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How to Coach Endurance Athletes Who Aren’t Racing for Success

BY Cody Stephenson

Now more than ever, athletes are looking for training plans or coaching to achieve goals outside of sanctioned events. Are you up for the challenge?

Two quick questions for you:

  1. Do athletes have to be training for a race to need a coach?
  2. Do you think you can only help an athlete training for a race?

If your immediate response is “yes,” you aren’t alone. Most coaches and athletes associate working with a coach with having a specific and official event goal in mind.

But not all athletes want to — or can — pin on a number for an official event.

Those Who Can’t Race, Can Still Train

There is a growing — and still mostly untapped — market of athletes looking for training plans or coaching to achieve goals outside of sanctioned events. If you open your mind to coaching or creating plans for athletes who aren’t training for specific races — or whose races have been canceled — you may find you have a much easier time getting new clients and even keeping existing clients on-board when their goal race is completed or canceled.

 Think about ways that you can provide value in a training plan for:

  • Athletes who don’t have easy access to official races — such as those stationed on military bases or who work in parts of the world without frequent endurance events
  • Current clients whose races have been canceled and don’t want to waste their current fitness and motivation.
  • Current clients who can no longer commit to bigger races because of changes in their work or family life that make it too difficult to afford or find time to travel
  • Athletes that are more interested in “social competition” 
  • Athletes that just want to see improvement, achieve milestones, set personal records and challenge themselves outside of competition.

Most athletes still want the same things from training and coaching: setting goals, getting guidance and encouragement, seeing improvement and having fun. They are just doing it without a race number and registration fee. The techniques, communication and methods for coaching these athletes are primarily the same as what you are already doing as a coach. One of the main differences is that you may have to do a little more work with your athlete without a sanctioned event to provide a concrete goal to clarify their goal and give them something to aim for. Here are some examples of non-race goals and events you can help athletes prepare for through training plans or one-on-one coaching.

First-Time Finisher

First 5k? Marathon? Century? Maybe even a first Ironman? These are common goals for athletes buying training plans and hiring coaches. Just because athletes typically choose to complete these by participating in an event doesn’t mean they can’t do it on their own. You can help the athlete choose the timeframe, course, and the rest of the “race” day logistics. 

Bonus tip: For athletes looking to complete an IRONMAN distance race but aren’t quite ready, you can spread it out over three consecutive days to build confidence and make a single-day attempt seem more attainable. We’ll leave it to you and the athlete to decide if they earned a tattoo.

Personal Records

The natural evolution of completing a defined distance race is to try to do it faster. For athletes motivated by the stopwatch more than the other aspects of official racing, you can help them set their best time without uncontrollable factors (like weather, racer traffic, or misleading course profiles). PR attempts are an excellent option for highly-motivated athletes looking for concrete outcome goals but who may not have access to as many events. Like the First-Time Finisher, you can help them choose the course and the best day or conditions for an attempt.

Setting a PR for a defined race distance works well for road runners, but this goal doesn’t have to be limited to those distances. Trails runners and cyclists can choose any course or Strava segment to set a goal for. Fastest Known Times (FKT) attempts on famous courses have become almost as prestigious among mountain bike racers and trail runners as actual race results, which have led to personal FKT attempts for athletes at every level. For cyclists that love to climb, you can also help them train for an Everesting attempt — climbing 29,377 feet in a single session by completing laps on the same climb. 

But once you get athletes trying to do their best on their local courses and segments, you may find them quickly looking to show off their new fitness with the next goal type…

Social Competition (aka: How to Beat Your Friends)

Just because an athlete isn’t training for an official race doesn’t mean they aren’t looking for some friendly competition. If you coach local athletes or a few in the same remote location, you can play an unofficial race promoter and coach. These can take on any number of formats. From short and simple to complex season-long series. Here are a few options for these ‘un-events’:

  • Single-segment in a single day — The winner is the fastest time on a predetermined day. Coach them for a big peak.
  • Single-segment with an open timeframe — Leaves the day up to the athletes, which provides them with more flexibility and can give an advantage to those who are deliberate about choosing conditions.
  • Multi-stage race — Why stop at a single course or segment? Choose three or more and set up a stage race (lowest combined time) or omnium (points-based). Choose a short flat course, a rolling power course and the most famous climb in the area to give everybody a chance to have a good day.
  • Series — Use one of the above formats, but spread it out and reward consistency. You could do six rounds over a summer or even have one round each season for a year, which will give your athletes a long-term goal, get them out and training during times of the year when the weather may be hurting their motivation, and help them get used to different conditions.

Even if you set up one of these un-events for just one of your athletes, they will invite their friends, and you may find those friends looking for training plans or coaching before too long. While seeing faster times than their friends should be the biggest reward, don’t be afraid to add more to encourage and motivate them. Mentions on social media, athlete highlights on your website, gift cards, homemade medals and even a month of free coaching can make these fun and engaging.

Training Challenges

Finally, what can you do for athletes that aren’t as motivated by concrete outcome goals like finishing a distance or setting a new fastest time? Some athletes get the most satisfaction out of the training process. You can help those athletes set and achieve goals as well. These athletes want to build up their fitness and mental toughness to complete a training objective that might push them to their limits. These can be official challenges, like the Tour of Sufferlandria from The Sufferfest, or unofficial, like getting 1000 TSS or 20 hours or 50,000 feet of elevation gain in a single week. Since many of these goals are self-defined, you and the athlete can choose when to attempt them so that you may accelerate and delay your training timeframes based on an athlete’s progress.

Coaching or creating plans for athletes who aren’t training for traditional races will present unique challenges. If you stay creative and focus on the athletes, you will also find a rich source of new clients and a way to keep clients who aren’t racing in the immediate future.

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About Cody Stephenson

Cody grew up racing mountain bikes in Durango, Colorado where he developed a passion for endurance sports, science, math and technology. He switched to the road and track while racing for Fort Lewis College, where he also managed to get a couple of science degrees. Now he gets to write and talk about his favorite topics every day as Education Program Manager at TrainingPeaks. When he’s not helping coaches learn to leverage technology to reach their goals he’s trying to become as good of a mountain bike racer as he was when he was 13 years old.

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