A Discussion on Training Plans vs. Coaching

Written by Coach Brett and Coach Steve

This article will discuss the differences between using training plans and hiring a coach as well as outline the benefits and drawbacks of each. Furthermore, at the end of the discussion there will be 12 statements by athletes as to why they chose to work with a coach or chose to go with a training plan.

First and foremost it must be stated that training plans are not coaching and athletes following a training plan must understand that they are not being coached by a professional. However, most triathlon and endurance coaching companies offer training plans. The benefits of training plans are:

  • they are less expensive than individualized coaching.
  • they provide guidance for new athletes as well as those athletes that cannot or choose not to invest in coaching.
  • they generally lead to improved performance when compared to unstructured training.
  • they allow a wider range of people to experience the sport of triathlon in a more structured way than training on their own.

A well respected coach posted on the USAT coach’s forum that she offers training plans at no charge on her website as an avenue to identify new prospective athletes and to help athletes get started in the sport of triathlon. This is a great reason to have training plans because not all athletes can afford to pay for personalized coaching and she made the important distinction that the training plans that are offered are not coaching.

The drawbacks of training plans are:

  • they only work to their full potential if you are exactly the same type of athlete (physiologically and mentally) the training plan was originally written for.
  • they ignore the uniqueness of the individual athlete.
  • they do not take into account that an athlete will have a sick day, an injury, an emergency, family trip, or any other reason for missing workouts
  • there is no accountability to one specific person.

Having the experience of training a wide range of athletes from newcomers to the sport (with varying abilities and time available to train) to elite athletes; we can state that all of those athletes have different bodies that respond to training stress differently. Postulating that human beings are so similar that an athlete can reach their potential by simply providing a range of training plans that an athlete can choose from or that a coach can provide them is disingenuous and arguably borders on fraud. When an athlete is coached individually it takes a lot of time for the coach each week but providing a training plan to multiple athletes does not. It is no surprise why almost all coaches offer training plans. Some coaches have even gone as far to admit that when they looked at the maximum number of athletes they could coach individually and the amount of revenue those coached athletes would generate they realized they could not raise a family or live the lifestyle they desired so they either moved entirely to a training plan system or offered training plans in addition to individualized coaching.

So why are training plans inferior to individualized coaching? One example will help make this clear. A training plan will often consist of about 50 percent of the training to occur on the bike. The rationale is simple because about 50 percent of a triathlon consists of the bike leg. What if the athlete is an extremely talented cyclist, but poor runner or swimmer? There are some training plans that do put extra emphasis on an athlete’s weak discipline, but what happens if during the training plan this weak discipline now becomes the strong one? Taking this one step further, it is not uncommon for an athlete to have a physiological/performance limiter within a discipline. The athlete may be a relatively weak runner compared to cycling, but the specific weakness may be the aerobic capacity of the athlete and not the lactate threshold of the athlete. So now an athlete would need to (1) identify the very specific limiter within the sport and not just the discipline itself, (2) find a training plan that addresses the weak discipline as well as the limiter within that discipline, and (3) have the training plan structured in such a way so that it switches emphasis when the discipline is no longer the limiter (which is impossible to know ahead of time).

Training plans fall short also when training day(s) are missed unexpectedly. If an athlete misses a day or several days, what do they do? Far too often we have heard of athletes that are following a training plan become injured or sick or go on vacation and then wonder what to do. There are many coaching companies that do allow consultation if this situation arises and this is definitely a step up from the generic training plan.

Now let’s discuss individualized coaching. The benefits of coaching are:

  • training zones and future training can be adjusted without the need to wait until the next testing protocol
  • it is designed for the individual athlete and the individual athlete’s unique physiology, schedule, and goals.
  • if an athlete becomes injured or ill, etc. the training can be adjusted moving forward to take into account the injury, illness, or otherwise missed training.
  • there is accountability for the athlete to one specific person.

The drawbacks of coaching are:

  • that it is significantly more expensive that training plans.
  • that it requires detailed feedback from the athlete on how the workouts went.
  • that it requires the athletes to be committed and complete the workouts as prescribed.

Since coaching is designed for the individual athlete, this provides superior results when compared to a training plan (when this coaching is done by a qualified professional that has knowledge of exercise physiology). By way of example, a knowledgeable coach will adjust training zones and workouts without waiting until the next testing protocol, which allows training to constantly evolve with the corresponding increased fitness. This is something that cannot occur with training plans. This continually training evolution is the hallmark character of coaching that truly differentiates coached training versus training plans. This includes adapting the training based on tests sets, progress as observed via training logs (HR and wattage or pace data), and the athlete’s strengths and weaknesses (in terms of disciplines and physiology).

Here are a couple of examples to further illustrate this point. One of the most frequent tests Brett performs is the bike lactate threshold test. This is a graded exercise test that evaluates the relationship between blood lactate, HR and power. The results of the test includes the athlete’s lactate threshold (which is a strong predictor of performance), and the athletes peak power output (4 minute power output) otherwise known as VO2max power output (1, 2, 4, 5). In analyzing the results it can determined if the athlete should be spending more time training to develop his or her lactate threshold or if the athlete should be performing more VO2max intervals to develop peak power output. Furthermore, the curvature of the lactate profile is analyzed in conjunction with the athlete’s preferred race distance; and then training is designed based on this information. This is the same type of testing and progressive coaching that takes place at the Olympic training center. By analyzing these test results, a coach can design specific training to address specific limiters. Not just sport specific limiters, but physiological limiters within each sport.

Another example is while analyzing the athletes’ training data, one of the most important pieces of data analyzed is the relationship between heart rate and the workload (pace or power) and training effects (decreased heart rate at a given workload) over time are identified. A common run workout is one mile run repeats at zone 4 intensity. The workout usually has specific run paces to target to ensure the athlete is at the top of zone 4 during the one-mile intervals. Over time the same pace will lead to a lower heart rate (HR) due to training effects. While analyzing the training logs, decreased HR will be observed at the given pace, and future training will be adjusted so that the athlete needs to run the intervals at a faster pace in order to maintain the same HR. Depending on the type of training the athlete is working on; other intervals (marathon pace, repeats, and VO2max intervals) can be adjusted from this feedback. Furthermore, if the athlete can successfully hit one type of interval (threshold), but not another interval (VO2max), then training can be adjusted to work on the weakness. This adaptability, even without test sets, is what truly differentiates coaching from training plans. The feedback gained from detailed training logs is extremely valuable and leads me to on of the biggest benefits of coaching and the primary reason knowledgeable coaches continue to encourage their athletes to be as detailed as possible in their post-workout descriptions.

Different athletes respond to training stress differently and also recover differently. One athlete may respond best to one recovery day every seven or ten days whereas another athlete may respond best to a recovery day every five days. An athlete who is single with little to no family commitments that is working part-time should receive different training than an athlete who is married and/or with family commitments who also works full time. A coach should write training based on how the individual athlete is responding to training while taking into account life’s commitments.

Injury management is another are where working with a coach is superior to following a generic training plan. A coach can adjust training if an athlete develops an injury such as a sore hip, knee, or develops ITB syndrome. For example, the coach can substitute running with SPECIFIC aqua-run workouts (3) and a slight shift in focus to the sport disciplines that do not aggravate the injury can occur.

To summarize, there is a major difference between hiring someone to provide a training plan and hiring someone to be your coach. The major drawback to training plans is the lack of adaptability while the major drawback to coaching is the cost. Coaching does cost more than training plans, but the saying is just as valid now as ever; “you get what you pay for.” The main difference between having a coach and following a training plan is the adaptability and continual adjustment that occurs with coaching versus a training plan where 12 or 16 weeks are laid out in advance. The adaptability, which is unique to the individual athlete, is the major benefit of hiring a coach. The major benefit of using a training plan is the low cost. There are numerous free training plans for essentially any type of race or race distance available online.

It is important to state that training plans are not bad but they should not be used or expected to provide similar results as following the guidance of a knowledgeable coach. There are numerous benefits to them as outlined in this article. It the professional opinion of the authors that one needs to view (1) training plans, (2) training plans with accessible modifications from a qualified coach, and (3) coaching, all on a continuum.

Finally, a few athletes were asked why they chose a coach or a training plan. Here are excerpts from their feedback:

Athlete #1 (chose to hire a coach)

I believe you get what you pay for. I see it everyday in my business. From quality of product to the level of service, I strongly believe this.

I have done training plans for running events but really didn’t get the one-on-one feedback I was looking for, so I was always questioning myself.

For my goal of doing an Ironman, I wanted something that was customized for me based on testing various thresholds and performances along the way. Seeing if progress is being made, measuring that progress and then altering if need be.

I also think you need some level of accountability (though personally I am very self-motivated) and feel you don’t get that with a training plan. Only a coach can tell you particular feedback on the specific workout you just did. Or insist you do something ‘harder’ or ‘easier’.

Knowledge and experience is another positive for hiring a coach. When questions arise you have a source you can go to for answers. They know you and your situation and can address it the best way possible…from technique to educational they become your go-to-source.

The benefits for me far out way the cost differences.

- structure to my workouts, for my specific needs
- motivation to keep me moving forward
- successful in helping me meet my goals

Athlete #2 (chose to hire a coach)

“For me, one of the biggest reasons is the customization that a coach brings to fit my actual work and race schedule, than a pre-ordained plan. I feel that working with you, I’m able to achieve more, with the same training time, through a plan that is customized to me, than a generic off-the-shelf plan. I know there are many similarities between me and xxxxx’s plans, but there are quite a few differences as well, working on improving our respective weaknesses, which a generic plan wouldn’t be prescribing.

I think for many, especially athletes early in their careers and planning for shorter distance racing for fun, a general plan/program is possibly a better value. For me, I want to reach for my ultimate potential, and using a coach to tailor a plan specific to my weaknesses and strengths and work schedule allows me to get closer to achieving that potential. Especially since my goal is to be competitive at the Half Iron and Full Iron distance of racing. The more competitive you want to be, the more working with a coach is important, to help tune/tweak a program to specifically fit an individual and their goals.

There is also the ease that comes from having someone else “do the work” in terms of analyzing and planning what is needed. It is difficult to be truly objective with one’s self. A coach is much more objective about what training is needed, and prescribing it. Trying to work up my own plan to achieve the same results would require cutting into my training time.”

Athlete #3 (chose to hire a coach)

1) Wanted something more personal that was fit to ME than a generic training plan.

2) Having a coach oversee what I was doing would help me to work on my limiters, instead of doing the things that I really like to do all the time.

3) Better chance at getting to the starting line injury free. Avoid overtraining.

4) Ability to ask questions and better understand how fitness and physiology work

5) Would like to dabble in coaching myself, and it will be much easier having been coached

6) Wanted someone local (or somewhat local) I could talk to about race strategy, nutrition, and anything else.

7) Learn from someone that has experience in all distances to learn from their good races and bad races.

Athlete #4 (chose to hire a coach)

“Quality – A coach has made my training more manageable, which means I can do more of them. Training wasn’t bad with a self-coached workout, just not as good. Plus a coach holds you accountable asking about workouts and adjusting them based on how things are going.

Adjustment period – I would say that it surprised me how long it got used to having a coach. Getting to know each other, learning strengths and weaknesses.

Pick a coach that compliments you – I have the endurance, I don’t need someone telling me to got out and ride 6 hours what I do need is someone saying how to ride that 6 hours. As a specific example your science background and number crunching augments an area of weakness in my knowledge base and area of interest. I don’t think I need lots of “encouraging” words. Many athletes need the encouraging words so they should find a coach accordingly does that make sense

Realize that a coach isn’t going to do the workouts for you. You need to provide feedback on the workouts.”

Athlete #5 (chose to follow a training plan)

1. I felt I needed more experience in order to benefit from hiring a coach

2. When I paid for plans I felt like I needed to do exactly what the plan called for.

3. Trying to keep budget for triathlons low.

4. The best benefit I enjoyed from a coach was the questions answered and the human element of training with a coach.

5. One benefit from purchased training plans I liked was the integration with BT website.

Athlete #6 (chose to follow a training plan)

As far as reasons for the training plans vs. coach.

1) wife won’t approve the $$

2) I am a hard head and I like to setup my own plan and research things

3) I am not a specialist and I am just trying to achieve 1st time things. For example just finish an IM. Then I just wanted to do 10% better. For the tried try I would like to do 10% better again. I do not have a huge goal like qualifying for Kona that would require resources far past my own analytical skills.

4) I am hardheaded and do not listen to others coaching well.

5) I believe that academic and physical achievement is 90% persistence and personal fortitude. It is hard to teach someone to push through their comfort zone(s).

Why I would use a coach:

1) I would like to hire a coach for attempting to qualify for Boston. I need pointers far past my skill level to achieve that goal.

2) a coach (or person) that has “been there” is great for motivation and confidence

3) work on form and/or diagnose problems. Usually in one-time coaching sessions. That is the best thing I have found from the SCTC club.

Athlete #7 (chose to hire a coach)

“I decided to hire a coach because a pre-written plan could not talk back to me and answer my questions! That is worth its weight in gold.”

Athlete #8 (chose to hire a coach)

1) I have used online plans such as Hal Higdon for half marathons and modified versions of that for my first marathon. I believe they will “get the job done” as far as completing the event, especially for a beginner. With that said, I was looking to make significant improvements on speed held over a long distance, in a short-time period. I believe I needed a customized program so that I could be pushed to the maximum without getting injured; i.e. not have too easy of training so I wouldn’t hit my goal but also not be overworked so I would be injured and then have to take time off. I did not have time for trial-and-error otherwise I would miss my goal. This also includes a flexible plan that adapted to my progress vs. a cookie-cutter plan that was fixed for an 18 wk+ period. I suppose I was especially sensitive to a customized plan because I was looking to make a big improvement in a short period of time.

2) I needed a plan that could be tailored to my schedule which means I could make some real-time adjustments. I also wanted a challenging training plan for schedule based on a working parent, i.e. not on an athlete who is paid to work out 2x a day, take a nap, etc.

3) I wanted to talk to a “real person” – I tend to have a lot of questions. I wanted feedback on my progress. Also I like to hear the coach’s opinion considering he has real “hands-on” experience in this area. I like to hear “tricks,” tips, etc. including mental/sports psychology behind things – which I believe is important in endurance events.

4) I wanted someone to coach me on the track. I find this is a workout that can be more effective in person (although I know not everyone can be coached in person due to proximity issues).

Athlete #9 (chose to hire a coach)

“I wanted someone who could monitor my progress and make changes to the plan based on the result. I think this is especially important for triathlon where you probably have one sport that you excel in and one you don’t. Most canned plans assume some generic level of expertise in all three sports. I wanted someone who would push me/encourage me when I needed it (e.g. swimming or TTs) and sit on me when I need to back off and recover. “

Athlete #10 (chose to hire a coach)

“HA- well because I think I am really smart and I know what I am doing!! (I still think I am pretty smart and know what I am doing) That and you can’t tell your plan that you are tired or that your biking work outs are too easy and it will spit out new stuff for you. A coach will hopefully alter your training to give you as an athlete the most benefit. I also think having a coach gives me as an athlete another link in my motivation…just someone else you want to prove yourself as a good athlete to.”

Athlete #11 (chose to hire a coach)

“For me as a personal trainer or fitness professional, whichever you prefer, I know the benefits of having a coach compared to a training plan. A training plan typically is much harder to adjust as training progresses, especially for people that aren’t familiar with training at all, whether it is for endurance events or general health and weight loss. They are usually cookie cutter to an extent and can’t take everything into account that goes on with the athlete/client. If a client or athlete slacks off for a week or two it’s hard to adjust a training plan for the regressions that will occur, and it will occur, whereas with a coach or trainer these regressions or short set backs can be overcome fairly quickly as opposed to trying to play “catch up” with your training plan. People as athletes or clients are not perfect and set backs will happen and often times do even if everything is followed to a T. Therefore it’s important to be able to make these minor adjustments on the fly and recognize them as they occur to keep things progressing in a positive direction so the client/athlete keeps improving.

For me personally a training plan won’t check up on me and keep me motivated and accountable, whereas with a coach you do get the accountability, motivation, and support. I’m no different than my clients or the regular person. Am I in good looking shape yes, but I have the same problems many other people have. I can come up with a million excuses to skip a work out, and I’ll have a coach to answer too when I do miss a workout, (Sunday’s ride will be hard to get in I have a friend coming in for the weekend.) I know what I want to do and accomplish, but I recognize the fact that I probably won’t be as efficient and effective at coaching myself, and I want that unbiased view and opinion of another professional. I’ve also thought about coaching people in the future and wanted the coach athlete experience and potential mentor.”

Athlete #12 (chose to hire a coach)

“My reasons for hiring a coach versus paying for a training plan were simple; I wanted to become a winning athlete that was not constantly plagued by frequent injuries. Triathlon is a complicated sport to become proficient at because you are training for not one, but three very different sports. I knew if hired a personal coach I would more than likely make it to the podium this year. Not only did I remain injury free this season, I met all of my personal goals and then some. Without the guidance of my coach I do not think my season would have been as successful as it was.”

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