Training Smart with Six-Time Iron Man Champion Triathlete Mark Allen – EP001
‘How do you get faster by slowing down?’ Today’s guest enjoyed a 15-year career as an elite triathlete – and improved year after year – because he learned to train smart, avoid injury and burnout, and build a deep level of fitness.
Mark Allen is one of the most decorated triathletes in the history of the sport. He is a six-time champion of the Ironman Triathlon Hawaii, a ten-time winner of the Nice International Championships, and the only triathlete to have a 20-race winning streak. Mark was named Triathlete of the Year six times, he is a member of the Ironman Triathlon Hall of Fame, and he was voted ‘The Greatest Endurance Athlete of All Time’ in a worldwide poll conducted by ESPN in 2012.
Today Mark runs MarkAllenCoaching, a global online training community which serves athletes at all levels, from beginners through elite triathletes. He is a sought-after speaker and consultant, as well as the co-author of Fit Soul, Fit Body: 9 Keys to a Healthier, Happier You. Mark joins Ali to share his wealth of knowledge and experience, explaining how to train smart and offering his advice with regard to strength training. Listen in to understand Mark’s approach to nutrition and the value of meditation practice.
Six-time champion IRON MAN triathlete Mark Allen and author of ‘Fit Soul, Fit Body’, shares tips on how to train smart and avoid injuries before and during the race
The IRON MAN triathlon is the ultimate endurance race. It starts with a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile cycle and it ends with a 26.2-mile run. That makes a whopping 140 miles to be completed in 16 hours! Gruelling, daunting but certainly not out of reach!
I had the privilege of speaking to six-time IRON MAN champion triathlete Mark Allen to get some useful tips on how you can get your mind and body ready for one of the most gruelling races of your life.
Start Right to Finish Right
The secret ingredient lies in the preparation.
Most of us beginners start out going hard. We push ourselves to run a full marathon, cycle endless miles and swim hundreds of laps in a pool if we can manage it but let’s put things into perspective.
By pushing yourself too hard, you might end up injured, fatigued or completely burned when we you are only just getting warmed up (no pun intended). Sincerest apologies Jane Fonda but “Feeling the burn” and “No pain, no gain” are somewhat dated philosophies and do not quite apply to the preparation for an IRON MAN triathlon. You may want to leave your ego at the door if you are serious about achieving this amazing feat.
Be a Tortoise and not a Hare
Humans are built for endurance rather than speed. Our ancestors never had to go hard or go home after every workout yet their bodies were strong, fuel efficient and healthy.
Start by slowly and gradually building up your strong aerobic (cardiovascular) fitness base or stamina. To understand your body’s optimum fat burning zone and stay within it during training, it may be worthwhile investing in a heart rate monitor. A heart rate monitor will enable you to regulate your training intensity according to specific demands of the sport.
As any triathlon is a test of endurance rather than speed, power, strength or flexibility, building up cardiovascular fitness/ endurance should be the building blocks of any beginner’s overall training programme.
Mark also mentioned that when doing low endurance efforts, your heart rate should not exceed 180-your age.
In the initial phase of the cardiovascular activity, it is typical for a beginner to observe his or her heart rate climbing beyond that limit early into the activity even though he or she feels they can go harder and faster. The reason why you should limit your heart rate during low endurance efforts is to strengthen and condition the heart muscle to a point where it serves as an engine to facilitate the body’s ability to be more efficient at burning fat and using fat as a source of fuel for the activity.
Focus on the Process Instead of the Destination
Aerobic training stresses the body less compared to high intensity training but this does not mean it should be taken lightly. Training is not entertainment but a commitment to dedicated effort.
In Mark’s book, ‘Fit Soul, Fit Body’, he stresses on the importance of slowing down to get faster. Every serious aerobic training session improves the body’s ability to breakdown fat for fuel and teaches it to go faster over a longer period of time.
Building aerobic fitness on a deep level requires some serious consistency and discipline. Training smart also encompasses self-love in that we should never neglect our psychological wellbeing in our preparation. An unhealthy mind would probably get us injured and result in burnout so we must be able to set aside time to recharge so we can come back stronger.
We need to gradually and patiently build up this aerobic fitness base so we can taper off just before competition and perform at our peak during the event. Do not overstress your body. Lower your expectations if necessary. Do not over race. Do not over train. Take your “active rest” very seriously. If you follow all these, you would show up “fresh” on race day! This is smart training.
Consistency is Key
I’m sure you’ve heard this a million times but when you’re consistent, you will feel the difference. Your body would feel stronger and you would notice how much easier it is to run longer distances. The best part: You’d have adapted to becoming efficient at burning fat!
Be a Cat
Cats sleep 12-16 hours a day. Mark gets 10 hours of sleep every night but it might not be practical for those of us who hold professions other than elite level endurance athletes.
Just remember that a rested body speeds up recovery process and allows us to maximise the gains from each training session so we need to plan for adequate rest as well!
Strength training plays a key role in improving endurance performance even though this may seem counterintuitive. You can continue to swim, cycle and bike but your performance may hit a wall (no pun intended) or even feel a decline.
Muscle mass is important in endurance performance events as well.
More specifically, functional strength training should be incorporated in your preparation towards completing a triathlon. Mark uses unilateral (i.e. one side of the body) strength training whereby he focuses on one-legged squats for balance and centres most of his strength exercises on compound (multi joint) rather than isolation (i.e. single joint) movements. Engaging multiple muscle groups in a single exercise is central to his strength training programme.
He also acknowledges the increased risk of accidents with age and stresses the importance of functional strength training in older individuals to improve and maintain balance and coordination.
Stop Overthinking or Lose the Champion’s Race Mind Set
Stick to core workouts and incorporate variety when boredom kicks in or when your body needs to be challenged but do not overcomplicate things! Stop over analysing.
You are better off channelling those mental resources towards something more productive like performing at your best. Freeing your mind of noise and clutter enables you to tune in to the way your body is moving and get into the flow (i.e be fully present and engaged in the moment).
Mindfulness and training in nature and allowing yourself to be immersed in the natural environment can greatly improve the quality of your training. If you start connecting spiritually with nature in every training session, it would be easier for you to access this therapeutic space on race day. Inspire. Appreciate. Connect. Trust. Peace.
Food as fuel
Keep things simple. Do not be afraid of fat but do not over eat. Go for high nutrient density foods. Pay attention to micronutrients! Focusing on the quality of your food ensures your body gets what it requires with fewer calories and your digestive system does not need to over work to break all the food down.
Mark advises to do a bit of research on fast absorbing foods/ gels etc. to accurately gauge how much your body can and cannot handle to maintain your target IRON MAN pace. The more conditioned you are in terms of cardiovascular fitness, the better your body would be able to sustain pace with less carbohydrates and the less risk of nausea on race day!
Fitness and health go hand in hand so learn as much as you can. Fine tune. Be adaptable and embrace change. Keep learning and evolving. Enjoy the process and stay healthy!
Topics Covered[1:01] Mark’s secrets to a 15-year career
- Trained smart, building his aerobic system (heart rate 155bpm)
- Long off-seasons to recharge
- Only raced 7-8 times per year
- ‘How do you get faster by slowing down?’
- Fellow triathlete Colleen Cannon urged Mark to stick with it
- Aerobic development allows you to maximize the speed you have
- Saw results at race in Kauai two months later
- Low expectations (only one speed session in preparation)
- Didn’t know how training would translate to performance
- Pleasantly surprised to have deeper bank of energy to tap into
- Incorporated strength training via coach Diane Buchta
- Dramatic change as rebuilt muscle mass
- Functional strength work
- Incorporate an element of balance into strength work
- Engage multiple muscles in any one movement
- Triathletes over 35 see biggest gains from strength work
- Keep it simple – the mind must be quiet for maximum impact
- Make it your focus
- Allow yourself to get absorbed in the natural environment
- Can be challenging during the chaos of a race
- Must stay fully engaged to give everything you have
- Develop relationship with nature
- Answers to big questions come when your mind is quiet
- Important to train mind as well as body
- ‘Great sleeper’ (10 hours per night)
- Ability to let it go – didn’t spend the evening on analysis
- Balanced diet – not afraid of fat
- High nutrient-density foods
- Didn’t eat as much as competitors
- Body got what it needed with fewer calories
- Things body could absorb quickly, i.e.: sports drinks
- Energy equation: How fast can I go, but get carbs in quickly enough to maintain pace?
- Aerobic training allowed him to use fat for fuel
- He needed fewer carbs to sustain pace
- Triathlons put huge demand on body
- Always one step away from injury or burnout
- Takes time to replace energy, nutrients
- Competing once in a while makes you stronger
- Trying to sustain peak level year after year can take a toll on health
- Autopsies on long-distance runners found severely malnourished
- Achieved best preparation for Iron Man in 1995
- Saw no reason to go back
- Witnessed others who couldn’t enjoy exercise after career due to injury, etc.
- Wasn’t difficult because he didn’t thrive on competition
- He loved training and exploring the body’s capabilities – which he can still do
- Surfing allows him to daydream and quiet his mind now
Learn More About Mark Allen