The perils of self-coaching
Many athletes that I take on for coaching have been riding for a while. In fact, it's quite rare that I get someone who is brand new who wants to be coached to get to a racing level, though occasionally there are athletes transitioning to the dirt from other backgrounds (endurance running, road cycling, even motorsport!) who have reached a high level in that sport and aren't new to training, and are looking to fast-track their entrance into cycling.
But for the most part, I deal with athletes at various levels who are either self-trained, 'non-trained', or come from another coaching service, and please just note, this post just shares my own personal experience with these athletes.
Self-trained athletes are often the number crunchers; they have an idea about TSS, CTL and many other common coaching acronyms used to quantify training load and effort. They have a basic understanding of these concepts, and of some training zones and concepts to use in their own coaching, but often lack the experience and education to be able to pull off a whole season and make things work when they should. These athletes often have some understanding, and as a coach your job is to weave this into a program and really equip them with the training and confidence to ride and race well.
'Not trained' athletes are those that are adamant they don't train, but will often ride 5-10+ hours a week 'not training'. These athletes are often socially driven for riding, have a good network of other riders to link in to, and want to step up their participation and experience in the sport by increasing their fitness and perhaps racing. Often, coaching these athletes can bring huge rewards as they have the most to gain from learning about their physiology and all aspects of bike racing that they haven't previously engaged with.
Transitioning athletes are often fit and motivated to take on a new challenge in cycling, and while they have an understanding of coaching and training as it applies to their sport, coaching them is guiding them on their journey in cycling. Sometimes if they have come from another coach or discipline, these athletes can get almost 'stuck' between two different coaching styles, so communication about the process and dialogue is very important to keep the two-way street open.
The goals for all of these athletes obviously differ, but there are some pitfalls that all riders fall into, regardless of whether they are from a social or competitive background, when they attempt coaching themselves.
1. Number Slavery.
This is often from the more data focussed or self-coached athlete, who once read that as a rider who is domestically successful at the elite level they need to be crunching 1000TSS/week (ie: A lot of time on the bike). Without factoring in their kids, 50+ hour a week job, and other obligations they charge forward towards this number ascertained by a chart they found online, and inevitably crack under the enormous load and hate their bike.
What a coach does: A coach will look at the time you have available to train, your current (and historical) training data, and where you want to go, and plan a program to get you there that balances your responsibilities with your expectations. That being said, if you're 35 and have just started racing XCO and are looking to win big at an elite national series level while managing your two children and a full time job, you may have to be more reasonable in the time frame it takes you to get to where you want to be, but having a coach means you're more likely to get there in the end, while honouring the rest of your life commitments!
2. Information Confusion
For a new athlete out there, the internet is your oyster for training advice. You can find a bike session for every aspect of your cycling that you want to work on, but how does it all fit together?
What a coach does: You want to target marathon racing but you read that doing sprints was really good for you so you do most of your training sprinting at traffic lights on the commute to work...well it's not to say there is no benefit to this, but breaking it down there are many ways to make your training more specific and appropriate for the demands of the event. A coach has the know how and tools to analyse race demands and break this down into structured training sessions that target the specific systems and skills required for the event at hand.
3. An objective sounding board
One of the hardest things to do as a self-coached athlete or rider with goals, is to be objective about effort and intensity and how much is too much, and when it wasn't enough. Certainly this is probably the hardest thing I do, as an self-coached athlete myself! The risk for some people of 'not doing enough/riding intensely enough' can lead to overtraining or riding in incorrect zones leading to poor performance. For some, the stick really needs to come out and they need to have evidence of not training hard enough or in an effective zone shown to them (nicely!) in order to explain and motivate them to hit the right targets.
What a coach does: A coach can take an objective, big picture look at your program and can fit your training into this in order to assess whether you are training effectively. If you are sitting 25 watts higher than prescribed on your 4x10min efforts "feeling great" then written off for the next 2-3 sessions due to fatigue, you need someone qualified in data analysis to be able to assess this, and give you timely, tactful feedback. Likewise if you are 'feeling really good' hitting big digits when not required/called for a long way from your target race you may need someone to hold the reins a little to get you firing at the right time. Or perhaps you need a little kick up the bum because you're doing your 20min efforts at 230w because it 'feels good' but you really need them to be quite uncomfortable and sitting around 245w for the desired physiological adaptation.
4. Got your back
This is the big one, the important one. Coaching is more than crunching numbers and writing programs, it's sharing in the joys and occasionally the lows that cycling has. Your coach should have your back when the going gets tough, and be able to gently suggest that a few days off is more than appropriate, or be able to console and take courage and lessons from bad the bad days. Likewise, when it's all going well, no one will be happier for you than your coach. I for one revel in an athlete having a great race, smashing a new PB, or learning a new skill!
So there you have it, some reasons that a coach can untangle the confusing world of cycling training and be a driving force in your cycling success. It must be noted that communication and a good fit is of the utmost importance; there are athletes I will gel with instantly and others will take a bit longer, and some just won't fit and that's not a personal sleight at all, just the way we are all built differently. That's why I recommend having a talk with your prospective coach before going ahead with coaching, because it really is one of the most valuable things you can do for your riding.