Why you should consider employing a coach

If you want to reach your goals, should you get yourself a coach? For me, the answer is a resounding YES!

I know, I know… As soon as you read that, it’s likely that your first thought was: “Well he would say that wouldn’t he?” I do, after all, make a living from dishing out nutrition and fitness advice to people, so I’m bound to advocate the use of fellow fitness professionals.

But even I was astounded when I recently got running coaches DazNBone to help me out and saw a 20 per cent increase on a previous personal best… To find out how, read on!

Spartathlon 1 (2015) with Jamie Holmes

When I first finished Spartathlon back in 2015 (above), it left me pretty beaten up, both mentally and physically. I was a complete wreck at the end of the race – face white as a ghost, brain scrambled, in intense pain as the blisters that had taken off the entire soles of my feet left me in agony.

It was my own fault really. Spartathlon – for those who don’t know, a 153-mile race with a strict cut-off time of 36 hours held in late summer in Greece  – was only my seventh official ultramarathon. I’d gone for the big guns without even passing ‘go’ as an ultra runner.

It was naïve and not a little stupid. I was ill-prepared, probably not adequately trained and only got through thanks to my running buddy Jamie Holmes literally bullying me to get up 1,000m Mount Parthenion at the 100 mile point. If I’d had my own way, I would have quit right there and then and gone home with my tail well between my legs.

Despite the satisfaction of finishing the race, when I left Athens Airport two days later, I needed a wheelchair to get to the plane. My feet were literally seeping through bandages they were so bad – and they swelled even more on the flight home.

The recovery was long and tortuous. The intense heat on day one of the race and the constant rain on day two meant I couldn’t regulate my temperature for months after. The skin on my feet was shed on a regular basis like that of a snake. Toe nails went and came and went again. Mentally I was all over the place.

Running a first ridiculous ultra must have something in common with childbirth though: you go through unimaginable pain, convince yourself you’ll never do it again… and as soon as that memory fades a little, you’re already signing up to go through it all again.

And so I went from blaspheming the day I decided to first attempt to run it, to turning a corner, telling myself I’d just completed the greatest running race on earth and realising I’d totally fallen in love with the spirit of it. By the time entries opened the following January (2016), my name was back in the hat as I planned to go back and do it better the following year. And I did (and for a following two years). Not massively better time wise, but certainly from a ‘how I felt at the finish’ perspective.

Spartathlon – attempt 2 (2016)

And that’s the thing that’s nagged me for a while.  Somewhere in me, I’ve always felt that as I gain more and more ultra experience, I should be able to record a decent time at Sparta. Not scraping home with just an hour to spare, but dropping into the low 30 hours marks at least. If I could achieve that, I could finally slay the Sparta beast and put it to bed for a while…

I thought last year I’d be able to do it. At the mountain, I was probably on course for a 32-hour finish, but then the worst of Storm Zorba – a rare Mediterranean Category 1 hurricane – hit and put paid to that. I was once again left elated by managing to keep up my 100 per cent record for a fourth consecutive year, but slightly gutted that decent time still wasn’t coming. A plan for a fifth and final tilt was already forming – but first I had to qualify.

Spartathlon 3 (2017) with Darren, David and Jamie

For anyone reading this who is uninitiated in the ways of Spartathlon, to take part in this amazing race you have to reach certain levels of running performance. The criteria are many but to give an indication, two of the most popular routes are to cover more than 180 km in a 24-hour race, or to complete a 100km race in less than 10 hours.

These results though only get you into a ballot of other runners – and there’s an added hurdle that each country can have no more than 25 participants.

So if you do 180km +36km (an extra 20 percent) in a 24 hour race, you get and automatic place (providing your country has less than 25 people reaching an AQ mark that is).

Spartathlon 4 (2018) with Martha, Gracie and their cousins

Spartathlon has been getting increasingly popular over the last few years amongst British runners – and the quality of British ultra running is also on a massively upward curve.

A quick mental calculation led me to believe that for 2019, the number of British runners with automatic qualifiers was well into the high teens. It meant that unless I could join them, I’d be one of the 30 or 40 potential applicants vying for one of the remaining six or seven British places.

The odds were not great – and neither, I figured were my chances. Surely, I wasn’t good enough to get to those levels of running? To give you a side-by-side comparison for the automatic qualifiers for the races mentioned above:

24 hour race
My PB 181km
AQ for Sparta: 216 km or more

100km race
My PB 09 hrs 58
AQ for Sparta: 8 hrs or less

In short, I would have to run a massive 22 miles further over a 24-hour race than I’d done previously, or cut a whopping two hours from my 100km time. Either way, I’d need to improve my performance by around 20 per cent to stand a chance.

It was now early November and, with Spartathlon applications closing in February, an additional problem was there weren’t a great deal of races left to aim for given I would need at least 8-10 weeks of intense training.

The choices came down to two:

  1. The 24 hour race at the Athens Ultra Festival – Jan 19/20, 2019
  2. The Flitch Way 100km – Jan 27, 2019

At this point I decided I had to face up to the fact that given my finishing time at Spartathlon has remained fairly stationary for four years, self-coaching is not seeing me make the kind of improvements I’d like to.  It was time to call on the services of DazNBone Ultra.

David and Darren have not been coaching for long – by their own admission, they are fledgling coaches who are learning all the time. But I know Darren is the ultimate statto who follows other races, reads up on training plans and devours the blogs of successful runners such as Bob Hearn. David, as well as being a great runner and ultimate guinea pig for Daz’s plans, is also the ultimate PR guy, getting their faces and names out there at every opportunity. They’re a match made in heaven.

To be any good at any form of coaching, I figure there are some prerequisites :

  • A good strong knowledge of what’s needed for success
  • The want and need to keep learning and improving and to be able to pass that on to clients
  • A keen mind for information gathering – particularly when it comes to a client’s history
  • The ability to elicit compliance from a client when it comes to goal setting – making decisions communal, so everyone is in agreement and on the same page. The sergeant major approach is a bit old hat
  • The ability to be flexible – there’s more than one way to skin a cat, so you need to make sure you have alternatives on offer
  • The ability to be able to nudge and encourage, helping people build confidence in their own ability
  • A record of results

Given David and Darren are my longest standing running pals – particularly in David’s case, we were friends long before either of us started running – I knew that 1, 2 and 3 were in the bag, 7 too given David also has a Sparta AQ for 2019 on the back of Darren’s coaching.

Luckily, the pair of them also use a web application called Training Peaks to develop plans. I’d signed up to it last summer of most of my Spartathlon training for last year was recorded. This meant that not only did they have anecdotal knowledge of my running history, but they had a good six months of data to work with.

The three of us jumped on a call to discuss how we might approach an auto qualifying tilt. We figured that the speed increase for Flitch Way was probably beyond the 10 weeks of training we had before us, but that, perhaps, getting into a groove of keeping the same tempo going throughout a 24-hour race and keeping stops to a minimum might be the way forward.

The pair of them put together a programme on Training Peaks that involved a hefty series of back-to-back long runs, increasing in distance on Fridays and Saturdays over the training period. The other idea was to find somewhere to train that could mimic the fairly flat 1km loop I would be running around in Athens – even following the same anticlockwise direction as the course there. Near me is a lake called Yeadon Tarn, it has a 1.1km concrete walking path around it and it could not have been more ideal.

As ever, there were three more issues:

  • On my first training run after Spartathlon, I’d gone over and twisted my ankle
  • In Spring 2018, I’d been diagnosed as anaemic and had undergone a battery of tests for a cause that all proved negative. I finally convinced by GP it might be down to foot-strike hemolysis whereby it’s thought some long-distance runners break down red blood cells with every step of a run. After Spartathlon, a monitoring blood test showed my RBC count was super low and so I was put on iron tablets.
  • I’d been suffering from the annual post-Spartathlon cold/chest infection and could not rid myself of it.

The pace targets the boys had set me were not fast – around 9.20-9.30 a mile – but I was tasked with keeping them up for long periods of time and trying not to deviate. On the first back-to-back I did, my ankle hurt like hell and I was gasping for breath given the chest infection and the anaemia – but over the coming weeks, things gradually got better. By early December I felt confident enough to enter the race and book a ticket to go out to Greece.

Having David and Darren take over the training planning for me, had an additional benefit: It allowed me to really focus on how I was going to feed myself for 24 hours.

I’ve never DNF-ed a race because of tummy troubles, but I’ve been sick a number of times, all largely due to commercial high-carb content drinks and sports gels, and veering from a pre-formed plan.

For this race, I vowed to stick with whole foods as much as possible, eating little and often with a calorific intake of around 250kcals an hour. It wouldn’t take too much to achieve this. I trained with Lucozade Sport but diluted 50:50 with water to take away the sweetness and prevent an intense sugar rush to the gut, and combined it with Peak Pinole balls, easy-to-eat-on-the-go rice puddings, green apples, salted nuts and Kalamata olives. The latter two were to be pre-weighed into bags of 100kcals each to make calculating the 250kcal an hour intake easier.

The weeks naturally got tougher and the more intense the training was the more tiredness set in. Training Peaks has its own algorithms taken from heart monitor readings during exercise to calculate both fitness levels and fatigue. The DazNBone aim was to get me to a fitness level of 40 or more (my historic pre-Spartathlon level had been 34) and then to get my taper to coincide with a maintenance of fitness and an associated drop in fatigue ready for the big day.

An unheralded part of having a coach is that knowing that someone is watching over you keeps you more honest. Shattered on long runs in the past, I’ve been tempted to cut corners – I’ve not always done it, but I’ve done enough shaving off of the odd mile to know it can become an issue. Knowing that the boys were keeping tabs on my progress meant that hardly a mile was missed. If they asked me to go and bash out 30 miles in less than five hours, that’s what I did – following the loop around the Tarn again and again to get used to the monotony of the single kilometre track.

Running the Athens Ultra Festival 24 hour race – with Ian Thomas

Of the eight weeks of back-to-back runs, I failed at just one of them, ditching a 34-mile run after 13 miles around midway through. It was cold, wet and stormy and I got chafed to hell after about 10 miles. I could have carried on if forced, but I neither wanted to make the chafing worse, nor wanted to exacerbate the chest cold that was still hanging around, so I erred on the side of self-preservation.

Along the way, positive emails kept coming from David and/or Darren – illustrating how my fitness was increasing and telling me how much closer I was to the goal.

Darren had advised that we have an ‘aim for the stars’ goal for the 2020 AQ distance of 225 km with 216 km (2019 AQ) as the main goal. I threw a couple of others in for myself. In ascending order: beat the PB first, then  120 miles (193km) as the second, 216km as the main goal and 225km as the dream. Judging by past year’s results, I figured that if I got the 216km, it was likely I could also end up on the podium, especially as the race gives prizes to the top six males and females. It was a nice added incentive.

I won’t go too much into the details of the race itself – I’ve done that in various Facebook posts – safe to say that I covered 217km and came third, beating all my goals except the ‘dream’ scenario, which I decided to drop around 12 hours into the Athens race to concentrate on the main prize.

Things went largely to plan throughout: I managed to maintain a steady pace –  not quite an even split but I didn’t drop off the edge of a cliff either – and the nutrition strategy largely worked. In the last few hours, I was past eating and switched to alternating between Coke and water for some easy calories and hydration but aside from that, it worked perfectly.

Like any sport, running well needs some confidence in your ability but also in your mindset. I think I’ve often lacked in the latter – but achieving a 20 per cent increase on past performance has certainly bolstered the running self-esteem.

Ian Thomas, another Spartathlon veteran I really rate, was also running the Athens 24 and to be able to match him for most of the race makes me see myself in a different running light.

In his own blog from Athens, Ian said: “It will be interesting to see how James does this year at Spartathlon after achieving an automatic qualifier.” And it will be. But I’m damn sure I’ll be making my plans alongside the DazNBone coaching team.

Spartathlon 2019 here we come – the end of the Athens 24 with Ian Thomas
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