In recent years, trail running has grown in popularity.
Between 2010 and 2019 the number of events, the number of races per event and the number of participants increased exponentially.
Following the pandemic, 2020 was a transitional year with many races canceled or postponed for a year. In fact, 2021 is only now experiencing a slow gradual return to competitions (not everywhere in any case).
In parallel with the competitions and the growing number of participants, in the last few years, there has also been an exponential increase in the offer of preparation for trail-running by the so-called “coaches” or “trainers”.
Therefore, especially from people who have recently approached Trail Running, it has started to increase even more the number of times I’ve heard this type of questions: who is my ideal Trail-Running coach?
As a result, I tried to write some guidelines, especially for those who are new to trail-running. This article is mainly aimed at them, but also obviously at others and those who are coaches: I would be interested to know their point of view.
What are you looking for a coach for?
It seems trivial, but the starting point is to have a clear personal goal.
It should be something simple, measurable and concrete.
Trail-running is a discipline that can lead to many variants:
- Short distances (usually below 20 km)
- Medium distances (usually between 20 and 50 km)
- Long (or ultra) distances (usually between 50 km and 170 km)
- Endurance races (usually more than 170 km)
- Multi-stages (usually 3 days or much more in a row)
- Vertical races (usually with minimum 1000 m of positive gain)
- Sky-running (usually along rocky or very technical terrain)
And so on.
For each of these variants, it should be clear what you are training for and what your future coach should help you to reach.
In my opinion, there are always two types of macro-categories: a social-oriented and a competitive-oriented macro-category. Of course, in some cases, there are both.
The social-oriented category implies the potential following goals or wishes (of course, there might be more):
- I just want to enjoy the trails, sometimes running, sometimes walking. No competition planned;
- I just want to meet other people and spend few hours in the nature, maybe discovering new areas;
- I just want to be fit or lose weight;
- I just want to have fun and distress from work, family and other daily dynamics;
- I do not have a specific wish. I am only curious about what trail-running is and I just want to get familiar with newer equipment for me like backpack, sticks, specific shoes, and so on.
On the other hand, the competitive-oriented category implies the potential following goals or wishes (of course, there might be more):
- I want to be well prepared to participate to a specific race (see specific variants), both physically, mentally and about equipment to use;
- I want to finish my first trail running race (short & medium);
- I want to finish my first ultra or endurance race;
- I want to improve my previous results by certain minutes;
- I want to be in the first top 10 or top 50 or top 100. And so on;
Therefore, in my opinion, the very first step is to understand in which macro-category you think you belong to and, for each, what your goal/desire is.
Let’s assume that this “job” is done.
What comes next? Of course, the original question at the basis of this article.
How do I select my ideal Trail-Running coach?
Well, I will be unpopular now: do not select it just based on number of followers on social media! That’s not the best metrics to use.
In fact, there are very good coaches who are also very popular on social media. But conversely, there are also very popular coaches on social media, who are not “good” coaches.
Of course, social media can help at first instance to know “names” or “potential candidates as coach”, especially for beginners who might not be familiar with the Trail-Running world. But this is purely an entry door to follow the next steps.
Step one: ask for the official qualifications
This is the basic. Namely, anybody who is aiming to coach (whatever is the subject) should have a minimum level of qualification. In Trail-Running nowadays is possible to achieve specific and recognized qualifications after executing courses. Sport qualifications in general would also be sufficient, as they provide basic knowledge of the human body, of training techniques, of material, and so on. But it is somehow preferred a specific qualification for anything linked with the outdoor environment.
If the person you are looking at as a coach does not have these basics, well it is not a good starting point for you!
There are a lot of people that are good communicators and can use properly the current communication channels to “sell themselves” as coaches. But this will not help you!
Therefore, do not hesitate to ask for the official qualifications when you are searching for a coach.
That’s the step one, which for me is a necessary condition (probably ok for those who belongs to the first macro-category described before) but not sufficient when we are talking about “coaching” trail-running and especially if the target person to coach belongs to the second macro-category (the competitive-oriented one).
Step two: ask for the official and documented experience
When you come to this point, you have to align the feedback you get to your desired goal.
Namely, for example, if your target is to do a vertical race in less 30 minutes, it would make sense to ask advices/hints/guide to an “expert” of this specialty and not to the most experienced person in Endurance races. He/she might have the basic competence, but it is not assured that he has the specific experience to help reaching your goal.
The same concept applies for other examples.
For instance, I would have a lot of doubts to ask coaching for an ultra-endurance race to a person who has zero or almost zero experience with ultra distances, rainy days, windy days, in the snow, during the night, in hot/warm conditions, in cold/icy conditions, in altitude (above 2000m), in rocky conditions, on the sand, in the forest, and so on. Maybe he/she is really good and experienced for short and medium distances. But it would not fit to my desired goal.
He/she should honestly tell you: “Look, I have no experience with such type of trail-running. Therefore, I cannot properly coach you. Please contact a better suited trainer”.
Unfortunately, I met several time people “pretending” to teach or coach trail-running having just one year of experience (in some case even after having done only a couple of races) or having “just” done athletics or road-running.
Moreover, it is not only important “when” a person has started to do trail-running, but it is extremely important “how much” have been done since then!
Therefore, it is absolute mandatory that you ask for a sports CV (curriculum vitae) where it is documented his/her experience.
Usually official websites (like ITRA ITRA Public Site or DUV DUV Ultra Marathon Statistics (d-u-v.org)) also provide this information.
Getting familiar with them, could be a good hint before approaching the potential “coach”.
Step three: ask for the current and daily approach to trail-running
This step is not necessarily crucial when confronted to step one and two. In fact, there are a lot of “good” trail-running coaches which, over the years, have reduced dramatically their daily trainings to trail-running and dedicate more time to teach or coach.
However, it is important to know it since a coach cannot be only a theoretical person and should be also updated on the latest available equipment and, most important, he/she should have developed a personal experience before giving guidelines or advices to the “students”.
Not sure if this message is clear enough.
Let’s make an example, using myself as comparative person. I am an average trail-runner (My Trail Running Experience | EmigranTrailer) and I am not a coach at all and I would imagine that an “official” coach has more (for sure) or at least comparable numbers to mine. But not less.
Minimum kilometers per month? More than 350/400 km.
Minimum hours per month? More than 40.
Minimum positive gain per month (relevant for certain variants of trail-running)? More than 10000.
Multi-sport approach: running, hiking, biking, climbing, gym, etc.
And of course, these numbers can oscillate during the year, depending on personal or working situations. And please: do not use Strava has a reference! Not everybody (me included!) posts every single workout/training there or in similar platforms (note: I will publish something about this topic in the upcoming days). Use always the official / certified information that you can verify.
Going back to the point, why are these numbers important?
Because behind every kilometer or minute, there is always a learning phase (no matter how much experience you have) and there is always a test (the shoes, other equipment, nutrition, mental strength, etc.).
My simple equation is: to coach trail-running, you need to practice as a trail-runner. Pure theory does not work.
Step four: observe the health status of his/her “students“
Both in Italy and in Germany, in the last decade, sometimes I observed that a certain group of runners, following guidelines or training plans by the same coach, were either constantly or occasionally injured.
One case is fortuitous, two cases are a clue, three or more cases are not a good sign if you are going to select that coach!
Now, of course, it is not automatic that the root cause is in bad coaching style or training plan.
However, I usually see three possible reasons (simplifying):
- Bad luck;
- Bad training plan;
- Bad execution of the training plan;
I do not believe in bad luck.
I believe that a coach has to customize the plan to its own athlete (note: beware of coaches who give exactly the same training plan to everyone).
I believe that, if an athlete does not execute correctly the training plan or there is a lack of interactions and feedbacks, it is the duty of the coach to make variations and give newer directions to make it happens in a correct way. At least for the first two, three times. Then, if nothing changes, it is a lost case. 🙂
So, I think it is clear my point of view.
Step five: ask the potential coach about his/her failures
Failure is part to build up a proper experience.
It might sound strange but, theoretically, I would prefer to be coached by a person who has DNF (Did Not Finish) rather than by someone who tells me “I have never had a DNF during my career”.
Why this preference? In my experience, it is a crucial information.
In fact, DNF is not necessarily a bad thing.
When you have properly analyzed why it happened (few trainings, overtraining, distraction, stress, bad nutrition plan, injury and so on), you increase your knowledge and it is an important “coaching” point for the runners and athletes that follow you.
Never hide a DNF, if you have properly analyzed it.
Are there other factors to select the ideal coach?
Yes. Of course.
These other factors include the offer in terms of training plans, the prize, the reachability, the sympathy, the distance, the language, the collaboration with physiotherapists or other sports doctors, the frequency of practical lessons, and so.
But all these factors are secondary to the previous five steps.
Keep this in mind.
As said, this is my personal guideline for newbie or beginners in trail-running who have the desire to look for a coach and reach their own goals. It is nothing more and I hope someone find it useful.
I hope it is also useful for the coaches, since I have nothing against a proper coaching for trail-running. I know a lot of very good trail-runners who are also coaches and trainers. Some of them are also good friends. So, they know my opinion since years.
What I do not like are those who do not teach properly trail-running and/or define themselves coaches without having the required qualifications and experiences. I still believe that specific training and preparation counts much more than popularity, both locally and broadly.
And do not forget: whatever coach you choose, just enjoy what you do as trail-runner! This is primary above all.
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