13 // Coaching Elite Athletes

As pro athletes redefine the limits of performance, coaches are continually refining their strategy and leading a collaborative effort.
Elite athlete Skye Moench running during a triathlon

As rigorous as it is for an athlete to prepare and compete at a world-class level, it also incredibly demanding for their coach. There is a lot at stake for professional athletes, calling for more attention to detail, more communication, more expertise, and little time for much else.

This module of The Craft of Coaching features a coaching business that is churning out top ultrarunners with a fresh approach to training—proof that professional athletes also benefit from a biopsychosocial method. Master coaches from cycling, running, and triathlon address the challenges of time management, athlete expectations and disappointment, and motivation.

Elite athletes often rely on a team of experts, including nutritionists. Performance nutritionist Scott Tindal explores the pressure that pro athletes can feel to find their racing weight, whether that be fact or fiction. Regardless of whether you coach elite athletes, there is a lot to learn, both from the pros and their coaches.

For the aspiring coach, Joe Friel lines out important considerations when adding elite athletes to your roster in the article below.

Joe Friel kneels at the edge of an indoor pool to talk with an athlete in the water

Are You Ready to Step Up to Coaching Pros?

Supporting performance at the highest level will cost you time and money. Coach Joe Friel shares a balanced approach to the high-stakes game of working with pro athletes.

Many coaching businesses are born out of athletic success, but for the business to thrive, the athletes need to find success too. Couple running results with degrees that are outliers in coaching, and maybe it’s no surprise that David and Megan Roche attracted elite athletes in the early stages of SWAP Running. However, in the article that follows David describes a few other unconventional things he did to get his coaching business up and running.

If you build it, they will come…

David and Megan Roche on a trail with their dog.

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.

As young coaches and elite athletes, David and Megan Roche recognized some common problems in endurance sports, especially ultra running:

  • Superstition masquerading as science. Speed at VO2max is the only predictive metric. Is it really necessary for athletes to bury themselves to get these adaptations?
  • Managed self-destruction is rewarded. What if athletes could better manage miles and fatigue to promote improved health and performance?

The search for solutions to these problems led to a coaching methodology that focuses on speed and recovery. There’s still plenty of time for building aerobic capacity, but many SWAP athletes win key races running lower weekly mileage and taking more mandatory recovery days than their competitors. Find out more about SWAP’s protocol for hill strides in the video below.

Black and white still of David Roche performing hill strides

Why Hill Strides and Speed Development Are Essential for Ultras

In addition to traditional aerobic training, SWAP uses short hill strides to help athletes develop speed. Get the science behind this innovative approach to raising the ceiling on VO2max.

Coach Dean Golich used a block training approach to prepare elite cyclists for the Olympics and world championships. He warns coaches about the trap of middle training and stresses that the true value of lactate threshold training is the volume of time spent near lactate threshold, not the intensity. Training athletes below this threshold helps to prevent costly coaching mistakes.

photo of cycling coach Dean Golich with world-champion athletes, Allison Dunlap and Mari Holden

Block Training Plan for an Elite Cyclist

The principles of block training can be applied across endurance sports, whether the athlete is elite or amateur. The biggest difference is that elite or pro athletes have more time to train.

From world-class athlete to world-class coach

The Craft of Coaching has featured many former pros who have continued their pursuit of the podium as coaches. Find out more about their work with elite athletes in the articles and videos that follow:

  • Kendra Wenzel built a successful coaching business with a diverse roster of clients while coaching elite cyclists.
  • Ryan Bolton talks with Joe Friel about time management and the challenge of coaching both pros and age groupers.
  • Ben Day explains how he navigates performance and progression with his pro athletes, a dynamic that relies as much on cultivating belief as it does on data.
  • Julie Dibens shares her experience, both personally as an athlete and professionally as a coach, in handling disappointing outcomes.

A pro’s take on nutrition and fueling

When Skye Moench stepped away from her job as an accountant to become a professional triathlete she knew there would be a learning curve, but she felt confident that she could make the leap. She talks with performance nutritionist Scott Tindal in the video below about the continual pressure she felt to lose weight if she wanted to win. Also learn about the protocol she now uses to fuel her training.

Black and white image of Skye Moench running in a triathlon

Nutrition Case Study with Skye Moench and Scott Tindal

Ensuring athletes are properly fueled will do better for their performance than trying to hit a number on a scale.

When an athlete regularly underfuels, performance suffers first, and health problems can soon follow. When Scott Tindal first met with one pro triathlete, she was in a pattern of restricting her caloric intake in the hope of becoming lighter and faster. A data-driven approach with Fuelin convinced her to rework her nutrition and fueling and push her capacity for carbohydrates in high-volume, intense sessions. Over time, eating became more enjoyable because she was able to put her fear of gaining weight behind her.  

Woman pours freshly-squeezed juice into a glass

Case Study: Higher-Carb Fueling to Improve Performance

When this pro athlete stopped restricting nutrition and fueling in favor of a higher-carbohydrate diet, she was surprised by the result.

For best practices on how to collaborate with other experts in support of your athletes, check out Module 5 of The Craft of Coaching where coach Ryan Kohler specifically addresses how to establish an effective partnership with a nutritionist.

When more motivation is not better

Most pros are highly motivated. As Friel and others have attested, it’s often the case that a coach intervenes to reiterate that more is not always better. Like training, motivation can be harmful to elite athletes if it’s left unchecked. Rob Griffiths describes the psychology of motivation in the article that follows.

triathlete looking out at the water at sunrise

Understanding Motivation and How It Affects Performance

Motivation is key to the performance psychology puzzle, dependent on fundamental human needs. If those needs are not met, an athlete’s passion for sport and their self-esteem can suffer.

Every pro is the product of many coaches

On retiring from pro triathlon, Joe Gambles reflects on the line-up of coaches that spanned his career in sport, what he learned along the way, and what pros are looking for in a coach.

One Athlete, Many Coaches

A Pro Athlete’s Perspective on Coaching Style and Athletic Progression

Pro triathlete Joe Gambles reflects on the coaches he worked with over his athletic career, running the full gamut of styles, methodologies, and philosophies.