Improving my Ultra Running Performance: A Pro Runner’s Perspective on being coached to a Top 10 at UTMB

Robert Hajnal, 9th place finisher in the 2022 UTMB, and recent winner of the 100 Miles of Istria by UTMB, has always loved running – from short school competitions, to discovering mountain adventures and ultimately becoming a professional ultra runner. One thing he never considered was actually being coached; recently, that all changed, for the better.

Although I spent 10 years running races of various distances and on all types of terrains, I never considered being coached. Neither when I did really well, nor when it wasn’t going great. After finishing 2nd behind Xavier Thévenard at the UTMB in 2018, I thought I was doing something right! In fact, I always believed that no one else would be able to know what was best for me, hence always saying I would be better off being my own coach. 

However, the truth was that I wasn’t prepared for the commitment involved in a coach-athlete relationship. But there’s a first time for everything, and in 2021 I started feeling that I could do better and fight for more competitive podium positions. I began to wonder if the key to this was to be harder on myself: follow a stricter plan, take fewer days off, be more disciplined. Following a 46th place finish in UTMB 2021 I decided it was time to find a coach.

One thing led to another and I discovered Doug Stewart of TMR Coaching. He impressed me with his knowledge not just of the sport and his professional approach to coaching, but also of me and my results. 

The rest is history, as they say…

Photo credit: Robert Hajnal

Key benefits of training with a coach

I found that “two heads are better than one” and that having someone to share the highs and lows with on a professional level was a real game changer. My main takeaways from hiring a coach have been:

  • Feeling supported and understood throughout the training journey;
  • Testing and benchmarking continually to quantify progress (and know where we’re starting from!);
  • Consistency in my training – I was less inclined to skip workouts and I knew that off days were coming anyway, so why not make the best of the training days?
  • Variation – thanks to Doug’s suggestions, I ran on the track, on the treadmill, on the road, on the trails, up hills, on the flat… really mixing up my training and getting more excited for every session. It wasn’t just about the running either: cross training with weights, the bike, skiing, all allowed me to enjoy myself more while also making fitness gains;
  • Higher training volume – because it was more fun, I wanted to train more! 
  • Prioritising recovery – having days off in the plan meant I took them guilt free;
  • Focus – each session had a specific goal, which helped keep me focused and enabled me to track my progress; that feeling of satisfaction works wonders;
  • Better recovery – having a personalised training plan enabled me to lower the intensity of my workouts when I needed to, respect the rest days better, and make the most of my recovery;
  • Reflection – Doug asked me to write down what went well and what didn’t after races, and to reflect on what can be improved for next time; before toeing the start line at Istria and at UTMB this year, I had my recent lessons fresh in my head and a plan for what to do in all the scenarios where something would go wrong.

Ultimately, the greatest benefit of training with a coach has been quantifiable progress. Whether it’s based on TrainingPeaks and Coros fitness metrics, my own perception of effort and fitness, or the actual race results, since working with Doug I’ve continually been able to identify progress in my process and in my results. Before starting the 100 miles of Istria by UTMB, this made me feel fitter, more excited and more motivated than ever before – winning the race was just the cherry on the cake.

Photo credit: Doug Stewart

Prior to this year’s UTMB, Doug conducted a lot of analysis of my past performances and comparisons with previous winners. This research directly influenced the training plan, working on strengths and weaknesses. It certainly seemed to help at this year’s race, allowing me to move through the field and into the top 10 with my best time ever. 

I know there is more to come as well, and until then it is great to discuss training science and anecdotal/subjective views to devise the best plan for me. 

Robert is supported by Altra, Uglow and Julbo

The coach’s view

Working with Robert has been doubly rewarding: it’s been great to see him notice real progress and become more motivated and more competitive; moreover, it’s been an excellent test of my own coaching approach and a great challenge. It certainly is a collaboration and developing a strong coach-athlete relationship has been key to ensure I receive honest feedback from Robert. Also, he knows that I value his input. Ultimately, he was a fantastic athlete long before he contacted me, and so the training interventions are not wholesale changes, but fine tuning.

Doug Stewart, TMR Coaching, PhD Candidate, MSc. Performance Coaching

"I found that “two heads are better than one” and that having someone to share the highs and lows with on a professional level was a real game changer."

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