client to encourage them to keep a particular pace going. I find this is really effective as it’s within my comfort zone and I’m able to adjust the effort slightly, if necessary, and encourage them all the time. The problem here is that there is a limit to how much running I can do without my body giving up and also I need to be careful it doesn’t impact my own racing, so I restrict the number of clients I will do this for.
  3. Remote coaching, whereby I find out a client’s goal, what they are currently doing, what their lifestyle is like and I produce a bespoke training plan. We then have regular e-mail contact to revise as necessary. This enables me to train anywhere and at times that fit in around my other requirements. I currently have a client in Australia who uses this service, which means I can get updates as soon as I wake up and can offer advice back before she wakes up.  

To summarise, coaching is good for you, though not all coaches are good or some may be good but just not good for you. Coaching is not just about the exercise it’s also about planning appropriate sessions and events and it’s also about ensuring appropriate rest. Other things I add to this are advice about nutrition, stretching and motivation. So, if you haven’t got a coach think about it, it may just be the thing that propels you from being the person you currently are to being a much better one.

As usual, I always end my blogs by giving updates on previous blogs. In my last blog I wrote about Lee Riley, one of my clients, who was making an attempt on the official world record for the half marathon, carrying a 40lb pack, at the Shakespeare Half Marathon in Stratford-Upon-Avon last Saturday. Well I’m pleased to say that Lee achieved his goal, running a time of 1 hr 36 min 56 sec, knocking almost 7 minutes off the current record. It’s now full steam ahead for Lee in his marathon attempt. Well done Lee.

On Saturday I also raced, though mine was a more modest effort as I continued my come back. I ran at the Heaton Park Run over the park run distance of 5k. It was nice to get back into racing fastish again and although I was some way short of my best times I was happy with 8th position in a 17 min 26 sec clocking. What made the day even better was that Ray, one of my clients that I’ve been running with for the last 8 weeks and who gave me a lift, improved his pb for the second week running.

This Saturday I will be in Birmingham taking part in the BMAF Cross Country championships. Once again I’m not expecting to achieve anything significant, other than to get a hard run out and meet up with old (literally) friends. At least it shouldn’t be as muddy as Alton Towers.

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