You don’t have to be an elite to train like an elite. The principles that govern a professional athlete’s life apply even to the novice runner or cyclist who works a 9-to-5 job. Here are some tips from local experts on how to elevate your game by embracing what the pros know.

What the Pros Know About Coaching
Professional athletes train and race for a living. We expect them to prioritize coaching. But the rest of us, who have to squeeze in the miles between work, family and soccer practice, also need the direction and structure a coach can provide. “For our average customer, training needs to happen in a relatively defined period of time. A coach will help you capitalize on that in a way no other investment can,” said Jon Greenstreet, owner of Bike Surgeon in Shiloh, Illinois, noting that coaching is one of the biggest performance-per-dollar investments you can make.

So how do you find a coach? Brandi Barbre, training director at Fleet Feet Sports, suggests calling a local running store and asking hard questions. “Tell them, ‘I’m a new athlete taking on a new distance, or I’m trying to reach this goal. What can you recommend for me?’” she said. Many running and cycling stores offer individual coaching and group training programs. There are benefits to both.

Group coaching in the form of training teams provides a structured training plan, access to professional coaches and the motivation of others committed to similar goals. Other perks may include organized long runs and on-site physical therapists. And it helps to have a support network, whether you want to run your first 5k or qualify for Boston. “It’s the camaraderie and social effect you get from a group,” said Matt Helbig, co-founder of Big River Running Company. “You can fall into a pack mentality. You don’t have to think about pacing. You can turn your brain off.”

Personal coaching offers more individualized attention and customized training plans that can be adapted according to your schedule and adjusted as training progresses. Both Barbre and Helbig stressed the importance of meeting potential coaches to talk about goals and expectations. If you and your candidate don’t click, that particular coach isn’t right for you, no matter how credentialed he or she is. It’s the old cliché of “buy-in.” A coach is a voice of reason, guiding you to do things you wouldn’t necessarily do on your own — such as lying low for a few days to heal up from injury or illness. If you don’t trust your coach, you won’t trust the process.

Barbre said a good coach should assess your current fitness level, collect objective and subjective data, set realistic time frames, and never over-promise and under-deliver. “You don’t want someone who just collects a paycheck,” Helbig added. “You want a coach who takes an interest in you as a person.”

Personal coaching may also be the better choice for cyclists. Andy Gibbs, a coach at Bike Surgeon, said that beginning cyclists who join group rides for the social aspect soon improve to the point that the group holds them back. As riders get stronger, they often need to switch to customized training plans. “Elite-level riders do most of their training alone or have a similar training partner,” he said.

What the Pros Know About Nutrition
We’ve all heard the adage, “You can’t out-train a bad diet.” The implications of this truth reach beyond the bathroom scale and onto the roads. “You could be marathon training and getting all your miles in, all your sprints in, but if you’re not working with your nutrition at the same time, you’re only doing half the work,” said Leah Hammel, a personal trainer and registered dietician at Studio Element.

Many distance athletes, conscious that a lighter frame often translates into faster times, under-eat throughout the day. Not only does excessive restriction make us prone to binging, but it actually slows our metabolisms. “You have to fuel your body so that your body knows you are going to feed it. Then it will use that fuel,” Hammel said.

On the opposite end of the diet spectrum are those who assume that because they are training for a marathon, they can eat whatever they want. While distance athletes may be able to consume a higher caloric content without noticing a change in weight, Hammel noted that if they are refueling post-run with chicken wings and beer, they may not be getting the macro nutrients necessary for muscle repair and recovery.

Jillian Tedesco, a former personal trainer and founder of Fit-Flavors, said that many of her clients simply weren’t eating balanced diets. “Your recovery rate, your energy levels and your stamina are all dictated and controlled by nutrition,” she said. Tedesco tells new clients the best way to begin eating for maximum performance is to keep it simple: eat three meals a day, in proper portions, plus a couple of snacks.

And for distance athletes, some of those snacks should come mid-workout in the form of easy-to-digest gels or chews. The body can retain only about 90 to 120 minutes worth of glycogen during exertion. After that, the energy stores run dry — hence the infamous “wall” so many marathoners experience. Hammel said she trained an athlete who refused to take energy gels during her marathon. By mile 18, her glycogen stores were depleted, and she was lucky to cross the finish line. “After that, she trained for her next race by incorporating nutrition into her pre-, mid- and post-workout routine. Her main focus was nutrition — and she was able to hit her time goal on race day.”

There’s another reason to take energy gels: muscle catabolism. If your body is under-fueled during long runs and workouts, it will begin breaking down its own muscle for energy. Not only does catabolism inhibit performance, but it translates into longer recovery time. You should begin working on your mid-race nutrition and hydration strategies as soon as training begins and have your plan down to a science come race day.

Post-workout nutrition is also critical to surviving a long, grueling training season. Consuming a proper balance of proteins and simple carbs immediately following a workout will aid the recovery process and expedite muscle repair. “There is a window of time when your muscles are most absorbent of nutrients,” Hammel said. “That window varies depending on the exercise, but the gold standard is within 30 minutes of finishing the exercise.” She suggested eating high glycemic carbohydrates to replace glycogen stores as quickly as possible, both in the first 30 minutes post workout and every two hours after that.

What the Pros Know About Recovery
There’s a reason every elite athlete has a personal massage therapist, physical therapist or chiropractor: recovery is deliberate and proactive, not reactive. And that’s a good thing. Many of the most common injuries distance athletes experience — IT band syndrome, patella femoral pain, hamstring strains, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis — are preventable.

Julie Bokerman of Athletico Physical Therapy said that 95 percent of her clients are distance athletes who increased mileage too quickly or neglected proper post-run care. As the first preemptive strike against injury, she suggested going to a local running store to be fitted for appropriate technical running shoes. After that, she said to add stretching and foam rolling to your daily routine, as well as regular ice baths and strength training.

“Honestly, for distance athletes, the biggest problem is not stretching. A flexible person heals more quickly,” said Dr. Ravi Yadava of Performance Rehabilitation. “Flexibility is tantamount to success.” Local running stores are great resources for stretching and foam rolling tools. Some stores offer classes on proper self-massage technique, or even yoga for specific sports.

Dr. Brian Laiderman of Optimal Performance Center in Chesterfield said stretching and rolling trains the muscles just as much as running, cycling and swimming. Dynamic stretching before a workout neurologically prepares the tissue for the activity — and the damage it’s about to incur — while stretching, rolling and massage after a workout hammer out damaged tissue and return the tissue to a functional pattern.

Dr. Laiderman added that just because you’re hurting doesn’t mean you have to stop moving. If the injury is caused by a compensation factor, rest alone won’t solve the issue. “You have to fix the compensation so the body can heal,” he said, adding that most of the time, athletes dealing with compensation issues can continue to train through treatment, albeit to a reduced or modified degree.

Dr. Laiderman is a marathoner, cyclist and Ironman. Bokerman is also an accomplished marathoner and triathlete. “It takes one to know one,” she said of the mental and physical status of endurance athletes. It’s important to find a physical therapist or chiropractor who understands the demands distance athletes place on their bodies — and their determination to train come hell or high water. “People put a lot of time and effort into their training,” Bokerman said. “It’s difficult for people to buy in to what you’re saying unless you’re doing it yourself.”

Author: Amy L. Marxkors is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine