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You Are Born for Coaching

The backstory of SWAP Running attests to the value of curiosity, naivety, and a good dose of grit. David and Megan Roche channeled their love for the sport into a coaching business with a reputation for winning.

David and Megan Roche on a trail with their dog.
Courtesy David and Megan Roche

Our coaching journey started in the most unglamorous way possible. Late one night, Megan and I were sitting in our apartment in California, the type of place where you can sit down on the toilet and high five someone cooking dinner. She was studying for yet another med school exam. I was studying social media, or doing whatever else I could to pass the time. Even though I was working full-time as an environmental lawyer, my day job didn’t compare to med school hours.

Megan turned to me, out of the blue. “You should start coaching. You’re born for it.”

I’m not sure if she really meant it, or if it was more like giving a dog a bone and hoping they’ll be quiet for a few minutes.

I’ve been chewing on that bone every day for 10 years.

Now is the time I take a step back to say that writing this article makes me feel a bit like that dog above, being asked to reflect on a decade of doing dog stuff. “Thank you for the question,” the dog says. “My special approach to licking has really set me apart in this field.” With that discomfort acknowledged, I’m going to try to be as open and honest as I can, throwing some ideas against the wall and hoping some stick with you.

How I swapped being a lawyer for coaching runners

Looking back at that inauspicious coaching start, I am so thankful for everything I didn’t know. All I did at that moment was think of a catchy coaching name, construct a janky old-school website, and put a call out on social media inviting athletes to get free coaching. Yes, it was free at first, then $30 a few months later, before gradually increasing over time. My version of The Art of the Deal would be just one page and instruct you to “do the opposite of whatever David’s business instincts say to do.”

A few intrepid souls signed up, mostly people who knew of me from my online race reports. Those athletes are still on the team, approaching row 4000 of their training logs, which are low-fi Google Spreadsheets.

My naivety created an empty space that was perfect for my development. Sometimes it’s easier to furnish a house when you don’t have to remove old couches first. While Megan was studying, I stuffed myself full of every coaching resource I could get my hands on—the history, the science, the theory, everything. I was cold-emailing sources in Europe for the long-lost coaching pamphlets of Renato Canova, scouring message boards, and using Megan’s institutional access to PubMed to see how it all fit together, while learning that it often didn’t.

It’s easy to look back and make the broader narrative fit together. I went to college to play football, with my neck looking like a fire hydrant and brain matter resembling a slowly leaking waterbed. I quit and did the logical thing: I bought spandex and decided to try biking and running. The next seven years were a journey of learning all the things I didn’t know about endurance sports, realizing that the further I went down the rabbit hole, the deeper it got and the dumber I felt.

So when Megan made her comment about coaching, I had a unique perspective of someone who painfully remembered just how unintuitive the learning process could be. Coaching seemed like a logical next step, right? I could teach others what I taught myself, which could prove perfect for beginner athletes at first, and perfect for rethinking ultra training later!

In reality, I’m not sure those neat narratives played much of a role as I started coaching. Instead, it was a lot simpler. I absolutely loved running, and I loved asking questions, and I loved being wrong (not as much as I loved being right, but when you’re in the desert, it’s better to crave sand than water). Megan knew I was curious, caring, and obsessed with endurance performance. Coaching was a logical suggestion to get your boyfriend to stop bugging you while you’re trying to learn about anus anatomy or whatever.

From the beginning, I felt like the ultimate impostor. I think that ended up being a good thing, even though I could have done without the stress ulcers. Because of my unconventional background, I didn’t have any strongly held opinions. Because I taught myself endurance training theory, I wasn’t bound by approaches that worked for other trail and ultra runners. My lack of specific knowledge was a curse until it became the ultimate gift.

Throughout the process, Megan’s brilliance and research expertise was instrumental in my growth. Later, after we got married and she started coaching too, I had the best realization: I would never even be the best coach in the house. I was liberated from trying to be the greatest in the world because I knew I couldn’t achieve premier status in a 20-foot radius. This time, it wasn’t my impostor syndrome talking, but my gratitude to be able to learn from the smartest person I have ever met.

How SWAP got traction in the running scene

Suddenly, something strange started happening. Athletes on the team began doing really, really well at races. I was the most surprised of all, with my impostor syndrome screaming that I sucked and should only coach people who wanted a price point that was the same as a Panera dinner.

Here’s where the actual history and the sepia-colored lenses of memory start creating uncertain divergences. Why would pro athletes join this upstart coaching group without any background or evidence of success? The self-loathing part of my brain says it was the result of dumb luck and good marketing. The self-loving part of my brain says that Megan and I invested so much in coaching every day that word-of mouth testimonials and stone-cold results spoke for themselves.

In reality, it’s probably some combination of everything I’ve written about so far, mixed with a ton of variables I can’t see or remember. We capitalized on athlete successes, combined with our own race results, plus talked about everything we learned on training theory everywhere we could online and in podcast appearances, mixed with a necessary shamelessness that every small business needs at first. Many years later, we even started our own podcast, Some Work All Play, which mixes science and humor, letting our weird personalities shine. If we had the podcast earlier, I’m not sure whether it would have helped or hurt. You’ll know what I mean if you listen.

A couple of the athletes we coached became pros in year two, leading to other aspiring top athletes reaching out for coaching. In year three, one of the first emerging athletes who trusted us, Cat Bradley, won the Western States 100. After that, more established pro athletes got curious, and coaching took on a life of its own. To this day, every time an athlete reaches out, Megan and I squeal with excitement. They trust us? WOW. That’s a responsibility that we have never taken for granted. 

Some highlights from SWAP pro athletes

  • Grayson Murphy, two-time world champion and four-time U.S. national champion mountain runner.
  • Clare Gallagher, winner of the Leadville 100 and Western States 100, course record at the 2017 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.
  • Drew Holmen, trail runner for Nike, U.S. 50 Mile Trail national champion, winner of the Bandera 100K.
  • Tabor and Eli Hemming, U.S. Mountain Running national champion and former pro triathlete turned pro mountain runner.
  • Leah Yingling, U.S. Mountain and Trail Running Team athlete.
  • Amelia Boone, four-time world champion obstacle course racer.
  • John Kelly, U.S. national ultra champion, long distance world champion triathlete, and one of only 17 people to complete the Barkley Marathons, course record at The Wild Oak Trail 100 Mile.
  • Katie Asmuth, winner of the Bandera 100K and Bear 100 Mile. 

A method rooted in relationship

Because we didn’t have any idea how coaching should be done, Megan and I set up a system where we checked in with every athlete every day, year-round. Open some Christmas gifts and then open some athlete training logs, like totally normal and well-adjusted people. Because we were clueless, we have tried to learn everything we could from everyone, no matter what their credentials. If someone was on a street corner with a sign about VO2max, we’d listen. And most of all, because we were shocked and grateful whenever anyone reached out, putting their trust in us, we tried to invest our hearts and souls into our athletes.

When an athlete trusts a coach, they’re trusting them with their athletic plan, and as any lifelong athlete knows, an athletic plan forms the backbone of a day, a training cycle, a year, a life. We never saw coaching as just coaching or just numbers. Coaching was and is a relationship, inevitably one of the most important relationships in an athlete’s life, so it better be one of the most important in our lives too.

All that touchy-feely process-oriented stuff is cool, but let’s be real: Results still matter, especially for pros who use sport to put food on the table. No runner ever won a championship due to their personal empathy and kindness, though it would be a really cool sport if it worked that way. Still, I think the caring element of the equation is critical because of how it feeds back into a never-ending process of learning and relearning, together with athletes, refining training theory as it applies on an individual level based on genetics and background.

RELATED: Own Your Role: Coaches Are Mentors, Teachers, and Role Models

A fresh, ever-evolving approach to the long run

Our training approach applies principles of speed development to long-term aerobic growth, like those coaches from road and track running we idolized so much when we started. We zoom out and try to think on five-year time horizons, with Megan’s medical training and research showing that’s how the body adapts to its potential. Since long-term growth relies on cellular-level context, we try to ground everything we do in a stress framework, thinking as much about the nervous and endocrine systems as we do about the aerobic system and muscles.

The general framework where we start from, depending on the athlete’s background looks something like this:

  • 2–4 days of speed-building hill or flat strides per week
  • 1 focused speed workout, usually intensity controlled
  • 2–3 doubles, sometimes with added threshold work
  • 1 long run with some threshold work
  • Rest days . . . plenty of rest days.

Nothing we do is revolutionary, except maybe that we have pushed ultra-endurance sports in a new direction with our continual emphasis on year-round speed development and year-round rest.

But here, all these years later, is where that impostor brain is still helpful in its own way. While our team has had some success, there is so much more to learn. “Because you need to remember,” the impostor brain says, “You still don’t know anything and you’ll be found out shortly!”

In the broader world of endurance training, we’ve learned to incorporate principles of double-threshold sessions, extended Zone 2 work, and extremely carb-heavy fueling approaches during events. From ultra-endurance training, we’ve refined our ideas about vert ratios, climbing, and cooling. We’re learning all the time, aware that we are fortunate to have a pretty big dataset ourselves, and that it’s okay to trust our own data even if it conflicts with what some other coaches (or commenters on the internet) say we should do. “You got this,” the impostor brain says, “I only criticize because I care.”

Get knocked down and get back up again

And that’s the most helpful part of this reflection for me. I thought it was just a dog waxing poetic about licking itself, but it was actually a learning moment! Through this process of trying hard things, having no idea where anything would go, and failing thousands of times, those failures actually did something counterintuitive: They helped me realize I’m enough just as I am.

Yes, putting those initial social media posts out about free coaching ruffled some feathers.

Yes, I’ve messed up with my application of training theory and let athletes down.

Yes, success as an athlete or coach can just feel like being given the opportunity to fail on progressively bigger stages.

But through all the failure, I’ve realized that what Megan said on that first night was true.

I am born for coaching. And that’s probably because I can show up every day, failure after failure, with a love for athletes and curiosity about performance. In the process, I think coaching gave me the biggest gift of all. Coaching taught me to love myself like Megan loves me, and to believe in myself like our athletes believe in me.

I think it can do the same for you. Coaching is so damn amazing, such a wonderful opportunity, such a fulfilling life where you get to support friends on their life journeys every day. So no matter what your background is, and no matter what the impostor brain says, I have one piece of parting wisdom:

You are born for coaching.

About David & Megan Roche

David Roche started the Some Work All Play (SWAP) team in 2013 with the hope of helping athletes maximize both performance and happiness. It quickly grew to be more than a side hustle, at which point he left his job as an environmental lawyer.

Megan Roche began coaching with SWAP a few years later, after completing a degree in neuroscience and getting her M.D. at Stanford Medical School. She also completed a Ph.D. in epidemiology, focusing on population health and genetics for female athletes.

SWAP’s athletes have won races like the Western States 100, Hardrock 100, Lake Sonoma 50 Miler, and dozens of national championships. And they race competitively themselves too, hoping to model the love of the process that they encourage for athletes. On trading in his football pads for endurance sports in college, David quickly made up for lost time. He was the 2014 USATF Trail Runner of the Year at the sub-ultra distance, a two-time national champion, and three-time member of Team USA. Megan was the 2016 USATF Trail Runner of the Year at the ultra and sub-ultra distances, a five-time national champion, a North American Mountain Running champion, and a six-time member of Team USA.

David and Megan Roche are the authors of The Happy Runner: Love the Process, Get Faster, Run Longer (Human Kinetics, 2019).