Is it time for a coach?

Whether you want to kick your training up a notch, boost your confidence or simply mix it up a little, you may want to reach out to a professional.

By Sarah Ripplinger

Gen Handley started running six years ago to quit smoking. That decision soon began to pay dividends.

“Physically I felt better, and psychologically it was easier to deal with stress,” said the 33-year-old Vancouver resident. “I started to sleep better, too.”

Handley generally runs 10 to 12K three to five days per week along Vancouver’s picturesque seawall – a 22K recreational path that borders the coastline. He’s completed longer distances with friends and coworkers, as well as two Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon races. He’ll tackle a marathon in May.

To double his race distance, Handley decided last month to join a Running Room marathon clinic.

“I wanted to gain a more disciplined approach to my running,” he said. “I wanted somebody to get my butt into shape,” he said, pointing out the additional benefit of a running group was the opportunity to meet other runners who could hold him accountable.

Having a clear goal in mind – whether it’s working your way up to a marathon or finding a fun group of people to run with – is important when considering joining a running group or hiring a running coach.

And experts concur that, while coaching isn’t necessarily for everyone, almost anyone can benefit from a one-on-one or group coaching experience. Asked what he believed was the best time to reach out for a coach, Greg MacKinnon, of Oakville’s The Running Company, was blunt: “Anytime is the best time.” He explained that if you train solo, you’re likely to plateau at some point. That’s when it’s time to get a professional.

Take Christina Longo, of Vancouver, a personal trainer and founder of Premier Personal Training. She points out you’ll gain an understanding of proper training cycles and the importance of varying intensity and activity to produce the best results.

“Also, you’ll learn how to read your energy levels and when to have an extra rest day or switch a run for some flexibility work … You may also also gain direction and focus with a big boost of self-confidence.”

Longo’s service specializes in correcting the posture of athletes to help them reach their health, fitness and athletic goals. As such, she coaches clients on injury prevention and “corrective conditioning to rehabilitate runners after injury caused by poor form or over-training.”

Two years ago, Kelly Wharton, 50, decided she wanted to improve her race performance. After reaching a plateau while training on her own, she decided a coach was her best bet.

She found Lucy Anderson, a personal trainer and running coach who works out of a community centre near Wharton. Her running training program includes speed training at the local track, longer distance sprinting and hill training. Anderson also shared tips on racing tactics and running form.

Within three months of hiring Anderson, Wharton’s race time dropped and she started hitting personal bests in her 10K, half marathon and marathon races.

“A running trainer can check your running style and efficiency and gives you new ideas for training,” said Wharton. “It jumpstarts your motivation again for running if you feel you have reached a plateau.”

Vancouver resident Matilda Meyers, 32, initially considered joining a running group for safety reasons. She wanted to run safely outside during the dark winter months without fear of being in any danger. But she opted for her own self-motivation – an app – to train for the longest run she’s completed so far – a half marathon.

“I never ended up joining because I discovered that a main road was a good alternative and it allowed me the freedom to go at a time that suited me,” she said.

Larry Doan, 58, started running in January 1998 after “retiring” from competitive team sports. The born-and-raised-in-British Columbia runner who now lives in Vancouver decided to get a coach when it dawned on him that he was “running the same 10K seawall route three times a week and wasn’t improving much.”

“I needed someone to show me how to train properly so I could gain more distance, strength and speed. I didn’t hire a coach for one-on-one, I joined the Vancouver Falcons Athletic Club (VFAC), which is coached by John Hill, in early 2005.”

Hill taught Doan “about pacing, attacking hills, recovery, varying intensity, varying distance and varying course elevation,” over the course of several training sessions.

“Unfortunately he also introduced me to Hill Repeats,” Doan exclaimed. “They are painful! But really help with strength and endurance, and get you ready for any race.”

As a result, Doan said he “ran a personal best 10K within three months of joining VFAC.”

The only downside, Doan said was “getting up for those 9 a.m. speed workouts on Saturday mornings, especially after a little too much red wine the previous night.”

Splurge or save?
The costs of a coach can vary dramatically, depending on whether you want one-on-one coaching or group instruction. “Runners being notoriously cheap, they tend to look for group coaching because it tends to be less expensive and offers the social aspect,” says Greg MacKinnon of Oakville’s The Running Company.

For instance, he says you can pay anywhere from $80 an hour for a personal trainer to $225 for a six month group coaching program.

What you get
According to Vancouver-based running coach Angela James, you’ll gain at least six benefits from a good coach.

1. Motivation. Having a trainer’s support and encouragement can prove inspiring.
2. Accountability. Keeps you on track by making you adhere to your goals.
3. Regular assessment. Constant monitoring of your progress.
4. Expert advice. Proven, effective methods that help you reach your goals.
5. Constructive feedback. Identification of your strengths, weaknesses and where you need to improve.
6. A roadmap. A detailed strategy to get you where you want to go.

Angela James has been coaching runners and walkers in Vancouver since becoming a certified ChiRunning and ChiWalking instructor in 2009. She ran her first marathon at age 40 and now teaches ChiRunning and ChiWalking – which applies the principles of alignment and relaxation from Tai Chi to running – and hosts running and walking retreats.

James has seen first-hand how runners can improve their skills and enjoyment of the sport – she has a personalized exercise routine that includes feedback on how to run using sound body mechanics.

She videotapes her clients; then they watch the tape together to identify bad habits and work on methods to change them.

“Some people come to me to lose weight and get in shape,” James said. “My main hope is that people who come to me will learn to enjoy running – injury-free joyful running.”

What to look for: Yay or Nay?

YAY: Experience, expertise and accreditations are key. Credentials vary; however, standard running coach certifications from the Coaching Association of Canada and personal training certification from the National Academy of Sports Medicine are two examples of recognized designations. First Aid and CPR certification and liability insurance are also important distinctions to look for in a personal trainer and running coach.

NAY: Attitude and work ethic are also key. If your coach/trainer spends more time texting or talking to others during your time, ditch him. Ditto eating while training or looking around distractedly instead of focusing on the main priority: you.

Do your homework
Lance Watson, co-founder of LifeSport Coaching and a former national head coach for Triathlon Canada who led the Canadian Triathlon team to the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Games, has been coaching triathletes and runners since 1989.

He started working with Canadian champion runner Lucy Smith in 1993, helping her set long-term goals, establish training progressions and maximize her physiological talent. After that, Smith won 15 more National Championships, won two silver medals in duathlon and ran lifetime bests of 32:40 in 10K and 15:42 in 5000m, according to Watson. She is also now a successful running and triathlon LifeSport coach.

He knows finding a running coach takes a bit of work, but the research pays off.

Watson shared warning signs that could indicate your coaching or personal training experience isn’t panning out.

“The number one red flag is lack of communication,” he said. “A coach who isn’t communicating or answering your emails and calls is not on top of your program and how you are doing. Each athlete is unique and responds to training in his or her own unique way, so communication and regular two-way feedback is crucial.”

Sarah Ripplinger is a freelance journalist and communications professional living in Vancouver. She runs for fun, plays sports, bikes for transportation and/ or goes to the gym pretty much every day. Check out more of her work at and follow her on Twitter: @sarahripplinger.

Originally published in iRun magazine.

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