Not for You

by Matthew on January 18, 2011

A little Pearl Jam title this week with multiple meanings.  I’ll let you derive your own meaning as you slog through this one.

I had an email exchange with a colleague last week that evolved into my thoughts about the training principles we get from Matt Dixon, triathlon’s most visible coach these days, in various multisport media outlets.  I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, but haven’t been disciplined enough to do it because of (a) the time I knew it would take and (b) the little voice in the back of my head that said, “why would you question a respected voice over the Internet when you are a comparable nobody to the respected voice?”  Said email exchange addressed issue (a).  As for (b), well, with all due respect to Matt Dixon and knowing that what we get from him in the media is only part of the picture, the rest of this post addresses some of the pitfalls I see with “Media Matt”.

I think the simplified, “500 words or less” sound bytes from Dixon in the tri media about his training methods are, frankly, dangerous to the every day AGer.  We hear the right things about stress, recover, adapt, improve.  How he talks about it per his stable of professionals, though, is not appropriate for the AGers who, in my opinion, don’t know better.  What I worry about is simply this, John Doe AGer reads about Meredith Kessler, Chris Lieto or Linsey Corbin training 15-17 hours/week for IM, sees their results and thinks to themselves, hell, if I throw in a lot of intensity in my workouts, space it out with adequate recovery, then I should see the same meteoric rise in performance at the IM level as these athletes.

What nobody ever gets from these articles is that each of these athletes is coming to Dixon with years, in some cases decades (Kessler, Lieto) of sound steady-state (yes, read z2 here) aerobic volume, the aerobic volume, in my opinion, that you need in order to compete at the elite level in IM at the AG ranks and obviously in the professional ranks.  Read into Kessler’s background and we see that she’s done something like 17 IMs.  Well, I can only assume she did a sh$t ton of z2 work in preparation for those 17 IMs.  She had probably maxed out the adaptations she was getting from that type of training BEFORE getting to Dixon and his style is working great with her because it’s a NEW stress.  Corbin, same type thing, and Lieto, absolutely same type thing.  What we also don’t read about is that I can almost guarantee you that each of these guys puts in some BIG volume weeks at different points in their calendar.  It doesn’t make the 14-16 hour week as sexy when we ready that these guys also put in 25+ hour weeks 4-6x throughout the year.

What’s appealing to the masses about this is that it provides justification to smaller training volumes.  And it should be appealing!  We all have way, way too much on our plates already to devote 20+ hours per week as freakin’ AGers to train for IM.  We’re hamstrung on time.  Period.  We have our own professional lives outside of our multisport lives in order to pay the bills.  We have friends, significant others, spouses and/or children.  If we can go 14-16 hrs/week for IM, and do as well as the professionals we read about, let’s do it!

Yes, I think you can get a LOT out of people this way and see some great improvements.  I raise my hand when I say I’ve done it with some of my athletes.  As AG coaches we HAVE to work within the restrictions of our athlete’s lives.  We look for the best path to get them to improve and often that’s the best thing to do – lot’s of intensity, lower volume most of the time and the occasional bigger week to provide some touches to aerobic base and efficiency as well as build the confidence to race Ironman.

But…for those IM athletes who want to race at a certain level & who have the time AND (and this is the big boy of all of the ‘And’s) they don’t have a lot of years of sound aerobic z2 volume in their bodies, it’s my opinion that you have to go down that route for a portion of their training careers AND their seasonal program.  Depending on the athlete’s background and time constraints, you need a lot of it.  Occasionally I get the athlete who comes to me and says, “I want to go to Kona” and their expectation is that it gets done in one season.  Most people just don’t understand the experience needed to qualify for a World Championship in long course triathlon.  Kona isn’t a fast food item we order in the drive through.  It very, very rarely happens in year one, even year two.  When it does, it’s because the athlete likely came into the sport with a huge cardiovascular engine from another endurance sport.  My answer to the Kona  statement, really an expectation, is usually “how many years do you have the patience to devote to it?”.  Most athletes’ backgrounds don’t have enough good, quality z2 in it.

What most AGers don’t realize is that z2 for the Lieto’s, Kesslers and Corbins and the elite AGers is a lot different than the “normal” AGer.  Z2 for them actually feels pretty challenging.  Classic example is Mark Allen’s anecdotes about running at his T1 at 5’30 miles.  Yes, he’s technically at the threshold between z2 and z3 but we can only assume that if he backs off to say, 6′ miles, he’s at z2.  And guess what?  That isn’t “easy” for him.

The reality is that most of us come to multisport with a lot more muscular strength than cardiovascular strength.  Most of us weren’t lifelong swimmers or runners when we started triathlon so we don’t have the z2 base needed for the aerobic efficiency required to actually RACE an Ironman.  As a result when we ride and run z2, it’s slow, slow, slow.  Painstakingly slow.  Embarrassingly slow.  No/limited cardiovascular strength = slow.

Be sure, I’m not advocating all z2, all the time.  That’s not a training methodology to me.  Incorporating the right stresses between intensity and volume across three sports are the primary ingredients of a program.  But this chef, me, does have a lot of bland food – z2 – for athletes training IM who have the time and certain aspirations around it.  Once you have that aerobic base, either established from several years of working on it, or touched up sporadically throughout the season for athletes who already have that background, you can do the 14-16 hr/week thing for most of your season.  But at some point, and I believe Dixon would agree, that would have to change as the body would stop responding as well to that particular type of stress.  I’m a simple man, so my view on the training cycle is pretty simple -> stress, recover, adapt, improve.  That cycle changes year-to-year and within the season. As a coach one of my primary functions is to figure out what stresses and when for the individual.  For me as a spectator to Purple Patch Fitness and Dixon’s stable of pros,  it’s going to be fascinating to see how PPF evolves and how “Media Matt” evolves.  Fascinating.

In closing, for the first time, I read an article this week from “Media Matt” (in this month’s Triathlete) that acknowledges some of these issues, namely z2 work that’s been put into the system from his pros.  So at least it’s in there.  Again, I worry that too many AGers read this stuff and then think, 14-16 hrs/week of some kick-ass work with the right recovery spaced in and I’m going to Kona.  Or even better, I’m winning IMs (re: Kessler).  There’s not enough print space in these magazines and on websites to really reveal the nuances behind all of it.  That’s why I think “Media Matt” is really a persona of a much more complex coach who is as successful as it gets these days.  And good on him for it!

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

cardaddy July 13, 2011 at 11:50 pm

Aloha dude! I really respect what you’re posting here. Keep posting that way.

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