Do You Need a Training Plan, a Coach, or Neither?

I believe that most athletes would like to have a coach if they could. Sure, some athletes prefer to figure stuff out on their own, but even those individuals usually do a lot of reading and would appreciate some degree of consulting from a more experienced or knowledgeable individual. Hiring a coach isn’t for everyone though. There are a lot of factors that go into deciding whether having a coach is the best option for you. In this article, I highlight the pros and cons of different approaches to training and preparing for endurance sports. While I don’t think there is one “right” way, I do believe that some approaches to training are “better” than others.


Self-Coached

There are two categories of people that should self-coach: athletes that have been training and racing for a REALLY long time and know their body well, or athletes that have absolutely zero goals and purely want to have fun. Cody Beals is a good example of a professional triathlete who has had a very successful career by self-coaching. You’ll see as you read his blog that he is also very analytical and tracks a lot of different metrics so that he can analyze whether the training is working or if he needs to adjust. However, there are a lot of people that coach themselves, who I argue would benefit from purchasing a training plan as part of their learning process. An athlete who has followed one or more training plans at some point in their development will better be able to self-coach in the future since they’ve learned some basic knowledge about how to train properly.


Some of the biggest mistakes I see self-coached athletes making are:

  1. The “squirrel” mentality. There are SO many different events, group training, and virtual options available that focusing on a specific goal or objective can be very difficult. It’s easy to get sidetracked for a few weeks or months with the latest “fun” activity, and in the process, the athlete will not progress or improve over the long haul. The “squirrel” mentality is a problem for coached athletes as well, but having a coach means that you have a person who can be your non-emotional voice of reason and hold you accountable.

  2. Poor intensity control. It’s easy to go hard in training, especially if you’re riding on Zwift! Many people who self-coach spend a lot of time training in higher intensity zones, which actually hampers their long-term development as an athlete. Stephen Seiler has built his entire career doing research on polarized training and many people are familiar with this methodology. Whether you are a big polarized fan or not (I am), it is well understood that you can’t get away with JUST doing 60 minute VO2 workouts year-round. At some point, you need to build your “base.” Whether you build your base with sweetspot training or a lot of Zone 2 work, it has to be built.


Below, I’ve listed a few pros and cons, as well as who I think should and should not coach themselves. The main takeaway: if you choose to self-coach, you should be very diligent in seeking out other resources to learn and increase your knowledge of endurance sport. Your local beer-drinking running buddy who says he didn’t get knee pain anymore when he started wearing “X” brand shoes doesn’t count as a resource. I’m talking about learning from coaches, scientists, and physiologists whose job it is to know this stuff.


Pros

  • Can be fun to figure training out on your own

  • A lot of information for learning OYO is available

  • Don’t need to communicate with anyone else

Cons

  • No way to know if what you’re doing is right or wrong

  • Easy to second-guess yourself

  • A lot of information is available, BUT it’s hard to know what is right or wrong information

  • Time intensive since much of your time is spent reading, studying, and analyzing

  • Higher risk of injury or overtraining

Who should self-coach

  • Someone who has been racing for a REALLY long time and knows their body well

  • Analytical type person who can test different methods and has good discipline with intensity control.

  • Someone who doesn’t have a specific goal or want to get faster

Who should NOT self-coach

  • Someone that has a busy schedule with a lot on their plate

  • Someone that needs help deciding which group workouts and race to fit in and which to skip

  • Most people

Training Plan

Purchasing a training plan is the most cost-effective and comprehensive method to getting direction in your endurance training. The biggest benefit to following a training plan is that it frees up a lot of mental energy around your training. Your only job becomes to “do the work” and follow the plan. In this sense, it’s similar to having a coach. Your “coach” is just a virtual one, who doesn’t talk to you but still tells you what to do. If you can stick to the plan, you’re probably going to get better. Like all knowledge available on the Internet, there are a lot of good training plans out there, but there are also a lot of bad ones. Here are my general recommendations when deciding which training plan to get:

  1. Pick one that’s built by someone you would hire to coach you if you could. Chances are that if it’s someone whom you respect and whose knowledge you admire, you’ll like the training plan they build and will be able to trust and follow it.

  2. Don’t be afraid to spend a few dollars. Paying $130 for a training plan is so much cheaper than registering for a race, a nice pair of cycling bibs, or your monthly grocery bill, that it’s worth spending a few extra dollars if it’s a plan you like and you trust the coach. I’m sure there are some really good free plans out there, but if the same person who puts out a free plan has a plan that’s not free, I would buy the not-free one, since the workouts probably have more details.

  3. Look for a plan that loads into TrainingPeaks and provides structured workout intervals customized to your speed and power. Again, this might cost a few extra bucks, but it’s worth it in terms of how specific the training plan becomes to you. A basic TrainingPeaks account is free and if you want to upgrade to Premium, you can have a whole host of analysis tools at your disposal. It’s well worth it.


To conclude, purchasing a training plan built by a knowledgeable coach is worth the money. The only time the training plan method fails is when a race gets canceled, your own schedule changes, or you get injured. Like during COVID. At that point, you’re out of luck. The good news is that you will still reap the fitness benefits from all the training you did, and if you purchased a TrainingPeaks training plan, then you have the plan in your library forever so that you can re-apply it at any future date.


Pros

  • Cost-effective

  • Provides structure and direction

  • Lots of really good training plans out there

  • Progression and periodization are built-in

  • Plans are built by a knowledgeable and experienced coach

Cons

  • Not customizable

  • No one follows up with you or holds you accountable

  • Inability to adapt to changes in personal schedule or real-world situations

  • No feedback, data analysis, or race planning

Who should buy a training plan

  • Someone new to sport who needs some direction

  • Self-disciplined individuals

  • DIY type who enjoys learning and tweaking their own training

  • Someone with a static weekly schedule

  • Someone with a single race goal for the season

Who should NOT buy a training plan

  • Someone who has an erratic schedule or travels a lot for work

  • Someone who wants to race multiple events and disciplines in a season

  • Someone who tends to miss days or needs a bit of extra accountability

  • Someone who wants to ask questions or be more engaged in the learning process

Hire a Coach

Like I said at the beginning, I really believe that most people would love to have a coach if they thought they could afford it. The biggest benefit to having a coach is that you are now working with a real human who gets to know you as an athlete and a person. A good coach will want to engage with you on a personal level. It’s a relationship and that relationship becomes most valuable over a long period of time. Having a coach by your side that can ride the ups and downs of life with you while helping keep you on track with fitness and sporting goals is immensely valuable. Today, most triathlon coaches act partially as “life coaches,” because life is not separate from training nor training from life. A coach helps to weave training and life together as seamlessly as possible. Of course, the athlete still has to train. Simply paying a coach doesn’t magically get you fit. The coach can’t get you out of bed in the morning. But the coach can listen and read your TrainingPeaks comments. He or she can review your data regularly and provide valuable feedback on how you are progressing. He/she can offer encouragement when the going gets tough, prepare a race execution strategy, or lend solace after a bad race or workout. Like any good relationship, it takes communication to succeed and both parties must communicate effectively for the relationship to work to its maximum potential.


One of the best examples I saw of this was last year when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck. I was coaching a group of athletes for the Boston Marathon and they were well prepared and fit six weeks out from the race. If they had been simply following a training plan, I’m not sure exactly how they would have responded, but I imagine they would have felt more lost than they did in the moment their race was canceled. As the coach, I worked hard to pivot our training goals, back off the intensity in their long runs, and reassess our plans for the season. To the athletes’ credit, no one missed a beat and they kept training, just with adjusted volume load and intensity distribution. As odd as it may seem, I felt more valuable as a coach during the months when there were suddenly NO races.


The benefit of a coach really shines through isn't when everything goes according to plan. It's when real-life and real-world conditions set in (like snowpacolypse last week)! A coach is most beneficial when you miss a few sessions or have a busy schedule at work. It's in those moments that having someone to navigate those stressors of life and optimize training is invaluable.


Pros

  • Highest level of customizable training available

  • Can easily adapt and adjust training load or objectives in real-time

  • Advanced race planning and post-race analysis

  • Progression over long-term commitment (years not months)

Cons

  • Highest cost

  • Not all coaches are good

Who should hire a coach

  • Someone who has a busy schedule and needs to be able to optimize their time spent training

  • Someone whose performance has stagnated or who has big goals and aspirations in sport

  • Someone who communicates well and likes to ask questions

  • Someone who wants to use their coach as a resource

  • Someone who has long-term goals over many seasons and years

  • Someone who wants to race multiple events and disciplines in a season

Who should NOT hire a coach

  • Someone who isn’t able to follow through with the workouts a coach gives them

  • Someone on a very tight budget

Resources


Self-Coach Resources

Training Plan Resources

Coaching Resources

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