Coach Tip Tuesday: The Best Thing for Beginner Endurance Athletes to Do

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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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“Where do I begin?”

It’s probably the most basic and the most common question I hear from athletes.  And the reason why they ask this question is simple: It is tough to know where to begin.  But it’s also the best question someone can ask because everyone is a beginner at some point.  Every single endurance athlete there has ever been has started with no knowledge about endurance sports and they learned about their sport along the way.  So it’s not shameful to admit that you don’t know what you don’t know.  And it’s very okay to say that you’re a beginner.  But that being said: What is the best advice for beginner endurance athletes?

Trust the Plan

If I could give just one piece of advice to beginner endurance athletes, it would be this:

Trust the plan.

When I say “the plan”, I mean training that has been thoughtfully planned and laid out by someone with experience (i.e. an endurance coach) in order to help you accomplish the goals that you’ve stated are important to you.  This training could be a plan that is the result of one-on-one coaching, a Custom-Built Training Plan, or a more general Training Plan.  “The plan” is training that is the result of forethought and planning, not training that comes as a result of spur of the moment decisions based on what the weather is doing, what sounds good on a given day, or what you might feel like doing.

It’s easy to say “trust the plan.”  It is much harder to actually listen to and live it out, especially for beginners.  I have observed that this advice falls into the “simple, but not easy” bucket.  (Because the truth of the matter is that just because something is simple does not mean that it is easy.)  

However, even if it's not easy advice for a lot of athletes to follow, “trust the plan” is the best advice I have to give to new athletes.  Truly trusting the plan helps beginner athletes avoid common mistakes such as doing too much too soon, doing too much volume or intensity, mismanaging the sequence of workouts, mismanaging the schedule of workouts on a weekly basis, not doing enough specificity, and more.  While many (if not all) of these things may seem innocent enough and not like a big deal, I can tell you that they all can snowball (either acutely or over time) into being a problem, resulting in missed goals, and/or lead to an athlete’s worst nightmare: an injury.

Why Trusting the Plan Can Be Difficult

I know first-hand how challenging trusting the plan can be.  When I was a new athlete, I worked with coaches who provided a plan for me.  I first worked with coaches Fred Joslyn and Kenny Hammond at Fleet Feet Syracuse as part of a group 5K program.  (For the record, it’s easy to not trust and follow the plan in a group setting since attentive oversight by the coach isn’t always possible in that setting.)  After about six months of doing group programming with Fleet Feet Syracuse (where I semi followed the plan that was laid out), I hired a one-on-one coach, the great Karen Allen-Turner.  I only trusted the plan “so much” when I was first working with her.  I followed a lot of her recommendations, but if I’m being honest, I didn’t follow enough of them.  It took me a full four years of working with Karen to finally really trust the plan.  

My lightbulb moment came when I fully acknowledged that Karen had been coaching for over 25 years (and had been an athlete longer than that).  By not following the plan and doing what I wanted to or what I thought was best (aka doing something that I thought was better than what Karen was recommending or planning), I realized that I had been acting like I knew more than she did about endurance sports and training.  How could I - someone brand-new to athletics - possibly know more than her?  When I embraced the truth that I didn’t know more than her, it became easier for me to trust the plan.  And (very unsurprisingly), my performance and results skyrocketed once I did fully trust the plan (so much so that Karen even questioned me about it when it happened!).

In addition to having to admit that we don’t know as much as we’d like to, “trust the plan” is hard advice to follow because all too often, beginner athletes expect to see radical changes in a very condensed timeline.  Sometimes, athletes do see changes and progress quickly.  But more commonly, they do not.  And when they don’t see those quick results, I’ve observed that many beginner athletes get impatient and/or become anxious about their so-called “lack of progress”.  This is actually a common trend in the wider world of fitness/exercise; when people start a new exercise program, they will often enthusiastically participate in it for 1-2 weeks.  But when they don’t see any changes after those 1-2 weeks, they get frustrated and give up.  (This is why so many people will give up on their fitness and health-related New Year’s Resolutions by Valentine’s Day.)

The (perhaps hard) truth that all beginner athletes need to hear is this: It can take weeks, months, or even years for endurance training to be fully effective.  It’s important to resist the urge to add in more, to change things, or to give up when you don’t see the results you expected in the arbitrary timeline you set for yourself.  So when you are following structured training and embarking on an endurance sports goal for the first time, it’s important to be aware that it will take time (probably more time than you want and/or expect) to accomplish the goal you’ve set for yourself.

All training is effectively a manifestation of The Scientific Method: You develop a hypothesis (what you think will be the best path to get to your goal), you test the hypothesis (by doing the training for a substantial amount of time), and then go from there, reevaluating as necessary.  Obviously, you want to (and will) change things more quickly if they are very obviously not working well or if they are not working at all.  But on the whole, you need to give things time to see how they are working before you reevaluate, let alone significantly adjust, your training.

This principle is why I require athletes signing up for coaching to remain on coaching for a minimum of 90 days.  All coaching is a relationship between me (the coach) and the athlete.  It takes at least that long to see if the athlete and I are a good match, how well we work together, and if the plan we are developing from our collaboration is working for the athlete and getting them to where they want to go.  Even when I write a Custom-Built Training Plan for an athlete (which is a service that is a bit more independent on the athlete’s part than full coaching), I write three months at a time because I’ve found that that’s the minimum amount of time an athlete needs to be doing something consistently before they really know if it’s working or not. 

When I started in endurance sports, social media and the internet as a whole wasn’t what it now is today.  I have seen how the growth of both the internet and social media has made it more challenging for athletes to trust any plan that they are trying to follow.  As I’ve talked about before, there are an infinite number of answers out there for any athlete who Googles a question they have about endurance sports.  Between reading what other people recommend, hearing what their friends recommend, listening to what other athletes say, it can get overwhelming for athletes.  And thus, it can be challenging for athletes (especially beginner athletes) to determine which advice is relevant, which advice to listen to, and to stick with one thing for a substantial enough amount of time to discover whether or not it’s actually working.

As Always, Consistency is Everything

As I’ve said repeatedly over the years, consistency is everything.  In fact, consistency is one of the three best things endurance athletes (no matter their experience level) can do to help their training and performance.

You need to have consistency over time and you need to adhere to the training you’re following for a sufficient amount of time to give it a chance to work.  By consistency, I mean that you need to “chip away” at the path to your goals by completing workouts on a regular basis (aka most days).  You cannot skip workouts for several days and then try to double up to make up or do a workout with more intensity to try and “make up” what you missed.  You need to “stoke the fire” a little bit each day and have the patience to allow the process to unfold.

While consistency and adherence to your training are incredibly important, it’s actually equally as important to not completely obsess about the plan.  There’s balance here; everything doesn’t need to go perfectly all the time in order for your training to be effective.  It’s okay if an individual workout doesn’t go as expected or if you have a bad workout; one bad workout doesn’t mean that your entire path to your goals is derailed.  (More often than not, there is a reason why the workout didn’t go as expected; though bad days do sometimes just happen, it’s incredibly rare for a workout to be a poor one without a cause or explanation.)  

It’s also okay if you completely miss a workout, as long as it’s not something that happens with regularity (aka more than 1-2 times per week).  Life happens, and for most of us, endurance sports is not our full-time profession; it is something we are doing in our recreational time for enjoyment, health, and social reasons.  As age-group athletes, it’s important to understand that we are planning training around what is going on in our lives; we are not planning our lives around our training.  (In fact, this is the best way to plan training in the first place, and thus it's the way I plan training for the athletes I work with.)  So, perhaps paradoxically, it’s expected that things will pop up that we didn’t expect or plan for when we initially planned out training and we will either need to modify or miss workouts entirely to accommodate for the unexpected things that do happen in our lives.

Why Coaching is Effective for Endurance Athletes

A very common misconception in the world of endurance sports is that coaching is only for “certain” athletes.  Some advanced athletes think they know everything (they don’t) and that they don’t need a coach to be successful and that coaching is for beginners.  Some beginner athletes think that coaching is only for “real” athletes, athletes who are faster, athletes who are doing “big” events (such as marathons or IRONMANs), or for athletes who have advanced level goals.  (Newsflash: No matter what your experience level, goals, and pace are, if you do athletic things, you are an athlete, which means you are a “real” athlete.)

The idea that coaching is only for certain people is a myth; the truth of the matter is that coaching is appropriate for all endurance athletes, regardless of whether they are beginners or experienced athletes.  A coach has the education and experience to marry the concepts of “This is my goal” and “This is the best path to achieve that goal”.  Most athletes can tell you what their goal is because it’s really easy to state “This is my goal!”  However, when asked “What is the path to get to the goal you’ve set?”, I’ve observed that many - if not most - athletes cannot adequately and articulately answer that question.  (“I don’t know” is the most common answer I’ve heard when I’ve asked an athlete that question.)  

It’s much harder to know how to safely and effectively map out the path to a goal, and it takes a long time (years) to learn how to do this properly.  I have seen time and time again that it is very difficult, if not downright impossible, for athletes to map out a plan for themselves.  This is because it’s impossible to be unbiased when we are thinking about or considering our own selves.  Even for experienced coaches, this is challenging to do, and I can say that from experience.  It has taken me over 10 years of coaching and over 15 years as an endurance athlete to feel that I am somewhat proficient at coaching myself.  I can honestly say that I only started to feel truly competent and capable when it comes to coaching myself in the last 2-3 years.  Even now, I still make really stupid mistakes when I am managing my own training.  (Just last year, I made the rookie mistake of doing too much too soon and I caused an overuse injury for myself.)  This is because I am not immune to this bias I’m describing; it’s impossible for me to be unbiased when I am considering myself, my training, and what the best path to my goals is.  As a result, I greatly prefer to work with another coach; every coach truly does need a coach.

In any event, I’ve learned over the years that it’s easier to trust the plan when an athlete is working with a coach.  A coach can become a trusted source for an athlete; instead of relying on Instagram reels, Google searches, or Facebook comment threads, athletes can trust that the experienced coach that they’re working with has their best interests at heart and will be planning what is best for them.  Also, in addition to being accessible to answer questions and provide reassurance to an athlete, a coach can help rein an athlete in and effectively save them from themselves.  More times than not, my primary function as a coach is to rein athletes in; most athletes do have the drive to work hard (in fact, that drive is what leads many athletes to making the most common mistake of “too much too soon” and to getting injured).  Reining them in, keeping them on the right path, and helping them to learn to trust the plan is a big part of my job.

The Bottom Line

Doing something new can be scary.  It requires a significant amount of bravery and trust to embark on something new and unknown.  For beginner endurance athletes, their lack of knowledge and experience in endurance sports and an overabundance of inputs from so many different sources can make it challenging to trust the plan that they’re following.  However, “trust the plan” is the best advice I can give to any beginner endurance athlete.  

If you are a beginner athlete: Exercise patience and take the time to see what works, what doesn’t work, and therefore what is your best path to reach your goals.  Yes, it may take longer than you want or expect.  But like almost all things in life, the end result will be better and more fulfilling if you are patient with the process and if you give yourself a chance to see what you are fully capable of.


Coach Laura Henry

Laura Henry is a Syracuse, NY-based coach who is a USA Triathlon Level II Long Course and Level II Paratriathlon Certified Coach, USA Cycling Level 2 Certified Coach, VFS Certified Bike Fitter, and has successfully completed NASM's Certified Personal Trainer course. Coach Laura is passionate about helping athletes of all ability levels reach their goals and has coached many athletes to success.

She can be reached at

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