It’s no secret that the best endurance athletes in the world have coaches who guide their training, analyze their performances, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and help them reach new heights. At stake are world records, national titles, financial success and potential fame.
But less well known is that the schoolteacher, the dentist, the waiter, the state worker, the stay-at-home mom and all kinds of other amateur athletes are hiring coaches, too. Even though few of these athletes have plans to quit their day jobs and go pro, they’re paying anywhere from $100 to $275 a month to get coached and get better.
At least one coach said there are more cycling coaches in the Sacramento region than just about anywhere else in the country. Coaches are also helping amateur athletes excel at everything from gymnastics to triathlons.
Karen Munoz, a 45-year-old mother of two from Cameron Park, decided to hire a coach because, she said, “I pretty much got tired of losing all of the time.”
She chose Nate Dunn, who runs his business, Data Driven Athlete, out of his home in Fair Oaks. When it came time to sign up, she had a tough decision to make.
“It’s super easy to put myself last as far as the kids and such. I needed to be able to do the right kind of workouts and be super efficient in the limited amount of time I have,” she said.
Munoz is a road cyclist who competes in Category 4, better known to racers as Cat 4, which is the entry level for women’s competition. Cat 1 is the highest level before pro.
Before getting a coach, Munoz’s training lacked focus and she was getting frustrated. Were her random, unstructured efforts getting her anywhere? She didn’t know.
“I would just go out and ride my bike when I had time and I would try to compete in these races and I would just get annihilated,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t know how to train efficiently and make myself stronger and fitter.”
Hoping to upgrade to Cat 3, she’s earned nearly enough upgrade points in races to make the jump soon.
“Now Nate tells me what to do and I just go do it. It’s very efficient,” Munoz said. “The fact that I’m accountable to somebody, it makes it a lot easier to make that time commitment. If it means that I have to get up super early so it doesn’t interfere with my family life, that’s what I have to do.”
Munoz said her non-athlete friends are often startled to find out she has a coach. She started working with Dunn nearly two years ago.
“A lot of people really don’t get it. A lot of my cycling friends have coaches, but the moms at school think I’m nuts,” Munoz said. “Since I’ve hired Nate, I’ve been on the podium several times recently and I’ve had a lot of top fives. I’ve also lost 25 pounds. It really makes a huge difference.”
The coaches say they can get their clients to improve significantly if they follow their customized plans.
“It’s never one thing that makes somebody good. It’s a lot of little things,” said Bruce Hendler, a former Cat 1 amateur racer who started AthletiCamps 15 years ago to provide training camps, performance testing and coaching for cyclists and triathletes.
“One of the things I think is a myth in the sport is people think the primary reason to get a coach is to get workouts. It’s so much more than that,” Hendler said. “It’s your accountability partner. It’s your motivator. It’s your psychologist. If you just want workouts, go buy a book for $29. You’ll get plenty of workouts.”
Hendler said his athletes can realize improvements of up to 10 percent in three months, in measurable categories such as cycling power, speed or aerobic capacity.
“You want to take people who are willing to learn, who are willing to be a team with the coach. It’s a mentoring relationship. You need feedback from your riders and they need to be willing to try new things,” he said.
Coaching is generally available at three levels based on the amount of interaction between athlete and coach. At the most expensive level, coaches talk almost daily on the phone, and data and other information about workouts are analyzed extensively. The least-expensive packages tend to include emailed training plans and less-frequent phone time.
Once the coach-athlete arrangement is made, athletes will upload their training data to the coach, who prescribes new workouts. The more customization involved, the more expensive the coaching becomes. Munoz spends $200 a month on her coach, which she called the middle level.
“The people who come to me,” said Dunn, “are generally coming with a greater level of commitment. More than anything, the commitment to be more consistent is the primary driver of someone getting better. What the coach can do is take that commitment and push that athlete, and also know when to back off.
“The majority of people I have worked with have shown measurable improvement.”
A former school teacher with a graduate degree in exercise science, Dunn bases much of his coaching philosophy on what can be tested and quantified. In the past decade or so, cycling has undergone something of a data-driven revolution, with power meters on bikes giving coaches a better idea of how hard their athletes train and how they stack up to the competition.
When power meters became more affordable in the past three years and trickled down to weekend athletes, they offered the opportunity to train like the pros – but they also introduced plenty of confusion. The new, more complicated way of training and measuring has been a boon to coaching.
And because power, speed, heart rate and other data are collected and stored in a bike computer, coaches and athletes can now interact without getting together in person. Much of the coaching happens through email and Skype.
Asked why so many amateur athletes hire coaches, Dunn answered, “For most of us, it’s not simply a recreational form of exercise. It’s a passion. They’re willing to pay someone to help them in the pursuit of getting better on the bike.”
In Sacramento and throughout Northern California, the passion is intense and the competition fierce. The Northern California Nevada Cycling Association, the group that oversees amateur bicycle racing, bills itself as “the most competitive cycling series in the U.S.”
When Robert Lander, 29, lines up for a Cat 2 road race, he figures that upward of 85 percent of his competitors have their own coaches. While the monthly costs can be as much as a car payment, Lander, who buses tables at a restaurant and works at a bike shop, says he can’t afford to go without a coach.
“I have a coach because I’m competitive. I feel I can’t meet certain requirements physically to compete in the category I’m in without a structured plan,” he said. “Knowing that I’m spending money every month for this service gives me a bit more motivation.”
His coach, Adam Switters, 29, a one-time star junior rider in the Sacramento area, has a master’s in kinesiology, or exercise science. His thesis looked at how to improve maximum oxygen intake during workouts.
Referring to high-intensity intervals, essentially all-out efforts for three to five minutes to boost VO2 max, or maximum oxygen consumption, Switters said, “When you’re done, you want to do almost nothing but lie on the ground. You can barely pedal afterward. Then imagine doing five of those. This is a sport where suffering is key and you’re not going to get better unless you sometimes suffer.”
According to Switters, who knows the local racing scene as well as anyone, “Sacramento is saturated with coaches. I think you’ll find more coaches here than just about anywhere in the country, except for Boulder, Colorado. Coaching these days has become a very scientific process. You not only have to have the racing experience, you have to have some knowledge behind it.”
The rewards for a coach are plenty – seeing the clients improve, receiving jubilant emails about a successful race, grooming juniors for a shot at a professional career.
“I’ve had a number of riders who have come from Cat 5 to Cat 1. It’s a very proud feeling,” said Switters, noting that his athletes range from 16 to 65 years old. “Most of the people I work with work 40 hours a week. They come home from work and want to spend time with their kids, but they still have their own personal ambitions. If people want to get better, they sometimes have to invest in themselves.”
Jennifer Mathe focuses her coaching on triathlons, which means her training programs include swimming, cycling and running – sometimes all in one day. Unlike most cycling coaches, Mathe not only has individual clients but oversees three weekly training sessions where many of her clients work out together. Mathe, who has a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology and a master’s in sports performance, runs One10 Performance and Nutrition with her husband, Josh Mathe, a nutritionist.
She built up her business gradually and was able to devote herself to coaching full time about seven years ago.
“I love finding potential in people and figuring out ways to get them to the next level. Every athlete is like a puzzle and every athlete is different. Just the constant challenge of trying to figure out the best approach keeps me interested. Then when I have an athlete achieve their goals, it’s really rewarding.”