Thursday, February 2, 2012

Coaching: Goal Definition and Achievement

Many people, when they hear that I work with a triathlon/running coach, assume that I am some kind of fierce, elite athlete. No, no, not exactly. A 4:30 marathon is not elite, to say the least. So this raises the question: why have a coach, if I’m just in this for my own satisfaction and enjoyment? Why not train myself?

This question is especially interesting to me, since one thing that I do when I’m not making chocolate treats, working on nuclear things, or training for that little race in August, is coach synchronized swimming.


Given that background, I have many, many answers to this question, but today, I’m going to focus on just one: A coach can, and should, provide an outside evaluation and perspective, allowing the athlete to set and work towards appropriate goals, which will ultimately help you enjoy your training and competitions even more.

Take those athletes in the picture up there. They won the 2011 Junior South Zone Team title – an event that was open to 13-18 year old swimmers from across the southeastern U.S. (Texas to Florida to Maryland and everywhere in between). It was something that our coaching staff told them over and over was a possibility. It was something they doubted several times. It was a reach, but having it in sight made them work and ultimately made it happen.

Now that sounds easy, right? Just tell somebody they can do something, and they’ll make it happen.

Not exactly. As I noted above, the coach has to help the athlete set appropriate goals. If we’d gone and said “You can win Junior Nationals this year,” they would have known it wasn’t possible and would have given up immediately. Conversely, if we’d said “You can get 3rd place at Junior Zones,” it wouldn’t have been enough of a reach, and wouldn’t have pushed them to work towards their potential. The athletes can’t really do this alone, since they lack outside perspective and an ability to assess objectively.

And in this respect, I’m no different from the teenage swimmers I coach – it’s hard for me to assess my current fitness level, training performance, and talent level and develop realistic but challenging goals. This became very evident to me at our track workout last Wednesday, when 8 800s were on tap. I had a concept of how fast my threshold and aerobic capacity 800s were based on previous track workouts. For reference, here are some times:

9/14: 3x800: 4:41-4:35-4:32 (workout: 3200-1600-3x800)
10/26: 1x800: 4:10 (workout: 1600-1200-800-400)
12/21: 5x800: 4:17-4:15-4:13-4:16-4:10 (workout: 5x800)
1/4: 4x800: 4:25-4:18-4:21-4:25 (workout: 4x400-(recover)-800)
1/18: 2x800: 4:00/4:01 (workout: 1600-2x800)

So when I went a 4:03 on the first one, I was pleased, even though it seemed just a bit fast. Then, the following conversation took place:
Coach: What was your time?
Me: 4:03
Coach: Pretty good. Try to get down to sub-4 by the end

Hm. The first one didn’t exactly feel easy, but it wasn’t that far above 4:00. So, if I let up on a couple, I can re-start a descent down to sub-4 by the end.

800 #2: Ah, OK, a nice steady pace. Now I’ll have something to drop down from.

3:57 (crap)

800 #3: Alright, now I’m stuck doing all of these sub-4. But there’s enough rest that I can eek out 3:59s for most of them.

3:56 (what?)

800 #4: This hurts more than a little bit. Sub 4 for 8 800s is ridiculous.

3:54 (&^%*&!)

800 #5: This hurts, but obviously I don’t need to push that hard to go sub-4. Thanks, coach, for believing in me!

3:59 (Oops. Slacker)

800 #6: This would be a ridiculous point to stop gunning for sub-4s. Obviously my coach knows what she’s talking about, so just run and push through.

3:55 (There we go)

800 #7: Only two more to go. I WILL go all sub-4. I WILL.

3:57 (Yesssssss)

800 #8: Go go go just finish it fast. Nothing to go after this. 1:57 at the 400! I’m on this!

4:00.08 (SERIOUSLY???)

So was it a failure? I suppose in a way, since I wasn’t sub-4 at the end. But that was a LOT of sub-4 work in there, so ultimately, my coach pushed me to go faster by suggesting that I could, but didn’t suggest I go for some ridiculous time I’d not even bother to try for.

Cool, isn’t it?

I mentioned this in my weekly training summary email to her on Monday, and her reply was:

“Yes, your track workouts HAVE gotten a lot better. Now we need to translate that to pace goals for your weekend long runs, which I’ve noted in your training schedule this week.”

Yeah. About that goal setting thing…I guess it’s never over, you can always get better.

Not a bad thing, of course. Which is why everybody can benefit from coaching if you understand the role they can play in shaping (and subsequently achieving) you goals.


  1. Ah, the conversations you have with yourself over the course of an interval set. Nice splits!

  2. your splits are inspiring me to get my @$$ in gear and run harder. Although that seems to conflict with the tri "Zone 2 always and forever" thing. How is this working for you- are you doing marathon training as well?
    You can tell me to shut up if I'm being nosy.

  3. sweet splits! I'm glad you have such a great relationship with your coach!

  4. I love this post. I didn't really play sports growing up, so I have very little sense of what it's like to be coached. (And because the closest thing I had to coaching was with some tough dance instructors, my sense of coaching = "you're doing it wrong!") As I'm looking ahead to maybe being in a group-coaching situation soon, this helps me understand what I can get out of the relationship.

  5. Nice splits! I'm glad you don't feel you have to justify working with a coach. I'm glad the coach is setting the bar for you at a realistic height...just far enough for you to question the challenge but close enough for you to accept it. Keep it up and looking forward to hear how these speed workouts translate to improvements in your longer runs.

  6. Haha I hate that "yay, I can run faster!" ... "crap, now I have to run faster!". Having a coach sounds awesome. Nice work on the 800s!

  7. As someone who does not currently work with a coach for swimming or running, it's really interesting hearing about your experience working with one. I hadn't realized until I read your reasoning ("A coach can, and should, provide an outside evaluation and perspective, allowing the athlete to set and work towards appropriate goals, which will ultimately help you enjoy your training and competitions even more.") that I get exactly this out of working with ski instructors through the ski patrol, and would likely get the same benefits out of working with a running coach. Interesting stuff!

  8. Sounds like you find a good fit for your coach. I think that would worry me the most, signing up with someone that is not a good fit and (because I have trouble with confrontations) being scared to tell them that.

  9. I know I swim a lot faster and cleaner during masters because the coaches know that if left to my own devices I will just swim 2:20 when told to push hard. This past Wednesday, she got me up to doing 10x100's maintaining a 2:15'ish with just tiny adjustments to my swim stroke - which I would never been able to figure out on my own.

  10. This is a good post. I don't even have anything snarky to say, sadly. I love running fast. Even though, fast is a somewhat relative term, right? Should I say fast-ish or just go ahead and say fast since it's fast for me? This is the kind of stupid shit I worry about.

  11. While I know it's totally possible to self-train, I think coaches are valuable for a lot of reasons, from goal setting to keeping you from doing anything too stupid/crazy to managing the details so you can just do your workouts. This is something I didn't appreciate until I didn't have one.

  12. great job! speed work is still my biggest mental hurdle and for sure the times I do it with a group/coach is when I really find out just how much more I can do