Coaches are usually pretty easy to spot on race day. They’re the ones nervously jogging from check-point to check-point, stopwatch in hand. But it takes a lot more than a stopwatch to make a good endurance coach.
There is no one path to becoming an endurance coach. Sometimes, former athletes want to share the experience they’ve gained through years of training. Other times, someone with a wealth of academic knowledge in physiology and nutrition is looking to apply what they’ve learned. Other coaches got to where they are by using a natural knack for leadership and an ability to bring out the best in people.
First, you need to determine if this is the right field for you. “It takes the desire to always want to help your athletes become better,” Kevin Dessart, director of coaching education and athlete development for USA Cycling, says. “Coaches all come from different backgrounds: some are science based, some are personal experience based, some are recreational based.” Dessart earned a degree in athletic administration and worked for three NHL teams before changing his career focus to endurance sports coaching.
Bobby McGee, a performance advisor for USA Triathlon emphasized that a unique kind of mentality is required in order to excel as a coach. “I think a good endurance coach is pretty much a jack of all trades,” McGee says. “You have to be a mom, you have to be a dad, you have to be a physiotherapist, you have to be a massage therapist, you have to be a leader and then you also have to be a scientist and you have to be an artist as well.”
McGee grew up in South Africa and began his career as a high school teacher who coached the school’s track and cross country teams. While he was still teaching high school, he got a small job working with a running club at a nearby college which gave him the opportunity to work with university athletes and professional middle-distance runners. His coaching career took off from there and when South Africa rejoined the Olympics after apartheid ended, he was invited to coach the South African marathon team.
Randy Accetta is an example of an endurance coach whose competitive history helped to lead him into a coaching career. Randy is the director of coaching education for the Road Runners Club of America. He ran cross country and track at Wesleyan University, ran the U.S. Olympic Trials for the marathon and also competed in a season of track meets throughout Europe.
“Having been a competitive runner can be super-helpful but it’s not a guarantee of success as a coach,” Accetta says. “I think that good coaches don’t have to be talented runners. I’d say in fact that you probably can’t be a good coach if you’re still being a competitive runner because it’s too hard to focus on yourself and your athletes.”
Accetta also spends his time teaching entrepreneurship at the College of Management at the University of Arizona. Accetta says that the majority of endurance coaches work as volunteers or part-time coaches and that it’s rare to make a living entirely by being a coach.
Cari Setzler is an RRCA Coaching Instructor who also leads a dual career. “I am also a veterinarian. In undergraduate I was a collegiate athlete and I started coaching then,” Setzler says. “I actually coached some at a junior college while I was in veterinary school. And then I’ve continued both coaching and veterinary medicine into my professional career.”
Just as her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree is an essential part of her career as a veterinarian, Setzler holds a number of endurance coaching certifications that are an essential part of her career as a coach. There are a variety of certifications that aspiring endurance coaches should look into, depending on the kind of coach a person hopes to become. The RRCA, USA Track and Field and USA Triathlon offer some of the most widely recognized endurance sports certifications.
“For me the different coaching certifications that I have reflect the different types of coaching that I do,” Setzler says. “It all depends on what your interest is. If I’m going to teach something new, I want to make sure that I’ve got a good background of information in order to do well by my students.”
Setzler received a USATF Level 1 certification in order to help with a junior high track and field program. She has also earned a USATF Level 2 endurance certification and an RRCA certification to prepare her for her work with adult runners. Level 1 USATF certifications are general certifications for track coaches, and a variety of Level 2 programs offer coaches more specialized training. The RRCA’s certification program pertains to recreational runners, 5Ks, half marathons, marathons and ultra marathons.
Just as there is no one type of person who becomes an endurance coach, there is no one way to begin an endurance coaching career. However, new coaches often get their start through volunteer opportunities.
“Generally you’ll start as a volunteer and then you’ll take on more leadership roles,” Setzler says. “A lot of clubs and a lot of different organizations are looking for great volunteers and great leaders to help with their programs.”
You can also enter the field by signing on with a training company who will assign you clients. James Herrera is a BMX coach for USA Cycling who took an internship with a start-up endurance coaching company after earning his master’s degree in exercise physiology. Herrera went on to become director of coaching for the company.
“It certainly can help to start your journey working for a company who assigns you clients,” Herrera says. “This takes the leg work and financial investment out of it for a new coach with regards to marketing and advertising. It also offers the opportunity to work with a lot of clients in a relatively short period of time.”
New coaches could also establish their own coaching company. This can be a daunting undertaking but it can provide coaches with the opportunity to set their own schedule and quickly put their coaching philosophy into practice.
“Coaches also need to be well aware, if they start their own company, the administrative side will consist of 50 percent of your time. This is something most coaches don’t realize and can cause a bit of distress if they are not prepared for it,” Dessart says. “It’s all about networking and marketing. It’s talking with local shops, teams, being at races, talking to others on group rides.”
For all of the practical considerations of working to become an endurance coach, it all really seems to come down to the joy that comes from helping people better themselves. “There are few careers that are as rewarding. You don’t see a lot of individuals that become coaches that aren’t lifetime coaches,” McGee says. “You are working with people that are taking time out of their lives. These individuals are giving of their aspirations and dreams to you to develop. So it’s an immensely gratifying job.”