Common Challenges of Coaching Endurance Athletes

The typical endurance athlete is time-crunched, which triggers a number of challenges for coaches around rest and recovery.

In this video, Joe Friel chats with coaches Alison Freeman and Ryan Kohler about how best to tackle time management for athlete rest and recovery.

Video Transcript

Joe Friel  00:04

So I have with us today: Alison Freeman, Coach Alison Freeman, Coach Ryan Kohler. We’re gonna see if we can figure out what type of experiences they have had working with endurance athletes to help give us a better notion of what the typical endurance athlete’s challenges are. Let’s start with this, if I could with both of you, how would you go about defining the typical endurance athlete?

Balancing Priorities and Ambitious Goals

Alison Freeman 00:28

For me, especially in terms of my coaching roster, the most common theme is that they’re balancing a lot of things. They have work, they’ve got family, they’ve got other commitments or hobbies, and navigating that balance, which changes season-to-season and year-to-year, is the most common thread.

Joe Friel  00:52

So, it’s kind of a time availability situation that you’re talking about?

Alison Freeman  00:57

Time availability, but also prioritization.

Joe Friel  01:00

Prioritization. Yeah, sure. What do you mean by that?

Alison Freeman  01:00

Well, it’s not…when an athlete’s racing against themself, versus racing against the field and trying to get a qualification spot or podium spot, then they have a lot more discretion over where training falls relative to other commitments, and they can make different trade-offs. As long as they understand, hopefully, that what they get out of it is going to be in relation to what they put into it. So if they’re willing to frame their goals in the context of how they’re engaging with the sport and their investment in it, then they can decide, you know, “Right now I’m really busy with work, I’ve got a lot going on. So I want to continue to be engaged in triathlon, but it’s going to be at a lower engagement level than it was last year.”

Joe Friel  01:50

Ryan, how would you go about defining what you’ve come across with athletes as being common for endurance athletes?

Ryan Kohler 01:57

So I have a little bit of a split with my athletes. I think that balance theme carries through for a lot of them, where I find a lot of my athletes are looking to get some sort of experience or build something into their lifestyle that gives them enjoyment or a feeling of success or achievement. That does fall in with a lot of the Masters age-group type athletes, because they’re just trying to figure out like, “How do we build this experience into my life so that I don’t lose my job or my family doesn’t hate me?” … things like that.

Ryan Kohler  02:25

Then I have this other group of athletes, where I work with a good number of juniors, mostly on the mountain bike side, and they’re very driven, very results-oriented. I often find that I’m bringing that balance to them to say, “Hey, let’s not forget about this balance, even though you have completely different goals, how can we still keep these factors in play for you to make sure that you keep things in perspective?”

Joe Friel  02:45

Do you find that the juniors you coach have a different way of perceiving sport than the masters or the older athletes you coach? Is there a difference in how they see what’s going on in terms of their training and performance?

Ryan Kohler  02:58

It’s like life or death for them most of the time…for the younger ones. It’s like they either do it this season or they’re never going to get there. It’s, yeah, bringing that perspective in to say, “Wait, we need to look at this in a longer-term vision.”

Joe Friel  03:12

Are there challenges you’ve run across what you see as being really significant challenges that you have to cope with or figure out a way to work around?

Show Athletes the Benefits of Sleep

Ryan Kohler  03:21

How about sleep? Can we start there? Yeah, sleep is a big one for me, and that’s an area where I really try to prioritize that with athletes. I find that they’ll, if anything, they’ll want to just forego sleep for more training. That’s just an area where I’m very, very inflexible in my coaching with them, because I want them to really focus on that and not give up the sleep. Particularly with junior athletes, as we said, they’re very driven. They may do that, and sometimes it’s even more of a struggle to get them to realize why it’s so important.

Joe Friel  03:55

How do you get them to sleep more?

Alison Freeman  03:58

Or how do you talk about the trade-off? Like if you have a masters athlete, right, who has to get up and do their training before work, how do you tell them when not to set the 5 a.m. alarm?

Ryan Kohler  04:09

Yeah, it’s a great question. It’s a big challenge, too. I always go back…if you remember the Barbarian Brothers from long ago, there was a TV show. They had this quote that’s been around in the bodybuilding literature for a long time, and I’ll butcher it a little bit, but it basically said, “There’s no such thing as overtraining, there’s under eating, under sleeping, and lack of will.”

Basically you take that, and it’s like if you miss on one of those two areas, under eating and under sleeping, you will fail. So in my dichotomous coaching brain I often present that scenario to the athletes to say, “We need to find a balance. If you go down the path of no sleep or too little sleep, you won’t reach those goals, so we always have to come back to those goals. What do you want to achieve? What’s your North Star? What’s valuable to you? And are you willing to make those adjustments in your sleep schedule and training schedule to get closer to those goals?”

Joe Friel  05:00

Yeah, I kind of agree with you. This is one of the main challenges I had as a coach also was trying to make sure my athletes got enough sleep. Typically, what I ran into with endurance athletes was they tried to fit too many things into their lives. Consequently, they miss out on sleep. So when you miss out on sleep, what’s the problem with that?

Ryan Kohler  05:18

Adaptation, really. You know when it comes down to them making progress toward their goals, then it’s almost a good excuse for us to say, “Let’s test something for you. Let’s actually dial back your training, do a little N-of-1 experiment for yourself, and see how you feel. If we can build in a little bit more rest, let’s see if you have better quality workouts.” Oftentimes, it usually works out better in the end for them. I find if they can get that success, then they say, “Oh, I saw it for myself. Let’s keep doing some of this.”

Teach Athletes Proper Fueling

Alison Freeman  05:47

So one consistent conversation I have with my athletes is about fueling and making sure that they’re fueling their workouts. I find that most athletes come into the sport without an understanding of how much fueling and carbs they need to fuel a workout. Especially these days, there’s a lot of conversations about not eating carbs (which I’m not a fan of). So I do talk to my athletes a lot about making sure that they’re properly fueling their workouts, getting in fueling beforehand, getting in the proper fueling during the workouts, recovery fueling. But, you know, for some athletes, it’s hard to transition and to really get their head around how much they’re going to eat. Sometimes they’re worried about gaining weight, if they’re taking in all those carbs on the bike. So you have to really educate them as to why their engine can’t run without fuel.

Communicate the Importance of an Annual Physical 

Joe Friel  06:45

That’s a great one to be thinking about. But I would suggest to coaches that they talk their athletes into having a physical done once a year and test for HbA1c, which basically is an indicator of where you are on the type 2 diabetes scale. Some people will find out for the first time that they are prediabetic, and that’s a terrible thing to find out…but you’ll also find lots of people don’t [have that problem], and now we’ve got more information so we can make better decisions on how to coach our athletes.

Joe Friel  07:16

Is there anything else that you would use that you might define the typical endurance athlete, the challenges you faced working with athletes? Besides sleep, besides refueling or fueling for workouts? Is there anything else that might be common threads or things that you find typically in the athletes that you’ve coached over the years?

The Value of a Flexible Coaching Methodology 

Alison Freeman  07:39

Really working with an athlete to kind of maximize their bang for the buck for the hours they have, can sometimes require some creativity. So I have a number of athletes that I work with that travel extensively, or just have jobs with very long hours. I’ve started to work with them on a kind of a specific time-constrained schedule that I developed. One of the tools that I use is that I only put essentially one workout block on weekdays. It’s either swim and strength, because you’re at the gym either way, or they either do a run-bike reverse brick or a bike-run standard brick—intervals first, endurance afterwards. You get a lot of bang for the buck, for those minutes that you’re spending.

Ryan Kohler  08:23

I think you bring up a really good point where you’ve adjusted your methodology, right, with those athletes that need it. That’s really a key piece of why we coach and the value of a coach too…you see what works and we know, “Okay, you’ve got this block of time. How can we get creative with how we how we apply that training load?” Yeah, if it’s to double-up when you’re at the gym, do these two things, great. Now you’ve accomplished that, you can feel good about that day off the next day, because it’s busy or whatever. But adjusting that methodology gives you the flexibility to really help the athlete find success.

Alison Freeman  08:53

I also think you have to really consider when you’re kind of troubleshooting these issues, and kind of problem-solving with your athletes, you have to take into account what your coaching service level is with them, right? You’re gonna have some athletes and some service levels where you get to talk to them or touch base with them a couple times a week, and you can change things on the fly. Then you have other athletes where you might not talk to them more than monthly, and you might be setting up their calendars on a monthly basis. So then you have to give them the flexibility versus kind of letting you be the guide.

Joe Friel  09:26

I used to always tell my athletes, I’ve got this plan set up for you on TrainingPeaks, but you can drag and drop workouts. If it is not going to work that day, here’s some guidelines on how to go about doing this. If you need to leave something out, here’s one to leave out. You kind of give them some authority to make decisions for themselves, which takes the burden off of you. They just need to know how to do it, how to do this in a valuable way, in a way that’s going to make them more…be more effective for them. That’s the challenge for you as the coach. Thank you very much, Alison! Thank you very much, Ryan!