Member Profiles

Self-coaching: challenges and rewards

Nicholas Bagnall

Running without a coach can be fun and it can be liberating - especially if you do your research, and especially if you are Nicholas Bagnall. Nicholas tells us about coming late to running, learning the basics of good training, and building his own approach to training and racing.

Unlike many members of Wellington Scottish I don’t have a coach. Other members are sensible enough to take advantage of Wellington Scottish’s coaching programme, and follow the counsel of an experienced coach in their training. But (contrary to the advice of most experienced runners) I have pig-headedly chosen to coach myself, with mixed results. Why?

The simple answer is that I enjoy the challenge of self-coaching. Since taking up running 3 ½ years ago, I’ve enjoyed reading about different approaches to training and trying them out on myself.

I took up running in 2016 with an initial motivation of losing weight, but a background of having been a below-average runner in secondary school, and not having run in 24 years. Although the race results I’ve achieved are better than I imagined would be possible, I may have got even better results and possibly fewer injuries if I’d trained under a good coach. But I’m still very happy to have coached myself, because I’ve enjoyed the journey, and learnt a lot more than I think I would have if I’d just been following a coach’s instructions.

I’ve enjoyed the freedom to be impulsive. Some of the running adventures I’ve embarked upon would never have survived the wise counsel of a coach – for example: running my first marathon within 10 months of taking up running, deciding to enter the 2017 and 2018 wuu2k ultras less than two weeks before the race dates, running a double Makara loop a bit over a week before the 2018 wuu2k ultra, and doing two marathons in the same month (just recently, in June 2019).

These impulsive challenges were not part of some poorly conceived self-coaching plan. They were just me giving in to a weird desire to see how far I could run, combined with a belief that I could run the distance and fit it in with everything else I was planning to do. 

As it turned out, doing some of this silly long stuff has possibly done more good than bad. My two stand-out races in the past two years have been the 2017 and 2018 Wellington Road Champs. In both cases I achieved 10km personal bests that were considerably faster than was indicated by my times over any other distance. The common feature of my training leading up to these races? 60km+ runs in the preceding month! I’d done one 60km+ run in the month prior to the 2017 road champs, and two 60km+ runs in the 6 weeks prior to the 2018 road champs.

Admittedly, one challenge of being self-coached is that it is sometimes too easy to alter your training plan. Twice in the past week I headed out on a run that I intended to be easy paced, but ended up throwing in a bit of speed because I was feeling good and didn’t think that going faster than intended would muck up my plans too greatly. If I had a scary coach to explain this to, maybe I wouldn’t have done it. But I tend to be pretty forgiving to myself when it comes to running. I’m not the sort of person who worries too much about what other people might think, and in this part of my life, I don’t feel that I have a responsibility to anyone else. (I may have to change that attitude if I make it into the M50A road relay team!)

The fact that I’m running for myself rather than others probably leads to a lesser degree of self-discipline and a greater degree of self-deception than I apply to those parts of my life in which I do feel a duty to others. Most obviously, in my work life I manage investment portfolios, and I find that doing this well sometimes requires a brutal degree of self-awareness about my how emotions influence my thinking. With running, the lack of obligation to others means that enjoyment is at least as important as race results, so I’m relaxed about indulging in a bit of self-deception and taking a less-than-optimal training approach if it means that I enjoy the journey a little bit more.

So what approach and principles apply to my self-coaching? I’ve read a number of books on approaches to training for distance running. I started (fortunately, I think) with Jack Daniels, but have also read books by or about Lydiard, the Hansons, Pfitzinger, and quite a few others. While there are small differences in the details of each approach, there is a lot of common ground on the bigger issues. Pretty much every athletics coach includes the following elements in their recommended approach to training for distance running:

  • Run decent mileage to build your aerobic fitness;
  • Vary your pace between runs;
  • Do most of your running at an easy pace, but also fit in a number of sessions at about race pace and some speedwork at faster than race pace;
  • Use intervals/reps to clock up more mileage at faster paces than you would be able to stand in one session if you ran continuously;
  • Use long runs to build endurance;
  • Use tempos / threshold runs to build speed endurance and to improve your body’s ability to deal with lactic acid;
  • Build your weekly mileage gradually over time;
  • Avoid doing hard sessions back-to-back, by slotting at least one easy day in between sessions; and
  • Taper before an important race (particularly if you’re racing longer distances).

Looking at all these elements together, I see some underlying principles that I try to build into my training:

  1. A key aspect of training is managing fatigue (and related to this, the risk of injury). Getting slightly fatigued is good, because fatigue is your body’s way of telling you that it’s fixing you up and getting your body slightly better adapted for the next time you place it under the same sort of stress. But too much fatigue is probably a signal that you’re placing your body under more stress than your internal repair mechanisms can keep up with.
  2. If we didn’t get fatigued or injured, then the best training approach would be to run the race distance as fast as you could as often as you could. But in the real world, where we actually get fatigued, I doubt that this approach is really feasible for any distance of more than about 800 metres. So instead of running the race distance at race pace, we tend to often focus on one aspect at a time – building endurance OR practicing speed.
  3. While we want our bodies to be slightly fatigued most of the time (as that signals that your fitness is improving), they should not be fatigued all of the time, as there’s always some bit of your body that’s a little more vulnerable than everything else. If we go for weeks on end of piling on the fatigue without any let-up, we end up with injuries. This is why it works better to alternate between sessions and easy days, and to occasionally take a few easy days in a row, rather than doing day after day of “Goldilocks” runs.
  4. Training involves developing numerous elements of our ability to race – our cardio-vascular systems, our legs’ ability to deal with cumulative stress, running form/efficiency, our ability to run at high speed, the mental aspects of running, and (for marathons or longer) our body’s ability to store energy and deliver it to our legs. In most races, I find that one of these aspects is more of a limiting factor than the others, so the challenge is to make sure that we train all of these aspects of our running so that no single aspect cuts us off before the others are anywhere near exhausted.
  5. Fitness builds up only gradually (even when you are training heavily) and eases off very gradually when you lighten your training load. By contrast, fatigue can accumulate quite quickly, but also eases off quickly when you lighten your training. This is the key reason why we’ll get the best results when we are able to come from a base of decent mileage, followed by a long training program, with only a short taper before the race.
  6. It’s all a big balancing act! Volume and speedwork will improve our fitness as long as we don’t push ourselves so far that our bodies starts to break down, or we find ourselves unable to do the sessions we had planned. Reaching an appropriate balance seems a relatively trickier when I’ve been coming out of a period of low training volume (typically due to travel, workload, or injury) and am trying to build up for a big race, or when I set myself some difficult new challenge (e.g. can I run another marathon 4 weeks after the previous one, and get to the start line fitter and nearly as fresh as I was for the first?).

Right now, I’m feeling really good about my ability to leverage a solid marathon training base into some 10k training ahead of Wellington road champs and road relays, but I wasn’t feeling nearly so self-assured in mid-March, when I knew was 11 weeks away from running a marathon but had only managed to run an average of 50 kilometres per week over preceding 19 weeks (due to a combination of injury and travel). Back then, I knew I would have to increase my volume at about the maximum my body could take in order to get my fitness back up to a level at which I might have a good chance of beating my personal best. But looking forward from today, I’m confident that maintaining my weekly training volume should be sufficient to get my running fitness to a level that should allow me to achieve new personal bests.

When we’re learning about a new field, it can sometimes be as useful to identify what is unimportant (or even worse, quackery) as to understand the key principles. With running, I think the key candidate for quackery is obsession with form. While I think it can be marginally useful to identify the worst aspects of my personal form and to very gradually try to iron these out, I think that just the practice of running tends to nudge us towards a running form that suits our particular bodies. 

For example, since childhood I’ve always had feet that naturally point outwards. This results in a running form that would not be optimal for most runners, but may be the least imperfect form for someone with my legs. In my experience, trying to make significant changes to my running form generally leads to a higher heart rate for the same pace and sometimes new niggles.

My second candidate for “unimportant” is an obsession with the specific structure of our workouts. To me, the important point is to run fast a couple of times a week, sometimes in bursts, and sometimes at a sustained pace. I doubt that there is any greater physiological benefit from conducting a very controlled session of (say) 6 X 1km with 2 minute recoveries on a flat circuit than from a 12km run with 6 bursts of speed over distances of between 500 metres and 1.5 kilometres for a total of 6 kilometres – and if the fast bits happen to be Strava segments, that’s all well and good. The key difference between an unstructured fartlek and a structured interval session is that the structured session makes it easier for your coach to gauge how you’re doing. In my experience, when I’m running a route I’ve run a few times before, I’m able to get a reasonably good feel of how I’m getting along, and use that to make a fairly accurate assessment of what it means for my likely race pace. I get the sense that some athletes who have been coached to always run their sessions by the watch on the flat tend to tut-tut when they see someone going out and smashing Strava segments on a hilly circuit. But I think this can be quite a good way of training, provided that we remember to take the easy days in between. 

So, despite occasional tut-tutting, I intend to continue with the journey of learning how to coach myself!