Choosing A Coach

Should you get a coach for your ultra marathon training? Only you can answer that question. If your answer is ‘yes’, then I have some ideas and direction to share with you.

As I've interviewed coaches, it's become clear that there are enormous differences in the approaches among coaches for ultra-marathon runners. For example, I've asked whether terms used in traditional run training (<26.3, track) such as ‘speed work’, fartleks, striders, tempo runs, etc. played a role in respective coach’s training prescription plans. From one coach, I got ‘never’ and from another I got ‘all of them’. Polar opposites! Do you incorporate cross-training?…’no’…’absolutely’ What does a training week look like?…’the same workout over and over’…’variety’… Are you getting the idea here? Coaches can approach their craft with training programs that would be considered incompatible with one another.

No approach is best in any absolute sense, assuming that all the foundational principles of training are in place. But, relative to you, one will be far better than the other. So, how do you go about selecting the coach who know how to figure that out you? First, what not to do. Do not, do not, do not choose a coach based on who else they are coaching, their own success in ultras, or the results of their athletes. The first two of those may be fairly obvious. But, the third may be surprising to some. Allow me to clarify. Some athletes are gifted and will be successful with any program that a) they stick to and b) pushes them hard. These ‘elites’ are the ones we tend to hear about and the ones who you might be tempted to base your decision upon because they were coached by X. Most likely, you are not one of those so gifted and will not have the same outcome. So, what should you do?

The most important part of your decision is finding joy. Dig deep and answer the question, “What am I aiming to achieve for which I want to hire a coach?” Say what comes to mind first, then keep digging until you understand what's going to truly bring you joy in your running. Notice that this is not about a number or a race, it's about the journey that brings you joy and fulfillment. Numbers are byproducts of the optimal journey. In your coach, you need to find a person that will, along with your dedication and hard work, guide you in achieving your potential and experiencing all the joy that running has to offer you, for the reasons that you derive that joy. If you want/need a coach to help you get there, read on.

At this point, you might want to start researching coaches. You’ll be interested in which ones have run race Y and which ones have coached athletes in race Z, or similar. You might find web pages to read philosophies of the coaches. Of course, you’ll listen to Science of Ultra podcast episodes, especially those where I interview coaches. All of that's fine. But, it's no substitute for contacting them directly. From my podcast episodes, you’ll learn a ton about the approaches of respective coaches. You may be able to immediately realize that a particular coach will just not work for you, and that’s fine. Contact several potential coaches, give them a brief summary of your ultra/running background, lifestyle, and aspirations; be brief but thorough. Then ask them about whether they might be a good fit and why. 

This enterprise must be a partnership grounded in communication and personalization. It's not the coach (boss) and athlete (worker) sort of relationship you may have had when you were young. In this decision, you're putting a massive amount of trust and expectation in their hands. Communication is key to your success. A red flag for concern, in my opinion, is any coach that limits your communication with them as a feature of the coaching 'level' you're buying; you can cross them off your list immediately because you deserve better. Personalization is the path to your potential. How will they assess your adaptations and progress to constantly seek the most efficient training strategies for you? How will they analyze your responses to different workout strategies to ensure that your program is tailored optimally for you?

Sometimes, the right coach is the one that has an approach that scares you a little bit. If you have a big goals, it's going to take big effort to achieve them, and that generally means pushing yourself in ways that can be scary. This is where the most important facet of your relationship becomes critical, trust. You must trust your coach and you must trust that their prescriptions are the best approach for you. I had a soccer coach many years ago that I would have done anything for; my trust in him was absolute. I had a running coach that I stuck with for nearly a year after realizing that his approach was myopic and based on outdated theories. In the former scenario, I shined. In the later, I became a weaker, slower, and more injury-prone athlete.

You’ll now have your list down to 2 (3 at most). At this point, you must ask yourself which coach is the one that will keep you growing. You may need the sort of coach who will recognize when you need a verbal kick in the butt. You may need a coach that empathizes with some particular aspect of your life and has a very motivating demeanor in finding solutions that will continue to move you forward. As you can see, now is the time to decide which, of your final choices, you will be able to work with best. Most likely, you'll have a 'gut' feeling about who is best for you. By this time, it will be clear, if you listen to that voice deep inside, which coach is the one for you.

I’m here for you. While I'm a coach, I want you to find the best fit for you, and I'm happy to recommend others to consider. E-mail me at

Good luck!

Shawn Bearden