The last two weekends have been full of anticipation and some emotion for me, waiting to see how two wonderful athletes I’ve been coaching got on in the their first ever ironman triathlons – one in Nottingham two weeks ago now and the other at Maastricht last weekend.

I’m hoping each will tell their own tales on the Stories page and I don’t want to steal the thunder of their brilliant achievements.   So this post is more about some reflections on the coaching experience.

Meet any group of private coaches and you can guarantee pretty soon they will swap stories of the challenges of coaching as we’d want it to be and we have all been trained to provide, on the one hand, and the reality of what our athletes bring to us on the other.  I remember early on in my coaching career being asked to help someone five weeks before his first triathlon who had realised he might need some help as he couldn’t yet swim.  At all.  (He did it!)

Fortunately my two would-be ironmen were better prepared, though for both their very first ironman represented a daunting challenge.  Without wishing to give too much away about their own stories, the contrasts and comparisons led me to reflect that there are perhaps at least three versions of coaching challenges:

  • first there’s what you might think of the standard, textbook challenge of figuring out how best to gradually build up to the chosen event, how to plot out each phase and then the mix of training within that; how to identify any particular areas of weakness or strength to work on; any specifics of the actual race…  all coming down to the practicalities of what training to do each day and then to keep a close attentive eye on how its all going, what adjustments are needed , when to back off or do more or address a particular need.  I have to say I love this kind of grappling with the analysis, devising a master plan and then mapping out from the big picture down to the day to day actions.  But it suggests a nice, clean and tidy starting point and clear end goal.  The next kind of challenge is likely to be more common.


  • in reality more often than not our athletes come with a whole mix of seemingly incompatible aspirations or commitments, hoping the grand plan will somehow accommodate them all and still deliver a great final result.  Or like my novice swimmer, they might come quite late on and with little time for gradual phased, perfect preparations.  This is much more like my two would-be ironmen.  One had also set his sights on completing a 50 mile ultra marathon over the gruelling South Downs Way a few months out from the ironman.  My starting point is very much to respect people's ambitions and aspirations and do all I can to support and encourage.  So the master plan needed to include a period of heavier distance running and then a strictly imposed period of rest, then walking before getting back into the running so as to ensure a proper injury free recovery and return to full training.  My other athlete came to me just 12 weeks out from their chosen ironman, having been following a 24 week programme in a book but with growing doubts and uncertainties.  Selecting out the elements that seemed to help, changing others and giving a clearer sense of structure, together with lots of encouragement and support became the priorities.

In a different context I recently talked through this kind of challenge with a friend from my Level 3 coaching course, Kate Head Coach at Manchester Tri and founder of Smiling Tri Coach.  What to do – should we, like some coaches, only take on those who fit into a prescribed text book view of the perfect or proper plan?  Perhaps some well established coaches can choose to be more selective about who they take on, in effect deciding who they regard as coachable and who might be a risk to their reputation.  We both felt though there is an immense richness in supporting people who come to us with a wide variety of aims, more often than not contradictory aspirations but at the heart of it hoping for attentive, expert support to achieve their goals.  And how much more rewarding to see someone surprise him or herself as well as others with what they can do.

  • and the third type of challenge?  This is where the unexpected, even within a modified, adaptable plan, happens.   For example, just a few weeks remaining of our truncated plan, at the peak of training my Maastricht bound athlete knocked her shins against her bike and somehow triggered all sorts of damage.  From there on we adapted radically the plans, took much more of a lead from her trusted physiotherapist and also devised a run/walk strategy for the day.

Some might see this as a bit of a disappointing scaling back of what to aim for and what could be achieved but in my mind it made the coaching challenge even more worthwhile and rewarding – and her achievement even more fantastic than it was already set to be.  Working more closely with physios and other experts is also all part of the direction I'm looking to take my coaching.

In this respect I'm also hoping this October to take on a few athletes for one to one coaching on a longer term basis.  This would allow us to plan and decide together what challenges to go for, looking beyond peaking for one major event - though I'm very happy to continue to provide this kind of coaching support too, as described above with all its different forms of challenge and rewards.

If you are interested in the longer term support, please get in touch and we can talk through what you'd like to achieve and the kind of support would work best for us.

In the meantime, watch the space on the Stories page and be ready to be moved and inspired.