Coaching With Joe McConaughy: 1.5 Years Later

Over a year ago, I wrote an post explaining Why I Hired a Running Coach. In it, I outline my reasoning for giving up control of my weekly training plans, what I hoped to get out of it, and why I chose to work with Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy.

At the time, I was fresh off of finishing a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail and looking to get back into distance running, a sport I dove into in 2016. Instead of simply jumping back to 50+ mile weeks I wanted to make the transition efficiently and form positive, effective habits in the process. I had also recently arrived in Pakistan, where I would be living for the next two years (and still am) for an assignment at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad.

I identified motivation, performance, and positive habit formation as my reasoning for obtaining a coach. Below I’ve outlined how working with Joe has propelled my fitness forward in those ways and more.


Motivation

A tough 50k in New Zealand with over 10,000 ft of elevation gain in the first half. Even without trails to train on, I was ready thanks to Joe.

During our regular video calls, chatting with Joe is like having a professional cheerleader who is invested in my success. Sometimes I think he gets more excited about my races and adventures than I do, and he’s always encouraging me to squeeze every ounce of satisfaction from the experience. Sometimes that means pushing the pace to realize a personal record, and other times it means slowing down the adventure to enjoy my surroundings.

The most useful and motivating exercise I do with Joe is goal setting. In the beginning, my goals were all over the place. I wanted to run long distances, run fast, and run hard all at the same time while also fitting in long hikes – a true recipe for disaster. While I’m still relatively new to the sport, Joe has helped me tremendously to define goals shape my training in a way that helps me achieve them. The snowball of successes endlessly fuels my drive and encourages me to expand my perceived limitations.


Performance

Out for multi-day trek in remote areas of South Africa – a trip Joe helped me prepare for.

Anyone paying for a service expects to get results, and most often when hiring a coach for the first time a runner assumes this means faster race finishes. However, the service a good coach provides is more nuanced than making you run quickly – it’s a holistic approach to training and lifestyle that sets you up for achieving your goals, whatever those may be.

Because I enjoy both hiking and distance running but have restrictions based on living in Pakistan with minimal access to trails, Joe helped me understand how I could both go on multi-day hikes and also run ultras without feeling like I was ruining my training. I could balance both objectives, shift focus to take advantage of opportunities, and still maintain good fitness year-round.

It wasn’t until after my first race since working together, the North Face 100 in Thailand, that I realized just how effective this strategy is. He planned my weekly training in such a way that I was able to enjoy it without losing motivation while also significantly increasing my fitness levels. This was accomplished not only through reduced mileage (less can really be more) but also through “workouts” such as steady-state runs, hill repeats, and speed intervals that I had never done during my previous training sessions.

Coming from a weightlifting background, progressive overload makes sense: you exert yourself to create a response and your body adapts to meet the need. Having Joe explain the purpose and set parameters for these workouts increased both my enjoyment and performance immensely, leading to multiple race completions and a 1+ hour 50k personal record at the Ultra Trail d’Angkor 65k this past January.


Habit Formation

Running through Cambodian villages during the Ultra Trail d’Angkor on my way to a 50k PR.

Although I was finishing my races prior to working with Joe, I couldn’t help but wonder how else I could optimize my training to make it more effective and enjoyable. I used to follow basic online training plans without taking into consideration the terrain, weather, pace, or how I was feeling when getting the miles done – it was just a weekly slog.

In addition to the workouts that keep each week fresh, Joe encourages me to write notes about my daily runs on our shared planning document that outline my perceived efforts and progress. We review this during our calls and he makes adjustments to my schedule or workouts to better fit with my condition and constraints.

This process of scheduling, recording, reflecting, and adjusting has proved to be an excellent set of habits for improving my fitness. Simply by taking a few minutes each week to process the experience has allowed me to be more mindful and consistent in my training. I can now better identify my level of effort to fine tune workouts or recognize when my diet or energy levels may be affecting my performance. It has also made me recognize that consistency is one of the best habits to adopt for continued improvement – it’s not always just about the mileage, but rather persistence in pursuit of your goals.


Unanticipated Benefits

A strong finish at the North Face 100 after working with Joe for 3 months.

In addition to completely exceeding my expectations with the aforementioned topics, working with Joe has provided multiple unanticipated benefits. For example, he has fostered a supportive community among his clients with a private Facebook group where we share ideas, epic runs, and articles with each other. Joe is active in the group and will often chime in with actionable advice, insight into his own training, and highlights of our accomplishments. He also sends out a weekly newsletter with coaching tips, trailrunning documentaries, and interesting blog posts which is well worth the read.

Joe’s intuition, awareness, and personability continue to amaze me. When I experienced a death in the family last year, he recognized that I needed some time to collect myself and we paused our training for over a month. When we picked back up, he didn’t miss a beat in rearranging my schedule so that I would still be ready for my upcoming adventures.

Finally, I can’t count how many hours of research and planning Joe has saved me. Want to know what the top running shoes, backpack, rain jacket, or local race is? Ask Joe. Thanks to his extensive experience and relationship with gear companies and race directors, he has his finger on the pulse of all things running, hiking, and fastpacking to save from wading through endless blog posts and promotional ads.

All these benefits seem like they would come with a hefty cost. As it stands, most coaches charge $250 per month or more for a basic online training plan and the occasional check-in. Joe’s rates are less than half the standard yet he provides a more personal and comprehensive experience. What more could I ask for?


Final Thoughts

Joe has been the best influence on my athletics and fitness that I’ve ever had. Since I started working with him in 2018, I’ve not only set and re-set personal records at every distance but also learned valuable lessons about running, fastpacking, and hiking while forming good habits that will pay dividends for years to come.

I had high expectations for my experience with Joe, but I couldn’t have imagined how beneficial it would be. He started as a coach, became a mentor, and is now a friend. I can’t wait to see what the next few years will bring!


Joe has recently shifted to running professionally and coaching full-time. He is accepting a limited number of new clients and I encourage you check out his website and subscribe to his weekly newsletter to see if he would be as great a fit for you as he is for me.

Accepting New Ultramarathon and Marathon Clients – Running Coach

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