Maybe you are totally new to triathlon and feeling overwhelmed by it all, not sure where to start, how to fit all the training in, or how to get fully prepared for your first race.
Maybe you have been doing triathlons for a while now and you have plateaued, you are struggling to keep making improvements year on year, or you realize that you need more structure in your training, more objective feedback to take it to the next level.
Either way, you might be thinking that you need a coach, some training plans, some guidance, structure and support in your triathlon life. Maybe a coach is the answer for you, maybe not. No doubt about it, having a personal coach write training plans just for you can be expensive, although there are few other options that will give you the sort of personal support that you can get from a qualified, experienced coach. Let's consider the options available to you, look at some of the pros and cons, and you can figure out the right choice for you.
First, full disclosure from me: I am a Level 3 triathlon coach (in case you haven't worked that out yet) and I make a decent portion of my living from writing training plans for people and coaching private sessions. But, I am also a triathlete with my own personal goals, strengths, weaknesses and budgetary constraints. I know my services can be expensive, and I also know my style of coaching doesn't necessarily work for everyone. So, I try very hard only to sell my services to people who really can use them and for whom they seem right. And I am always keen to point out to people what the other options are, what might be the best, most effective combination of training approaches for them.
Join a club
Most triathlon clubs offer a wealth of shared experience, knowledge and support. A common misconception is that "you have to be good enough" to join a triathlon club, but you should just try and look at most clubs as an excellent place to train with and get to know other triathletes, regardless of your current skill level. In my experience, most clubs have members who represent the full spectrum of skills and training goals, from sprint- to iron-distance, from total newbies to people who have represented their age group at world championships. And, yes, joining a club can also be an excellent way to raise your game, expose you to other triathletes who will push you and challenge you to train harder.
By joining in with club sessions, you can get some of the structure and consistency that you might be looking for, whether you are a beginner or an experienced triathlete. In my experience, committing to a training session with other people is one of the most effective forms of motivation to do regular training that you might otherwise struggle to do. The down side is that you might find yourself doing training that is not really what you need to be doing for your own goals, instead just going along with whatever the club is doing. It is a compromise that you should be aware of, and weigh up the pros and cons for yourself.
Write your own training plans
For the experienced triathlete, especially one who has followed a pretty consistent routine for at least a year or two, you may well be able to read up on the subject and create your own training plans. Online services like TrainingPeaks can be excellent for doing this, and they even offer a lot of built-in tools to facilitate the process of periodizing your own training plans with some top-notch advice trickling down from Joe Friel and other amazing coaches.
Some people have the discipline and the drive to do their own thing, in their own way, with just enough motivation derived from writing their plans down and keeping track of their workouts as they go along, however tightly or loosely they choose. And, sometimes, it is possible to ask a Level 3 coach to have a look at your plans and make some suggestions for some big-picture improvements or changes that might help. That way, you might be able to avoid some of the higher costs of having a coach writing plans for you, and still get the benefits of structured plans.
Get a coach
Some of the main benefits of having a coach are: accountability, unified advice and objective feedback. These are the sorts of things you might miss out on if you tried the above approach, writing your own training plans.
Accountability comes from having someone who is going to check up on you and check in with you, from time to time. Some coaches can be very accommodating and accepting, understanding that life has a way of getting in the way of your training plans that look great on paper, and they can help you adjust accordingly, as you go along. Other coaches can be quite harsh disciplinarians who will take you to task over missed sessions or what they might perceive to be lame excuses. You should have a think about which kind of coach you would prefer and make sure you choose one accordingly.
Unified advice is another thing you don't always get when you train on your own or train with a club. It is surprisingly easy to get conflicting advice on almost any given subject, when you ask around. Some of it is very confusing (e.g. What are the best ways to improve your swimming, as a triathlete?), with lots and lots of differing points of view, most of which may actually be correct. And some of it is just plain wrong (e.g. What should I do about the ache in my knees after every run?), with lots of anecdotal advice, most of which is probably not relevant to your specific problem that requires some professional attention. So, it can be great to have a coach who can help you navigate all your various questions, give you a consistent viewpoint on many confusing issues, and (most importantly) refer you to a more expert person when they can't answer your questions.
Objective feedback is something you probably won't get if you try writing your own training plans. Sometimes training plans can be reduced to a binary process (either I did the session or I didn't), and sometimes they can be reduced to some over-simplified numbers (how many hours you did this week), if you are not sitting yourself down and filling in some detailed feedback each week. Sometimes you need someone to help remind you of the big picture (don't worry about missing a couple of sessions this week, as long as you are doing all the Key Sessions, showing steady signs of improvement and still staying injury-free).
Like I said, I am biased - I am a professional Level 3 Triathlon Coach and this is how I make much of my living. But, if you think you could really benefit from the accountability, the unified advice, the objective feedback, and some of the other less tangible benefits (perhaps your chosen coach has a lot of specific experience in exactly the area you are training in, or perhaps they have a personality that you respond very well to, or perhaps just the fact that you are paying for their services motivates you in a way that turns out to be more effective than any other approach you have taken before), then getting a coach might be the right way for you to go.