When I first started running I would have been curious to know what the lifestyle of a professional running coach would entail. It’s an eclectic profession, of course, with characters ranging from Alberto Salazar whose position is funded by Nike’s multi-millions to the successful independent operations of Greg McMillan to semi-professional coaches attached to Athletics Federations or personal trainers dabbling in running. Coaching is a vocational career - greater riches are easily achieved in careers such as IT and Services - but can offer an interesting lifestyle.
So, I thought it might be fun for my readers to see a day in the life of a professional coach. I have been full-time at this work since July last year, having grown my company – ChampionsEverywhere – since 2011 first on a part-time basis with the safety net of a ‘secure’ IT job.
- 7 am – alarm rings and it’s time to get dressed and fed without waking Aoife and the little man
- 7:40 am – showered, watered, fed and dressed, and some mobility drills done and I hit the road for Tinahely for the first of a 6-week series of coached sessions we are doing on behalf of the local triathlon club
- 8:35 am – arrival in Tinahely and my friendly local contact Stephen Perry guides my car the last bit to the designated training grounds.
- 9 am – after inspecting the surrounds, we start off with 40 enthusiastic runners of all abilities from beginner to seasoned veterans. This was possibly the biggest group I have ever had to manage on my own but the local organiser is a great help and the grounds are perfect. My job is to keep things organised and running smoothly, answer questions and address problems as they arise during the session and, of course, ensure everyone understands and can execute the workout. Sometimes you get some running done yourself during these sessions but in this case it’s minimal as I cannot be distracted for long. For a big group I have chosen a simple warm-up and cooldown that we all do together.
- 10:30 – the session is all wrapped up and a take-away coffee later I am on the road back towards Laragh. My destination is the Glendalough Upper Lake where I am organising the ‘Glendalough Steady State League on behalf of my club – I have organised back-up in case I run late and cannot make it for the start at 11:30. Things go very smoothly and I am early – arriving at 11:15
- 11:15 am – I setup the starting area and wait for my co-marshals and Aoife to arrive to help get the race up and running.
- 11:30 am – runners begin to go on course and the stop-watch starts running for this handicap series. I get my own training done here – at 11:51 it’s my turn to do the long course and after a short warm-up I set out.
- 12:30 pm – with the race all done, our club goes for its traditional coffee and tea and some chat and banter to relax.
- 1:15 pm – I am expecting a client at 2 pm, so I head back to the house to get showered and to a quick omelette for lunch and check that everything in the lab is setup properly and working.
- 2 to 4 pm – Running technique assessment in the laboratory and retraining. While every runner is different, these sessions always begin by getting a brief history of the client and then filming them run. A few additional tests are completed to see where the runner’s weak spots are. Once we have a reasonably well-rounded picture, I teach the most important running exercises for the runner in question and we finish by refilming to see how far we have progressed.
- 4 pm to 5:30 pm – I write the follow-on email for the client who has just left and check our CRM system (Customer Relationship Management) and our Chat services to see there is nothing urgent. Other than that, this is time for a break, a cup of coffee and some mental downtime. Then I review my notes for the 1.5 hour call I have scheduled at 5:30 pm.
- 5:30 to 7 pm – Call with a client to review the last periods training and discuss the changes and plans going into the next period. This is done with screen sharing so we can look at online training records together and share any information either I or the client want to show the other. It’s a digital version of sitting with the coach over the dinner table I like to think.
With the last call done, it’s time to call it a day and start preparing the dinner, relax and get our son to bed.
A regular day?
There’s really no such thing in this profession which I suspect is part of the allure for most who dream or dare venture into it. What amateur running coaches should know first of all is probably this: you have to set your mindset that you will generally be working at the times when you used to have your brain set in ‘play mode’ or ‘training mode’. This is not as inflexible as it sounds – being your own boss allows you to plan your training quite flexibly but the best times to deliver your work is also often the best time to train and this includes weekend’s naturally.
What you should know if you want to 'go pro'
Also, the professional coach cannot simply know about physiology, training, coaching and so on but also needs to become quite proficient in marketing, social media, accountancy, price setting, negotiation, networking, video and document editing, digital media and much more. Because you’re generally a ‘one-man company’, you need to be prepared to learn every skill that there may have been a specialised position for if you worked for a large multinational like I did. If you’re successful enough to hire or partner with people, then you also need those skills to go with everything else. So for aspiring coaches or fitness professionals remember: it's not what you're passionate about that will make you happy or unhappy in a job and quite often making a job of your hobby is the single worst decision you will ever make. Why? Well, once you do something as a job, it still becomes a job even if the topic matter is interesting. Job satisfaction and personal happiness comes from other sources and primarily being competent and successful at what you do. So it's better to be successful at something that doesn't interest you all that much than failing miserably at what you love - so if coaching or fitness careers is something you're interested in be prepared to learn a lot of skills and do a lot of activities that you may not enjoy.
Coaching a group or a workshop is the easy part - especially if coaching comes easy to do you - but running the business around it may catch a lot of new entrepreneurs off guard. You need to be comfortable with uncertainty - how much you will earn each month is never certain and you cannot stop to be complacent for a second. The fantastic workshop or 'brand new technique' that is giving you an advantage right now will be what everyone does for pennies a few years down the line. You will need to never stop educating yourself and continuously have a hunger to improve. If you read the 4-hour work week (I did) then you may have been tempted by the concept of 'Income Auto-Pilot'. This sort of thing does not exist in the coaching world - nor much in any other business. You won't grow a thriving company that gives you and your family security on 4 hours per week. You need to pretty much live and breathe the project and be prepared to make many sacrifices. In the early years of your project, you will likely find that you have less time for training and for your family than you did when you were full-time employed (this is obviously the case if you take the 'safe option' and build your new career on the side while working in your current role. If your top priority is improving yourself as a runner and getting personal bests, I can only repeat the advice Barry Minnock gave me years ago: DON'T COACH. Coaching means being passionate about the success of others. Being successful personally as a runner requires huge degrees of selfishness not compatible with the coaching role - get your own success first. If you go the coaching role first be prepared that you will never be able to commit all your resources to your own success. This is fine if you're willing to accept this.
The most successful coaches were often not very successful runners for the simple reason that top performers tend to be quite different from normal folk and their ways do not always translate across to others. The skills required to be a successful performer and to coaching successful performers are largely different. You see the rare overlaps (Guardiola - perhaps) but more exceptions (Benitez, Brother Colm, Jurgen Klopp). Even my own 'hero' Lydiard was not a top athlete (merely a competitive one) - he possessed certain interpersonal skills that made him the coach he was.
During weekdays, I suppose I could call myself a ‘modern dad’ as I take care of my son until 10 am every day when he is picked up by the babysitter. Then my workday begins – generally with our online work – supporting training plans, answering emails, posting information and so on but sometimes early consults with clients arriving 10:30 or 11 am. I found early on that to be efficient, it was best to train straight away once Cillian (my son) got picked up as this allowed me to wrap up training and shower before lunch and then eat straight away. I don’t pick him up until 6 pm which leaves me a nice long stretch from 1 or 2 pm to 5:45 pm for focused work. If I have afternoon consults my wife takes over ‘pick-up duty’ and for evening consults, there’s a simple ‘baby hand-over’. Generally, I do not believe in regular work into ‘family hours’ so I keep post-7 pm work down to the few occasions where it is absolutely necessary.
We do leave in an age of technology, though, and the aspiring professional coach should be ready to deliver WhatsApp answers at various times of the evening if that is pre-agreed with the client. Mostly, however, good planning and communication can avoid the unfortunate situation where a coach or trainer loses control of the border between private life and work and begins to ‘work all the time’. This is not unique to professional coaching, of course, as every industry suffers from this issue since the advent of laptops and SmartPhones.