Working With Endurance Athletes

How to Incorporate Endurance Sports Into Your Coaching Practice


This week, I’ve been writing about how to use tools like Zwift, Strava and other online tech tools instead of trying to compete with them.


The shift requires a change in your mindset: a leveling-up to consider and include other coaches in your program.


After receiving dozens of questions seeking examples, I’ve written a short list (not exhaustive) of how I’d tackle strength, nutrition and other programming. Consider these the “off the cuff” answers I’d give if asked at a coffee shop, not a definitive lecture.


You’re the coach, but here are some prescriptions that have worked with different athletes in the past:


  1. “Run my first 5k”
    Novice endurance athletes have to do two things:
    a) build capacity
    b) avoid injury.That means your “strength work” should include work below the knee (especially tibialis anterior work to dampen shock on the knee.) Most novices don’t actually run with their calves and hips; they just pick up their feet and drop them on the pavement. One of their coaches has to help with run mechanics.
    You can also help with hip extension movements, like the deadlift. Help with bracing strength (also deadlifts), lats and traps. For novices, strengthen their posterior chain and stretch the anterior musculature from head to toe.
    Novices need technique and strength and stretching AND capacity. I like to just run a “Coach to 5k” program at my gym so that I can give them all of these things every spring. I tie the program to a local event and fill it with 30+ runners every year.
  2. “Finish an Obstacle Course Race”
    First-time OCR people need:
    a) functional capacity (more than just endurance; they need to push, pull, climb, jump, etc.)
    b) to not get injured.
    The majority of people who sign up for OCR aren’t looking for a race; they’re looking for an adventure. They want to escape their office job and swim in the mud for a few hours. But they also have to go to work on Monday, so they can’t break their ankle dropping from a rope wall.
    That means constantly varied, functional movement performed in very short bursts, with lower-heart rate aerobic work in between. Farmer carries won’t elevate the heart rate enough, but sprints are too much. Look for something around 60% of max heart rate, interspersed with high-intensity sets lasting around a minute.
  3. “Finish a half or full marathon”
    First-time athletes at a long-distance event should focus on injury avoidance.
    If they’ve already been exercising, they’re strong enough. Aerobic capacity is so much more important than anything else (for a first-timer) that activity in the gym should be focused on building them up to withstand the repetitive stress of running a lot.
    True, short-term work capacity does improve long-term work capacity. But doing CrossFit workouts does not prepare you for events lasting longer than an hour.
    First-timers need a run plan. Your job as coach is to look at the run plan, ask “What can we cut to get the same result?” and then fill in the gaps with nutrition coaching and strength work. Runners don’t need explosive lifts, and they don’t need to redline their heart rate while training for the race. They DO need to make their joints bulletproof, and maintain functional strength in their core lifts.
  4. “Ride my first century (100 miles)”
    First-time cyclists need to sit on the bike.
    The number-one limiter for most new cyclists: their butt hurts.
    Get them padded shorts and anti-chafing cream.
    Then strengthen their posterior chain and stretch their hip flexors.
    For example, many cyclists develop poor posture in the upper back. But if you strengthen their trapezius and other neck extensors; and support their thoracic spine better, their airways will open a bit and their heart rate will stay lower.
    They need a lot of time on the bike. They don’t need to redline every workout. And they should dial their nutrition.
  5. “Swim a mile”
    The technical demands of swimming are huge. Bikes can roll along on their own; humans sink. The greatest fitness gains for a new swimmer usually come just from swimming.
    That said, you can help by providing strength training for the torso; improving hip extension; and performing lifts on the frontal plane with great form.
    Get them in the pool; help with their nutrition; track their progress and review it.
  6. “Finish a local duathlon”
    Duathlons require less specificity than one-domain events. They’re actually more beginner-friendly than most runs, because specialists are penalized. That makes a duathlon a great event for beginners.
    Athletes need to build capacity in the run, but put some decent miles on the bike.
    If an athlete has (or can borrow) a good bike that fits them, they’ll gain more speed than they will from training a lot of miles. You can “buy speed” on a bike. You just can’t buy comfort; so make sure they do some longer rides (over an hour) to get used to the saddle.
    Your value as a coach in a duathlon is really:
    Mental – get them ready, make training fun, practice transitions
    Injury avoidance – follow the “run a 5k” advice above
    Cheerleader – make SURE you’re there on race day.
    Athletes can train hard for months to shave 10 seconds off their run or bike time…but can easily lose 20 seconds on the transition if they’re unrehearsed.
  7. “Complete a triathlon”
    You need to find them an experienced triathlon coach or training partner.
    80% of their training time should be done in the specific events, with 1-2 sessions per week to focus on balancing out joint dominance issues; stretching; and measuring their recovery.
    It’s VERY easy to overtrain for a triathlon. You should plan out their volume in advance, and show them the plan regularly. Even experienced runners and cyclists can overtrain, assuming that “more volume” is the answer.
    You need to be the metaconnector between their swim practice, their cycling and their running. If you haven’t programmed for triathletes before (or haven’t done one yourself), bring in an expert. Hire the expert coach as a consultant on your athlete’s plan. You can still control delivery of the plan, but you don’t have to write it yourself.
  8. “Compete at Ironman”
    At this level, you can’t afford to make guesses.
    Find an experienced coach, hand over control of the athlete’s program, and schedule 2 sessions per week with the athlete. Focus on nutrition, recovery tracking and stretching.
    Submit your plans and ideas to the triathlon coach. You’re really “selling” them on your expertise. You want them to refer clients to you later.


Working with other coaches requires a certain maturity in your business, and in yourself. If you’re desperate for clients and money, you’ll see every other coach as a threat. But you should work hard to get over yourself; ask for help; and scale up your business by collaborating instead of competing.


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