RDRC Interview with Ultrarunning Coach Andy Dubois

RDRC Interview with Ultrarunning Coach Andy Dubois

Ultrarunning coach Andy Dubois got into coaching in the 1990s when as an Ironman competitor he signed up for a triathlon coaching course. Having recently quit his job as a surveyor, he knew he wanted to work in a field he was passionate about, and at the beginning coached a few triathletes while working full-time as a personal trainer. As time went on and his own sporting interests moved from triathlon to marathon to ultrarunning, his coaching interest changed as well, and he began offering marathon and ultramarathon training programs to members of the gym where he worked. Things changed one day when he was contacted by an athlete asking if he offered online coaching, a question to which the answer was obviously yes, and Andy immediately updated his website to reflect the new service offering. Over the past 15 years Andy’s online business (Mile 27) has grown to the point that – having long ago given up working as a personal trainer – he now has a waiting list for his own coaching services and two other coaches working for him. RDRC founder Jeri Chua is a former Mile 27 client, and some of you remember Andy’s virtual (thanks, COVID!) talk – "Training for Mountain Ultras When You Live in Singapore" – at the shop last year. More details on how to reach Andy and Mile 27 can be found at the bottom of the page. RDRC Chief Minion Roberto De Vido interviewed Andy.

RDRC: Most professional athletes have professional coaches, but then, that's their job, and it literally pays off to invest in sound guidance. How can a coach help an amateur athlete, and what sorts of amateur athletes come to you and other coaches for support?

ANDY: Most of my athletes signed up for coaching for one of six reasons:

  • They are busy people who love running and want to get the most out of the training time they have. To make sure the training they are doing is going to give them maximum return for the effort they put in, they look to a coach rather than try and figure it out themselves.
  • They want someone to be accountable to. Someone who will check to make sure they have done the training.
  • They are stepping into something they have never done before and need advice on how to do it – in terms of training, mental approach, nutritional approach and gear.
  • They want feedback about their training. Are they improving or not? Was their long run too fast too slow? Are their easy runs too fast, too slow, etc.?
  • They want to minimise the risk of injury.
  • They have signed up for a specific event and want to make sure they are as prepared as possible to finish the event to the best of their ability.

All of the above apply to both professionals and amateurs.

For example, take an amateur athlete who just got into UTMB. He or she might be capable of making the cut-offs, but if you are going to spend money entering, travelling to France, hiring accommodation, etc., you want to give yourself every chance possible to finish the race.

RDRC: I guess it's a bit like asking "How long is a piece of string?", but what's the cost? What should I expect to pay someone like you to coach me, an amateur who's not making a living from sport?

ANDY: The cost varies a lot from coach to coach. Different coaches offer different packages with different levels of interaction with the coach and different training program lengths. You can expect to pay a lot less for a coach who designs you a 12-week plan and leaves you to get on with it versus what we at Mile 27 do, which is weekly plans with unlimited contact with the coach.

Some coaches – including us – also offer strength programs on top of the running programs, which obviously costs more.

Prices range from USD100 a month to USD500+ per month. At Mile 27 we charge from AUD150-220 a month depending on the experience of the coach for running programs and an additional AUD100 a month for strength programs.

The ease with which the Internet allows athletes all over the world to connect with coaches means Andy, at right, isn't often there at the finish line.

RDRC: Back in my day (before Al Gore invented the Internet), I met my coach down at the track, or out at the golf course or trailhead, and we did the workout (often with the coach holding the stopwatch, calling out split times, just like in the movies), talked about it afterwards, and made plans for the next day. I guess you do most of your work remotely (even when there isn't a global pandemic). How does that work, and what are the differences to in-person coaching, from both the coach's and athlete's perspectives?

ANDY: Back in the day before the technology of GPS watches, heart rate monitors, power meters, etc., remote coaching could only rely on the athlete’s feedback as to how training went. That feedback is highly subjective, which makes a coach’s job difficult and relies on assumptions and guesswork. Back then, face-to-face coaching was a far better option.

In 2021, technology means it’s possible to analyse an athlete’s training data remotely in great detail. For example, I can tell athletes that in their speed sessions as they fatigued their stride length shortened, cadence dropped and they increased relative vertical oscillation (i.e. they decreased forward movement and increased vertical movement), all of which means they are running less efficiently. I can tell them that in their hill sessions the first rep was too hard and that’s why they slowed down during the last few reps. I can analyse their race data and tell them the reason they cramped up towards the end was most likely that they went out too fast. Due to the depth of information wearable devices can provide, a remote coach can be just as effective if not more than the coach you see at the track twice a week.

Although the coaching in the 21st century involves plenty of screen time, it's not all desk work!

RDRC: What's your view on formal qualifications? I have none at all, other than having spent a lifetime as a runner and competed at a pretty high level, but I think I'm a pretty good coach, though I've never done more than design the programme for my training groups. And obviously obtaining a coaching qualification doesn't automatically endow you with empathy, or the ability to translate theory into real world results. How can athletes – especially those who haven't spent a lifetime in sport – figure out who is the right coach for them?

ANDY: Qualifications is an interesting one – at the moment there are no nationally recognised ultrarunning coaching certifications but a few commercial organisations have just started offering online coaching courses.

So in the absence of any formal ultrarunning qualifications, as an athlete you want to make sure your coach has a good understanding of running principles and coaching in general. A general running coaching qualification is a good start, but it’s not ultra-specific and there are significant differences between training for a road marathon and a mountainous ultra. A good coach will usually be working full-time as a coach, so you know coaching is their number one priority. Generally speaking, full-time coaches will have more experience and greater depth of knowledge as they are coaching 40+ hours a week, compared to a part-time coach doing it as a side job.

When looking for a coach, you want evidence the coach has experience working with ultra-endurance athletes. You might get this evidence from athlete testimonials or articles/podcasts the coach has done. Make sure the coach has worked with similar athletes to yourself, training for similar events. If they have never trained someone to run 100 miles, don’t let them use you as their guinea pig; find a coach who has coached athletes of similar ability to you to finish 100-mile races.

Next, don’t assume that if they coach elites they can coach back-of-the-pack runners. They might be able to, but if you are back-of-the-pack, ask them what experience they have had working with similar athletes.

And ask the coach if they discuss aspects of training other than just a running program. Do they advise on nutrition, mental strategies, race briefings and debriefings, injury prevention and strength training? Make sure you know what they offer before you sign up.

The other part of coaching is the relationship between athlete and coach. It’s worth having a discussion with potential coaches to see if you feel like they understand what you need from them and if you feel it’s going to be a good match personality-wise. A good coach will get to know you and know when to give you encouragement and praise or when to give critical analysis. They will know when you need support and when you need a brutally honest talking to. Establishing a relationship that fosters open honest communication is important or this can’t happen.

Coach Andy, second from left, at a Mile 27 training camp.

RDRC: What sorts of programmes do you prepare for athletes and how do you go about putting those together? For example, if I wanted to hire you as a coach, what would you ask me about my background and my goals before you agreed to take me on?

ANDY: Getting a full background of an athlete’s training and race history, race and training goals, training environment, available time to train and injury history is the first job. Only when you know what the athlete was doing, what they are training for, their future goals, and the environment they have to train in can you hope to put together a truly individualised plan. 

RDRC: How often do you typically communicate with your athletes, and if that depends on the level of hands-on coaching they ask for, what are the typical tiers of support?

ANDY: At Mile 27 we offer unlimited communication – usually via WhatsApp, email and Messenger, but also by phone. I know that some coaches limit communication depending on the package, but we believe that if we are going to offer truly personalised coaching, the only way to do that is offer unlimited communication with the coach. Often life gets in the way of training and rather than leave the athlete to figure out how to adjust the week’s training because they missed their Tuesday run, they can just contact us. Leaving them to work it out themselves means they are not getting coached – that’s why people pay to have a coach, so they don’t have to make those decisions about what to do.

RDRC: I assume you take a holistic approach to coaching, and that your training programme for me would take into account nutrition, and strength work, in addition to the main training programme, but I guess there are many different levels of coaching, right? What's typical for you and your athletes, and how do you monitor your athletes' nutrition and external stressors?

ANDY: You can’t look at run training in isolation, as so many other factors like diet, sleep, stress, etc. affect how much training an athlete can handle. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to objectively measure those other stresses. Research suggests HRV (heart rate variability) might make that possible, but as yet I haven’t seen good real-world application of HRV to non-elite ultrarunning athletes.

So without objective data, good honest regular communication with an athlete is crucial. Taking the time to get to know your athletes on a personal level and not just as data to analyse on a specific day of the week helps provide a more holistic picture of their life and allows you to adjust training accordingly. Only by getting to know your athletes can you understand how stressful their work might be or how training might need to change when their kids are on holiday or how their shift work might impact sleep and recovery, etc.

RDRC: Can you share any stories about athletes with whom you've had great success? And I don't mean athletes who have won Olympic medals, I mean athletes who have surpassed their own goals and been thrilled with the results.

Lucy Clark, left, and Jeff Campbell, right.

ANDY: As a coach to athletes ranging from true elite to back-of-the-pack, it’s been a privilege to be able to be part of some amazing runs. This includes elite runners like Ben Duffus taking 3rd in World Sky Running Championships and 2nd in UTA100; Scotty Hawker 5th at Lavaredo Ultra Trail and 2nd at UTA100; Lucy Clark setting a new FKT on the 3100km Te Araroa Trail in New Zealand; Jeff Campbell running sub-2:30 in the Berlin Marathon; Henri Lehkonen going under 20 hours at WSER; Stone Tsang winning Ultra Trail Monte Rosa; Sandy Suckling winning the Sahara Jordan multistage in her mid-50s; but also at the other end of the race with Ken Chan finishing UTMB under the cut-offs, having never been more than 2-3 minutes  ahead of the cut-offs from 90km onwards; and Adam Connor describes himself as a very average runner, but he finished Badwater. There are so many stories of athletes surpassing their goals, I feel bad just mentioning a few, as there have been many other deserving efforts. It’s one of the biggest rewards as a coach, taking an athlete to a finish in a race when they weren’t sure a finish was even possible.

RDRC: Can you share any stories (names changed, obviously!) of athletes with whom things haven't worked out, and if so, can you offer any thoughts about why not?  

ANDY: For sure it doesn’t always go to plan. I’d be lying (as any coach would be) if I said everyone achieved their goals. The biggest factor in athletes not performing as expected on race day tends to be stomach issues. This is very frustrating for both athlete and coach as despite all the hard work put in, the athlete hasn’t been able to realise their training potential. Sometimes something random comes up as when one athlete of mine drank water from a mountain stream in an ultra and that sent his stomach into a tailspin from which he couldn’t recover. We both learnt after that race and looking at some research that there is a small percentage of people whose stomach can’t handle super-cold water. It’s disappointing when it happens, but all the athlete and coach can do is learn from the experience.

Occasionally athletes let their egos get in the way of well-thought-out race plans and the price for going out harder than planned for is often cramping, stomach issues and a DNF later in the race. Usually it only happens once and they learn that next time sticking to the race plan is far more likely to yield better results.

RDRC: You've got a couple of young kids, I think, who I guess (and I hope) are running around, having a lot of fun with sport. Has your work as a professional coach given you any thoughts about youth athletics? Do you coach or have you coached any young athletes? And if so, in this era of global tiger parenting, how do you balance young athletes' goals with their parents' goals, if that's ever been an issue for you?

ANDY: Yes I have a 6-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son and watching them go from crawling to walking and then running, and seeing the joy on their faces when running has been so rewarding. Whilst I love seeing them run, whether they will become runners as they age, who knows; as long as they are happy doing something active, that’s all that matters.

I have coached a few younger athletes and the focus is always on fun; if kids aren’t enjoying their training, they won’t stick with it, so fun is the first priority. I haven’t had any issues with parents’ goals not matching a child’s goals, but if there ever was, I think I would have to have an open conversation with the parents.

RDRC: This past year has been a mixed bag for a lot of athletes. Yes, there was very limited racing, but at the same time, quite a lot of athletes, especially at the elite level, recorded their best results ever, whether in limited participation races, solo time trials, or FKT attempts. And although some of the road and track results can be attributed to "the shoes", that's certainly not true of trail running. How did your athletes fare this past year, and were you able to draw many positives from their (and your) experiences?

ANDY: The last year has been a challenging one for sure, and the challenges are continuing in 2021. I have found athletes have typically gone down one of two paths. Either they lost motivation to train consistently with no races to focus on, or they simply had more chance to train without being interrupted by races, and focussed on time trials or FKTs.

The athletes in the latter category sometimes did better at runs like time trials or FKTs compared to pre-COVID, but also sometimes did worse. The reason is that for some athletes, races provide a training stimulus that helps prepare them better for the next race; without those hard races they were less conditioned than in previous years. On the other hand, some athletes did very well as they were able to put in long consistent training blocks uninterrupted by races and this led to significant improvements. Every athlete is different, and as a coach, working out what your athlete responds best to is key.

From a coaching point of view, it meant I had to rethink the purpose behind their training – usually an athlete has a race to train for in say, six months, and that defines the training program – with no race to train for I had to take a different approach, setting different training targets based on the different physiological variables that go into being a good ultrarunner.

Ultramarathon Pole Technique 101

RDRC: In terms of gear that ultrarunners carry/wear, what do you think are the real essentials? To put it another way, where do you see athletes missing out or skimping on gear that might be helpful to them?

ANDY: Starting with the basics:

  • Trail shoes suitable for the surface they plan racing on (and of course training on)
  • A running pack capable of holding all they need: clothing, hydration and nutrition
  • Poles (if the nature of the race warrants)
  • Suitable clothing for expected (and unexpected!) conditions

That’s all one really needs. Highly desirable extras include a GPS watch and a power meter.

In terms of skimping on gear that might be helpful, my suggestions would focus on what people take with them in races – simple things like a space blanket can prevent a DNF, a brighter head torch makes running in the dark much easier, and a basic blister kit allows an athlete to treat a hotspot before it becomes a blister.

Many thanks to Andy for talking to us, and you can find Mile 27 here and on Instagram and Facebook.
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