Up The Road

Choose your coach wisely

Runner’s World editor Christine Fennessy describes her experience of finding the right coach, and explains how much it has helped her improve her racing technique and times. Perhaps it will inspire you to take your fitness and skill to the next level? - Leslie Prevish, Trek Women

Choose wisely

A good coach will help you reach your goal faster and safer—whether you want to complete a century, land on the podium, or simply ride with more confidence. The trick is finding the right match.

By Christine Fennessy

    I pedaled slowly back to where Kim stood, stopwatch in hand. My heart was banging furiously and my quads felt stuffed with cement. I rolled up to the boards lining the homestretch of the velodrome’s infield and waited for the verdict.
    “Were you nervous?” Kim asked with that half smile I can never quite decipher (She’s impressed? She thinks I’m nuts?).
    “Nervous? No…why?”
    “You just rode your fastest 2K ever,” she said. “By a lot.”
    All the pain went away.

The eternal wonder
    It took me a year to make up my mind about hiring a coach. There were plenty of reasons not to get one: Cash is scarce. I’m a self-motivator. I ride with experienced cyclists who spout free advice. I’m not a genetic freak and I don’t have a glorious future.
    In fact, there was only one reason to get a coach—I hate regret. I like following through on the major wonders in my life, and I did wonder: Having recently had some good results in small, beginner-level, local races on the road and track, could I really get better—become a stronger, smarter, more confident rider—if I paid someone to care about me for a while?
    Really, who hasn’t wondered what they were capable of if they indulged in themselves a little?

The human factor
    Leah Flickinger, 44, of Bucks County, Pennsylvania hired her coach in 2006. “I wanted to see what my athletic potential was,” she explains. “I’m able to do things now that I never dreamed I could do, like run a marathon and swim a two-mile race when I have a history of being terrified of the water.”
    Sure, the convenience of having daily workouts tailored to her goals has been huge in her success, but it’s the human connection that’s made the biggest difference: Flickinger is prone to injury. “It’s a coach’s job to pay attention to patterns and to how my body reacts to training, in a way that I never could,” she says. “If I say, ‘my hip hurts,’ he would say, ‘Well, this same thing happened last year and it helped when you took two weeks off.’ It’s like having a family physician who has instant access to your chart.”

Discover your inner star
    Cynthia Roberts hired a coach prior to the biggest race of her life. “I was petrified of the Ironman,” says the 29-year-old from Allentown, Pennsylvania. Roberts had just completed an “extremely hard” half Ironman in 2007 when she decided to see if she could hack the whole distance—a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, and 26.2-mile run. “I had tons of questions and needed someone to bounce nutrition, training, equipment, and injury-prevention ideas off of,” she says. Those conversations also helped Roberts realize her goal of just finishing the race was too modest—her workout results indicated she could be competitive. She ended up finishing 11th in her age group. “When I crossed the finish line, I had tears in my eyes,” says Roberts. “When my coach saw how happy I was, it brought tears to his eyes, too. It’s so great to have someone support you and push you to your potential.”

Beware the dud
    Banished fears, boosted confidence, unleashed potential. Whether your goal is to enter your first race, land on the podium, or simply improve your fitness, these are the rewards of working with a good coach.
    Of course, some coaches are bad.
    When I started shopping for expertise, I figured anybody who knew more than I did about training was qualified. My only criteria were that he or she be outside my social circle (my beer, my choice), have a decent personality (in case we ever had to ride together), and be affordable (as much as possible). I had known—let’s call him, Dave—peripherally for a while. I liked his easy laugh, his racing experience, and the fact that he coached everyone from total rubes to rising stars. We met over coffee, and I explained that I wanted to get better at racing local road criteriums, move up a category on the road, and learn how to ride and race on the velodrome. He explained his training approach, confirmed my goals were attainable, and outlined his plan for me. Satisfied, I cut the check.

Coming undone
    I had a very good attitude about the whole thing. For a very short while.
    It soon became clear that Dave wasn’t much for deadlines. While he initially provided my workouts in advance, he soon adopted a more on-the-fly approach. Sunday night would arrive with no ride posted for Monday. I’d email him. Text. Call. Sometimes I got an 11th hour directive, sometimes I didn’t and I made stuff up.
    As my mileage slowly accumulated, body parts started to hurt. The back of my right knee ached. My lower right leg felt inflamed. A range of saddle sores changed the topography of my nethers. I mentioned my woes in the comments section of our online training log. No response. 
    As my workouts got more specific, their purpose remained infuriatingly vague: “Just ride as hard as you can, it doesn’t matter if you blow up” or “Yes, the idea is to suffer—a lot.” I had no response when people asked me why I was spinning 130 revolutions a minute. I felt like a lunatic.
    If you’re going to suffer—a lot—it helps to have a good reason.

Breaking point
    Still, Dave addressed my questions just frequently enough to give me hope. But three months into our tenuous partnership, I snapped. It was a Sunday in March. My first race of the year was in two weeks, and I was nervous. Dave told me to ride a local training ride followed by back-to-back training crits.
    I got dropped on the ride as soon as the group hit the gas. One passing rider reached out in an act of humiliation chivalry and gave me a huge push. I should have gone home, but instead, I went to the crits feeling like crap, my legs wooden and hurting, my head buzzing with insecurity. I paid $22 for both races—and got dropped at the whistle. Three laps later, I pulled out, depressed, demoralized, and convinced I suck. I had so many questions—What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I go? What if I felt like this on race day? The worst part was knowing that Dave would probably ignore all of them.
    Two days later, I cut him loose.

My new criteria
    Dave was late and lazy and tone-deaf, but our debacle was also my fault. I assumed his training style would mesh with my personality. Ultimately, he taught me what to ask of a coach.
    Be organized. I need workouts in advance so I can fit my cycling self around my work self. Without the latter, there would be no former.
    Be a little geeky. Tell me the purpose to each workout. Pointless suffering is what drew me to a coach in the first place.
    Embrace technology. If calling is absolutely necessary, it should be scheduled. I don’t want to bare my soul while someone’s getting gas.
    Answer my questions. Within 72 hours would be nice. Especially when the body hurts.

The perfect partnership
    After Dave and I broke up, I started thinking about Kim. She was a local legend, a freaky fast junior racer turned adult torpedo on the track. I was hesitant because she was young (23 to my 34) and quiet, and quiet people make me feel weird. I checked out her site, KimGeist.com, and read that she’s a former professional road racer, was a four-time national track champion with numerous top 10 World Cup track finishes, is a certified coach and has a master’s degree in applied nutrition. (Only a master’s? Slacker.) We met for a ride, and I outlined my goals and newfound criteria. She confirmed my goals were attainable, outlined her plan for me, and I cut the check.
    Within five months of training with Kim, I won four local criterium races and moved up a category as a road racer. I learned how to ride and race my Trek T1 track bike and went from racing at the rookie level on Saturday afternoons to racing—far behind—the pros on Friday night. I flourished under Kim because she’s brilliant but also because she understood my goals and the parameters within which training had to fit into my life and personality. Even a good coach can’t read your mind.
    So has the wondering ended? Can I start saving for my retirement now? Not yet. My goals a year ago seemed huge. Audacious, even. But I trusted Kim, and when she told me to do something—like get up at 4:15 for a 5 a.m. track workout—I did it. When she told me to believe in myself, I gutted out excruciating intervals. When she congratulated me, I floated for days. And in the end, I achieved every one of my goals. Now she tells me I’m not through. The gains won’t be as great, she warns, but you’re not done. Set higher goals.
    Whatever you say, Yoda. I’m in.

2010VPCC_MR0515_107

Saturday racing on the velodrome at the Valley Preferred Cycling Center in Trexlertown PA (I’m in orange). The women’s field ranged in age from 15 to mid-40s, and while we were all considered ‘rookies,’ many of the junior riders had far more experience—and smarts—than I did.

 

2010VPCC_MR0515_113

Fitness only gets you so far on the track. You also need a well-honed sense of strategy, tactics, and timing (the young rider in blue had those in spades). I think that’s what I like most about track racing, it keeps my mind and my body very busy.  

 

Mountainbiking

Ripping around on my mountain bike improves my handling skills, maintains my sanity, and breaks up a rigorous training plan. Kim knows this and regularly pencils them into my plan.

 

Myfavoriteroad

My sense of direction stinks so long endurance rides are the perfect time for me to explore—plenty of time to get un-lost. We found this Pennsylvania road last spring.

 

Cyclocross_race

I capitalized on the fitness I’d gained through the spring and summer with Kim to race a few fall cyclocross events. Cross is a killer lung-buster, skill-builder, and brain-pleaser.

 

FirstCritUnderKim

This was my first race after signing on with Kim. I got away with a small group halfway through the race and worked my butt off. I finished fifth. I was thrilled.

 

Dirt_roads

I love riding dirt roads. It builds strength and confidence in handling your road bike on loose terrain, and takes you through some gorgeous country, like here in Connecticut.

 

Kim

My coach, Kim Geist, training for the individual pursuit, essentially an excruciatingly long sprint on the track. She’s currently pursuing a spot on the 2012 Olympic team.

Comments

Dalia K. M.

Inspiring. I am just a beginner, actually a Newb, but I do think I have some potential. Reading your story puts my doubts aside. With good training I bet can do it too! Best of luck :-)

Melissa

great information! My husband and I have been using a swim coach to train for triathlons, and have been wondering if we should expand and hire her for the cycle/run part too.You made some good points about choosing a coach, and as for the good qualities you mentioned, I found myself thinking, 'my coach does that' (yay!). This year's budget went toward new bikes, so perhaps next season we'll get with the program!

Cindy

I just hired a personal trainer at the Y for 6 sessions over the winter months. After 2 sessions, I feel like I am on the right track. I dont race and dont intend to start. The training sessions over the winter months are to add additional strength when I am not riding my bike on the road. Getting professional advice to help the journey makes sense. The thing I dont like about your article is that it seems focused on the racer, not the average person, like me. We can all use a little help from time to time.

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